A mean life may have a tragic cast to it, and vice versa. The Irish writer Flann O’Brien was dour, suspicious, argumentative—sometimes to the point of physical violence—petty-minded, careless of his own talent, and, especially in his later years, a bibulous bore. This misanthrope and likely misogynist was also the author of one of the most admired and widely read comic novels of the century, At Swim-Two-Birds, and a fictional masterpiece, The Third Policeman, which remained unpublished in his own lifetime—he died in 1966 when he was fifty-five—and which he cannibalized for a much inferior work, The Dalkey Archive (his latest American publishers have been unwise enough to adopt its title as a trade name). The portrait of O’Brien by his sometime acquaintance—friend would be too strong a word—and drinking companion Anthony Cronin is not a pretty one, though it is unnervingly honest. O’Brien was, Cronin writes,
a humorous writer with an unusually strong, indeed very often a nothing less than fierce, sense of propriety. This…accounts for his ire where the behaviour and pronouncements of politicians and other public figures are concerned; his impatience with the slips and mistakes of the bureaucracy of which he was for so long a member, the activities of Dublin Corporation and much else….
I also think…that this fierce sense of propriety of his applied as well to the moral order of the universe, which he felt to be somehow askew. This was a way of perceiving the world which gave a peculiar twist to his Catholicism and resulted in an attitude that can best be described in terms of the ancient Manichaean belief, which has surfaced at least three times in the history of Christendom as a Christian heresy.
Such a description will probably surprise, perhaps even appall, readers who know O’Brien only from At Swim, though not those who have ventured into the weird world of The Third Policeman, a darkly absurd work shot through with manic laughter, and informed throughout by that sinister nonsense which is the true stamp of O’Brien’s artistry. But the fact is O’Brien the man was depressingly characteristic of his time and place, in many ways epitomizing that brand of Irishness before the contagious threat of which Joyce and Beckett and so many others fled the country of their birth as soon as they could scrape together the boat fare. If O’Brien had chosen to live outside Ireland, would he, like those other illustrious exiles, have taken on a cosmopolitan polish and, breathing the heady air of abroad, learned to live, and write, more freely?
This is not idle speculation. If, as Auden suggested, mad Ireland drove Yeats to poetry, the gray Ireland of the interwar years drove Flann O’Brien not only to drink, but to that contempt for life and art which crippled both his art and his life. In 1937, when O’Brien was twenty-five, his father died suddenly, leaving him effectively the head of the family and its sole breadwinner. In accepting this responsibility, O’Brien, as Cronin writes, was divorcing himself from one of the great artistic myths of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “the perception of the artist as one whose primary concern is to find the mode of life which will best serve his art; even one who may, if he is thoroughgoing enough, acknowledge no duty but to his art.” This myth, says Cronin,
has destroyed its share of lives, or at least cut them off from ordinary human relationships, as well as causing some of those who attempted to live by it extreme moral suffering. But it could be argued that in [O’Brien’s] case, he was, in time, destroyed by its opposite, by a too ready acceptance of the necessity of emulating the life pattern of the majority who do not have a special vocation and are not burdened by the claims of art.
O’Brien regarded the claims of art as ludicrous, or at least gave a fair impression that he did; the attitude he took to his own writing was that it was little more than a (vain) attempt to get rich quick. The Irish writers of his own generation, in both the English and Irish languages, who had remained to live and work in Ireland, he regarded with undisguised—and in some cases justified—contempt, while for the great exemplar of his time, James Joyce, he nursed a grudging, resentful, and envious admiration. His life, like the fictional world he created, is lit, if that is the word, by a flickering and intermittent radiance generated from a passion for correctitude, of behavior and of language. He was a philistine as well as a consummate prose stylist, an artist who threw away his talent, a Catholic who allowed himself to drift into the terrible sin of despair, a great comic sensibility thwarted and shriveled by emotional self-denial. The title Anthony Cronin has chosen for his biography of this strange, twisted, tragic figure is apt. Indeed, there is little to laugh about here.
Flann O’Brien was born Brian O’Nolan, or Nolan, or Ó Nualláin (the family’s spelling of its name was oddly arbitrary), in the town of Strabane, in County Tyrone, just north of what is now the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. His father, Michael, was stationed there as a customs and excise officer. O’Nolan père, who later, in the 1920s, was to become a revenue commissioner in the newly established Irish Free State, was an uncommunicative but not unloving father, a recognizable Irish phenomenon (he would take his boys for long walks, “silent tramps,” Cronin writes, which “remained one of his primary methods of communication with his three eldest sons”). With his wife, Agnes née Gormley, the daughter of a prominent business family in Omagh, where he was born, Michael O’Nolan produced twelve children, of whom Brian was the third boy.
