Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3186
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain, also Known as Brian O'Nolan) 1911–1966
O'Brien was an Irish novelist and a popular columnist. His particular combination of exuberance and subtlety, along with Gaelic erudition, are effectively displayed in his novel At-Swim-Two-Birds. (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
One's first impression of At-Swim-Two-Birds (the title is a supposed translation of an Irish place-name) is that of uproariousness and complexity, wheels within wheels. The narrator, a degree candidate in Dublin with a paternalistic uncle, is writing a novel about a writer named Trellis, who in turn is writing a novel extolling virtue and condemning sin. Trellis houses his characters in the Red Swan Hotel, of which he is of course the proprietor, his ostensible purpose being to prevent their boozing. His governing purpose, however, is to keep control of them, to make sure they remain his characters. But he cannot control them while he is asleep, which is for about twenty of each twenty-four hours.
His characters try to keep him asleep, so that they may assert their autonomous identities and claim a life of their own. They complain because Trellis has misused them, worked them long hours at low pay, and forced them to function in his novels in ways which they find foreign to their natures. Eventually they rebel against him. His son Orlick, who has been "writing" Trellis asleep, now "writes" him on trial before a jury of his characters. (Orlick, it should be pointed out, is the product of Trellis' mating with one of his own characters, whom, directly after creating, he assaults.)
This fantastic plot unfolds in a mélange of parodied Irish myth, involving the presence of none other than Finn MacCool, the legendary folk hero, and such other improbabilities as a wandering Irish bard and the shoot-em-up antics of some anachronistic Dublin cowpunchers. The style itself includes many elements, such as catechistic techniques, a listing of sub-topics, a series of short-hand descriptions, and an occasional synopsis, all of which combine with straight narrative and a realist tone which is functionally at odds with the incredible subject matter.
Although this novel has many things to say about Ireland, some of them droll, others biting, at its core it seems to be primarily about the imaginative process, the image-making faculty, using as analogue the process by which fictional characters are created.
Of considerable significance is a "digression" in the novel in which the narrator offers an "explanation" of his own work. To begin with, a qualitative distinction is made between the novel and the play, which favors the play. The inferiority of the novel derives from its privacy, in which the reader is frequently "outwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern for the fortunes of illusory characters." The novel is described as being "self-administered" and as a creation which "in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic." It is a "self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity." Then comes the following passage, with particular reference to character: …
Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before—usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion of explanation.
Overlooking the immediate skeptical response of the character to whom this "explanation" is addressed,… we should see in the passage something more than a self-fulfilling prophecy of how the novel within the novel will develop. It is also more than a corroboration of Eliot's sense of tradition and the individual talent, or an attempt to people Yeats' Spiritus Mundi. It seems to me to be not only a recognition of the archetypical aspects of character, available to all novelists, but, more subtly, a rejection of solipsism. Just as some aspects of literary characterization exist before the individual novelist arrives to modify them and make them his own, so does reality exist outside the consciousness, although the perception of that reality is inevitably an amalgam of the external and the internal. As the consciousness embraces the objects of attention, it is clear that there are objects there to be embraced, but equally clear that these objects are shaped by the active aspect of consciousness that makes images and that the final object of attention owes its shape to the imagination as well as to its independent existence.
The question that lurks behind this analogy is that of the nature of reality. Trellis' characters have a life of their own, but they are obviously not autonomous, even though they long to be so. Trellis "knows" them because he borrowed them, altered them, "wrote" them, and, therefore, is himself a part of that knowledge. Thus the entire process by which the writer conceives and expresses his characters stands as paradigm for the parallel process by which the mind comes to "know" what is "reality." (pp. 322-23)
Robert S. Ryf, in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Autumn, 1974.
At Swim-Two-Birds is a celebration of fabulation in which novelistic self-consciousness has gone slack because fiction is everywhere and there is no longer any quixotic tension between what is fictional and what is real. I am not aware that it has influenced later books, but it has certainly proved to be a novel ahead of its time, for its faults of conception and execution provide a perfect paradigm for those of much contemporary fiction, especially in this country, where a new literary ideology of fabulation has too often turned out to mean license, not liberty, for the novelist. (p. 214)
Robert Alter, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.
