Sunday, April 6, 2008

Joseph O'Neill Reviews Flann O'Brien

And so do I. Next calendar month for The Atlantic Monthly's not on line yet, but I enjoyed the photo above from my May 2008 print copy so much that I made it only my second scan ever. Fifteen minutes and hundreds of images skimmed failed to turn up this "Dublin Diversion" chestnut of an early 1950s Irish Times snapshot, so here it is, beating the magazine (perhaps?) to Net press. Joseph O'Neill, busy as his novel's out this month and he also reviewed David Park's "The Truth Commission" for the NYTBR last week, surveys in his article "The Last Laugh" more the legacy of Flann than Myles na gCopaleen or Brian O'Nolan. As my Feb. 24 blog entry linked to John Updike's New Yorker review, topped by Brian O'Toole's wonderful illustration of the author and his Trellised characters treed, today I'll elaborate on a few comments from O'Neill on O'Brien.

After reviewing his reputation and his career, placing him as the "bronze medalist" next to Joyce's gold and Beckett's silver, "the shadowy and indeed overshadowed hero of modern Irish fiction" looks like in front of the camera "like yer man without qualities." However, much as the unfortunate narrative of his life-- and of his colleague Anthony Cronin's splendid biography, "No Laughing Matter,"-- relates, O'Nolan remained lucky. His two best novels "were of an originality and durability beyond the scope of almost every other writer, no matter how committed or self-confident."

I'd agree; I re-read "Third Policeman" a couple years back in hopes of getting a conference paper on its purgatorial and limbic milieux accepted. While the organizers opted for typically post-modern ontologies rather than pre-Copernican cosmologies, the power of the novel resonated in ways that as a callow undergrad, with my NAL-Plume trade paperback with its oddly "PBS Masterpiece Theatre"-like detective show floridly hip cover, I could not have predicted. Given my doctoral dissertation on those uncertainly durable but endlessly perceived states of liminality, I now realize how prescient O'Brien had been.

As O'Neill notes, "At Swim-Two-Birds" anticipates the (unpublished during his lifetime) "Third Policeman" in such accounts of humorous terror. The creator of both works must have spent many nights up, in the dark, mulling over his mortal malaise and eternal fate. I know I do, but the distinction of O'Brien rests with his knack at making our own worries both accurately effusive and existentially reductive. While telling stories that mock philosophy, send up theology, and in the language of learning itself place depth charges in the verbose, recursive, and yammering self-pity, utter futility, and enjoyable risibility of our plight. The fact-- as O'Neill makes an aside to-- that out of the three contenders, only O'Brien stayed as they used to say in the bosom of Holy Mother Church may have exacerbated rather than eased the author's metaphysical torment. At least that's my hunch.

Although "Swim" has usually been viewed as the comic part of the diptych, the hinge that joins it to "Third" for me turns on both fiction's nihilism. O'Neill agrees. "If 'At Swim-Two-Birds' annihilates axiomatic notions of what it means to read and write, 'The Third Policeman' annihilates axiomatic notions of what it means to exist." And, decades before metafiction, structuralism, or intertextuality became staples of literary theory (let alone Derrida's Gallic ilk), there you have it with Himself.

O'Neill for my tastes quotes less than had Updike, but the Atlantic review's briefer (too much so for my wishes). Still, here's a sentence clipped from passage from "Swim" that O'Neill selects out of hundreds of possible canddiates for "affectionate, deadly renderings of petit bourgeois blather." Shanahan's on about how "the Irish race was always noted for" its leaping abilities. "Everywhere and all the time it is hats off and a gra-ma-creee to the Jumping Irishman."

As the reviewer praises, so do I the author's "extraordinarily sustained verbal and tonal control (ironic, given the novel's preoccupations)." I'm not sure how ironic, myself. Surely this control-- and not merely the intellectual stamina and structural legerdemain-- made this memorable for nearly six decades of flummoxed, chortling, and delighted readers? French 1950s dreary exercise in the nouvelle roman this ain't.

After all, it's not only the last book Joyce would "squint his way through" but one Beckett praised also from Paris-- and a lucky fluke that led in 1939 Graham Greene to be assigned to read the mss. for Longmans! Yet, as O'Neill points out, you could not have success that easily. 250 copies of his début sold. The rest of "the remaining stock being incinerated by the Luftwaffe."

O'Neill reminds us that "Third" gained a blip in pop culture for "a substantial new audience" when the paperback had a cameo two seconds on "the cult TV drama Lost." I hope it had a better cover than my 1976 edition. O'Brien as with Beckett and Joyce often has been overlooked as a fundamentally mordant humorist by many who quail at the formidable prose of all three learned Irishmen.

I see, with the past few month's encounters with blood relatives of mine, that habits that I had assumed were the mark only of middle-aged exposure to long-ago nurture can also be blamed on nature. Layne told me last night for the umpteenth time about my tendency to a mean, brittle delight in the misfortune of others, in my ingrained schadenfreude, my wish to see all others in this unfair existence I share taken down at least a peg. I could go on. She's right, of course. But, thinking about my affection for all three of these Irish writers, I also wonder if she's battling a rather disturbing yet literarily enduring self-imposed discipline.

Not getting airs above your station. (A great CD by space-rockers Kinski's titled this.) Beware of the begrudgers. Taayken' da piss owdda yiz. The Northern origins of the Strabane-born scribe also, in my opinion, deserve attention for his inbred curmudgeon disguise; O'Neill fails to mention what I wonder, given O'Brien's 1911 birth and frequent disruptions in moves and schools in his early childhood during a tumultuous dozen years, must have had a severe effect on the boy, despite his by eleven or so settling down as if a native Dub. This reminds me I must check out the work of his brother, Ciarán Ó Nualláin. His Irish-language (for the boys were raised 'as Gaeilge') 1973 short (110 pp. in English) rendering of Brian's early days, "Óige An Dearthár," has been translated by another of the clan, Niall O'Nolan, as the "Early Years" of-- all three names follow in the title.

Back into O'Neill's judgment, he puts it this way for O'Brien: "he undermined most claims to importance-- his own most assiduously of all. This creates a Flann O'Brien-worthy conundrum: How can we credit him with being a literary or philosophical radical if he had no intention of being one?" O'Brien has earlier recounted the writer's "liquid sense of reality" -- I don't think he means the Pint of Plain which is Yer Only Man but he could-- but the author's "inability to distinguish between fame and artistic success."

As John Ryan's "Remembering How We Stood" and Cronin's "Dead as Doornails" (both on Amazon US reviewed by me) recount dreadfully, O'Brien sank his energy, after "Third" failed to gain a publisher, largely into his "Cruiskeen Lawn" column. His journalistic output might be compared to our own time's witty blogger who never gets recognition as a respectable author. I can relate. (Although the "Things White People Like" creator's shot to late-night talk-show fame, pundit lifts, Internet buzz, and lucrative-- at least more than O'Nolan earned in his mid-century digs-- book contract in a few weeks. Conan as opposed to Flann O'Brien.)

Concluding, Flann O'Brien's seen as prescient in his theoretical concerns and as one "who wanted us to see through Brian O'Nolan and his hard-boiled Dublin dismissiveness, to see beyond the local legend of wasted talent. He wanted us to see Flann O'Brien: Why, otherwise, would we have bothered with him at all?" The genius, the reviewer says of his subject, rests on at least 2:5 of the works in the Everyman's Library collection, "The Complete Novels." Maybe there's hope for a reflexively dismissive fellow like me. Posthumously, will anyone find this blog in cyberspace and resurrect my reputation?

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