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
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.