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Is anyone else reading Flann O'Brien?


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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 03 December 2009 - 08:30 PM

I ask because I have been reading him recently, having picked up the Everyman's Library edition of his complete novels, the five of which only total about 800 pages.

He is wonderful. Very funny--the more one knows about Ireland and the Irish the more hilarious his work becomes but it is hardly necessary to have even heard of Ireland to enjoy his writing. "At Swim-To-Birds" may be the first post-modern novel (unless one counts "Tristam Shandy").

This is from a NYRB review by Fintan O'Toole:

"It is a book by a man (Brian O'Nolan) who invents an author (Flann O'Brien) who is writing a book about an unnamed student narrator who is writing a book about a man (Dermot Trellis) who is writing a book. The narrator openly declares that "a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham" and that "the modern novel should be largely a work of reference," since virtually all characters have already been invented. Its governing caprice is that fictional characters do in fact already exist, have independent lives, and are capable of revolting against the author who seeks to deploy them."

I was reminded of "Molloy" by Samuel Beckett while reading "At Swim" although probably because I expected or even wanted O'Brien to be linked to one of the certified recent geniuses of Irish letters--O'Brien doesn't need any validation other than his work, though.

In "The Poor Mouth", which is a commentary on and vicious satire of the movement that romanticized the Gaels of western Ireland--people who were desperately poor and who would stay that way because they remained an agrarian, non-English speaking remnant of a golden age of Gaelic language and culture that may never have existed. The Gaels live with swine in their huts, it rains constantly and potatoes are boiled and served at seemingly every meal. (One of the insults that I recall my parents and their parents using toward “those other people” was “pig in the parlor Irish” which finally made sense while reading “The Poor Mouth”).

The narrator and his family live in a "small, unhealthy, lime-white house, situated at the corner of the glen” because all true Gaels live in such a house. “If there were a hundred corners in all that glen, there was a small, lime-white cabin nestling in each one”.

At seven years old he goes off to school where the master asks “Phwat is yer nam?”. When he realizes that “Your name he wants”, our protagonist begins “Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen...” and on for a few lines. But before he has even “half-uttered” his name, he is smashed on the head by the master who is wielding a large oar. As he loses consciousness he can hear the master scream: “Yer nam is Jams O’Donnell!”. It turns out that all the young Gaelic men are called Jams O’Donnell by English speakers..

O’Brien is completely scornful of those who celebrate the backward Gaels including a man from Dublin who arrives with a gramophone to record the speech of the locals. He has no success until he accidentally winds up recording the “speech” of a pig dressed as a man. This gentleman then takes his recording to Berlin, where he is given a “fine academic degree”.

I am reading “The Poor Mouth” which is subtitled “A Bad Story About the Hard Life” now and trying to read it slowly since it is a short book and full of delight on every page. I don’t want it to end.

#2 dirac

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 10:07 AM

Thank you for posting, Ed. O'Brien, or Brian O'Nolan, his real name as you know, got a bit of a boost from the television show Lost, which I have never seen but I understand his novel The Third Policeman was mentioned regularly on it. Policeman is my favorite of his books, not as spectacular as At-Swim-Two-Birds but deeper, I think, and less insular and reliant on knowledge of Irish culture and myth for its effects. ASTB is definitely the place to start, though. Unfortunately ASTB painted him into a corner aesthetically - he could never follow it up. His is a story of talent wasted in some respects, although two classic novels are nothing to sneeze at.

ASTB also received James Joyce's only blurb.

#3 kfw

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 12:31 PM

I tried reading The Dalkey Archive a few years ago after a trip to Ireland, but I'm afraid it didn't grab me.

#4 dirac

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 02:44 PM

You're quite right, The Dalkey Archive is indeed a very weak effort, although O'Nolan /O'Brien borrowed heavily from the unpublished The Third Policeman to write it, so -- depending, of course, on what it was that put you off -- I wouldn't judge him by that particular book.



#5 kfw

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Posted 04 December 2009 - 08:39 PM

You're quite right, The Dalkey Archive is indeed a very weak effort, although O'Nolan /O'Brien borrowed heavily from the unpublished The Third Policeman to write it, so -- depending, of course, on what it was that put you off -- I wouldn't judge him by that particular book.

