I’m Your Number One Flann – An Irishman’s Diary about Flann O’Brien and William Saroyan

One of the illicit joys of reading literary correspondence is discovering that great writers can be just as hypocritical as the rest of us, sometimes.

Much as I admire Flann O’Brien, for example, he was no exception.

Early in his Collected Letters, just published, I was reminded about the encouragement given to him at the outset of his career by an American called William Saroyan. I was reminded too of O'Brien's professed admiration for Saroyan's plays and novels, then very popular.

Here’s the real-life Flann, Brian O’Nolan, in 1940, thanking Saroyan for his help and encouragement, while also returning Saroyan’s compliments with interest:


"I do not know how you write and keep on writing those plays. I don't understand the way you make ordinary things uproarious and full of meaning and sentiment and make yourself saner than everybody else merely by being crazy. I've just been reading The Time of Your Life [Saroyan's 1939 play, which won a Pulitzer Prize] and I think it is what we here call the business. It is fearfully funny."

This is turn reminded me I had never read anything by Saroyan, whose books are now hard to find this side of the Atlantic. So on the basis that, if Flann O’Brien thought him hilarious, he must be good, I decided to redress this deficiency immediately.

Putting the Collected Letters to one side, I logged on to Amazon, browsed the many Saroyan titles, selected an anthology called The William Saroyan Reader, the 1994 edition of same, in good condition, and purchased it.

Then, feeling pleased with myself, I returned to O'Nolan's correspondence. And you can imagine my consternation when, 200 pages (and 20 years of his life) later, in a 1960 letter to an agent about a possible German edition of At Swim-Two-Birds, he recalls Saroyan having books published in Germany before the war, and says this: "I never cared much for his whimsical material but it seems to have gone down very well [there]".

Readers will have to pardon my German when I say that, after a sharp intake of breath, this caused me to utter the words "You two-faced fucker!" Then I may have laughed. But Amazon had in the meantime gained a sale. For good or bad, the Saroyan Reader was winging its way to my book shelf.

The American had not just encouraged the young Flann with words, by the way. He had also put his money where his mouth was in 1939, by betting "$50" that At Swim-Two-Birds would find a US publisher.

From any other writer, this might have been considered a mere flight of rhetoric. But Saroyan had a weakness for gambling, in general, and took all his wagers seriously.

So when no US publisher emerged, he duly sent the $50 to Ireland through another agent. O'Nolan didn't refuse it, either, although in fairness, he did confess to being at a loss how to spend it and wrote that he "wouldn't be happy if I bought booze with it in the ordinary way".

Instead, he decided to gamble the money in turn, this time on tickets for the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes, and to split the expected “£30,000” win between himself and Saroyan, with a cut for the agent.

The sweep hinged on the outcome of that year’s Grand National at Fairyhouse where, as O’Nolan put it, he was hoping to “ride in on Saroyan’s luck”. He added: “The race is April the 5th. I will invade America shortly after [...]and have the time of my life.”

Sad to say, the cunning plan did not come off. History records that the 1940 National was won by a horse with a literary name, Jack Chaucer.

But neither O’Nolan nor Saroyan appears to have been on board.

Saroyan had an impressively cavalier attitude to money all his life.

He turned down the Pulitzer, complete with its $1,000, and throughout his career, refused to accept any other prize, award, or fellowship.

This despite the gambling debts and an expensive drinking habit that often left him impoverished.

For this and other reasons, he was an interesting man. As for his collected writings, alas, I have so far struggled to get to their pitch. In fact, to date, I find myself somewhat in sympathy with the 1960 version of Flann O’Brien’s verdict. But in gratitude for the part Saroyan played in his earlier career, I intend to persist. I’m hoping to reach Flann’s 1940 levels of enthusiasm eventually.