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Flann O'Brien and His Various Personae Had an Innate Faculty for Finding Things Funny

Ireland's clerical and lay authorities, humbugs and scolds, and the dull "plain people" were not safe from Flann O'Brien's many sharp pens.

Flann O'Brien and Modernism

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 248 pages
Author: Julian Murphet, Ronan McDonald, Sascha Morrell
Price: $29.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-08

The Irish writer born as Brian Ó Nualláin, and best known under one of his many assumed names as Flann O'Brien, has long been championed as a harbinger of post-modernism. Literary scholars scrutinized his life as a Dublin newspaperman and his relatively few fictional publications as proof of his eccentric genius, if, as a talent overshadowed by a predecessor he both cultivated and resented, James Joyce.

Their conventional wisdom lamented Brian O'Nolan the journalist/ O'Brien the fabulist as succumbing to ennui, drink, and hackwork, squandering subversive skills premiered in the novels At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman at the end of the '30s. His modernist credentials, by contrast, have often been diminished.

So claim the 14 participants from a University of New South Wales seminar commemorating the 2011 centenary of O'Brien's birth. Choosing not to focus on his life as Brian O'Nolan but on his works under many names, usually that of Flann O'Brien, professors expand their papers into academic essays. As with Maebh Long's Assembling Flann O'Brien (see my 14 April 2014 review, "http://www.popmatters.com/review/180617-assembling-flann-obrien-by-maebh-long/">"Making Sense of Nonsense") from the same publisher earlier this year, a reader may wonder what the author, who so gleefully and bitterly lampooned scholarship, would make of so many studious, posthumous tributes.

As co-editor, Rónán McDonald explains that Brian O'Nolan's works elude genre conventions. O'Nolan's refusal to stay pinned down transcends his career as a civil servant in Dublin during the middle of the last century. His occupation impelled his taking on other names to disguise his mockery of the Irish government, its bureaucracy, and their mission to make the Irish language one that English-speaking natives would be compelled to learn.

Furthermore, O'Brien, who as Myles na gCopaleen also penned witty columns for the Irish Times, ridiculed his nation's clerical and lay authorities, the humbugs and scolds around him, and the dull "Plain People of Ireland". He refined this raw material by savage wit.

McDonald introduces his essay on The Third Policeman's nihilism by summing him up: "His views and attitudes are shrouded in irony, ambiguity, linguistic play, ingenious obfuscation. There is abundant satire in his novels, as in his journalism, though the po-faced scholasticism of Flann contrasts with the populist posture of Myles. He lampoons patriotic Gaels in An Béal Bocht, the mythologies of the Irish Revival in At Swim-Two-Birds, finicky academicians in The Third Policeman." He loved to put down pretentiousness, but he shied away from confrontation. Flann was more bold than Myles; his various personae masked his eccentricities even as they encouraged them.

Certainly, as contributors emphasize, O'Brien's disguises allowed him to sidle into arcane and odd controversies, which he incorporated into his experimental fiction. Sean Pryor examines the influence of St. Augustine, and how good needs evil so that God's creations can appreciate better their happy times; John Attridge compliments this approach with a study of O'Brien's use of Augustine of Hippo. He is a central character as is Joyce, both in altered form, in O'Brien's last novel, The Dalkey Archive, published two years before O'Nolan's death in 1966. Augustinian notions of "sociable lies" reveal a slippery quality, in ethics as well as characterization, which warps scholastic satire into twisted plots.

Instability inspires the next three essays. Stefan Solomon investigates the relative failure of O'Brien's theatrical efforts to convey what in At Swim-Two-Birds succeeded as a subversive revolt of its tetchy characters against their scheming author. Solomon and Stephen Abbitt, regarding Flann's tribute to and travesty of James Joyce, agree that O'Brien emerges as a "reluctant modernist", contrary to most academic predecessors who have preferred to situate him among post-modernist literary pioneers.

However, as David Kelly insists, O'Nolan's many guises shared an "innate faculty for finding things funny", anticipating the post-modernist, mid-20th century "literature of exhaustion". Flann's repetition of his material attests to his living late enough to deal with the trauma of the past century in a more detached, obsessive, and playful manner. After all, he did not have to relive the difficulties of the early century, Kelly avers.

