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.
For better or worse O’Nolan was often at his best when writing about alcohol, as in Drink and Time in Dublin (1946). A blackly comic tale about a man who goes on the batter while his wife is out of town, it’s a Dublin drunk’s version of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.
But probably the collection’s most interesting story is John Duffy’s Brother (1940). This was written when the author was at the height of his powers, at the start of both his novel-writing and columnist careers. And although it features some of his classic elements – the masking of identity, surrealism, trains – it keeps the comedy of the situation on a much shorter lead than usual.
In believing himself to have become a steam engine, the hero may or may not be suffering a nervous breakdown. Either way, his fleeting brainstorm is no joke, even for Flann O’Brien. In an uncharacteristically sombre denouement the character emerges no longer a train but a badly frightened man .
John Duffy’s Brother will only encourage those who wonder, like Hugh Kenner, what O’Nolan might have been without the drink or the column. It is also, inter alia, a Freudian playground, with its discussion of trains – long, thunderous and immense – and tunnels and certain areas of the Phoenix Park. But its sole, overtly sexual reference is interesting for another reason too.
Hopper and Murphy use the version published in the US, which includes a line about a character forced to go to sea aged 16 as a result of an incident arising from an imperfect understanding of the sexual relation. In the censorious Ireland of 1940 such a phrase could not be used. The version published here spoke only of an imperfect understanding of the world.
The collection does not pretend to be definitive. Rather, in the editors’ phrase, it is an initial act of recovery , subject to collaborative improvement. That there is now an international army of detectives investigating the author of The Third Policeman is hinted at by some of the acknowledgments here, to postgraduate students including Tansey Tang, Esther Ng and Zhang Jieqiang.
With these and many others on the case, more breakthroughs can be expected. As the editors say, in their interim verdict on John Shamus O’Donnell: over to you, dear reader.