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Oblomov in Dublin

In The Poor Mouth, Flann O’Brien’s delicious parody of Gaelic-language autobiographical peasant narratives, the hero is alone at night on the seashore when he hears a terrible, unrecognizable sound. He is then assailed by “an ancient smell of putridity which set the skin of my nose humming and dancing.” He eventually sees a huge black quadruped like a giant hairy seal with legs. He manages to escape and the following day tries to describe the beast to his grandfather, who asks him to sketch it.

The contours of the terrible creature, called the Sea-cat, appear in the text of the novel. It is a map of Ireland turned on its side, the four major peninsulas acting as legs, the bulbous sweep of the northeastern shoreline forming the head. In a footnote, the “editor” of the memoir tells us:

It is not without importance that the Sea-cat and Ireland bear the same shape and that both have all the same bad destiny, hard times and ill-luck attending on them.1

The “ancient smell of putridity” that emanates from this half-comic, half-terrifying embodiment of Ireland is not unrelated to the stink of “history’s ancient faeces” that, according to the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s First Love (written five years after The Poor Mouth, in 1946), largely constitutes “the charm of our country.” If Beckett and O’Brien shared a great deal besides their belief that something was rotten in the state of Ireland, the overwhelming difference between them is that Beckett, like most of their literary contemporaries, managed to flee from the Sea-cat. O’Brien, almost alone among the great writers of twentieth-century Ireland, fell into its clutches. He stayed in Ireland and paid a fearful price in frustration and neglect. “It is suicide to be abroad,” says Beckett’s Maddy Rooney in All That Fall. “But what is it to be at home, Mr. Tyler, what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution.”

Frank O’Connor, writing in 1942 when Irish neutrality in World War II made it in his eyes “a nonentity state entirely divorced from the rest of the world,” defined the impossibility of the social novel in Ireland:

Chekhov, the son of a slave, could write as easily of a princess as of a peasant girl or a merchant’s daughter. In Ireland, the moment a writer raises his eyes from the slums and cabins, he finds nothing but a vicious and ignorant middle-class, and for aristocracy the remnants of an English garrison, alien in religion and education. From such material he finds it almost impossible to create a picture of life…a realistic literature is clearly impossible. We have, I think reached the end of a period.2

The period that had ended was that of a political and artistic revolution. The great ferment of change in the early years of the twentieth century had resulted rather anticlimactically in a small, impoverished state, culturally philistine and sexually repressed, its energies drained by exhaustion and mass emigration. W.B. Yeats died in 1939, a month before the twenty-seven-year-old Brian O’Nolan, using the pseudonym Flann O’Brien, published his astonishing first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. James Joyce’s last work, Finnegans Wake, was published in the same year. Flann O’Brien was born into a culture of lingering, postrevolutionary dissolution. As with Beckett, his genius was to find energy, both comic and grotesque, in that entropy.

O’Brien has long been admired by those who have read him, but his reputation is oddly small when one considers that At Swim-Two-Birds has such a strong claim to be one of the founding texts of literary postmodernism. All the markers of that baggy but indispensable cultural category—the deconstruction of narrative, the replacement of nature by culture, an ahistoric sensibility in which tropes and genres from different eras can be mixed and matched promiscuously, the prominence of pastiche, the notion of language itself as the real author of the work—are openly declared in At Swim.

This is a book that begins by questioning why a book should have just one opening, and proceeds to give us three. It is a book by a man (Brian O’Nolan) who invents an author (Flann O’Brien) who is writing a book about an unnamed student narrator who is writing a book about a man (Dermot Trellis) who is writing a book. The narrator openly declares that “a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham” and that “the modern novel should be largely a work of reference,” since virtually all characters have already been invented. Its governing caprice is that fictional characters do in fact already exist, have independent lives, and are capable of revolting against the author who seeks to deploy them. The novel is a treasure house of brilliant pastiches of everything from Gaelic sagas and Irish folkloric narratives to the Bible, Victorian encyclopedias, scholasticism, pub poets, cowboy novels, and trashy thrillers.

Yet—and this may account for his relative critical neglect—O’Brien does not sit easily with postmodern theory. His ideas and idioms cannot be explained, as such theory would like to suggest, as responses to the conditions of “late capitalism.” O’Brien was not responding to the completion of the project of modern industrial society, but to its failure. He lived and worked in a largely agricultural country struggling to impose an ideal of cultural and economic self-sufficiency that cut it off from the mainstream of capitalist development. He poses a critical dilemma that can be resolved only by seeing his dazzling novels as paradoxical products of the conditions of mid-twentieth-century Ireland. What made those conditions so strangely fruitful was the collapse of any notion that a novel could be a direct representation of the society in which it was written.