[In 1969,] from nearly all of these newly popular writers—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Donald Barthelme, Ishmael Reed and so forth—I was hearing about a common influence: "Flann O'Brien." Even writers not yet so famous, such as Ronald Sukenick, Susan Quist, Clarence Major, Gilbert Sorrentino, M. G. Stephens and Steve Katz, were giving me the same answer to my question of "who influenced your writing": this Irish novelist whose single masterwork [At Swim-Two-Birds] had somehow been noticed by our own most exciting new writers….
Reading [his other] books makes At Swim-Two-Birds a bit less complicated, but there is not that much in these nice but secondary works of a minor writer which isn't covered in his obviously major work. There is no workable auteur theory for Brian O'Nolan. We are talking about a book, not a writer.
Which seems the way "Flann O'Brien" would want it. The brilliance of At Swim-Two-Birds is its ability to be self-effacing at the same time that it's self-reflective—a quality of the best fiction written by O'Brien's admirers. (p. 31)
Jerome Klinkowitz, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 16 & 23, 1975.
Like Beckett, O'Brien … has the gift of the perfect sentence, the art, which they both learned from Joyce, of tuning plain language to a lyric pitch. In O'Brien's case, the pedantic undertone is encouraged to surface as comedy…. Unlike Beckett and Joyce, O'Brien never internationalized himself; his subject matter remained provincial, without the enhancing aura of willed imaginative return from exile, and his tone partakes, a bit tipsily, of local lilt and whimsey….
A marvellous literary mimic, O'Brien is [in "The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story about the Hard Life"] parodying a class of books unknown to all but a few Americans—the twentieth-century novels written in Gaelic by authors like Tomás Ó Criomhthainn and Máire (Séamas Ó Grianna). Helped by the translator's footnotes, we can see through this travesty into the originals: stories extolling, with phrases like "a child among the ashes" and "grey-wool breeches" and "their likes will not be there again," the simple life of the peasantry of "the little green country." O'Brien's "bad story" literally adheres to the literary clichés. (p. 65)
Yet more than the artifices of a romantic revival are pilloried; Irish poverty is placed beyond sentimentalizing by a series of comic exaggerations that are merciless. (p. 66)
John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 1, 1975.
The writer whose work appears in [Stories and Plays], and whose signature on cheques was "Brian O'Nolan," is supposed to be dead. The engarlanding of the page numbers in shamrocks might indeed be his work, but that he selected and assembled the material is unlikely: the diversity of quality and tone seems to be fortuitous as it was not when he employed that device. This note is without prejudice to any statement which he may elect to make.
In the book is evidence enough of the afflictions under which the writer idled, e.g. enigmas of identity and destination, racial and personal, and certain consequent and ancillary anguishes, notably such modes of expression and depression as language and liquor. A text, much belabored, of O'Nolan's newspaper articles, was the self-consciousness of the Irish. That culminated—but didn't stop—in the article reporting that the entire Irish nation had handed in its resignation.
The columnist himself, of course, was, or is, a major exhibitor of that syndrome, if one may, for once, be excused for using that word correctly; the concurrent symptoms being pretending not to be Irish (cf. Bernard Shaw, Sam Beckett), a sense of inferiority (e.g. W. B. Yeats, Sean O'Casey, Eamon de Valera), unnecessarily inventive language (viz. James Joyce, John Synge), pseudonyms (i.e. AE), and love of and admiration for alcohol (vide Brendan Behan, Brendan Behan, Brendan Behan). The problem of identity, best expressed in that most drunken of rhetorical questions, "who do you think you are?", beset O'Nolan, in that milieu and in the great world outside of that cloister. He used his many pseudonyms as protection and perhaps as intimations of apotheosis.
