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13 June 2018updated 15 Jun 2018 1:51pm

Flann O’Brien: the demon jester of Dublin

The collected letters of O’Brien shed a new light on the man behind the dazzling satirical novels.  

By Jonathan Coe

Brian O’Nolan wrote under many pseudonyms, the most famous two being Flann O’Brien and Myles na Gopaleen. Born in Strabane, County Tyrone in 1911, he was the third child in a family of 12 – seven boys and five girls. He grew up in an educated, literary family (his father was a customs and excise officer but also an unpublished novelist), was schooled at the prestigious Blackrock College, and then entered University College, Dublin, where he quickly made a name for himself as a brilliant debater and college wit. He was known for his keen sense of the absurd and a fearful talent for well-aimed ridicule, although early friends and family members recall that, in private conversation, he could be reserved and introverted.

O’Nolan entered the civil service in 1935, then suffered a severe blow when his father died relatively young and left him with the task of supporting his many siblings. None of which deterred him, in his late twenties – just at the outbreak of the Second World War – from manifesting an eruption of comic genius and writing three magnificent novels in rapid succession: At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman and, in Irish, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth). This trio should immediately have cemented his reputation as the funniest and most gifted Irish writer of his generation. However, a number of factors conspired to prevent it from happening.

At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) was, perhaps, simply ahead of its time. While Joyce was still labouring to complete his second great modernist novel, Finnegans Wake, O’Nolan had already invented postmodernism. His dizzying, self-referential and self-parodying nest of novels-within-novels, sprinkled with doses of Irish mythology and thick with the texture of Dublin student life, both announced the start of a dazzling career and made it impossible: this head-spinning entertainment was a lethal anti-novel, which closed off the possibilities of the form instead of opening them up. An Béal Bocht (1941), a savage (but also affectionate) parody of rural Irish misery memoirs, was not translated for many years, so its genius remained undiscoverable for many readers.

The worst fate, however, befell The Third Policeman (1967). How to characterise this book? A surreal murder mystery, perhaps. Or Alice in Wonderland relocated to an eccentric police station in rural Ireland. Its narrator is also a killer who discovers at the moment of committing his crime that the known laws of the physical universe no longer apply. It’s a novel in which there are no women but many bicycles. Tautly and exquisitely written, very funny but also slightly insane and terrifying, O’Nolan’s undoubted masterpiece was rejected by his publishers and, mortified, he put the manuscript in a drawer and denied all knowledge or memory of it for the rest of his life. Its rejection by Longman’s (“We realise the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this new novel he is more so”) and four other London houses must rank as one of the most disastrous collective literary decisions of the 20th century.

Often compared to Swift for his expressions of lofty scorn and bodily disgust, O’Nolan also shared Swift’s mischievous enthusiasm for anonymous and pseudonymous paper wars. His attention caught by a correspondence on the letters page of the Irish Times between Seán Ó’Faoláin and Frank O’Connor about recent productions at the Abbey Theatre, O’Nolan waded in under a variety of noms de plume and made relentless fun of both of them. One year later, in the summer of 1940, he was at it again, news of poor attendance at a Gate Theatre production of The Three Sisters prompting a string of pseudonymous letters claiming acquaintance with the greats of Scandinavian drama and offering facetious anecdotes about them. Off the back of these, he was offered a regular column in the Irish Times, and thus his new persona was born: Myles na Gopaleen – polymath, pedant, sworn enemy of cliché and dispenser of arrogant wisdom on every subject from Ezra Pound to the running of steam trains.

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The column, which was called “Cruiskeen Lawn” and ran for more than 20 years, brought O’Nolan fame in Ireland and abroad (it drew extravagant praise from both SJ Perelman and James Thurber). But the perceived failure of his novels, his descent into journalism and the wearying demands of his day job made him bitter. One column late in the run contains a cruel and upsetting self-portrait: “Ah-ha, the old sow-faced cod, the funny man, clicking out his dreary blob of mirthless trash. The crude grub-glutted muck-shuffler slumped on his hack chair, lolling his dead syrup eyes through other people’s books to lift some lousy joke. Observe the grey pudgy hand faltering upon the type-keys…” O’Nolan’s alcohol consumption became prodigious.

Redemption of sorts came many years later (probably too late), in 1959, with a letter from a deus ex machina by the name of Timothy O’Keeffe, a young editor at MacGibbon & Kee who was a great fan of O’Nolan’s forgotten debut and wanted to reissue it. The reissue was a success and provoked his long-overdue return to the novel form. The Hard Life (1961) would be followed by The Dalkey Archive (1964). Midway through composing a sixth novel, provisionally entitled Slattery’s Sago Saga, O’Nolan – whose health had been appalling for many years – made the latest in a series of distressing hospital visits and never returned. He died while suffering cancer of the pharynx on 1 April 1966.

