Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2764
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) 1911–1966
O'Brien, an Irishman and a comic genius, was a novelist and columnist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
At Swim-Two-Birds by the late Flann O'Brien, as the work of a fellow-countryman of Joyce and Beckett, is a piece of characteristically Irish verbal exuberance and can hardly be considered as a representative English novel. Yet its reputation has developed interestingly since it was first published in 1939; it made no impact at all then, but after the book was reprinted in 1960 it attracted a growing circle of admirers, although John Wain, in a masterly analysis of At Swim-Two-Birds, has described it as 'the only real masterpiece in English that is far too little read and discussed.'… At Swim-Two-Birds both contains a novel within a novel, and embodies the idea of a Promethean or Luciferian revolt against the novelist who, as Sartre said of Mauriac, wants to play God…. In so far as it is a very funny book, At Swim-Two-Birds is more like Tristram Shandy than are other twentieth-century novels that juggle with levels of reality. Yet … it is also a continuous critical essay on the nature and limits of fiction. In Trellis's story the characters plot against him while he is asleep, at the same time quarrelling among themselves. One of them is the legendary giant Finn McCool, who tells a beautiful but interminable story drawn from Irish mythology, which counterpoints the naturalistic lowlife chat of the others. The narrative is also complicated by two cowboys who had been characters of—or, as they put it, worked for—a writer of cheap Western fiction….
Flann O'Brien's imaginative and verbal exuberance dominates the whole work, which is a magnificent piece of ludic bravura. John Wain, who sees the novel in slightly more serious terms than I do myself, has effectively shown the way in which it is about the culture and destiny of Ireland…. The influence of Joyce is, of course, paramount, although absorbed by an original intelligence. In the naturalistic parts of the novel the situation of the seedy young narrator, spending long hours lying on his bed and occasionally drifting into a class at the National University, recalls Stephen Dedalus, while the ribald conversations of Shanahan, Lamont and Furriskey, although rooted in the speech of Dublin, also remind us of stories like 'Grace' and 'Ivy Day in the Committee Room'. And the prevalent encyclopaedism of O'Brien's novel, the collage-like introduction of extraneous fragments of information (a sure way of short-circuiting the distance between fiction and the external world), the tendency to present information in question-and-answer form, all derive from Ulysses, particularly the 'Ithaca' section. At Swim-Two-Birds is one of the most brilliant works of modern English fiction, which was fortunately given a second chance to establish a reputation. In the 1960s critical opinion, however averse to heavily experimental or innovatory works, has been more inclined to look sympathetically at novels which depart from the established norms of fictional construction.
Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by Bernard Bergonzi), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 199-200.
To attempt a criticism of At Swim-Two-Birds is a task I have alternately longed and dreaded to approach. I love it and have always been willing to testify to my love. Yet to discuss it? To do anything more ambitious than merely assert its uniqueness? In an essay published in 1962 I made a passing reference to At Swim-Two-Birds as 'a Gargantuan comic novel which makes a simultaneous exploration, on four or five levels, of Irish civilization'. The vagueness of 'four or five' suggests that I wasn't counting the levels very carefully or distinguishing them with much clarity, but what interests me now, looking back, is my untroubled assumption that the book explored 'Irish civilization'. I think so now and I thought so then, but why was I so certain? Partly, I think, for the very reason that it was so amusing. Funny writing never really comes over as funny unless it is saying something serious; wild humour in particular, unless it is anchored to the rocks, just floats up into the empyrean and vanishes in a cloud of boredom. As George Orwell noted in connection with Dickens, 'You can only create if you care. Types like Squeers and Micawber could not have been produced by a hack writer looking for something to be funny about.' O'Nolan was a desperately funny writer, therefore (I felt) his work must be about something. If it had merely been a romp, it would have been perfunctory and the perfunctoriness would have shown through.
Basically, At Swim-Two-Birds is about a man writing a story about a man writing a story. The narrator (he is nowhere named) is a young student, living with an uncle…. The uncle is portrayed in comic-satirical vein, though without any real malice, as a lower-middle-class Dubliner, 'holder of Guinness clerkship the third class'. Through the sardonic eye of the narrator, we catch occasional glimpses of the uncle's life…. The picture is thumb-nail size (but it is a vivid miniature of the mind and life of that generation of the Dublin petty bourgeoisie who would be, say, sixty in 1940: the men who remembered the fall of Parnell, who had been of fighting age at the time of the uprising of 1916. Narrow as they are, seen as they are through a comic lens, these men are given a stiff, provincial dignity that redeems them….
