John Cronin, The Anglo Irish Novel [I + II] (1980; 1990)

The Anglo Irish Novel [Vol. I] (Belfast: Appletree Press 1980); Introduction, 7; Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent, pp.19-40; John Banim, The Nowlans, pp.41-58; Gerald Griffin, The Collegians, pp.59-82; William Carleton, The Black Prophet, pp.83-98; Charles Kickham, Knockagow, pp.99-114; George Moore, A Drama in Muslin, pp.115-34; Somerville & Ross, The Real Charlotte, pp.135-52; Index, 155.

The Anglo-Irish Novel, Vol II (Belfast: Appletree Press 1990); Preface; Canon Sheehan, Luke Delege, pp.22-29; George Moore, the Lake, pp.30-46; James Stephens, The Crock of Gold, pp.47-60; Gerald O’Donovan, Father Ralph, pp.61-67; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pp.68-79; Seumus O’Kelly, The Lady of Deerpark, pp.80-86; Daniel Corkery, The Threshold of Quiet, pp.87-99; Eimar O’Duffy, The Cuainduine Trilogy, pp.100-06; Brinsley MacNamara, The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe, pp.107-13, Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September, pp.114-28; Kathleen Coyle, A Flock of Birds, pp.129; Kate O’Brien, The Ante-Room, pp.138-47; Sean O’Faolain, Bird Alone, pp.148-58; Samuel Beckett, Murphy, pp.159-69; Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two Birds, pp.170-82; Frank O’Connor, Dutch Interior, pp.183-90; Reading List.

‘Flann O’Brien (1911-1966)’, in The Anglo-Irish Novel, Vol. 2: 1900-1940 (Belfast: Appletree Press 1990) [Chap. XV] pp.171-82

As Anne Clissmann indicates in her sympathetic and valuably comprehensive study of the writer, he was a man who worked under numerous pseudonyms and constantly frustrated the activities of naive interviewers and literal-minded biographers. It may, therefore, be useful to sort out some at least of the potentially confusing proliferation of identities. The family name was O’Nualláin and its English equivalent either O’Nolan or, more simply, Nolan. The writer’s correct name in its Irish form is, accordingly, Brian O’Nualláin and, in English, this could be represented as either Brian O’Nolan or Brian Nolan. When he wrote At Swim-Two-Birds, he did so as ‘Flann O’Brien’, a pseudonym which he had first adopted while conducting a controversial exchange of letters with Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain in the Irish Times early in the year of the novel’s publication. It seems that he himself came to dislike this particular pseudonym and wanted to publish his first novel under the name of ‘John Hackett’. Mercifully, Longmans refused to allow this. For his journalistic work in the Irish Times he assumed the alias of ‘Myles na gCopaleen’, a close approximation to the correct Irish form of that name – this was later simplified to ‘Myles na Gopaleen’. He borrowed this name from a character in Gerald Griffin’s novel, The Collegians (1829). It means ‘Myles of the Ponies’ and its original bearer is a sort of Arcadian mountaineer and horseman who is given affectionately comic treatment in Griffin’s novel. It is conceivable that O’Nolan may have been attracted to the character because, when he first appears in the novel, he is depicted as a honey-tongued cajoler who succeeds in humouring a group of gentry into granting him a favour. The original Myles is a fast and skilful talker who puts his particular brand of blarney to excellent practical use – the link with his twentieth-century alter-ego seems clear enough. Anne Clissmann and others list a spate of other names which the writer assumed at various stages of his career, some of them adopted during his undergraduate days at UCD, but for ordinary purposes it suffices to know that his real name was Brian Nolan, his novelistic alias Flann O’Brien and his journalistic persona Myles na Gopaleen.