In his ludicrous and bizarre creations, Flann is instead a harbinger of his century's "generational shift" away from recreating torment. Instead, post-modernist authors tend to mock, invert, and tease the pain of isolation and the power of obsession, through parody or irony.

These selections examine certain works from O'Nolan's varieties of names and works, but they bypass many others. The three novels cited above by McDonald garner most attention, but The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor (1961), considered his weakest novel, gets only two asides. As with another under-examined context, Myles' prolific newspaper columns, a study of the strained attempts at satire in O'Nolan's later career, writing as Flann, might have balanced the general acclaim granted by contributors to his successful works. One needs to know where and how O'Nolan lost the plot, modernist or otherwise.

The next set of entries roam into the linguistic methods employed by Flann O'Brien. Maebh Long repeats some material from her recent book. She focuses here upon An Béal Bocht, to show how Flann's use of the Irish language addresses, or subverts, vexing preoccupations of naming and identity among conflicting Irish-speaking cohorts. Long compares Patrick Powers' 1973 translation as The Poor Mouth of this novel, written by Myles na gCopaleen; her essay ends a bit eccentrically, if fittingly for this material, which evades cohesion even for the Irish-fluent reader, undoubtedly as its intention.

A peer of O'Nolan's, the poet Patrick Kavanagh, also jeered at the Irish government's propaganda about the doughty Gaelic peasant. Joseph Brooker compares Kavanagh's approach with O'Brien's. Kavanagh and O'Brien's predecessors, Samuel Beckett and Joyce, connect via O'Nolan's marginalia in his copies of their works, as Dirk Van Hulle explains. These authors share an interest in parallax, "Chinese boxes" as nested narratives, and regression in theme and structure in their literary creations.

Regression and mathematical patterns via numerology in At Swim-Two-Birds, as Baylee Brits demonstrates, document O'Brien's scientific and technological interests, in the next section of essays. The coupling of mechanical devices and eerie inventions within The Third Policeman, as McDonald shows, represents darker corners of O'Brien's textual labyrinths, which continue to disorient readers.

The pull into infinity and regression reveals the abysmal and the dismal; co-editor Julian Murphet charts the tension between Myles the journalist and Flann the fabulist as he conjures up pataphysics and other esoteric send-ups of rational analysis, within O'Brien's fictions exposing a psychic death drive. The compulsions many of his characters exhibit pushes their pursuits beyond entertainment.

This aspect, the haunted quality within this troubled writer, does not earn the biographical context which Anthony Cronin's 1989 biography, No Laughing Matter, treated with compassion and insight. However, readers familiar with O'Brien's life and works already (a prerequisite, as little more than a nod to this background is given by the contributors or editors) will learn from Sam Dickson about Flann's propensity for fictions full of "hard drink".

This compliments co-editor Sascha Morrell's congenial foray, as she aligns O'Brien's treatment of alcohol with the Australian writer Frank Moorhouse's The Electrical Experience: A Discontinuous Narrative( 1974), about a soft drink maker Down Under. Culture and commodity feature here and in the final two, atypically off-beat (even by O'Nolan's standards) essays revealing Flann's range and curiosity.

Mark Steven examines "aestho-autonomy" through At Swim-Two-Birds' Dermot Trellis. Trellis seeks solitude, to pursue masturbation. Steven frames this ambition as a "formal and narrative act", thus indicative of the political and economic stagnation in the post-independence Irish Free State for which O'Nolan labored. Physical exertion, onanism, gender roles, and male potency also seeped into none other than the bicycle seat, as that machine and its rider merged, in O'Brien's The Third Policeman in forms that this short review cannot elucidate.

Suffice to say that these learned essays may encourage the reader to take O'Brien down from the bookshelf. After perusing the ruminations of a coterie of his critics, why not enter, for the first time or another time, into the fictions of Flann O'Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, and various odd characters his writer wrote as, and about? The Irish labyrinth awaits you.


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