Making Sense of Nonsense and 'Assembling Flann O'Brien'

Given Brian O'Nolan and his sly guises, one must wonder what this erudite satirist makes of this posthumous tribute to his tetchy talents.

Assembling Flann O'Brien

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Length: 256 pages
Author: Maebh Long
Price: $32.50
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-02

This Irish writer combined Joyce's wordplay with Beckett's astringency. However, Brian O'Nolan chose to remain in the nation that his literary forebears fled. Under the guises of Myles na gCopaleen (Myles of the Little Horses) most famously, and eight others (one his given name) by which his fragmented narratives emanated in novels, journalism, and sketches, O'Nolan "assembled" his writing "as a performance of conjunction and interruption, quotation and pastiche". He resisted Ireland; it may have worn him out. His "anarchic and sprawling corpus of work" in Maebh Long's study merits the attention granted earlier to other Irish writers. Marshaling the academic's array of critical faculties and philosophical applications, Assembling Flann O'Brien neither reviews his life (see Anthony Cronin's 1989 biography No Laughing Matter) nor his works.

Judging that others have long since completed preliminary surveys, Long takes up each of O'Brien's major works topically. She expects readers will be familiar with each, so this is not a book for a beginner. She begins with the fragments comprising the intricate layers of At Swim-Two-Birds (1939; Joyce provided a blurb for it), which sends up medieval Irish-language tales, contemporary Irish identity, the writing of stories within stories, and digressions that delay any resolution of many sundered plots. It's more fun than Long's scholarly mien may betray, but as she shows, it ridicules the Catholic, Gaelic, republican, and patriotic notions of O'Brien's homeland as it struggled to make sense of nonsense, so abundant in this civil servant's scrupulous eye, as he wrote under one of many guises.

To take one of many "fragments of palimpsests", the novel satirizes the Irish Republic's obsession with procreation, but as O'Brien worked for the government and needed discretion, he subverts the official policies with a fictional scenario of rape, masturbation, non-procreative heterosexual sex, and grim marriage to skirt censorship while pretending to celebrate the values of his nation's prudery. Long focuses on eugenics and O'Brien's treatment of gender, subjects overlooked by many of his previous scholars and critics, who have concentrated on this novel's post-modern structure and wit. This section draws on Friedrich Schlegel, Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot, Engels, and Nietzsche, indicative of the range and determination Long brings to place O'Brien within intellectual contexts.

That first novel preceded closely The Third Policeman which, while written in 1939-1940 was not published until 1968, two years after the author's death from alcoholism. "Desire and the death drive" repeat in uncanny, ghostly spaces and infernal circles in this repetitive tale. O'Brien's "modernist hell" keeps happening, as demonic power rather than divine fuels this dark energy, until the unnamed narrator's death cannot extricate him, "as a phantasm within himself". Jacques Lacan's split subject of the unconscious as a "no-thing" receives in this novel its representation.

Freud and Slavoj Žižek expound on the drives generating desire, in Long's reading fitting the narrator's and the narrative's pursuit of a black box. It contains "omnium" as an "unutterable substance" -- a thing of destruction, and a power rivaling that of God. Time, space, the libido, and eternity loom as the novel continues. So do bicycles and more rape, and while this short review cannot summarize this complex plot, Long follows its fearful deeds and mechanical revelations into a common experience of disappointment. "There is no tragedy in O'Nolan's works-- his heroes are both too blind and too self-involved."

Repetition returns in O'Nolan's deft end-up of his nation's other, native (and technically "official") language, Irish, in which he was far more fluent than most of his Civil Service comrades (who had to prove an ability to use what many of them might secretly have despised but which quite a few idolized as a symbol of the Irish Republic's ethos). In An Béal Bocht ("The Poor Mouth"; 1941; translated 1973), Long opens with Marx's quote about Hegel that history repeats "the first time as high tragedy, the second time as low farce." It's appropriate for a novel that savagely mocks the laments of poverty that Irish schoolchildren were made to study, accounts of real destitution, but by the time they were mandated as set-texts for the classroom, narratives that smacked more of sodden irrelevance than tragic immediacy.

In his columns titled Cruiskeen Lawn and in this, O'Brien novel challenged the early '40s attempt to revive an Irish Ireland that never existed. Using a stage Irishman whom himself never existed, "we begin in the midst of a cycle of rain, potatoes, hardship and lamentation". The noble savage turns reductio ad absurdam as Irish life turns into hyperbole.

This is again complex material; Long links the Irish-language struggle for its own survival with O'Nolan's parody of this, with a well-known 1882 trial at Maamtrasna of an Irish-only speaker who was convicted of murder by an English-only judge and jury, and with Brian Friel's Translations drama. This chapter, which addresses in turn the novel's English translation with its own tension, flows more accessibly even if the Irish-language snippets are translated only in endnotes. This slight, subtle remove, on the other hand, reminds English-only readers today of the same gaps which the Irish nation continues to epitomize, between an idealized but racist past and a present with a threatened language that transmits much of its heritage and its identity, as its increasingly diverse citizens and immigrants create a multilingual within an English-dominant, globalized future there.

Women never had it well, it seems in this Ireland of fact or fiction, and The Hard Life (1962) captures the relegation legalized by the Irish Republic of women to domestic duties in its constitution. The vexed and vexing issue of Irish attitudes towards sexuality underlies or undermines this outlook. Long avers that "it is hardly surprising that the women and domestic spaces within O'Nolan's works are highly problematic, exhibiting a sustained, misogynistic distaste, escalating in The Hard Life to palpable disgust." As that novel puts it: "They have only two uses for women, Father-- either go to bed with them or else thrash the life out of them." Long gives short shrift to any defense of him for his chauvinism, discrimination, and his xenophobia.

More misogyny returns, in the "archival fantasies" rummaged and raided for O'Nolan's final, but disordered and abstracted 1964 novel, The Dalkey Archive. Personally, I find its digressions and conversations sometimes intriguing, but critics justifiably rank it far inferior to both Swim and Third. From the latter novel, De Selby returns, and so do Joyce and St. Augustine, the two altered markedly.

Long maps out this final novel's ransacking of Third and its appropriation of Augustine for similarly strange purposes, as the mysteries of God and of life are plumbed, literally, by removing oxygen from the atmosphere, tellingly, to reveal the presence or absence of a Creator within time and space. Heady stuff for a short narrative; but as in the previous novel, so again: radical or "anarchival" change halts.

After chartingO'Nolan's barbs against Jesuits and Joyceans, both targets for abundant satire, Maebh Long concludes her critique by recalling how this final novel "reveals not a single identity, but a man who, by dint of his own fixation with pseudonyms, is multiple and split. Brian O'Nolan is not a stable origin of a multitude, but a fragmentary host of a fragmentary corpus, at times brilliant, at times prosaic, but worthy of a place among the greats of the twentieth cent[ury], and the acclaim he desired and yet deprecated." By elevating him this high, Long encourages more scholarship. Given O'Nolan and his sly guises, one must wonder what this erudite satirist makes of this posthumous tribute to his tetchy talents.


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