O'Nolan's polemical language was eccentrically precise and destructive: his "vulgar" speech had other qualities…. Reading O'Nolan's "vulgar" speech, one is constantly reminded of Joyce. In fact, the method is rather that of Synge. O'Nolan's language was vigorous, ornamental and, at the same time, exciting. But in this new book, alas!, none of that quality appears. (pp. 32-3)
Neither here, nor elsewhere in O'Nolan's oeuvre, is there indication, overt or implied, of awareness of, or interest in, the possibility of relationships of affection between people. (p. 33)
It is glib, but relevant, to suggest that that lack of concern for humanity is a "reason" why O'Nolan is not as important a writer as he was a journalist. And there might have been other reasons. [The] precocious masterworks At Swim-Two-Birds and An Béal Bocht … are marvels of imagination, language and humor…. O'Nolan was not a literary man. Part of his strength as a journalist lay in his hatred of art and literature. O'Nolan was a powerful and influential journalist—at his best, in the beginning, inventive, courageous and amusing. He beat all his enemies, except the one who destroyed him, his own personal self, the only man in the whole city that he didn't know. (p. 34)
Niall Montgomery, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 13, 1976.
Flann O'Brien … wrote a melodious fanciful prose that would charm even the stoniest reviewer into something like a song….
[In "Stories and Plays"] "Slattery's Sago Saga, or From Under the Ground to the Top of the Trees" seems conceived for the lark of its title. Not only is the saga unfinished, it scarcely gets started. Each chapter makes a fresh grab at the greased pig of a plot, which was no doubt meant to concern the hilarious complications that ensue when Crawford MacPherson, the Scots wife of an emigrant Irishman called Ned Hoolihan, arrives in Ireland to put into effect her plan to replace the potato with the surpassingly starchy sago as the staple of the Irish diet. (p. 116)
[Most] of the plan's fun lies in its exposition; though the characters dither and multiply for seven chapters, and the reader is treated to an O'Brienesque display of curious truths about the sago palm, idle and frantic conversations are all the action there is; the book's prankish premises prove barren, and O'Brien, unable to duplicate the miracle of "At Swim-Two-Birds" and spin a genuine novel out of schoolboy extravagance, understandably stopped writing "Slattery's Sago Saga." The last chapter … has a dark power irrelevant to Irish follies; like Kafka's "Amerika," it is an evocation of the United States by a writer of genius who had never been here…. Amid foolery, a nerve is touched, a real voice speaks, close to paranoia, fighting "the licker." The manuscript stops as if appalled. (p. 117)
The Devil's discomfiture [in "Faustus Kelly"] is amusing to behold, but an uneasy sense persists that we are outsiders at a party, and our laughter keeps coming a second late. Unlike Beckett and Joyce, Yeats and Shaw and even Synge, O'Brien seems obsessed by Irishness itself; his Irishmen never shed their racial and nationalist accoutrements and emerge simply as men.
The two short stories, and the anecdote in play form called "Thirst," are thin things to come from the tradition that produced "Dubliners" and the stories of Frank O'Connor, Mary Lavin, Seán O'Faoláin, Benedict Kiely, and the multitudes of others who have made Irish mores and manners a familiar garb of humanity. "Thirst" shows some men caught in a pub after hours teasing the constable into having a drink with them. "John Duffy's Brother" tells of a man who wakes with the mad idea that he is a train. The tales are monochromatic, though unerringly limned; they more suggest Kafka (in their bleak air of unhealth) and Pirandello (in their circling about the notions of delusion and fabrication) than the masters of Irish realism. They are sternly unsensual, except for the effortless music and lucidity of the prose….
