Friday, February 29, 2008

Flann O'Brien: A Brief Biography

Sodden with whisky, the elder Flann O'Brien struggled to keep his writing in tune with his preternaturally subtle ear. His first great novel At Swim-Two-Birds and a long-standing column in the Irish Times had established him as the prime wit of a generation of Dublin intellectuals disillusioned by the sham romanticism that clung to Irish letters after the Celtic Revival. As a comedian of the learned, O'Brien's humor was more bookish than pedestrian, more ironic than patriotic. Along with an ambiguous dedication to the tenets of High Modernism, O'Brien's best work showed a creative imagination torn between Roman Catholicism on the one hand, and a corrosive, almost nihilistic cynicism on the other.

Such writing found its audience in a particular Dublin crowd. His books never had much likelihood of becoming bestsellers, and so the writer shouldn't have been surprised that a publisher might balk at bringing one of them out. Here, however, was one of O'Brien's weaknesses. In an uncharacteristic bit of naivete, he seems always to have hoped for lucrative deals and a wide readership. That his work was often compared to that of James Joyce wasn't enough. Comments here and there in his letters even suggest he felt the oft-repeated comparisons to be a lifelong annoyance.

O'Brien's mother tongue was not English. In fact this master of English prose spoke only Gaelic until age six, and began picking up English almost despite his family's designs. The father's desire that his sons be educated in Gaelic at a good Gaelic-language school meant that the boys were kept out of school altogether for years longer than was normal. A good Gaelic school couldn't be found near any of the places the family lived as O'Brien grew up. There were also attempts to keep the boys away from English-speaking playmates, which ensured for them a rather isolated childhood. O'Brien and his brothers would only start learning English after the family had moved to Strabane in 1917, picking up the tongue of the conqueror while hanging around a grocery store owned by an uncle. Although he'd later write a comic novel in Gaelic entitled An Beal Bocht (translated as The Poor Mouth), O'Brien never did end up studying in any Gaelic school. His father eventually gave in and sent him to a Christian Brothers school where the language of instruction was English.

A family anecdote recounts the moment when, well before his son's attendance at the Christian Brothers school, the father had to face the fact that his son's reading in English was undermining the family's Irish-only policy. The two were working together in the house, laying linoleum near an open window. Outside were a group of people conversing in Gaelic, but it was Gaelic with a heavy Offaly accent, which the son immediately began to mimic. The father, in Gaelic, told him to pipe down: "Bi do thosc. Clainfhidh siad thu." ("Be quiet. They'll hear you.") The nine-year-old O'Brien turned to his father: "And as for you, sir," he replied in English, "if you do not conduct yourself I will do you a mischief." According to the story, this was the first time any of the boys had dared address their father in English. That the sentence was mock-formal, and had a nasty barb in its tip, was characteristic of what would come later from the boy in question.

It would be years later in fact, as a freshman at University College, Dublin, that O'Brien would first begin to recognize the full destructive and purgative potential of his linguistic abilities. This recognition didn't come through the medium of writing, however, but, as is not too surprising for an Irishman of the 1930s, through oratory. The university's Literary and Historical Society held their meetings in the upstairs lecture theater of an old Georgian mansion. The semi-circular hall held around two-hundred people, but normally around six-hundred attended. Those without seats, typically the rowdier bunch, would congregate in a lobby adjoining the hall. At Swim-Two-Birds has a passage that probably evokes O'Brien's first impressions of this scene as an incoming freshman:

Outside the theatre there was a spacious lobby or ante-room and it was here that the rough boys would gather and make their noises. One gas jet was the means of affording light in the lobby and when a paroxysm of fighting and roaring would be at its height, the light would by extinguished as if by a supernatural or diabolical agency and the effect of the darkness in such circumstances afforded me many moments of physical and spiritual anxiety, for it seemed to me that the majority of the persons present were possessed by unclean spirits. The lighted rectangle of the doorway to the debate-hall was regarded by many persons not only as a receptacle for the foul and discordant speeches which they addressed to it, but also for many objects of a worthless nature--for example, spent cigarette ends, old shoes, the hats of friends, parcels of damp horse dung, wads of soiled sacking and discarded articles of ladies' clothing not infrequently the worse for wear.
Interesting here is the association of this scene of student disorder with some "diabolical agency". Whether these students were demon-infested or not, O'Brien would eventually become their spokesman, standing at the entrance to the meeting hall proper and interjecting loud remarks more or less on their behalf. The applause gained by his initial wisecracks emboldened him toward actually giving speeches from his post at the door, speeches both part of the proceedings and not, in that their goal was to puncture the phony legalism and would-be sophistication of the Society meetings. O'Brien soon found himself in the position of a kind of student leader.

