Introduction

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O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain, also Known as Brian O'Nolan) 1911–1966

An Irish novelist and journalist, O'Brien tempered nearly everything he wrote with a lyricism that echoes the style of James Joyce. His subjects were usually fantastic, and he frequently burlesqued other Gaelic writers. He wrote an immensely popular column for the Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 5, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

'When a writer calls his work a Romance', Hawthorne said in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, 'it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel.' Flann O'Brien claimed the latitude without bothering to give his books a generic title….

It is customary, on the strength of At Swim-Two-Birds, to place O'Brien in the Joycean tradition in Irish literature. The reasons are clear enough: a delight in verbal nuance, farce, parody, ostensibly fierce disputation, the implication that 'words alone are certain good'…. But it is not at all certain that these are the right lines. The Third Policeman has for nearest neighbour The Dalkey Archive. Indeed, Sergeant Pluck's obsession with bicycles is to be found, ascribed to Sergeant Fottrell, in the Archive. These two books throw a different light upon At Swim-Two-Birds, and suggest that the proper place for Flann O'Brien is the tradition of modern Irish fantasy and romance in which the definitive figure is James Stephens. Reading O'Brien now, one is reminded far more vigorously of The Crock of Gold, The Charwoman's Daughter, and Stephens's stories and sketches, than of Joyce in any of his manifestations. The elaborate discussions, the pedantry, the consecration of time to reverie: these are Stephens, not Joyce. Keep talking, and it won't happen: this is a motto applicable not only to Stephens but also to the tradition which goes on from Stephens to Eimar O'Duffy, Flann O'Brien, and Brinsley MacNamara's Various Lives of Marcus Igoe.

"Tall Talk," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 7, 1967, p. 793.

William Saroyan

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To those who know O'Nolan's writing, ["Stories and Plays"] is a treasure. To those who don't, it is an excellent introduction, for every type of thing that he did in English is here, in brief, and in a rich assortment: the unfinished novel, "Slattery's Sago Saga," or "From Under the Ground to the Top of the Trees" is pure wild O'Nolan wit. "The Martyr's Crown" is one of the world's greatest short stories of comic intelligence. The two plays "Thirst" and "Faustus Kelly," do not contribute anything new in the technical sense to the play form, but they are perfect for reading…. (p. 7)

And finally there is a piece called "A Bash in the Tunnel." This is a mixture of literary criticism, a portrait of an Irish eccentric, a self-portrait of the writer as an ageless dog, and a short story: "A better title of this piece might be: 'Was Joyce Mad?'" (pp. 7-8)

William Saroyan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1976.

Joan Keefe

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In O'Brien's early writing the surface brilliance of his invention is underscored with an affectionate concern for "the plain people of Ireland," but a harshly bitter quality seeps into his later work, probably because of professional and personal disappointments. He can be compared to Joyce, Beckett and James Stephens. All of them display an obsession with physical details of ludicrous discomfort vividly presented, often to comic effect. O'Brien always angrily rejected the comparison to Joyce, but certainly he shares what he himself described as "Joyce's almost supernatural skill in conveying Dublin dialogue." His method of creating a grotesque reality heightened by details of surpassing ordinariness can be compared to Beckett's, while his use of fantastic Irish mythological motifs has some of the poetic wit of Stephens. Add to these the intricately constructed bilingual dimension of his work, and a unique comic genius emerges. (p. 141)

Certainly O'Brien is accessible to readers of English, in which language he is a superb stylist with an uncannily true ear for usage. That he had the same gifted way with Irish must be taken on trust by many. (pp. 141-42)

Joan Keefe, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.

Robert Martin Adams

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[There's] such a swirl of mostly fantastic activity inside [At Swim-Two-Birds] that the external torpor of the nameless [lie-abed] novelist is more than justified. But of course none of this is visible to the [author's mean-spirited] uncle, any more than the various marks by which the book's characters are distinguished are apparent to readers for whom the author hasn't bothered to describe them. O'Brien seems to have put some effort into the ancient wheeze that language was given to man in order to conceal his thoughts.

Much as he resembles Beckett's figure of Murphy, who was born just the year before, O'Brien's somnolent author is not yet psychotic, he is simply distracted. The Greek motto at the head of the book declares that "All things naturally draw apart," and under the analytic gaze of the author (who helpfully provides many sections of his book with solemn descriptions of their rhetorical modes), that's exactly what they do…. The hero of the book is not the story,… partly because O'Brien sets so many stories going, and the characters involved in them start so many counter-stories, that none of them really gets told. Here language itself is the hero or villain, language which is able not only to transform and then reflect itself, but to give events and ideas and objects instantaneous new characters—often in a surprisingly literal sense. Language itself is the first mover, under whose impulse "all things naturally draw apart." (pp. 187-88)

As the innermost story collapses, the outer ones are resolved: sweetness and light seem to prevail. But the Conclusion of the book, ultimate, which the author appends, is a curious and very beautiful prose poem after the manner of Robert Burton, on the fragility of the human mind, its frightful susceptibility to its own idées fixes. Two images predominate: Mad Sweeny, a prophetic bag of bones hung in a tree between heaven and earth like a starved bird or a sibyl, listens to the barking of dogs, a creaturely noise that only deepens his sense of the infinite immensity of space: and a man run mad on the number three goes home and cuts his throat three times, scrawling with his blood on the mirror a last note to his wife, "good bye, good bye, good bye." As an ending to a comic novel, it is as grim a passage as the ending of The Sound and the Fury, which is also a novel about the mind's inability to keep things from falling apart.