One year later The Third Policeman was finally published, and O’Nolan’s reputation has been snowballing ever since. A healthy industry of critics and commentators has sprouted around him, there have been at least seven anthologies of his journalism, and Dalkey Archive Press has done wonders in bringing even more of his work into print, with recent editions of the complete short fiction, plays and teleplays and now this splendid collection of correspondence.

O’Nolan’s letters really fall into three distinct phases. There is the ebullient, inventive first phase, from the late Thirties and early Forties, where the ones written for publication are especially delightful. His appropriately saturnine biographer, Anthony Cronin, wrote of these letters that, “It cannot be said that they read hilariously now.” Maybe I just have a childish sense of humour but, au contraire, these pompous, self-aggrandising fantasies of literary house parties where the guests include Conrad and Swinburne, and the vain Henrik Ibsen has to have his toupee fished out of the soup with a “finely-wrought toasting fork”, had me roaring with laughter. Similarly, the insults hurled at Ó’Faoláin and O’Connor are masterly, particularly the suggestion that the former, as a self-proclaimed artist of the highest calibre, “might consider presenting the pants of his discarded pyjamas to the nation”, and the finely judged offer of meeting for a fist fight “behind the fives court”, a challenge which O’Nolan riffs on again and again with cumulative comic effect.

We then get the rather dry (unfortunate word, in the circumstances) spell of the 1950s, until the rescue by O’Keeffe and the start of the third phase: that is, the last five years of correspondence, occupying more than half of the present volume. These pages will be of most interest to O’Nolan scholars, shining as they do many shafts of light upon the composition of The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, as well as providing a good deal of insight into the nuts and bolts of the literary industry in the early 1960s.

Tonally, however, there is nothing very attractive about this late correspondence. The blurb on the back of the book tells us that it reveals O’Nolan “at his most cantankerous and unrestrained”. To which the answer might be, “You say that like it’s a good thing.” Those severe early disappointments, and the almost 20 years of neglect and frustration that followed, had corrosive effects. While basking in the renewed popularity of At Swim-Two-Birds (and a letter from Graham Greene which called it “one of the best books of the century”), O’Nolan himself could not slough off the protective skin of loathing for the novel that he had come to affect, calling it “juvenile trash” that he held in the “highest detestation”.

Worse still, he refuses to make any mention of The Third Policeman, or even acknowledge that the manuscript still exists, when it’s clear that poor O’Keeffe is gagging to publish it. Instead, he surreptitiously digs the manuscript out and starts to self-plagiarise it, filleting out the best bits and recycling them in The Dalkey Archive: as Cronin put it, this was “mining a masterwork to produce the dull dross of a tired and inferior one”. Meanwhile, he finds it hilarious that the principal question the new book will raise is, “Was St Augustine a nigger?” (Maebh Long writes in a footnote, with tactful understatement, “O’Nolan’s views on race in this regard unquestionably disappoint”), and yearns for the cachet of having both it and The Hard Life banned, even though the taboos and heresies they toy with seem remarkably timid.

A recurring complaint is that publishers and agents are swindlers while writers are underpaid. Of course, O’Nolan was not the first author to feel this way. He had a lively contempt for academe, critics and bookchat generally, and one of the (many) things he mocked about James Joyce was the fact that his books had won him a reverential cult rather than a mass audience. You would expect O’Nolan to be in awe of Ulysses but in fact his touchstone for literary success turns out to have been Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, a book that “keeps me awake at night sometimes – I mean, the quantity of potatoes earned by the talented lady novelist”.

Even in his final years he was dreaming of similar success, assuring anyone who would listen that Slattery’s Sago Saga was certain to break him into the American market and be made into a film by John Ford or “my pal” John Huston. Many of Myles na Gopaleen’s pronouncements in “Cruiskeen Lawn” were marked by a similar braggadocio. But Myles, after all, was a persona and in any case the tone has changed: a layer of disarming irony has vanished, and we have the worrying sense now that O’Nolan really means it. This is the key difference between the early letters and the later ones – and the early and later novels. It’s not that he loses his sense of humour, just that the laughter becomes curiously joyless. It feels acrid and jaundiced.

Well, perhaps we should make allowances for his poor health, his almost permanent drunkenness, and the fact most writers are inclined to take umbrage when their earlier works are more highly praised than their current ones. O’Nolan remains an enigma: he lived for most of his adult years in a stable and childless marriage, and while these letters throw no light on his romantic or sexual life (if any), they bring us as close as we ever seem likely to get to a revealing self-portrait. Too close for comfort, at some points.

Maebh Long and Dalkey Archive Press are nevertheless to be congratulated for this fine edition. If they now have the time and resources to devote to the last great remaining task in O’Nolan studies – a full scholarly edition of “Cruiskeen Lawn”  – then that would be, as The Third Policeman’s MacCruiskeen would put it, the supreme pancake. 

Jonathan Coe’s new novel “Middle England” will be published by Viking in November

The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien
Edited by Maebh Long
Dalkey Archive Press, 672pp, £19.55

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This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?