He was born at Strabane in Co. Tyrone in 1911, the third son of an officer {170} of Customs and Excise, Michael Victor O’Nolan. The father’s work involved frequent transfers and soon after Brian’s birth the family moved for a short time to Glasgow. They moved again shortly afterwards and at the time of the Easter Rising of 1916 were living in the Dublin suburb of Inchicore. When the father was established in his post, he was assigned to the district of Tullamore and the family lived in the town of Tullamore until 1923, when promotion resulted in yet another move back to Dublin. Brian’s older brother, Ciaran, records in his memoir of their youth, Óige an Dearthár (1973), the odd fact that none of the boys attended any school until the family settled in Dublin in 1923, by which time Brian was already twelve years old. From Ciarán’s account of the matter, however, they do not seem to have felt at any educational disadvantage as a result. The father and motherwere both lively-minded and highly intelligent people. The house was full of books of all kinds and the father, a long-time devotee of the Irish language movement, had seen to it that his children were fully bilingual. The boys at first attended the Christian Brothers’ school at Synge Street and remained there until the family went to live in the more fashionable suburb of Blackrock in 1927. At that point, the boys transferred to the rather more easy-going Blackrock College. The father was appointed a Revenue Commissioner in 1925 and remained in this very senior and well-paid post, stationed in Dublin Castle, until his death from a coronary attack at the age of sixty-two in 1937. Brian left school in 1929 and enrolled at University College, Dublin, where he graduated as a BA with second-class honours in German, English and Irish in 1932. In the following year he won a travelling scholarship which enabled him to study at the University of Cologne during the first six months of 1934. He was awarded the MA degree in 1935 for a thesis on modern Irish poetry. He had begun to write for a student magazine, Comhthrom Féinne, while he was at the university.

On leaving university, he entered the Civil Service in 1935 and began work in the Department of Local Government. He remained in this Department until he retired from his post in 1953. He began work on his celebrated first novel in 1935 and completed it in 1937. It was published by Longmans in 1939. The Third Policeman, completed in 1940, failed to find a publisher, to O’Nolan’s great disappointment, but his novel in the Irish language, An Beal Bocbt, appeared in 1941 and met with general acclaim from those competent to read it, a highly appreciative but necessarily limited audience. At the invitation of R. M. Smyllie, the Falstaffian editor of the Irish Times, O’Nolan began to contribute a regular column to that newspaper. Cruiskeen Lawn (originally the title of a rollicking Irish drinking song, meaning, literally, ‘Little Full Jug’) began in bilingual form and then appeared in the Irish language mainly until the end of 1941. In 1942 it alternated between {171} English and Irish, day by day. Later the column was mainly in English. It was to endure for more than twenty years and enjoyed huge popularity among the newspaper’s readers. A play, Faustus Kelly, enjoyed a modest success in 1943. Brian O’Nolan married a fellow civil servant in 1948. After his premature retirement on pension from the Civil Service in 1953, he seems to have been hard pressed for money at times and tried unsuccessfully for various university and other appointments. In 1960, however, a reissue of At Swim-Two-Birds by McGibbon & Kee brought him into notice once again. The book sold well and the author was sufficiently encouraged to embark on novel writing once more. The Hard Life appeared in 1961. During his later years, O’Nolan was dogged by constant ill-health but he drew on the unpublished novel, The Third Policeman, for material for his last work of fiction, The Dalkey Archive, whichcame out in 1964. It seems, surprisingly, to have been his own favourite among his works. He did a great deal of writing for television in his later years, working for the newly established studios of Telefis Eireann. He died of cancer on 1 April 1966 and was buried in his parents’ grave at Deans Grange, outside Dublin.

At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
For a first novel completed while its author was still in his twenties At Swimin 1939, a year in which Europe was turning its thoughts to somewhat grimmer matters. Anne Clissmann records that on its first appearance the novel knocked Margaret Mitchell’s celebrated Gone With the Wind off the top of the Dublin best-seller lists for one heady week in April but, since she goes on to remark that O’Brien’s novel sold fewer than two hundred and fifty copies in all, its brief stay at the top of the bestseller lists seems pretty meaningless. In fact, the novel was treated coolly by some uncomprehending reviewers and was largely disregarded, rapidly becoming a mere coterie taste and remaining so until its re-issue in 1960. It was commended by the American writer, William Saroyan, and also by Graham Greene. O’Brien’s friend, Niall Sheridan, presented a copy to James Joyce who seems to have enjoyed it greatly in spite of his ruined eye-sight. On the other hand, Ethel Mannin, to whom O’Brien sent a copy, pronounced it ‘altogether too latter-day James Joycean’ and clearly disliked the work. Commercially the book was a failure and a worse blow was soon to follow. {173} O’Brien completed his second novel, The Third Policeman, early in 1940 and offered it to Longmans who turned it down on the grounds that it was too fantastic. William Saroyan tried to find an American publisher for the novel, without success. O’Brien was deeply hurt by this second failure and put away the rejected manuscript, telling his friends that it had been lost. He was to use parts of it for his last novel, The Dalkey Archive, towards the end of his life but The Third Policeman itself did not appear in print until the year after O’Brien’s death.