Good to know. Thank you.

#6 vagansmom

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Posted 09 December 2009 - 11:21 AM

Ed, thank you, thank you, thank you! I now know who I'm going to read over the holiday break from school. :( I've spent my adult life amongst the Irish (in America, mostly, but sometimes Ireland), and am always looking for a new-to-me Irish author.

Also, I had such a good laugh reading the name of one of O'Brien's books - At Swim Two Birds. Last year I read Irish author Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys, so now of course I am wondering if there's anything besides the title of O'Brien's book that links the two works.

I'm looking forward to these books - thanks for making my day!

#7 Ed Waffle

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Posted 10 December 2009 - 05:06 PM

vagansmom wrote:

Also, I had such a good laugh reading the name of one of O'Brien's books - At Swim Two Birds. Last year I read Irish author Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys, so now of course I am wondering if there's anything besides the title of O'Brien's book that links the two works


What did you think of "At Swim, Two Boys"? I had it in my hand the other day at Barnes and Noble then decided not to get it because I had already selected a stack of books. The back cover copy sounded intriguing, as did the brief author's biography--working as a night porter at a London psychiatric institution for ten years while working on the book.

#8 vagansmom

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Posted 10 December 2009 - 09:52 PM

I loved it, Ed. Lots going on inside those pages. It portrays a childhood friendship between two boys that deepens into love, and gives us a solid Irish history lesson (Easter Uprising), portraying class differences marvelously, especially through one character who is beset by personalities speaking inside his mind (O'Neill's 10 years at the psyche ward put to good use). I especially loved that character, a fellow whom I initially found repugnant. In some ways, his character is the glue holding the novel together.

A friend loaned me the book; she had said it was the best contemporary novel she'd read in years. It's beautiful, rich, funny and tender prose. She knew that, because I'm surrounded by all things Irish, I'd want to read it. What she didn't expect was how much fun it was for me! There's lots of Irish humor here. O'Neill knows his Irish music history: many, many song and dance references are worked humorously into the novel. It's an extra spark for people like me who live and breathe Irish music history. But since my friend has no knowledge of Irish music and still considered it her favorite novel of late (and she's a prolific reader), one certainly doesn't need to get all those references to enjoy it.

I hope you pick it up.

#9 Ed Waffle

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Posted 21 December 2009 - 07:53 PM

No Laughing Matter: The life & Times of Flann O'Brien by Anthony Cronin.

Cronin is a sympathetic by not sycophantic biographer. He is well situated--a friend of Flann O'Brien from their days at University College, Dublin, a member of the Irish literary establishment who has done what O'Brien always desired--made a good living from writing.

O'Brien's story is not a happy one as depicted by Cronin. He supported his widowed mother and his many siblings (including a couple of of older brothers) from the time his father died, joined the Civil Service and over time rose to senior status. He married late--not unusual in Ireland and began his own family. He spent much of his free time, along with an increasing amount of time for which he was paid by the Civil Service) in various literary pubs around Dublin. He was a serious, committed alcoholic in a time and place where that was less of a handicap than it is now.

Ireland was a European backwater during O'Brien's life. They were neutral during World War II--monstrous as that may seem in retrospect it made a certain amount of sense given the revulsion felt toward England and the Empire--and were kept out of the United Nations until 1956. Its social and, to a great extent, cultural life was dictated by the Roman Catholic Church. Those great Irish writers of the past century or so: Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, Yeats were known as exiles or at least expatriates. For a writer, it seemed, Ireland was a good place to be from.

Cronin not only knows his subject but writes very well. He is given to the occasional outlandish statement, for example "Like most Irish Catholics of his generation he was a medieval Thomist in his attitude toward many things, including scientific speculation and discovery," although Cronin goes on to explain how a very Irish form of the thought of Aquinas was transmitted through the Irish Christian Brothers.

While not a "life and works", Cronin does a very good job of summarizing and commenting on Flann O'Brien's novels.


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