At Swim-Two-Birds is a Joycean novel, but it's Irish as well, and fantastic in addition; there's no way of saying very clearly where one element leaves off and the other begins. The trial scene, the burlesques of epic tradition, and the derisive report of a learned conversation between three villainous pub-crawlers (they are as full of solemn, disjointed, useless miscellaneous information as the "Ithaca" section of Ulysses) are among the passages that stand out as directly derivative. Then there's an area where without the Joycean precedent O'Brien perhaps wouldn't have written just as he did, but where the resemblance is too general to justify talk about "influence." The knack of rendering colloquial speech is only to be picked up by listening to colloquial speech, but with Ulysses beside him, O'Brien evidently found certain rhythms and certain hard, funny vulgarisms within easy range of his discourse, as earlier practitioners of vulgar Irish English had not. The contemptuous hash made of narrative, the drying out of description, the intrusion of the author as stylistic manipulator—all these conventions, with some others, mark O'Brien as a post-Joyce if not wholly propter-Joyce writer. The elements of fun and play are purer in him than in Joyce, the labyrinth of the author's language is less intricate and perhaps less oppressive: for all its illusionistic entanglements, the story comes closer to being a story than anything in Joyce. But the evidence of influence is too strong to need further emphasis. (pp. 189-90)

Robert Martin Adams, in his AfterJoyce: Studies in Fiction After "Ulysses" (copyright © 1977 by Robert Martin Adams; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1977.

Terence Winch

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O'Brien was an eccentric writer of tremendous comic spirit. His work reveals an impressive knowledge of science, philosophy, literature, and theology. But his attitudes are always playful and satiric. Like Swift, who made fun of the Royal Society in Gulliver's Travels, O'Brien had a talent for making the principles of science seem ridiculous. The Sergeant in The Dalkey Archive, for example, explains the "Mollycule" theory: "Now take a sheep. What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around doing intricate convulsions inside the baste." This is all by way of explaining that people who spend too much time on bicycles, according to the Sergeant, "get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles." In the same novel, the crazy genius and fraud De Selby invents a substance to "abolish air" and destroy the world. He calls it DMP (after "The Dublin Metropolitan Police") and it brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut's "icenine."…

O'Brien's "better-class journalism," as he called [the writing he did for the Irish Times after 1953,] is largely work that seems to ride on the coattails of his talents as a novelist: the journalism is a little too close to, and not quite as good as, his fiction…. O'Brien's newspaper work is more a run-off from his fiction. The fiction of Flann O'Brien bleeds into the journalism of Myles na Gopaleen]….

[He] almost never wrote "out of the depth" of his feelings. This refusal to be serious is at first a relief from the high-minded self-importance of many artists. But after hundreds of pages of jokes, put-ons, puns, satires, and parodies, the reader starts to become ravenous for something more directly from the heart. The constant humor, like the pseudonyms, is a way of disguising the "real" O'Brien, or O'Nolan, or Myles, or whoever this man is, providing him with some very effective, self-protective distance from his audience….

What is strikingly present in the work of Flann O'Brien is his intelligence, anger, and wit. He called himself "an accomplished literary handyman," but he was more than that. He produced a body of work that is funny, innovative, and all his own.

Terence Winch, "The Comic of County Tyrone," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 12, 1978, p. E8.

V. S. Pritchett

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[At] every point [in "At Swim-Two-Birds"] there are satirical glimpses of Dublin life. If the whole were simple, broad farce, it would soon pall. What transforms it is the great, if often maddening, influence of Irish pedantry—the comedy of hairsplitting—and O'Brien's ear for the nuances of Irish talk: above all, for its self-inflating love of formal utterance and insinuation. His humor … depends on the intricacy of its texture. Language is all: he is a native of a country of grammarians, thriving on the perplexities of a mixed culture, and creating, as Joyce did, vulgar or scholarly myths.

To say this is not to underrate O'Brien's superb invention in broad farce—in, say, "The Hard Life."… O'Brien's extravagant mock encounters with Joyce (who is heard saying that "Ulysses" was smut written by American academics) and with Keats and Chapman paralytically drunk in a pub after closing time (when the landlord has to declare that the illegal drinkers are all his uncles and nieces) are fun of a journalistic order. (pp. 153-54)

The curious theme of death kept at bay by the invention of conceits underlies "The Third Policeman," the posthumously published version of the early novel that had failed. It seems to have begun as a mock detective story, in which the author is forced to commit an appalling murder by a man who has enslaved him and robbed him of his property. This is a dark and disturbing tale. O'Brien's work is rich in distracting episodes, and here we come upon a conceit that seems to point to something obsessive in his inward-turning mind. The conceit reminds one of Borges and of those figures who multiply in a series of reflections in retreating mirrors. In O'Brien, the object is a box that contains a box containing boxes, getting infinitely smaller, until they are invisible. It seems that O'Brien put off doom by retreating into a metaphysical solitude. But the scene becomes macabre. Ridiculous policemen arrive. The narrator is arrested and hears being built, plank by plank, the scaffold on which he will be hanged. Bicycles—another of O'Brien's obsessive subjects—confuse the tale, for the cannot resist an idea. But there is no doubt of his laughter and unnerving melancholy. (pp. 154, 157)

V. S. Pritchett, "Flann vs. Finn" (© by V. S. Pritchett; reprinted by permission of Harold Matson Co., Inc.), in The New Yorker, May 15, 1978, pp. 151-54, 157.

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