Scurrilous abuse and comic brilliance: Flann O’Brien
Review: Maebh Long had to set herself some rules when tackling the author’s epistolary chaos
Pseudonymous clowning: Flann O’Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen by his brother Michael Ó Nuallain. (Collection of Boston College USA)
The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien
Edited by Maebh Long
Dalkey Archive Press
The name Flann O’Brien made its debut on this newspaper’s letters page in October 1938, intervening irreverently in a debate between two of Ireland’s literary eminences, Frank O’Connor and Sean Ó Faoláin.
So began an extended audition in which the man behind it, Tyrone-born civil servant Brian O’Nolan, would earn his own column, and thereby launch another pseudonym, Myles na gCopaleen, whose comic brilliance was to grace The Irish Times, on and off, for 26 years.
Flann O’Brien, meanwhile, went on to become the novel-writing wing of the O’Nolan franchise, first with At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), then The Third Policeman (1940, but unpublished in O’Nolan’s lifetime) and later, during a 1960s revival, with The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive.
This unholy trinity of authors would have been a complicated challenge for any letters anthologist had O’Nolan not also written to newspapers under a bewildering range of other false flags.
These are 'performances' rather than letters in the conventional sense
So prolific was he that at least one real correspondent from the 1940s, Oscar Love, was long assumed to be among his inventions. Thus when Maebh Long, a brilliant critic of O’Nolan, was assigned the task of tackling his epistolary chaos, she had to set herself some rules.
Chief of these was that only material signed by one of the three main names, plus some of the more pertinent replies from third parties, would feature. But the slipperiness of the subject immediately demanded exceptions.
The funniest part of this collection is a drawn-out exchange of Irish Times letters between “Flann O’Brien” and “Lir O’Connor”, in which O’Nolan plays both parts of a row between two preposterous old fogeys, competing with childhood memories of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Swinburne, and others.
As Long notes in an introduction, these are “performances” rather than letters in the conventional sense. Indeed, dating from the mid-1940s, they are as good as anything in what was shortly to become Cruiskeen Lawn.
Not everything in the collection is that funny, or indeed funny at all. Even “Flann O’Brien” could be serious, usually when writing to papers other than this one. When he took to the Irish Press, for example, to discuss the Irish language – a subject dear (if not precious) to O’Nolan – he was notably more earnest.
And behind all the pseudonymous clowning, there was little enough hilarity in O’Nolan’s real life. Having in effect inherited a large family on his father’s death, he could never afford to give up the day job, although thanks to his drinking and some journalistic recklessness, it eventually gave up on him.
The ‘lost book’
Thereafter, from 1953 onwards, he was a full-time writer and literary entrepreneur, continuing his work as Myles na Gopaleen (he dropped the eclipsis in 1952) while leveraging his appeal to provincial newspapers with offers of syndicated columns exclusive to a radius of “50 miles”.
His great champion of later years was the publisher Timothy O’Keeffe, who revived the forgotten At Swim-Two-Birds in 1959, partly in the hope of securing the rumoured “lost book” (The Third Policeman). “It is most unlikely he will write anything else now,” O’Keeffe confided to a fellow publisher, “for all the reasons which you may guess at”.
Those reasons were alcohol and the related problems, including an extraordinary proneness to accident. It was a truism in Dublin literary circles then that admirers were better off not meeting him in person. But meeting him when he was in a car was probably worse.
The tone of his personal correspondence, even when disputing bar tabs with publicans, tended to be sober and sternly bureaucratic
From the 1950s onwards O’Nolan featured in at least half a dozen road crashes, usually incurring broken bones. Typically, after one such misadventure, he managed to lecture the investigating gardaí in an officious letter. Whatever about the writer himself, the tone of his personal correspondence, even when disputing bar tabs with publicans, tended to be sober and sternly bureaucratic.
A notable absence from this collection are O’Nolan’s communications with The Irish Times. There is very little of them in his files and the newspaper, lamentably, seems not to have retained any. We are therefore deprived of what memoirists have told us were the “fearful outburst[s] of invective” and “sheer scurrilous abuse” that sometimes accompanied his copy.
On the other hand, the anthology challenges what was long thought to be another vacuum in O’Nolan’s life: foreign travel. His friend and biographer Anthony Cronin set the pattern for this by suggesting that he had left Ireland only once, to visit Germany in the early 1930s.
This tended to portray O’Nolan as an exemplar of Patrick Kavanagh’s philosophy that the village contained the world and that a man didn’t have leave his own parish to know everything worth knowing.
In particular, it set him in contrast with the great literary exiles, Joyce and Beckett (there’s an excellent joke among the letters wherein, after one of his many accidents, he talks of spending several months “in Paris, plaster of”). But far from being the home bird of repute, his correspondence suggests he was a repeat visitor to Germany, London, even the US.
As O’Nolan aged and sickened, anger threatened to rival humour as his default mode. The cruellest letter in the collection is one he wrote to his long-time friend and collaborator, Niall Montgomery, a full-time architect but part-time writer who often filled in for him as Myles.
Their symbiotic relationship included replying to each other’s letters on the same sheets of paper, and they were close enough to trade sharp insults. But when The Irish Times gave Montgomery a column in his own right in 1964, and when a sub-editor unwisely placed an instalment of it side-by-side with Cruiskeen Lawn, O’Nolan’s paranoia turned savage.
Unusually, he wrote two drafts of his riposte to Montgomery. In the first, he declared his friend’s uselessness as both writer and architect. In the version sent, he eased up on the architecture insults, at least. Montgomery had to relinquish the column, but was typically forgiving.
Despite such crankiness, there is something heroic in the way O’Nolan applied himself to his work in the 1960s, through drink and ill heath. His late novels were very flawed, but miracles in themselves.
He often professed embarrassment at the 'juvenilia' of At Swim-Two-Birds
He remained a “young” writer, as Long notes, quoting John Montague, in the sense that false starts, financial insecurity, and the uncertainty of his reputation haunted him to the end.
But astonishingly, he seems never to have considered reviving The Third Policeman, now an established classic, and he often professed embarrassment at the “juvenilia” of At Swim-Two-Birds until, as the rave reviews and translations piled up, he wrote in December 1965: “If I get sufficiently drunk over Christmas I’m going to have to read that damned book for the first time. Those birds must have some unsuspected stuffing...”
One of his last letters, a few months later, admitted hilarity at a German translation. This, in keeping with his usual attitude to the book, he attributed to “the quirk of language” rather than anything in the original. Then he mentioned his health again: “It is some complicated glandular disorder [...]and it has now taken a turn for the worse”. He died three weeks later, aged 54, on April Fool’s Day 1966.