We can see that the young O'Brien as orator instinctively sided more with the "diabolical" crowd than with the attempts at dignity being staged by the "more serious" group inside. This choice can be recognized as a figure for his eventual poetics, or even for his thinking about the world and man's place in it. A Catholic all his life, O'Brien had a deep-seated conviction of the corruption inherent in all human institutions. This conviction went beyond that of most Catholics, in that O'Brien's Catholicism at times verged on Manichaeism, a leaning which presents itself in his writing in the form of pointed questions about the ultimate justice of the universe. For example: Wasn't it perhaps the case that the human world was as it was because the Devil was more in control of it than God? Or was it maybe true instead that God and the Devil were equally powerful beings and that the world was a kind of battlefield? If so, how was the battle being waged? Was the outcome truly already decided? How could one reliably distinguish between good and evil when the world was so thoroughly shot through with both? Such "Manichaen" questions are everywhere implicit in O'Brien's work, comic though that work may be. Regardless of their often outrageous outer forms, it's obvious O'Brien took these questions very seriously. They were one of the intellectual driving forces of his work.

Sensitive as he was to the pervasiveness of the diabolical in human affairs, O'Brien was especially keen to attack the hypocrisy of those in society who tried to put themselves above the general malaise. His desire to undermine the meetings of the Literary and Historical Society can be seen in this light: the chaotic and rowdy behavior of the students in the lobby was closer to the truth of our state than any official society program could ever be. O'Brien's work, its persistent satirical bite, can be understood on the basis of his constant need to remind readers just where things really stand here and now after the Fall. The teeming scene of history is certainly not one of progress, but rather of our degraded state repeatedly making itself obvious. Only liars and fools could pretend otherwise. O'Brien's deep yearning for truth--for a certain side of the truth--is what made him such a trenchant satirist, so adept at ridiculing such a wide range of institutions and types. He didn't become a rabble rouser because he was an apostle of disorder or a mere cynic, but rather because he couldn't abide pretensions about the nature of things. He would continue to show this intolerance to the end.

O'Brien's masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds found its origins in the same University College experience. It too is situated in a kind of no man's land between learned discourse, chaotic play and fated depravity. A work very similar to At Swim-Two-Birds was written up during his student years. Called Scenes in a Novel (Probably Posthumous) by Brother Barnabas, the work has many of the structural elements and some of the prototype characters of the later work. It presents us with a writer, Brother Barnabas, who as part of his projected novel creates a character named Carruthers McDaid, a man meant to be "a worthless scoundrel, a betrayer of women and a secret drinker." Some writers, Barnabas explains

have started with a good and noble hero and traced his weakening, his degradation and his eventual downfall; others have introduced a degenerate villain to be ennobled and uplifted to the tune of twenty-two chapters, usually at the hands of a woman--'She was not beautiful, but a shortened nose, a slightly crooked mouth and eyes that seemed brimful of a simple complexity seemed to spell a curious attraction and an inexplicable charm.' In my own case, McDaid, starting off as a rank waster and a rotter, was meant to sink slowly to absolutely the last extremities of human degradation. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was to be too low for him, the wheaten headed hound....
McDaid, Barnabas' literary creation, doesn't stay in character however. Barnabas learns that his "worthless scoundrel" has turned to religion and refuses to continue following the requirements of the projected plot. The other characters in the novel also begin to lead lives of their own, and soon the depressed author has reason to suspect that his characters have hatched a plot to murder him. Much of the structure and atmosphere of At Swim-Two-Birds are already here in this earlier student work.

During these university years O'Brien also contributed to a student magazine called Comthrom Feinne as well as to other student periodicals. He received his B.A. from University College, Dublin in 1932, then went on to get an M.A. with a thesis on "Nature in Irish Poetry". All his life he'd refer back to his M.A. thesis as a joke and to his entire university education as a kind of fraud:

I paid no attention whatsoever to books or study and regarded lectures as a joke which, in fact, they were if you discern anything funny in mawkish, obtuse mumblings on subjects any intelligent person could master single-handed in a few months. The exams I found childish and in fact the whole University concept I found to be a sham. The only result my father got for his money was the certainty that his son had laid faultlessly the foundation of a system of heavy drinking and could always be relied upon to make a break of at least 25 even with a bad cue. I sincerely believe that if University education were universally available and availed of, the country would collapse in one generation.
To say nothing of billiards, O'Brien's heavy drinking would become more and more "systematic" as the years went on. As for the inconsequentiality of his M.A. thesis, that seems in part his own fault. His own brother Kevin, who became a lecturer at University College, later pointed out that O'Brien intentionally chose a pushover as thesis advisor, one Agnes O'Farrelly, rather than Osborn Bergin, who was one of the great authorities on early Irish poetry and who would have been the "really serious man."