The failure of his first novel to win wide acceptance combined with the rejection of his second novel to trivialise and distort O’Brien’s reputation from the beginning. Had his second novel come before the public when it was completed in 1940 its disturbingly sombre quality, unmistakeable in spite of large elements of hilarious incidental comedy, might have produced a more thoughtful re-assessment of the first novel. Instead, The Third Policeman remained unpublished throughout its author’s lifetime and his next published work after At Swim-Two-Birds was to be the Irish-language novel, An Beal Bocht, which proved a great success but, necessarily, with a limited audience. Once again, though for different reasons this time, a powerful work of sombre comedy became a coterie taste and no comprehensive view of the author’s remarkable talents emerged even after he had completed three notable works of fiction. His subsequent career as a full-time civil-servant and part-time writer makes unhappy reading in the accounts given of it by Anne Clissmann and his various friends and associates. His heavy involvement in journalistic work for the Irish Times served to justify the emerging public view of him Two-Birds represents an amazing achievement, an astonishing virtuoso performance which, sadly, he was never again to equal during a curiously sporadic career. The book appeared as a sort of Dublin version of ‘Beachcomber’, the English comic journalist, J. B. Morton. The rapid popularity of the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column meant that Myles na Gopaleen quickly took over from Hann O’Brien and one of the most impressive novelistic talents of the century was to be dissipated in an endless series of amusing but essentially trivial pieces fora daily paper. The strain of producing a stream of ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ columns must surely have exerted a ruinously corrosive effect on O’Brien’s great gifts as a writer of fiction. Irish literary history is choc-a-bloc with tales of the might-have-been but, in this case, the coruscating brilliance of the first novel surely entitles one to express profound regret for the eventual deterioration into quotidian journalistic ephemera. Some sense of what was lost is conveyed by the remarkably unstinting praise lavished on At Swim-Two-Birds by the English poet and novelist, John Wain, in his well-known Encounter piece, ‘To Write for My Own Race’ (1967). Reading this warmly generous paean of praise now, one is sardonically moved to recalling the old yarn about the man who, having just been informed of the Crucifixion, rushed into the streets and tried to start a {174} persecution of the Jews! Wain’s genuine but belated panegyric which appeared in the year after its subject’s death, his sense of sharing with Philip Larkin and Kingsley Arms the excitement of a great literary ‘discovery’ nearly thirty years after the novel’s original publication, reveals the English literary establishment of the Sixties paying homage to an unacknowledged master. Reading Wain’s piece now, one is again pointlessly infuriated by O’Brien’s early failure, by the refusal to publish the second novel and the subsequent trivialisation of a remarkable talent. It all helps, perhaps, to explain why the middle-aged O’Brien who appears in Anthony Cronin’s literary memoir, Dead As Doornails (1976), seems such an unattractively embittered figure.

The writer himself seems to have developed a distaste for his exciting first novel quite early. Shortly after its publication he began to disparage it in a rather self-conscious fashion. ‘It is a belly-laugh or high-class literary pretentious slush, depending on how you look at it’, he told Ethel Mannin when sending her a copy of the novel in July, 1939. In 1960,in a letter to Brian Inglis, he called it’juvenile nonsense’. At all times, the critics’ recurring tendency to link the work to Joyce seems to have infuriated O’Brien. ‘If I hear that word “Joyce” again, I will surely froth at the gob!’ he wrote to Timothy O’Keefe in 1961, and he took a characteristically comic revenge on the Great Cham of Irish letters in The Dalkey Archive where he resurrects Joyce and installs him as a bartender or ‘curate’ in a pub near Dublin. ‘I’ve had it in for that bugger for a long time’, he told O’Keefe in 1962, when he was working on his last novel. In fact, of course, it was not a little disingenuous of O’Brien to object to critical commentary which linked his first novel to Joycean sources. The connections are quite obvious and have often been closely documented, notably by such critics as Bernard Benstock and Del Ivan Junk. The nameless student narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds clearly derives in some way or another from the Stephen Dedalus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A student at the same university, he also spends much of his time in bed and treats his studies in a similarly cavalier manner, thereby infuriating the uncle with whom he resides, a figure who bears a resemblance to Simon Dedalus. Just as Stephen’s father was, in his son’s derisive description of him, ‘something in a distillery’, this narrator’s uncle is ‘holder of Guinness clerkship the third class’. Like Simon Dedalus, the uncle tends to voice doubts about the academic doings of the younger man, whose closest companions bear an obvious resemblance to Stephen’s. Kelly recalls Davin and Lynch, while Brinsley is a sort of composite of Lynch and Cranly. When the narrator makes one of his rare visits to University College he is almost indistinguishable from Stephen Dedalus on similar forays in the Portrait:

It was my custom to go into the main hall of the College and stand with my [175] back to one of the steam-heating devices, my faded overcoat open and my cold hostile eyes flitting about the faces that passed before me. The younger students were much in evidence, formless and ugly in adolescence; others were older, bore themselves with assurance and wore clothing of good quality.


This combines recollections of Stephen’s visits to the university with his later, detached scrutiny of the naked bodies of his fellows as they swim at the Bull Wall. Like Stephen also, the narrator is made to discover lice on his person, and at the very end of the novel, in the Conclusion of the book, ultimate, O’Brien, via the mythical Professor Unternehmer, ascribes the dire misadventures of the fictional Trellis to ‘an inverted sow neurosis wherein the farrow eat their dam’, mockingly subverting one of the most celebrated of Joycean dicta. It may be that O’Brien read his Joyce a little too straight, if his pervasive mockery of Dedalus through the thoughts, actions and conversation of his own protagonist are indeed intended as a general debunking of that most famous of Irish fictional youths. Joyce himself had already undertaken the deflation of Stephen, whose adolescent vauntings are subtly undercut throughout the novel. Joyce pointed out to his American friend, Frank Budgen, how many readers of the Portrait failed to notice that the full title of the work was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, emphasising, Budgen tell us, the last four words of that title. Thus, Joyce himself fired the first salvoes at his young prig-hero, something which O’Brien, in view of his calculated derision, would seem to have missed or at any rate chosen to ignore.

Quite apart from similarities between Stephen and O’Brien’s narrator, At Swim is heavily indebted to Joyce in the comic gigantism of the Finn episodes which inevitably recall the controlling technique of the Cyclops episode of Ulysses, while O’Brien’s huge, simple-minded Celtic hero owes much to Joyce’s Citizen. In general, O’Brien’s riotously funny melange of different historical periods and many different kinds of literary style cannot but recall the variegated fictional world of Leopold Bloom. The quality in Ulysses which T.S. Eliot commended, its capacity for manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, is clearly a formative influence on O’Brien’s novel.


All that has so far been remarked by way of literary indebtedness, however, could, in the light of O’Brien’s central strategy, be seen as incidental. However pervasive the Joycean influence on his successor’s technique, At Swim-Two-Birds essentially constitutes a spirited rejection of the Joycean aesthetic in regard to the whole art of novel-writing as propounded by Stephen Dedalus in his celebrated definition of the literary work of an in Chapter v of the Portrait [176]:

The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

Early in O’Brien’s novel, his narrator outlines to Brinsley a brazen counter-theory designed to highlight the flagrant unreliability of the entire fictional process:

The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic. In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity.

The narrator develops his ideas at length, providing in fact a theoretical basis for the very novel which O’Brien is engaged in writing and, when he has finished his explanation, his listener, Brinsley, fulfils his Cranly-like role by crudely pronouncing the elaborate thesis ‘all my bum’. Similarly, Stephen’s auditor had responded mockingly also, if a little less coarsely, when he had imagined the God of creation refining his own finger-nails out of existence as he detached himself from his handiwork in a divine determination to fulfil the Joycean aesthetic. O’Brien’s novel, with its multiple beginnings and conclusions, its laminated plots and incessant authorial intrusions, embodies an hilariously entertaining mockery of any organic view of the novel as a world apart, self-justifying and entire unto itself between its first page and its last. The O’Brien formula deliberately flouts the view of the novel proposed by Henry James in The Art of Fiction, that ‘a novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like every other organism, and in proportion as it lives will be found ... that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts.’ Elsewhere in the same work, James had faulted Anthony Trollope for the very practice which O’Brien deliberately makes the principal strategy of his own novel:

