Feature: The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien

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There have been many attempts at anthologizing the works of Brian O’Nolan. Most of the anthologies collect the work of O’Nolan as a newspaper man – The Best of Myles, Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn and The Hair of Dogma, contain a selection by his academic brother, Kevin, from the “Cruiskeen Lawn” column maintained by O’Nolan for the Irish Times under the pseudonym of Myles na gCopaleen for almost 26 years. Flann O’Brien at War: Myles na gCopaleen 1940-1945 and At War, both edited by John Wyse Jackson as their titles suggest, also contain selections from “Cruiskeen Lawn” but from the years of the war.

Besides Cruiskeen Lawn, O’Nolan has also written other columns for other newspapers such as “Bones of Contention” for the Nationalist and Leinster Times – this time under the nom de plume of George Knowall – a selection of which is collected in Myles Away from Dublin. Still others, such as Myles Before Myles, attempt to collate O’Nolan’s earlier works from Comhthrom Féinne, the college paper to which he contributed frequently as Brother Barnabas and later became an editor of when he was enrolled in University College, Dublin. And then there is Blather, a short-lived publication (only 6 issues were published) which he started from August 1934 to January 1935, writing under the personna of Count O’Blather.

These journalistic articles written by O’Nolan were appreciated for their wit and humour but were often seen as a distraction from the serious business of writing literature. Indeed, Declan Kiberd writes:

So successful was the column conducted thrice-weekly by Myles na Gopaleen in The Irish Times that it lasted over twenty-five years […] The cost was massive. Throughout the period, O’Nolan produced no works equal to the brilliance of his three early and major novels, At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, and An Béal Bocht. More than one of his friends asked a difficult question: “had Myles na gCopaleen never existed, would the genius of Flann O’Brien have flowered in other unpredictable masterpieces?” (511)

The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien, edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper, assembles in one volume, the short stories of O’Nolan. According to the editors, it aims to “[gather] together previously unavailable or dispersed material under one reader-friendly roof” (ix). Indeed, this edition includes five new translations of O’Nolan’s Irish-language stories into English, by Jack Fennell. Other stories, namely “When I Met William of Orange,” “I’m Telling You No Lie!” and “After Hours” are previously uncollected.

The first story, “Revenge on the English in the Year 2032!” is written in a satirical tone that Flanneurs will immediately be familiar with. As the title suggests, Anglo-Irish politics form the backdrop of this story and John Bull, the Englishman in this story, appears once more in the next story, “The Arrival and Departure of John Bull,” this time as a “tall, brawny, twisted man, misshapen, murderous, malformed, crooked-toothed and monstrous” (29), coming to attack Seán Mac Cumhaill who was incidentally, “deftly, dexterously, daintily gathering daisies, and putting them together in the form of a chain, whistling gently and sweetly all the while” (30). Such descriptions will have fitted right into the Finn Mac Cool narrative of At Swim-Two-Birds, whose chest for instance was “wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs” (14).

Indeed, exaggeration is often the means by which O’Nolan achieves his comic effect and he does this again in “The Reckonings of our Ancestors” in which he fabricates a series of letters “sent to a leading newspaper or magazine long ago”:

We feel sure, however, that with the dawning of a brighter era and with the adjustment of the world polity for the general benefit of the human race, with a striving for mutual understanding and amicable relations, with the coming of a spiritual as well as an economic unity between our peoples geographically and politically united by the grace of Providence, with the spreading of good-will and universal brotherhood, with the dawning of a new and brighter era of mutual understanding and friendly intercourse, coupled with a firm realization that the great destiny of the independent States are inseparably linked, each with the other—all of which are easily attainable in the realms of statesmanship—a better and brighter era of mutual understanding and mutual advantage will be dawning (40).

This inflated sentence – both in its tone as well as in its length; one almost forgets the topic in discussion by the end – comes after a rejection of a plea for the relief of taxes.

“Scenes in a Novel” opens with the sentence: “I am penning these lines, dear reader, under conditions of great emotional stress, being engaged, as I am, in the composition of a posthumous article” (49). The posthumous narrator is a fixture in O’Nolan’s writing, recurring in “When I Met William of Orange” and most notably in The Third Policeman. In “Scenes in a Novel,” the narrator is an author who creates a character called Carruthers McDaid to be “a worthless scoundrel, a betrayal of women and a secret drinker” (50). McDaid, however, balks at being made to rob a poor-box in a church by the author and rebels, recalling John Furriskey in At Swim-Two-Birds, a villain created by Dermot Trellis “whose task is to attack women and behave at all times in an indecent manner” (61). Like McDaid, Furriskey must also be threatened “should he deviate, even in the secrecy of his own thought, from his mission of debauchery” (52).

Fans of O’Nolan’s plausibly outlandish yarns will be pleased to find an abundance of them in this volume – from the “savoury borsch” (65) in “I’m Telling You No Lie!” made from Russian boots in order to stave off cold and starvation when the narrator is wintering in Siberia (the title itself should get your suspicions up) to the “deliberate cultivation of fields of weeds for the production of compost and silage” (96) in “Slattery’s Sago Saga,” a system of agronomy, the author gleefully asserts, “in which stray growths of wheat or leek or turnip would be a noxious intrusion” (96). Reversals abound in “Two in One” in which a taxidermist kills his mean boss and decides to treat him “the same as any dead creature that found its way to the workshop” (86) in order to cover up the murder. Things go awry when he dons the dead man’s skin and it refuses to come off, forcing him to live as the man he loathes.

John Wyse Jackson notes corollaries between the above story and O’Nolan being addressed as “Myles” by his friends. Although O’Nolan the civil servant must never be associated with the column, the author is becoming fused with his creation:

Whether or not O’Nolan’s perception of himself was also becoming entangled with the character he has invented, it was essential for his own well-being that the phenomenon be resisted. But how better to resist it than by appearing to go along with it? …the ‘real’ Brian O’Nolan went into a sort of internal exile, rendering himself virtually ‘unknowable’ to all but a very few. From this he would never fully emerge again” (13).

Although readers are invited to recognize his voice; the editors have included a possible short story by O’Nolan called “Navel Control” in the appendix for the reader to draw his own conclusions. Perhaps like the shadowy painting of O’Nolan by Eddie O’Kane on the cover – the writer’s chalky hat and jacket framing crepuscular emptiness – the author is meant to vanish in this way, overrun by the multitude of identities he created.

Flann O’Brien. The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien. Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper, eds. Champaign, [Ill.]: Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. Print.

References:

Jackson, John Wyse. “Introduction.” At War. Ed. John Wyse Jackson. [Normal, Ill.]: Dalkey Archive Press, 2003. 7-17. Print.

Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. London: Vintage, 1995. Print.

O’Brien, Flann. At Swim-Two-Birds. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.


Pan Huiting
is a writer and an artist working with oils. She prefers hot chocolate.

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