Flann O'Brien: our unluckiest genius
In the century since his birth, he has been an influence on generations of Irish writers. What do some our leading writers have to say about Flann O’Brien? That he was brilliant, flawed, funny – and got them into trouble with the mammy
Laughter in the Graveyard
In my school, it was cool to like the work of only two Irish writers: Kavanagh and Myles. I don’t think we knew they’d been associates in the Dublin of our parents’ youth. The frequent presence in Kavanagh’s poetry of the heroically lonesome, misunderstood male was enough for my teenage friends and me to regard him as One of Us, an induction I imagine would have appalled him. And Myles was seen, inaccurately, as the convention-scorning bohemian. We didn’t know he’d lived in suburban Stillorgan, as did several of us; that he had worked in the Civil Service, as had several of our fathers. We pictured him as a kind of literary Boomtown Rat, not a bourgeois from the North in a suit.
Any teenager forced to read Peig, as we were, found The Poor Mouthhilarious, with its doleful accounts of never-ending drownings and its mud-spattered, turf-scented archness. It filled you with the kind of glee you felt when you saw Pete Townshend smashing a guitar on the stage. It was literature wearing pyjamas in public. And if you were in on the joke – a rather easy joke to be in on, as it turns out – it gave you the fleeting sensation that disliking your teachers might actually be a literary activity. And while At Swim-Two-Birdscontained a fair amount of unmitigated Celtic tedium, the exhilarating sullenness and sharp Dublin dialogue tilted it into the zone where only the life-changing novels lived. Thirty years later, that country in my head includes only a few dozen novels, at most.
My mother bought me a copy of The Best of Mylesthe summer I turned 15. We were on holiday in Connemara at the time. I think she came to regret the gift because the book sucked up so much of my attention that I stopped looking at the scenery. We’d be trudging around lakes or hiking through bogs and I’d be cackling at Myles’s demolition of Dublin dullards, or his agonising puns about Keats and Chapman, or his looping, illogical, hysterical recounting of some geezer talking non-sequiturs about The Brother. All of this material, so painfully quotable, should be given to teenagers only if accompanied by a Government Bore Warning.
One afternoon, my mother insisted that I accompany her to the Famine-era graveyard at the summit of Ard Cashel, a long, hard walk as I remember it now. We stood there, she and I, in the bracing Atlantic wind, and she began to tell me of the people who had starved in Connemara, their awful sufferings, the bastardly landlords, how the tenants had had to eat grass to sustain themselves. As she recounted these and other miseries, Myles’s voice arose in my 15-year-old mind, the wickedly satirical dirge-like tone he employs in The Poor Mouth, and, God forgive me, I began to laugh.
“What in the name of Jesus are you laughing at?” asked my mother. The more appalled she looked, the more uncontrollable my guffawing, until finally, righteously, coldly, she announced, “You have completely ruined my holiday.” In my memory she strode off down the mountain, leaving me helpless with laughter in the graveyard, but I suspect the truth was less photogenic.
Back at school that September, I was delighted (and a bit resentful) to be told by my English teacher, John Burns, that he had actually known Myles. Mr Burns was a sweet and somewhat oversensitive man who adored his subject. He would rage like Lear or weep at a line of Yeats, and his eyes would appear to shine with sympathy when he spoke about Myles. “That was a man with a cross to bear, God be good to him. That was a man who suffered.” The precise nature of the suffering was not put into words, for Mr Burns, like a good many keen readers, seemed to find spoken words slightly suspect. But somehow I assumed that the cause of the sorrow was drink. I was only partially right.
There’s a part of Myles that is always the brilliant undergraduate showing off: providing nonsolutions to nonproblems, smugly deploying unusual words, correcting everyone’s grammar and feigning utter mystification at perfectly clear prose written by others. Being trapped in a lift with this tiresome geek and his grandiosities would not be a pleasant experience. Large chunks of Myles have the effect of making me want to find a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usageand beat him to death with it, slowly. Like another comic master (and ruinous drinker), the great Kingsley Amis, he insisted on regarding himself as a protector of the language, thereby answering a question nobody was asking and raising other questions in the process. Why would a genius able to do so much with words settle for doing so little? What did he get from stamping on fleas when he could have created dragons? No Irish writer of his era was funnier, but so what? It breaks my heart that he wasted so much time.
