Flann O’Brien: Man of (many) letters, man of many masks
Maebh Long on the writer Flann O’Brien’s riotous letters to the press
'We see the lines that demarcate Brian O’Nolan from Myles na gCopaleen shift and fade, as the man from Strabane frequently wrote with the irritation and hauteur of the Sage of Santry.'
A fact insufficiently reflected upon is that the first published piece signed by ‘Flann O’Brien’ was not in 1939, on the cover of the novel At Swim-Two-Birds. It was in 1938, and it was a letter.
In October 1938, in the Letters to the Editor section of The Irish Times, Seán Ó Faoláin and Frank O’Connor were deliberating about ideal practices for Irish theatre when a new correspondent asked if ‘the petulant bickering’ between them was ‘a private affair or whether any puling high-brow gentleman of refined tastes’ could take part.
Without waiting for a response, the new interlocutor, one Flann O’Brien of Dublin, proceeded to ridicule the previously earnest discussion, goading Ó Faoláin and O’Connor in letters across The Irish Times and the Irish Independent until, in January 1939, O’Brien suggested that they replace pens with fists and meet for a fight behind the fives court. Ó Faoláin asked that the ‘Man in the Gaelic Mask’ breathe through his nose to shut his month; O’Connor demanded that O’Brien provide them with his address.
Brian O’Nolan began his creative career in 1922, at the age of 11, when he and his brother Ciarán drew illustrated ‘films’ that they projected onto the garage wall using a lens, a lamp and paraffin-soaked paper. Rather later, in 1940, Myles na gCopaleen became the name behind the Cruiskeen Lawn, but it was in letters that Flann O’Brien found his first home in print.
Between 1938 and 1941 the letters pages of The Irish Times, Irish Independent, and Irish Press were home to sprawling, excessive, delighted debates about art, literature, theatre, Irish language and identity, the boy scouts, sewerage, garden parties with literary greats, Ibsen’s wig, and Conrad’s gender. These debates were contributed to by a host of writers, an indeterminate number of which were O’Nolan himself.
Collectively these letters function not merely as extended conversations or literary pranks, but as an epistolary novel, a roman-à-clef crammed with characters, humour, passion and flights of fancy
Collectively these letters function not merely as extended conversations or literary pranks, but as an epistolary novel, a roman-à-clef crammed with characters, humour, passion and flights of fancy. And thus, appropriately, Flann O’Brien’s first letters were a novel, and his first novel a collection of letters.
These riotous, public letters are included in The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, but framing them is a wide body of private correspondence, letters that offer vital insights into O’Nolan/O’Brien/na gCopaleen, and that move between publishing and politics, literature and banking, friendship and taxation. Commencing in 1938 with the optimism of a young author, and ending in 1966 with the determination of a patient still planning scripts two weeks before his death, O’Nolan’s letters show verve, humour, choler, frustration, intimacy and bravado, and provide background to the writing, editing, and publishing of his works, as well as to the man behind them.
Letters to Timothy O’Keeffe of MacGibbon & Kee, without whom O’Nolan would not have had a later period of work, as well as those to Cecil Scott of MacMillan, who published these later works in America, provide sustained detail about O’Nolan’s research for his post-1960 novels, and give insights into his hopes about how his books should – and should not – be read: from his apparent dismissal of At Swim-Two-Birds as ‘juvenile nonsense’, to his pride in The Hard Life as a straightforward, ‘exceptionally comic book’, to his wish that The Dalkey Archive be understood as ‘an essay in extreme derision’.
Other letters take us deep into the writing, casting and revision of his plays; the tribulations of translations; the difficulties of arriving on appropriate fonts and spellings for Irish language texts; and of course, frequent struggles with remuneration. Most intriguing are the hints offered regarding short stories and novels of uncertain completion and indefinite publication – a receipt slip from Matson & Duggan dated 1942 refers to a short story called Old Iron, a ‘telephone story’ is mentioned frequently in 1964, and the question of his authorship of Sexton Blake books remains.
While the majority of the letters relate to the business of writing, the correspondence gathered in The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien is not restricted to professional matters. Throughout the volume O’Nolan’s friendship with Niall Montgomery forms a constant thread of affection, expletives, frustration, and respect. Over the decades Montgomery helped O’Nolan with the headstone for O’Nolan’s parents’ grave; provided architectural advice and support on O’Nolan’s houses; wrote sections of the Cruiskeen Lawn; and provided commentary on his novels that mixed warmth with sharp insight. They frequently annotated each other’s letters, and their communications, often on the same sheet of paper, spread across days and over margins.
O’Nolan also retained letters that detail the frustrations of everyday life, and are frequently couched in the irascibility that marks the later Cruiskeen Lawn
O’Nolan also retained letters that detail the frustrations of everyday life, and are frequently couched in the irascibility that marks the later Cruiskeen Lawn. From letters to publicans and accountants, builders and the ESB, we see the lines that demarcate Brian O’Nolan from Myles na gCopaleen shift and fade, as the man from Strabane frequently wrote with the irritation and hauteur of the Sage of Santry. But, perhaps more importantly, the correspondence in The Collected Letters also does much to separate O’Nolan from caricature, as the hopes of the younger author, and the vulnerability of the seriously ill man, disturb the reduction of O’Nolan to the Dublin character or man in the pub.
The variety of O’Nolan’s masks made naming a volume of his letters a difficult task. There can be no denial of his varied pen-names, and in a letter to O’Keeffe he suggests in extending his pseudonymity to a ‘pen-face’. Yet, his private letters reveal not so much a man delighting in the playful concealment of identity as a man who was forced to continually reinvent himself. The vagaries of publishing, the limited markets for experimental or Irish-language texts, the difficulties associated with alcoholism, and the late resurgence in a readership for his works, meant that O’Nolan’s career was marked by a series of false starts that necessitated numerous re-inventions.
O’Nolan was a full-time civil servant; an English-language novelist; a part-time journalist; an Irish-language novelist; a playwright; a full-time journalist; a novelist again; and a writer of teleplays. His delight in pseudonymous creations might have preceded his forced self-recreations, but there can be little doubt that shifting identities were as much a lived necessity as literary play. In using O’Nolan’s best-known nom de plume to designate his life’s letters, The Collected Letters acknowledges the protean identities of O’Nolan, and recognises the importance of engaging with the difficult, intriguing slippage between his masks.
The delight of archival work lies in the constant sense of the contingency of what is retained. Accidental loses, casual deletion and measured suppression reduce the material preserved in any archive, and gaps in records are always tantalising. Letters that O’Nolan wrote to the Garda and to O’Keeffe in 1964 show that much of the correspondence available to us was almost lost, as O’Nolan was victim to a theft that could have seen many of the files now housed in the special collections of Boston College and Southern Illinois University Carbondale concealed from public view.
Between November 1963 and February 1964, while O’Nolan was house-bound with a broken leg, a personable young man, who seemed to know many of O’Nolan’s friends, began to visit him, and over the course of his visits, sneaked away files and papers. When O’Nolan realised the theft, and the Garda visited the man’s house with a search warrant, they found the manuscript and a typescript of The Dalkey Archive, correspondence about the novel, a file of correspondence regarding The Hard Life, radio and TV scripts, private letters and records. Had the theft been successful, these records would most likely have graced a private collection, and The Collected Letters might never have been.
The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, edited by Maebh Long, is published by Dalkey Archive Press and is available in all good bookshops from April 30th. Frank McNally reviews it in The Irish Times on Saturday, April 28th.