The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien, edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper
Reviewed by Frank McNally
The Short Fiction of Flann O'Brien
Flann O'Brien, Neil Murphy, Keith Hopper
Dalkey Archive Press
Most of the material collected in The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien is not, in any sense, new. But for many readers, familiar only with his novels and the anthologised Irish Times columns, it may be the next best thing.
Some of the works here were first published in obscure places, or in Irish only. A few are making their debut in book form. And one, a story called Naval Control, might even be considered properly new, in the sense that nobody has previously attributed it to the multiple-pseudonymous writer born Brian O’Nolan.
The discovery, if it is one, was made accidentally by the translator of the Irish stories, Jack Fennell, whose suspicions were aroused by several things suggesting it as an early Flann O’Brien piece, including the genre – comic science fiction – and the author’s alleged name.
John Shamus O’Donnell is elsewhere unknown to literature and sounds as if he might be related to Jams O’Donnell, the hapless hero of An Béal Bocht. But the editors stop short, for now, of formally adding him to the O’Nolan franchise. The story is included here as an appendix.
For the rest, provenance is well established. Indeed several of the stories can be seen as preliminary sketches for more famous longer works. The Tale of Black Peter, for example, published in Irish when O’Nolan was 22, is a breezy three-page version of the idea later fully exploited as The Poor Mouth.
Scenes in a Novel, written under his student pseudonym, Brother Barnabus, toys with the notion of fictional characters plotting against their creator, a theme that became central to At Swim-Two-Birds. And a story called Two in One has a man being tried for his own murder – a typically O’Brienesque fate, not unlike that of the nameless narrator in The Third Policeman.
In fact, the synopsis of Two in One was first outlined in Cruiskeen Lawn, the voracious Irish Times column blamed by some for robbing O’Brien of the impetus that might otherwise have produced more books. But in this case at least he reclaimed the idea, embellished it for the Bell and in the process turned a comic sketch into a work of Gothic horror that could sit alongside anything by Poe.
Not all the stories are as well worked out. This is a collection of the good, the bad and the merely quirky. Thus among the things that mark Naval Control as a likely O’Nolan work are its structural faults. For no good reason the story is outlined in a series of letters – itself one of his trademarks – or in dispatches set in the present, with awkward time lapses, like diary entries.
It’s as if the author hadn’t yet worked out how to use the past tense effectively. And maybe be hadn’t: if it really was him, he was only 21 at the time. Yet the same faults emerge in the flawed ending of his late-career novel The Hard Life. And also included in this collection are the beginnings of the even later, unfinished novel Slattery’s Sago Saga, which don’t inspire confidence that the author could have resolved that outlandish plot either.