Leaving university, O'Brien had to make a choice of career. In what was in some respects an obvious choice, he applied for the Civil Service. Posts in the Civil Service were particularly sought after in Ireland at that time, since the benefits were decent and the positions secure. What's more, O'Brien's father had been a successful civil servant. The year O'Brien applied there were several hundred applicants competing for three available posts. One required exam tested for general knowledge, another for ability in spoken Gaelic. The set-up could hardly have been better for O'Brien, whose Gaelic was excellent and whose mind had a marked encyclopedic bent (the encyclopedism of a budding Joycean satirist no less). He was given one of the three posts.

Official reports show that O'Brien did well during his first months in the service, successfully taming his acerbic wit and learning to write the colorless memos and letters required in a position where it was strictly forbidden to show any personal opinion of government policies or of the service that was to carry them out. In July of 1937, O'Brien was duly informed that he'd passed through the probationary period and was being made an established civil servant.

It looked to O'Brien as if his career was set, and that at least as far as his economic situation was concerned it would be relatively smooth sailing from there on out. On the night of the very same day he was established, however, his father suffered a fatal stroke. Given the status of the family fortune, O'Brien suddenly found himself responsible for supporting ten siblings and his mother. Ironically, one older brother, Ciaran, was still unemployed, and spent his days in the family home working on a novel in Gaelic. The younger literary genius had to sweat his hours away as breadwinner, while the older brother lived off his earnings in order to write a novel of scant importance.

Almost simultaneously with entry of the Civil Service came the beginning of serious work on At Swim-Two-Birds. The novel about the long-suffering novelist Dermott Trellis was written on a table O'Brien had carpented from pieces of an actual trellis--also long-suffering and frequently repaired--that had stood in the family's back yard. The plot of At Swim-Two-Birds has been well summarized by one of the book's first readers, Graham Greene:

We have had books inside books before but [O'Brien] takes Pirandello and Gide a long way further. The screw is turned until you have (a) a book about a man called Trellis who is (b) writing a book about certain characters who (c) are turning the tables on Trellis by writing about him.
This summary should indicate the novel's partial descent from the above-mentioned student work Scenes in a Novel by Brother Barnabas. In that novel, as we've seen, the characters also turn tables on their author.

At Swim-Two-Birds became quite a different matter from O'Brien's earlier work, however. It is not merely a case of the earlier work on a grander scale. Besides destabilization of relations between author and characters, At Swim-Two-Birds also effects a destabilization of genre. The novel orchestrates a panoply of genres and milieus, from popular cowboy novel to drawing room farce to Bildungsroman to ancient Bardic lyric. And this list is far from complete. On the first page already O'Brien introduces various genres, one of them featuring the legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool, a bragging and voluble character who wreaks no small generic havoc in the pages to come. Following are some of Finn MacCool's words as he denies a story which told of him flattering a threatening stranger come to Erin:

Who has heard honey-talk from Finn before strangers, Finn that is wind-quick, Finn that is a better man than God? Or who has seen the like of Finn or seen the living semblance of him standing in the world, Finn that could best God at ball-throw or wrestling or pig-trailing or at the honeyed discourse of sweet Irish with jewels and gold for bards, or at the listening of distant harpers in a black hole at evening? Or where is the living human man who could beat Finn at the making of generous cheese, at the spearing of ganders, at the magic of thumb-suck, at the shaving of hog-hair, or at the unleashing of long hounds from a golden thong in the full chase, sweet-fingered corn-yellow Finn, Finn that could carry an armed host from Almha to Slieve Luachra in the craw of his gut-hung knickers.
We learn later that Finn is only present in this novel because the foolish novelist Trellis was impressed by his venerable appearance and decided to take him on. The other, twentieth-century characters have to get along with him as best they can.

Generic clashes, collisions of different worlds and different manners of speech, rather than hampering the movement of plot, actually work like teeth in the gears of the novel's progress. Made of wildly disparate pieces, it miraculously still holds together: it is still a novel. O'Brien's work somehow manages to be both more realistic and more outlandish than Joyce's Ulysses, the work to which it's most often compared.