Certain accomplished novelists have a habit of giving themselves away which must often bring tears to the eyes of people who take their fiction seriously. I was lately struck, in reading over the pages of Anthony Trollope, with his want of discretion in this particular. Ina digression, a parenthesis or an aside, he concedes to the reader that he and his trusting friend are only ‘making believe’. He admits that the events he narrates have not really happened, and that he can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best. Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I confess, a terrible crime ... It implies that the novelist is less occupied in looking for the truth than the historian, and in doing so it deprives him at a stroke of all his standing-room. [177] O’Brien commits the Jamesian ‘terrible crime’ with enormous glee again and again and, ironically, thus acquires for his book a special kind of demented liberty in regard to plot and setting. As late as 1963, in a letter to Mark Hamilton, O’Brien was to describe The Dalkey Archive as ‘an essay in extreme derision of literary attitudes and people’ and the use of this phrase thus late in his life suggests the constancy of his determination as a mocker of high literary seriousness.

The book’s various plots derive from and are controlled by the figure of the student-narrator, himself a fiction. He is engaged in writing a novel about one Dermot Trellis, also a writer. Trellis is the proprietor of the Red Swan Hotel and has spent the last twenty years mainly in bed, rising only to supervise the laundering of his linen by the slavey, Teresa. Trellis is, thus, a sort of congenial older version of the student-narrator himself, with a similar inclination to retire contemplatively between the sheets, in order to avoid the hurly-burly of outside events. Trellis’s own literary purpose is to write an intensely moral book which will expose the dangers of vice of all kind but the central credo of At Swim is realised in the failure of Trellis’s purpose which is brought about by the purposeful independence of the characters he creates. His chosen villain, Furriskey, who is intended as a ravisher of innocent maidens, falls in love with one of his supposed victims and embarks on a virtuous union with her. Since Trellis’s creatures are free of his control only when Trellis is asleep, they have to live a double life, functioning as his puppets while he is awake and achieving freedom to go their own way only when he slumbers again. The limited nature of Trellis’s control over his own creations further implements the novelistic programme outlined earlier. His characters manage to achieve at least a measure of that ‘democracy’ which has been advanced as the desirable state of all fictional characters and, having achieved it, they then turn on their creator, using Orlick, the bastard son fathered by Trellis on one of his own characters, as their instrument. O’Brien presumably adopted the name of Trellis’s chief tormentor from Dickens’s Great Expectations, in which the villainous Orlick murders Mrs Joe Gargery and almost murders the hero, Pip. The Dickensian Orlick, like his Irish namesake, is a savage tormentor, who delights in gloating over his victim. In the climactic scene in the Dickens novel, when Orlick has captured Pip and bound him fast he first vengefully informs him that he will kill him and then proceeds to rave savagely at the helpless Pip:

‘Now, wolf,’ said he, ‘afore I kill you, like any other beast - which is what I mean to do and what I have tied you up for - I’ll have a good look at you and a good goad at you. Oh, you enemy!’ [178]

O’Brien must have relished the lurid melodrama of this and his own Orlick does, indeed, have a good ‘goad’ at poor old Trellis, devising for him brutal torments which bring him, like Pip, to the very verge of destruction.

The main structural strategies of At Swim are clear enough. We are frequently returned to the student-narrator’s mundane domestic surroundings and are regularly supplied with his helpful synopses of the action and this provides a fundamental kind of reassurance in the general fictional m6i6e. Furthermore, within that melee itself, the various levels of plot constantly provide us with supportive parallels and correspondences. Thus, Trellis’s torments are an evident echo of Sweeney’s, and Trellis himself, as has been indicated earlier, is a version of the student-narrator. We are even given advance warning of Trellis’s trial quite early in the book in the form of a ‘Shorthand Note of a cross-examination of Mr Trellis at a later date. . .’One of the more reassuring ploys is the student-narrator’s comforting insistence on his own sense of confusion, which comically leads into the first of the ‘synopses’ of the action ‘FOR THE BENEFIT OF NEW READERS’ on the grounds that the narrator has himself mislaid ‘four pages of unascertained content’. This consoling sense of general and unavoidable muddle is reinforced by Brinsley’s subsequent insistence that he cannot tell the difference between Furriskey, Lamont and Shanahan, a trio who, according to Brinsley, ‘might make one man between them’. Undoubtedly, the cheerful admission from within the fabric of the fictions themselves of the near-chaos of the entire enterprise is one of the cleverest of O’Brien’s many contrivances. The book’s cat’s-cradle of cross-references and multiple openings and conclusions is signalled to us from the very first page and we are prepared for the demands the work will make on us by the early introduction of the important figure of Finn MacCool, whose highly diverting account of the doings of his companions of the Fianna are deliberately placed cheek by jowl with the drab quotidian activities of the student-narrator as he borrows small sums of money from his uncle and corresponds with dubious racing tipsters. From the beginning, the worlds of the ordinary and the extraordinary, of the contemporary and the antiquarian, of the factual and the mythological, are laminated and intermingled in the work’s heady fabric.