[The] literary method of At Swim-Two-Birds combines the nonchalant non-credibility of the story ('a self-evident sham'), the autonomy and indeed rebelliousness of the imaginary personnel, and the frequent resort to borrowing of characters from previous writing or from legend. Except that true to the book's sardonic farcical atmosphere, the 'previous writing' turns out to be itself an invention, and the legends highly fantasticated….
There are [also] … a good many things that go over the head of a reader like myself who knows virtually nothing of ancient Irish literature. On the other hand, anyone who has ever looked into the literature of the Middle Ages at all, in any language, can see that another layer of parody is being added to the structure, and that in the main it is affectionate parody….
Without [considering] … the envelope-story of the narrator and his uncle, we are … operating on at least three levels. The Pooka and the Good Fairy are pure folklore, rendered in terms of outright farce. Finn and his tale of Sweeney come from the ancient heroic world of Ireland. Then we have Furriskey, Shanahan and Lamont, and Mrs Furriskey, who are modern Dubliners of a lower social class than are the narrator's uncle and his friends….
[The] technique of superimposition and palimpsest … links this novel firmly with central twentieth-century works from The Waste Land and the Cantos to Finnegans Wake….
O'Nolan was too much of an artist to make [his] points in a crude fashion. The book's impact is total. Its message is conveyed integrally, by everything that is said and done. The ironic flatness of the narrator's style, the uneventfulness of his life, are in utter contrast to the blended parody and lyricism of Finn's recitals, and also to the absurdity of the conversations between Furriskey, Shanahan, and Lamont. The three worlds are sealed off from each other, yet they go on existing side by side. And Ireland? A small, drab, orderly, modern country, haunted by an heroic past, dwarfed by an over-arching imaginative vision, its artist drinking pints of plain as the tourists walk up and down O'Connell Street and the fresh-faced country boys line up to emigrate to New York. Is there, anywhere, a better total description of Ireland than is conveyed in this book?…
At Swim-Two-Birds … seems to me, in these days when modern literature is so intensively studied, just about the only real masterpiece in English that is far too little read and discussed (the two are not always the same thing)….
But, after all, it seems to me an impossible thing to describe. So much of it is purely atmosphere, and the atmosphere could only be conveyed by a commentary of the same length as the book. One of the things my description has entirely failed to convey is how the book's allusiveness provides it with dozens of little tap-roots to the Irish literary and social memory. Such things as the literary evening at Byrne's; the structural function of this scene is merely that Byrne, the arbiter of taste, lays down the law that everyone ought to sleep much more, thus providing a link with the two reposeful characters, the narrator and Trellis. But the mere fact that he is called Byrne, given the same name as James Joyce's closest friend in his student days at the National University, gives one's memory a tiny jog, reminding one how near at hand is this crowd of powerful ghosts. And when the narrator, wishing to annoy his uncle by staying in his room for an extra few minutes when he knows the uncle is waiting to see him, opens a book to read a page or two, the book he chooses, and from which an extract is promptly woven into the tapestry of the scene, is Falconer's Shipwreck, and again something stirs in us and we remember that passage from Yeats's unforgettable description of his grandfather William Pollexfen: 'He must have been ignorant, though I could not judge him in my childhood, for he had run away to sea when a boy, "gone to sea through the hawse-hole", as he put it, and I can but remember him with two books—his Bible and Falconer's Shipwreck, a little green-covered book that lay always on his table.'…
[The Third Policeman] is, indeed, the perfect second book, showing continuity with the first while at the same time varying the idiom and breaking into new territory.
The Third Policeman resembles At Swim-Two-Birds in having a narrator who describes the action in a deadpan, uncoloured style; and in exploiting the comic possibilities of uneducated Irish speech; and in juxtaposing the banalities of this speech with the wildest fantasy. Beyond that, we come to the abrupt differences. The four levels of the first book are here reduced to two; the fantastic element, instead of being partly invented and partly made from a collage of 'old mythologies from heel to throat', is entirely invented; and the tone has altered. Where the first book was hilarious, elegiac, sarcastic, grotesque, relaxed and genial, the second is tense, grim and threatening. It describes a horrible murder in the first sentence, and in its closing pages it contains an entirely realistic picture of a man dying of fright. In between, the tension is very seldom relaxed….
