Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority review
Above all, this really makes the case for O’Brien’s journalism and his bi-lingualism
Comic novelist and humorous columnist Flann O’Brien (right) in the Palace Bar in Dublin circa 1945. Photograph: Hulton Getty
Anthony Roche Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority
Edited by Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan and John McCourt
Cork University Press
By the end of the 1960s, Flann O’Brien’s literary output was more prodigious than ever. Though the author in his own physical person had succumbed on (of all days) April 1st, 1966, death did not stop publication. 1967 saw the posthumous publication of The Third Policeman. This would have been a radical novel at the best of times; when it came out in the 1960s, it was hard to believe it was not a contemporary publication. O’Brien’s Irish language satire, An Béal Bocht (1941), was finally translated into English and an edited cornucopia of the Cruiskeen Lawn columns published as The Best of Myles (though none of the early, Irish language columns were represented). By the end of the decade, Picador had put all of these “new” titles into paperback with surreal covers by artist Ralph Steadman. Flann O’Brien had finally arrived.
Critical commentary took a while longer to catch up. The early to mid 1970s saw Anthony Cronin’s rivetting account of the mid-century in Dublin literary life, Dead as Doornails; Anne Clissman’s valuable monograph on the entire career and a series of bracing essays by JCC Mays which intricately and valuably linked the writings of Flann O’Brien to the more overtly modernist Irish writers of the 1930s. But momentum was not sustained. A clear rallying cry to the writers in the collection under review was the publication in 1995 of Keith Hopper’s Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist.
A decisive factor in the critical momentum now surrounding Flann O’Brien is the sustained commitment of Cork University Press, which published both the Hopper and this impressive volume. Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority features 15 essays on O’Brien which had their origins in a conference but which have been expanded and revised into an independent volume of literary criticism by the superb work of the three editors.
One of them, John McCourt, is a Dubliner, graduate of University College Dublin, and has authored important studies of Joyce and Trollope. For several decades McCourt has lived and worked in Italy, where he is currently Prof of English Literature at the University of Macerata. His two fellow editors are Paul Fagan, who lectures at the University of Vienna and is co-founder and president of the International Flann O’Brien Society. The third editor, Ruben Borg, heads the English Department at the University of Jerusalem; his wide-ranging interest across a range of literatures and cultural theory speaks to the now-global reach of Flann O’Brien studies. The essays in the volume are fairly evenly divided between Irish and international contributors and even more enouragingly feature as many female as male contributors.
Following Keith Hopper’s lead, there has been a great deal written about Flann O’Brien and post-modernism. This may well have helped in the early days to get his work taken seriously. But what is clear from this 2017 publication is that the term “post-modernism” has passed its sell-by date. Most of the contributors instead focus in on modernism and make useful distinctions between early and late modernism, locating it along the broad chronological spectrum of Samuel Beckett’s prose fiction.
But Flann O’Brien is a difficult, slippery customer to pin down: he usually manages to evade unequiivocal identification with any one category. The best description is that of the contributor who describes him as an “anti-modernist modernist”. The concern in this volume, as the title flags, is primarily with the issue of authority, a term which here covers a wide range of topics but in which the political and the religious are central.
At first glance, given his satiric bent and anti-authoritarian tone in general, Flann O’Brien would seem to be a consistent opponent of any kind of authority. But as these essays disclose there is also a profound traditionalism at work in his writings so that the result is a compound of adherence and opposition. Very few of his statements can be taken at face value. The wonderful series of “Keats and Chapman” yarns that O’Brien wrote (only one of which gets a mention here) all end in an excruciating pun. Like Shakespeare and Joyce, Flann O’Brien was addicted to the pun, a word which characteristically looks both ways and claims no single allegiance.
I would have expected more on the five canonical novels. At Swim-Two Birds only gets a brief look in; and there is hardly a single sentence on An Béal Bocht. The Third Policeman, on the other hand, lends itself to modernist investigation, with its less localised setting and more overtly philosophical concerns, and is prominent throughout the book. The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive both receive welcome attention, though the superiority of the latter to the former is evident, and there is also no getting away from the decline in quality towards the close of O’Brien’s life and career.
The volume reminds us, contrarily, of the sheer brilliance of the early “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns when O’Brien was working both in Irish and English to full comic effect. But Myles na Gopaleen was also looking at the larger world. In the volume’s most outstanding essay, Catherine Flynn shows how “Cruiskeen Lawn” comments on Japanese involvement in the second World War “behind several veils: of the Irish language, of typographical play, of pun, of literary allusion, of translation”. That it could do so happened because it was not part of the news section of The Irish Times, which was rigorously censored to avoid any mention of the war, but rather a mere column of humorous commentary and so exempt from scrutiny.
This volume, above all, really makes the case for Flann O’Brien’s journalism and for his bi-lingualism. It takes the whole of Flann O’Brien’s textual output as its field, from those early “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns to the two comedy series he wrote for Telefís Éireann in the 1960s (the contributors are mostly too young to realise how the genius of Jimmy O’Dea and a young David Kelly brought O’Brien’s rather tepid scripts to comic boiling point). What unites all of the contributors is a patent love of Flann O’Brien’s writing. It is this which keeps the comic emphasis to the fore and prevents the theory from ever being laid on too thick. The critical discussion of Flann O’Brien is clearly an industry at this stage and far from running out of steam. After all, given the sheer number of psuedonyms that Flann O’Brien wrote under, can anyone ever confidently say that all of his writings have been accounted for?
Anthony Roche is an emeritus professor in the School of English, language and film at University College Dublin. His most recent publication is “The Irish Dramatic Revival 1899-1939”