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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,216 words.)