Neither The Hard Life nor The Dalkey Archive has the authority and inclusiveness of At Swim-Two-Birds, nor the deep, concentrated power of The Third Policeman. Both the later books seem to toy with symbolic overtones rather than genuinely incorporate them. They pick their way round the edges of vitally important subjects rather than going hell-for-leather through the middle. And this realization gives us a vantage point to look back on At Swim-Two-Birds, noting clearly now its elegiac quality, its sense that the problems posed by time are not soluble; and also on the quietly agonized exploration of the damned state in The Third Policeman. If, in his first book O'Nolan came close to Joyce, in his second he anticipated the best work of Beckett. In temperament, he stands somewhere between the two. He is more discouraged than Joyce, less of a Yeasayer. Joyce's work is bleak but it is not elegiac. It affirms the stature of man. The eighteen hours of Leopold Bloom's life which we follow in Ulysses are full of shabbiness, failure, and discouragement, but they are also Homeric. Joyce's purpose in elaborating his technique of literary son et lumière was to affirm that his wandering Jewish salesman was no less important than Odysseus. By contrast, O'Nolan's parallels between Trellis and Sweeney, between the bardic feast and the paralytic loquacity of the saloon bar, are parallels of hopelessness. On the other hand, he is not a connoisseur of hopelessness like Beckett, who seems to have cast himself in the role of a vulture, waiting on some dusty branch for the kicking human body to become a nice quiet corpse. The sense of doom, of the curse of meaninglessness laid on all that a man is and does, is brilliantly conveyed in The Third Policeman, but it is set within a religious framework and shown as the punishment for taking a man's life, cruelly, for gain. In Beckett's work, the capital crime is simply to be alive; that is the stupidity, the evil, the appalling metaphysical gaffe for which we are to be snubbed and punished for ever. O'Nolan does not talk in this strain; if he lacks the gigantic affirmative energy of Joyce, he nevertheless has some of Joyce's centrality and sanity.
John Wain, "'To Write For My Own Race': Notes on the Fiction of Flann O'Brien," in his A House for the Truth: Critical Essays (copyright © 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972 by John Wain; reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.), Macmillan, 1972, pp. 67-104.
Most readers of Flann O'Brien have been waiting for a translation of his novel in Gaelic, An Béal Bocht, and Patrick Power has at last provided The Poor Mouth, which appears—at least to one reader who has no Gaelic—marvellously attuned to O'Brien's subtle, peculiarly cold-blooded style. Like [Donald] Barthelme, O'Brien was effortlessly funny, fond of extended, elaborate jokes. The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive in particular, novels in which the intensity begins to flag a bit, are lifted and carried by their conceits: and the present book swings gaily and ruthlessly along by inverting conventional responses to squalor, filth and penury….
Much of Mr. O'Brien's fun—and my guess is that it loses none of its point in the translation to English—consists of parodying the sentimental conventions of earlier Gaelic novels….
Peter Straub, in New Statesman, December 7, 1973, pp. 875-76.
Allowing for a few exceptions, original and independent-minded writers in Ireland have traditionally been in a position not unlike that of the legitimate offspring in the nest with a cuckoo child—sooner or later claustrophobia, lack of air or lack of food force them out. A hardy bird is the one who remains to make his voice heard in and beyond his stifling home. Flann O'Brien, alias Myles na Gopaleen, alias Brian O'Nolan is one of this rare brood. The protean range of names would seem to suggest a constant need for adaptation and camouflage….
[It] would be unwise to overstate O'Brien's 'Irishness' lest I give an impression of a lachrymose Gael trying to staunch an ebbing culture. O'Brien's reputation stands firmly on his strength as a comic writer, as a compulsive parodist and satirist and a near obsessive punster. There is pathos in his description of his characters and their fates, but their very wretchedness is the springboard for O'Brien's wit….
Robert Eagle, "Flann O'Brien: Voice in The Wilderness," in Books and Bookmen, January, 1974, pp. 46-7.
Flann O'Brien's sense of humour is like that of a man who cracks jokes about blindness to a party of would-be revellers who have been trapped in a pitch black tunnel for longer than they find comfortable. Even at its most rumbustious his wit has a touch of horror, a cynic's glimpse of a bottomless pit of folly and error. Claude Cockburn, in his introduction to his volume, mentions the disapproval of Frank O'Connor and others toward the likes of O'Brien whose acute lack of respect and sentimentality threatened to undermine all reverence for national pride and patriotic heroism. Politics, religion, the Irish people, drugs, drink and madness are the common themes of this collection, and O'Brien's treatment of them all is uniform—he turns them to farce.
It would be unwise to attempt a summary of any of [the tales in Stories and Plays]; like all his plots they are a devilish network of false trails, boutades and caprices which are very engrossing and amusing until you realise that you, the happily detached reader, are not just laughing at the author's butts, you have become one yourself. Seeing perhaps how the work of his mentor Joyce had become a hunting ground for analysts, scholars and in-depth commentators, O'Brien has strewn the path to all sane interpretation with minefields and booby traps.
Robert Eagle, in Books and Bookmen, March, 1974, p. 88.
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