O’Brien’s friend and contemporary at UCD, Niall Sheridan (the ‘Brinsley’ of the novel), earned the undying gratitude of all subsequent readers by pruning the novel severely when O’Brien gave it to him for comment on its first completion. Anne Clissmann records that Sheridan cut the book by one third. Sheridan himself makes the more modest claim that he deleted a fifth. He applied his red pencil in particular to the Finn MacCool sections. Even then, only the most besotted of Flann-eurs would wish to claim that the novel {179} in its present form is altogether devoid of tedium. Sheridan might well have taken his scissors to the lengthy exchanges between the Pooka MacPhellimey and the Good Fairy, an area of the novel in which O’Brien himself may be self-consciously voicing his own awareness of the excessive verbosity of it all when he has the Good Fairy assert that ‘there is nothing so bad as the compression of fine talk that should last for six hours into one small hour’. The irony may be on the heavy side but it is amply justified.

It is in the very nature of parody that it pre-empts or obstructs criticism, since Fee parody is itself a form of criticism, constituting as it does a commentary on whatever is being parodied. At Swim-Two-Birds, whatever else it may be, is certainly a manic medley of literary styles and periods. Self-consciousness is its very raison d’etre. Yet, in the end, we must still try to define a total impression made on us by the book and, for one reader at least, the mere awareness that this novel is a deliberate flurry of literary artifice ultimately solves very little. It may be the grim bleakness of the ending, or it may be the repellent brutalities inflicted on Trellis (as on Sweeney) but, as with other works by Flann O’Brien, the final impression left on us by At Swim is not just of literary high links. The book has about it a kind of spiritual gloom which may imply some serious imbalance in its parodic details. Perhaps the Sweeney I episodes go on too long. Perhaps the cruelties practised on Trellis are overstated, or it may be that Bernard Benstock has a point when he identifies in O’Brien ‘a serious lack of commitment in any direction’. The fun is fast and furious and the author himself is heavily involved as self-proclaimed puppeteer. It is precisely because he is so involved that we feel entitled to look to him for guidance in the wild whirl of jest and contrivance. We get no such guidance and no final note of a decisive kind is struck. The book is wildly funny, often savagely cruel and, in the end, Stygian in its gloom, but it provides from within itself no containing judgement on all these ingredients. The novel’s unsettling mixture of hilarity and gloom has been noted by many commentators. In a Spectator review of the reissue, in 1960, John Coleman identified as peculiarly Irish a certain ‘distaste for life’ exhibited by such Irish writers as Swift. Joyce and Beckett, and commented further:

Mr O’Brien just misses this by holding resolutely to his norm of fantasy; the Augustan periphrasis and earthy deflations, the mock-scholastic debate of At Swim-Two-Birds result in something peculiarly wild and sweet. Only the prolonged pains inflicted on Trellis at the end begin to move the comedy on to uglier ground.

Timothy Hilton, reviewing the Penguin Modern Classics edition in 1967, noted the detailed savagery of the cruelties inflicted on the mad King Sweeney [180] in the source work, the medieval Irish poem, Bude Suibhne, which he describes as ‘a document unparalleled for the vicious oddity of its hero’s mishaps’ and, discussing O’Brien’s use of this material, he comments:

O’Brien’s sense of humour is a sharp instrument; it penetrates the myth, its inexplicable and implacable violence and desolation, leaves it intact and makes it comic ... In that myth ... O’Brien hit on precisely the subject of his best, early work, a strange union of laughter with beauty and pain.