When At Swim-Two-Birds was published by Longman's in 1939, O'Brien got a copy to the master in Paris. Joyce, although nearly blind by this time, read the book and came out in its favor: "That's a real writer with a true comic spirit," runs the quote. "A really funny book." At Swim-Two-Birds was in fact the last novel James Joyce read. He went to some trouble to help O'Brien promote it on the continent, but died before his efforts could bear fruit.

Around a year after the publication of At Swim-Two-Birds O'Brien had already finished his next novel, The Third Policeman. The novel is a murder mystery situated mainly in and around a police station located in an unlikely corner of Hell. That this particular plot of Hell resembles Ireland manages to throw off the novel's narrator to such an extent that he doesn't even know he's already dead. The narrator's dialogues with the policemen in charge of the station are treasures of offbeat quackery. The policemen, he finds, are obsessed with bicycles and bicycle theft--this to the exclusion of nearly all other crimes; they're masters of a sort of barometric or metaphysical balance in the environment which, according to their discourse, seems in constant threat of falling into chaos; and they're determined eventually to hang him for a crime they've framed him for, a frame-up they openly admit.

The narrator of The Third Policeman introduces us to other crackbrained worlds besides just this absurdist Irish Hell. During his life he'd been an obsessive scholar of a writer named de Selby, about whom we learn from the narrator's frequent musings and the novel's hilarious footnotes. De Selby stands as one of O'Brien's great fictional creations, a polymath with elements of Des Esseintes and something of the trappings of Jules Verne. The great man's eccentric theories (concerning everything from night to the illusory nature of travel to the unused potential of water) are regularly brought forward by the narrator as he struggles to understand the impossible things encountered in the policemen's nightmarish little precinct.

When The Third Policeman was finished, O'Brien sent the manuscript off to Longman's. In what was to prove a fateful blow to Irish letters and (perhaps) to the writer himself, Longman's rejected it. O'Brien's agent A.M. Heath claimed to have tried other publishers, but with no luck. O'Brien then sent the manuscript to a different agent, who wrote back saying the book was good but that it was "impossible to place." These rejections proved fateful because of the writer's reaction to them. Rather than shrug them off and keep trying, O'Brien got his manuscript back and set it on a little-used sideboard in the family home, where it would more or less remain for the next twenty-seven years. He then began telling Dublin acquaintances that the manuscript had gone missing. In one version he'd left it on a train; in another he'd taken it to the Dolphin Hotel to show to someone, then gone home without it. "I'm after going down there," he's quoted as saying, "had them beat the whole bloody building and sight or light of it's not to be found." This story of the "lost manuscript" became part of Dublin literary legend.

The motives behind O'Brien's reaction are probably various. On the one hand, there must have been an element of scorn. Didn't Longman's and the other clowns realize that he, Flann O'Brien, was the writer of At Swim-Two-Birds, the man, in short, who'd just published the major work of Irish prose after Ulysses? Didn't they realize what this meant? In other words: If Flann O'Brien sent them his Third Policeman there should have been no question as to whether or not they'd publish it. O'Brien was a major writer, as they should have known. They ought to have been grateful.

Along with this scorn, however, came another and in some respects contrary feeling: Wasn't it maybe true that the second novel wasn't quite of the same stature as the first? O'Brien must have known so. He must have realized that At Swim-Two-Birds was an accomplishment he'd never get beyond. At Swim-Two-Birds, one is tempted to say, was the full and absolute embodiment of O'Brien's character. It covered all the styles and modes, held nothing in reserve; it sang snatches or more than snatches of all the tunes he'd ever need to know. If his second novel, then, had been rejected, O'Brien felt or at least began to suspect that it might be because its readers at the publishing house had seen it as a weak successor to the masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds.

A writer is never wrong to doubt the value of his work. This is because the writer can never quite see his own work with the eyes of the reader. It's a question of distance. Good writers know they are too close to their own work to detect flaws that may jump immediately to a good reader's eye. Just such a wise pinch of self-doubt probably led O'Brien to abandon The Third Policeman to oblivion. This is unfortunate though, because The Third Policeman is part of O'Brien's essential achievement. Along with At Swim-Two-Birds and selections of the Irish Times column, it is the very best of his writing.