Michael’s job entailed an amount of travel about the country, and the family moved frequently, from Strabane to Glasgow, to Strabane again, to Tullamore, a town in the featureless Irish midlands, the landscape of which is the unnamed location of The Third Policeman (in this novel, Cronin remarks, “Hell is situated somewhere near Tullamore”), and finally to Dublin. There they lived for a time in a rented Georgian house in Herbert Place, where the novelist Elizabeth Bowen had partly spent her childhood. It is a characteristic oddity of Dublin life, then as now, that these two wonderful Irish writers, utterly dissimilar in background, temperament, and artistic method, should have passed parts of their childhoods on the same short stretch of street.
Michael O’Nolan was a nonmilitant Irish nationalist, and the children’s first language was Irish. The boys in their early years were educated at home, which was highly unusual in that time and class. The period in Strabane, therefore, was a schoolless idyll, the loss of which may have marked Brian for life. The O’Nolans were, Cronin writes, “one of those self-contained and inventive large families who seem to need nothing from outside.” The independence and self-sufficiency the boys learned at home left them unprepared for the brutality and mind-numbing regimentation of a Christian Brothers education, which they embarked upon when, shortly after the final move to Dublin, they entered the “sinister portals of Synge Street School.” Here is a description of life at the school, given years later by Brian in his “Cruiskeen Lawn” (Irish for “The Little Full Glass”) column in The Irish Times:
Teachers were both Christian Brothers and laymen and, though they were not by any means uniformly savage, the worst of them were scarcely human at all. To a coarseness of personality they added abnormal intellectual ignorance and uncouthness. No matter how bright a lad was with his Latin, God help him if his translation did not accord literally with what was in the Bell’s Key to the Classics as concealed in the teacher’s copy of the text.
The O’Nolan boys had a hard time catching up, and Brian was to remain in one class for three years before being allowed to sit his intermediate examination, which he passed with honors.
It is possible that Brian O’Nolan’s happiest, or his least unhappy, years were those he spent as a student at University College, Dublin, originally founded by Cardinal Newman, and attended by, among other well-known if less awesome figures, James Joyce. Here Brian at last began to make friends, a number of whom remained close to him for the rest of his life. Though not a particularly brilliant student, he had a brilliant reputation, and he sought and to an extent achieved popularity among the “‘hard men’ or ‘hard chaws’ as they were known in UCD.” Ireland in those years was a grim place for a young man of Brian O’Nolan’s temperament and ambitions. Recently granted independence from England and struggling to establish itself as a functioning entity, the country was extremely puritanical and inward-looking. As Cronin pithily observes, “The politics and public life of the Free State were governed by the values of the peasant and bourgeois elements who had been the principal beneficiaries of the struggle against Britain.” For Brian O’Nolan and his friends, held fast between the pincer-teeth of Church and State while yearning toward the freedoms of the Europe of Joyce and Beckett, the only escape was a combination of drink, talk, and “a basic irreverence and cynicism which are never far from the surface in Ireland.” As a result, there was fostered among them “a curious kind of latter-day aestheticism.” As Cronin writes,
You were in an ambiguous, not to say dishonest position, morally, socially and intellectually. You were a conformist among other conformists in terms of the most important social or philosophical questions you could face. But yet you knew about modern art and literature. You had read most of the great moderns and, above all, you had read James Joyce. That was what marked you out as different, the joke you shared against the rabblement of which you were otherwise a part.
The young Brian O’Nolan was a confirmed Europhile, but as with many others of his type, his Europe was a place of the mind. In his life he made only one trip abroad, a somewhat mysterious jaunt to Germany, and he had scant grasp of living European languages. Cronin writes: “His gods and the gods of his friends were the gods of the time, big and little: Eliot, Joyce, Aldous Huxley and Hemingway”; he also read translations of Proust, Kafka, and Kierkegaard. He had little time for the Irish Literary Revival, was cool toward Yeats, and despised Synge, as he did writers such as Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faoláin, those “rather whimsical poetic realists,” as they are called by Cronin, who evidently shares O’Brien’s disdain.
In his university years O’Nolan contributed to college magazines, under various pseudonyms, a number of lively squibs and fictional fragments, in English and Irish, the most significant of which was a piece in which the characters created by a certain Brother Barnabas are conspiring together to murder the author. Here clearly is the germ of At Swim-Two-Birds. This novel was written at some time in the mid-1930s. Cronin is an acute literary critic, and he writes illuminatingly of the models O’Brien may have followed in its composition. The two principal devices of the book are “the juxtaposition of myth with sordid contemporary reality and the novel within a novel.” The former device had of course been employed to high comic effect in Ulysses. For the latter Cronin suggests possible sources ranging from Tristram Shandy and Huxley’s Point Counter Point to James Branch Cabell’s novel The Cream of the Jest, in which the narrator is revealed to be the creation of another novelist, who is himself, of course, the creation of James Branch Cabell.