Yeats once remarked of a poet whose name I don’t remember: “Small success and having a story to tell have ruined him.” The same might be felt to be true of Myles. In our own era, the overencouragement of young writers is immensely damaging to them, but what can it have been like to have published a debut novel that was praised by Joyce, only for its follow-up to be rejected? The answer is not there in The Best of Myles, a collection I still turn to now and again, a far more poignant book than its perpetual grin lets you realise, for it’s the chronicle of a failure foretold. Ride a bicycle for long enough, over rough-enough roads, and your molecules meld with those of the saddle. But when you’re mainly using your typewriter to generate disposable amusement, the clever trash starts to seep back up your fingers and into your soul.
Some years ago, another volume of the columns was published, and a darker Myles is discernible in those pages. He is bitter, angry, remorseless in his vitriol, snapping at the achievements of writers he dislikes, advocating the censoring or banning of their work. I think of this version of Myles whenever I hear Morrissey’s savagely funny song We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.
My sense of him is that he found it excruciatingly hard being Brian O’Nolan – as who wouldn’t – and then he found it harder being Myles. I see him staggering home drunk, as described in Tony Cronin’s brilliant memoir Dead as Doornails, clutching on to the park railings of Dublin so as to hold himself up in the rain. Behan and Kavanagh were out of their trees a lot of the time, but Myles seems to have been an addict in the most viciously literal sense: he needed the drug in order to function at all, to keep going home to Stillorgan. Perhaps it would have been better for him if he’d dropped out or fled to Paris – certainly, one feels, it would have raised his eyes from murderous Ireland – but Myles was no Beckett, rejecting the motherland, nor was he a beatnik waiting to happen. He was a man of many masks, as most satirists are, but you sometimes feel the disguises became his imprisonments. Glee is only grief being brave against the void. It’s his bravery that touches me now.
His fate, at least I think so, was to suffer one of the worst things that can happen: to be brilliant at something you don’t like doing. He deserved better than the disappointment, and the raucous praise of a small town. He was maybe our unluckiest genius.
A Tree on the Howth Road
The summer of 1975 was one of the hot ones. I was 17, and I was working as an office – or copy – boy at The Irish Times. I remember spending a lot of my time walking along the quays, collecting copy from the Four Courts and photographs from Heuston Station. I walked – I seemed to walk all day – wherever I was sent, instead of using my bus pass. I fell in love with the city that hot, dry summer. Rainfall in Dublin is still a bit of a shock.
It was also the summer of Flann O’Brien. After work, I’d sit with my friends under one of those huge trees on the Howth Road, in Raheny, and we’d gawk at the French students and sneer at everyone and everything else that passed, and wait for Saturday night. And we’d quote chunks of Flann O’Brien.
It wasn’t some roofless literary salon. No one else got quoted. Poetry was school; all poetry could fuck off. And everything Irish; we all went to the Christian Brothers, so we hated Ireland. But Flann O’Brien wasn’t Irish. Flann O’Brien was Dublin.
Someone’s big brother had come out with the “a bad knee is worse than no knee at all” line, after their da had walloped his knee off the kitchen table. So At Swim-Two-Birdsgot smuggled out to the tree, with the page open on the Ringsend cowboys. We gathered around the book, and read out loud, and laughed. The familiar became wild – the words, the accents, the place names, everything. We laughed. And we laughed. And looked up and wiped our eyes, and sneered. And looked back down, and laughed.
I kissed a French girl that summer. I bought Blood on the Tracks. I drank my first pints of Guinness. I fell in love with my city and read Flann O’Brien.
Blood on the Tracksstill sounds new. Guinness still tastes good. The Howth Road is still the Howth Road; the tree is still the tree. I still love Dublin, and Flann O’Brien still makes me laugh. The French girl would be 52 or 53 now, but I’m sure she’s still a girl.
Paul Muldoon Le Flanneur
A spirit grocer is still ordained
after seven years ordinarily.
The Flower of Sweet Strabane is still an also-ran
in Tim Humphreys’ of Ranelagh.
For as long as curates have gone to the Curragh
their activities have been extracurricular.
It was never a pint of plain in a jug
had the plain people of Ireland by the jugular.
Now the girl on whom you used to dote
is in her dotage.
The Evening Herald is less than heraldic.
Though your flesh may not at first look gross
in the window of a spirit grocer’s
you can still rely on Myles for a reality check.
These are extracts from the Dublin Review 44 Autumn 2011, which asked writers to respond to Flann O’Brien’s work, or his influence on their own. Dublin Review 44is published on Monday.