The rejection of The Third Policeman had a lasting effect on O'Brien's sense of his work, on his sense of where it could go. The rejection brought a feeling of futility and self-doubt that hadn't been there previously. The bitterness of the early satire would henceforth be joined by a more self-inclusive bitterness. O'Brien began to face up to a new fear that his career as an artist might be limited to the one major triumph of At Swim-Two-Birds. And that major triumph was itself often presented as a kind of second-generation Joyceanism, a mere youthful offshoot of the Master's earlier achievement.

The Times column was called "Cruiskeen Lawn," not, as one might guess, a place name, but a Gaelic phrase meaning "little brimming jug". Gaelic name or not, the column was nearly always in English. O'Brien wrote it under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen ("Myles of the Little Horses"). During the writer's life, this persona Myles na Gopaleen was certainly better known in Ireland than the name Flann O'Brien. The writer's crackbrained, lighthearted newspaper columns naturally gained a wider readership than his crackbrained but often bleak modernist novels. "Cruiskeen Lawn"'s first appearance was October 4th, 1940, about the same time O'Brien was having difficulty placing The Third Policeman. Considering the energy he'd put into the column over the next decades, there's good reason to see in it a shift. Despairing over the future of his work as a novelist, O'Brien decided to change his strategy. He'd move some of his creative forces into the daily press. His offensive on the world's folly would be continued in short bursts of newspaper fire rather than in the more sustained, but recently shunned, prose of his novels.

The testimony of witnesses shows that O'Brien wrote these columns rather quickly, usually in one sitting at a typewriter. Sometimes when he was too drunk to type he'd drag a drinking comrade to his house to do the typing while he dictated. The subject of the column varied widely over the years, some devoted to the introduction of Myles' ersatz scientific inventions, others to a series of spurious stories about Keats and Chapman. (My personal favorite are the columns which present "the Brother," a paranoiac Dubliner who manages to lord it over his naive housemates through sheer force of his own self-importance. The Brother is a milder and, alas, more carefully articulated version of a character whose exploits I wrote in the early 1990s, a man by the name of Cosmo di Madison.)

Over the years O'Brien and the Irish Times got into frequent spats over the content of his columns. Though the writer rarely used the names of his victims, there were occasionally reasons to fear possible libel actions. And the column was not without its effect on O'Brien's civil service career either. On entering the service O'Brien had had to submit to its particular rules and regulations, among which was the warning not to express political opinions that may be seen as biased toward or against any party. The civil servant had to remain strictly neutral. O'Brien's column occasionally broke this rule, and the fact that he wrote it under a pseudonym finally wasn't enough to protect him. It was common knowledge in the Service that Myles na Gopaleen was one of their own. When problems with work attendence and other problems stemming from alcoholism started to win O'Brien enemies in the hierarchy, the newspaper column was brought forward as grounds for getting rid of him. O'Brien was forcibly retired from the Service for "health reasons," and lived thereafter on the modest pension he'd secured and the scant income he got over the following years from his writing.

O'Brien published a moderate body of work over the latter years of his life, but none of it, aside from some of the work published in "Cruiskeen Lawn," attains to what was achieved early on. It is in fact the early English novels that make O'Brien a major writer. As I've hinted above, this sense of an early accomplishment that would not be surpassed seems to have been shared by O'Brien himself. The aura of failure and disappointment that hangs over much of his later life shouldn't, however, take away from the genius of O'Brien's best work. It is satiric genius of the highest order.

In this essay the writer is referred to consistently as Flann O'Brien. I've done this for convenience. Flann O'Brien is in fact a pseudonym, and the writer's real name was Brian O'Nolan or, in the Gaelic spelling, O Nuallain. Brian O'Nolan's published works include those mentioned above, namely: the novel At Swim-Two-Birds, the novel The Third Policeman, and the long-running column in the Irish Times, "Cruiskeen Lawn". Other works published, many of which are still in print, include: The Dalkey Archive and The Hard Life, both novels in English; An Beal Bocht, a novel in Gaelic (translated into English by Patrick C. Power and available as The Poor Mouth); and various stories and plays (among which the play Faustus Kelly).

Many of the quotations in this essay and all of the biographical information came from Anthony Cronin's No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien. Cronin's is the standard biography, and any who'd like a more detailed knowledge of O'Brien's Ireland are well advised to consult it.

Four volumes that make for a solid beginning O'Brien collection can be ordered from Amazon through the links below.

Check At Swim-Two-Birds.

Check The Third Policeman.

Check The Best of Myles.

Check Anthony Cronin’s biography of O’Brien: No Laughing Matter.

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