O’Brien’s chosen weapon is irony and it is, as Benstock remarks, an irony without a centre of gravity. Benstock concedes that ‘it would be unjust to overlook Brian O’Nolan’s constant desire to set the smug world on it ear’ but accuses him of exhibiting ‘a perpetual tendency to cold feet’. This weakness Benstock ascribes to O’Nolan’s failure to achieve a Joycean distance from his target through the well-tried strategy of exile. Certainly, O’Brien would seem to have been submerged by the parochial literary world of Dublin. He early became a big fish in a small pond and subsequent circumstances trapped him for good. Thereafter, perhaps, his drinking and his journalism contributed to his gradual decline. Of all his books, perhaps, only The Third Policeman (to which Benstock scarcely does justice) achieves a genuinely organic completeness. The cyclical pattern of hellish retribution envisaged there seems to provide O’Brien with a controlling context for his wild flights of comic fantasy. This dark story of murder and retribution, a sort of Playboy of the Western World in which Christy Mahon really does murder his its and the dirty deed takes over firmly from the gallus story, seems to provide O’Brien with a tonal stablity which is lacking in some of his other works. His hilarious satire on the Irish language revival, An Beal Becht, is, for much of its short length, wildly funny but, rather like At Swim, it slumps at the end into a mood of quite another sort, when the central character, B6napart 6 Cimasa, briefly encounters his father for the very first time. The father, imprisoned for years, is now free. The son is on his way to prison. Their brief encounter has a Sisyphean horror which sorts oddly with the novel’s earlier comic scenes. The two novels which O’Brien completed later in his career, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, both leave one with a sense of dissatisfaction. In the former (pace Anthony Cronin who has described it as ‘a little, late gem’ and `an astounding little success’) the humour seems to have lost its early savour and to have deteriorated into schoolboy contrivance and heavy-handed improbability. The Emmett-like world of ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ with its quaint mechanical devices and daft inventions, although an adequate basis for the newspaper sketches, proves an uneasy novelistic ploy. The tale of Mr Colloppy and the gravid water, and the visit to the Pope, is ultimately rather [181] a stodgy sort of comedy, with the jokes proving almost as ponderous as Mr Colloppy himself. There is a failure here in the effort at blending the real and the fantastic. The Dalkey Archive, replete with bits cannibalised from the then unpublished novel, The Third Policeman, is a sad muddle. A brilliant comic opening is not sustained and the novelist’s wilder fancies founder again in a muddled adventure into realism where his imagination loses its way. Best in the end, perhaps, to recall the triumphs rather than the failures. For a bilingual writer to have left us a brilliant comic masterpiece in each of our two languages is surely reason for gratitude.


Selectd Bibliography

Related Works
The Third Policeman, completed 1940, pub. London, 1967.
An Beal Becht, Dublin, 1941. Trans., The Poor Mouth by Patrick C. Power, London,1973.
The Hard Life, London, 1961.
The Dalkey Archive, London, 1964.

BIOGRAPHY
Ciarsin O’Nualbin, Oige an Dearthur, Dublin, 1973.
Anne Clissmann, Flann O’Brien: A Critical Introduction to His Writing, Dublin, 1975.
Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter; The Life and Times o Flann O’Brien, London, 1989.

CRITICAL STUDIES
T. O’Keefe led.), Myles, London, 1973.
Ann Clissmann (see above).
Rudiger Imhof (ed.) Alive-Alive O! Flann O’Brien’s, ‘At Swim -Two-Birds’, Dublin & Totowa, 1985.

CRITICAL ARTICLES
John Wain, ‘To Write for My Own Race’, Encounter, (July 1967), 71-85.
Del Ivan Janik, ‘Flann O’Brien: The Novelist as Critic’, Eire-Ireland, iv, 4 (Winter 1969), 64-72.
Ruth apRoberts, ‘At Swim-Two-Birds and the Novel as Self-Evident Sham’, Eire-Ireland, vi, 2 (Summer 1971), 76-97. [182
Mary Power, ‘Flann O’Brien and Classical Satire’, Eire-Ireland, (Spring 1978), 87-102.
Margaret Filter, ‘Department of Interesting Authors: A Flash Through the Tunnel’, Journal of Irish Literature (Sept. 1980), 136-150.
Joseph Browne, ‘Flann O’Brien: Post Joyce or Propter Joyce?’, Eire-Ireland, (Winter 1984), 148-157.
William M. Chace, ‘Joyce and Flans O’Brien’, Eire-Ireland, (Winter 1987), 140-152.

 


 

[ back ]
 
[ top ]