His own cuteness, perhaps, irked O'Brien. His circumspection can be felt in the absences within his witty work: "Stories and Plays" contains no felt glimpse of parentage, of love, of the private, animal, domestic life that meant so much to, say, Joyce. The most emotional moment occurs when the Devil is roused to the fear of social exclusion; the coziest times are passed in public houses. It was no mistake of fate that cast O'Nolan, under his other pen name of Myles na Gopaleen, as a newspaper columnist. His busy imagination seems that of a man who, given the gifts one must develop in solitude, didn't want to be alone. "Humour, the handmaid of sorrow and fear" remained his muse, and writing became, under his magical pen, a sort of fooling away. (p. 118)
John Updike, "Flann Again," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 21, 1976, pp. 116-18.
[There] is just not enough Flann available to supply our appetites, and probably no more forthcoming. The complete inventory, under the Flann O'Brien nom de plume, consists of At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), The Hard Life (1961), The Dalkey Archive (1964), and The Third Policeman (1967), four novels in English. The dates given are those of publication, and in themselves underline one of the pathetic aspects of the author's career: a first effort by a young prodigy instantly acclaimed by a coterie of admirers, the impossibility of publishing the next work during the war years, the belated "second debut," a cannibalized novel emerging from the treasures in the trunk, and the posthumous product of that trunk already redolent of camphor balls. Now the fugitive pieces, Stories and Plays, a skimpy umbrella cloaking the fragment of a novel, two vignettes, an essay, a one-act sketch, and a full-length drama, the theater pieces bearing the alternate pseudonym of Myles na Gopaleen. (The man himself died prematurely, and this is the bottom of the steamer trunk.)…
The most durable piece [in Stories and Plays] is neither a story nor a play…. "A Bash in the Tunnel," Flann O'Brien's essay on contemporary Irish writing—or on James Joyce or the Irish condition or all of these—is more anecdote than essay, more incisive insight than anecdote. In its way it is a minor masterpiece and defies paraphrase and can profitably be read as diagnostic of the author's own malaise….
The secret tippler whom the narrator labeled "Toucher" attempts to preserve his perverse insularity in an environment that in itself is most peculiarly insular, like an onion hiding in its layers of onion skins. It is that environment that is constantly being peeled away by Flann O'Brien, especially when he moves away from his adopted Dublin scene to remote areas of rural and small-town Ireland, as in the plays and the novel fragment. Even in the Dublin novels Flann O'Brien rarely portrayed the cosmopolitan mesh of Joyce's city. His urban graph had always been smaller: he closed the systems around his characters in vicelike grips, ensnaring them in tighter and more restricted circumstances. (p. 3)
At its best Flann O'Brien's humor is muted and oblique, with a disturbing note of ineluctable menace….
Flann O'Brien enthusiasts admire his skill in building his novels on thin plot lines of durable strength and realize what little reliance he has ever had on "psychological and hereditary forces" for his idiosyncratic characterizations…. Those who expect page after page of delightful and meaningful absurdity, however, will probably find themselves waiting for more than ever arrives. And too often what does arrive is inconsequential and obvious. The manipulator of language and languages, who, even as a university student befuddled the editor and the President by printing what they assumed but couldn't prove to be obscenities in Old Irish, now couldn't fool a neophyte with such chestnuts as the manor name, Poguemahone Hall. Nor would a student in beginning German be much impressed with the naming of the American Ambassador to Ireland Charlie Bendix Scheismacher.
Brian O'Nolan's diabolic vision, which lingered playfully throughout At Swim-Two-Birds and harrowed the halls of The Third Policeman, remains strangely unavailable in these remnants,… and the entire collection [Stories and Plays] contributes substantially to the verdict that Flann O'Brien wrote only one masterpiece, his initial At Swim-Two-Birds. His creative potential waned thereafter, as if he had written his Finnegans Wake first and could neither duplicate nor surpass his achievement. The multifaceted framework, the diabolism of spirit, the conspiracy of the creatures against their creator, the fiendish speculations on the nature of human folly and unexpected human transcendence of either folly or fate—these features of that unique work were never mastered again, despite some fine and imaginative moments in other corners of the Flann O'Brien complex. (p. 4)
Bernard Benstock, "Flann A La Creme," in New Boston Review (copyright © 1976 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Summer, 1976, pp. 3-4.
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