For the reasons that Frank O’Connor outlined, the realistic social novel or play was not an option in Ireland—O’Connor himself took refuge in what he saw as the essentially private world of the short story. Yet if post- revolutionary Irish literature could not produce a Chekhov or a Turgenev, there was one nineteenth-century Russian writer whose example was genuinely useful. Ivan Goncharov’s eponymous hero Oblomov, whom we meet in the novel’s first sentence “lying in bed one morning,” is the great pioneer of “serene unconcern” and the joys of not leaving one’s bedroom:

When he was at home—and he was almost always at home—he lay down all the time, and always in the same room, the room in which we have found him and which served him as a bedroom, study and reception-room.3

Beckett read and greatly admired Goncharov’s novel—his lover Peggy Guggenheim actually called Beckett “Oblomov”—and his indolent narrators bear the mark. In his first novel, Murphy, published in 1938, a year before At Swim-Two-Birds, the protagonist is announced as having “eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off” in the same squalid room. In At Swim, the narrator finds that his bedroom “contained most of the things I deemed essential for existence” and is “accustomed to stretch myself for many hours upon my bed, thinking and smoking there.”

O’Brien’s leading characters are even more deeply devoted than Beckett’s to the pleasures of adopting a prone position in their bedrooms. “What is wrong with most people,” says the dilettante intellectual Byrne in At Swim-Two-Birds, “is that they do not spend sufficient time in bed”—a version of Blaise Pascal’s statement, used as an epigraph for the late, minor O’Brien novel The Hard Life, that all the trouble of the world comes from not staying alone in one’s room. But what does one do in bed? In a peculiar triumph for the puritanical literary censorship that deformed Irish culture during his lifetime, the bedroom in O’Brien is the locus not of sex, but of writing. Secret and unbridled instincts are played out not in the flesh, but in the word.

Like Goncharov, Flann O’Brien was a government official of relatively conservative disposition. If, indeed, the new Irish state had either the inclination or the capacity to foster an official intellectual, O’Brien might have been ideal material. He was born in 1911 into a Catholic family in the town of Strabane, in what is now Northern Ireland. The family was devoted to the Gaelic language, whose revival was to be the major cultural ambition of the Irish state. Gaelic was O’Brien’s first language, even after the family moved in his early childhood to Dublin. He wrote it superbly. As well as being a parody of the peasant narratives that were officially promoted by the state as exemplars of the native culture, The Poor Mouth is also the best comic novel ever written in Gaelic. It was also as a Gaelic-language contributor that O’Brien, under the second pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen (later Myles na Gopaleen), initially wrote his famous Cruiskeen Lawn column for The Irish Times.4

O’Brien was, furthermore, steeped in Gaelic legend and folklore. Mythic figures from the Gaelic sagas, Finn MacCool and the mad king Sweeny, are featured in At Swim-Two-Birds, and the medieval poem The Voyage of Maeldoon may be the template for The Third Policeman. O’Brien ought to have been a treasured mainstream figure in nationalist Ireland, a dazzling writer, working within the state apparatus, who could synthesize Gaelic and English, ancient lore and contemporary modernism.

Yet he was an extraordinarily marginal figure. His journalistic alter ego, Myles na Gopaleen, was celebrated in intellectual circles, but both his official and literary careers were disastrous. A combination of his gradually deepening alcoholism and his habit of making derogatory remarks about senior politicians in his newspaper columns led to his forced retirement from the civil service in 1953. (He departed, recalled a colleague, “in a final fanfare of fucks.”5 ) More significantly, Irish literary culture, constrained by censorship, had little place for his staggeringly original novels.

O’Brien was deeply disillusioned by the philistinism of the official nationalist culture. The Gaelic-language revival is unmercifully burlesqued in The Poor Mouth. A German scholar receives a Ph.D. in Berlin for his recordings of what he thinks is a native speaker, but is in fact a pig. The tendency of Gaelic writers to give themselves flowery pen names is parodied in the noms de plume of the writers the narrator encounters, among them the Bandy Ulsterman, the Sod of Turf, the Gluttonous Rabbit, and Popeye the Sailor. The urban Gaelic-language enthusiasts who arrive in the narrator’s village are repelled by the natives because

  1. The tempest of the countryside was too tempestuous.

  2. The putridity of the countryside was too putrid.

  3. The poverty of the countryside was too poor.

  4. The Gaelicism of the countryside was too Gaelic.

  5. The tradition of the countryside was too traditional.

The puritanism and narrowness of the official culture meant not just that O’Brien could not embrace it, but that it could not embrace him. His scorn for the purists who saw in Gaelic and in traditional customs a barrier against modernity was boundless. “I do not think,” he wrote, “that there is any real ground for regarding Irish dancing as a sovereign spiritual and nationalistic prophylactic.”6 He was too utterly Irish to be easily appreciated abroad and too contemptuous of official forms of Irishness to be comfortably placed at home.

  1. 1

    The Poor Mouth was written in Gaelic as An Béal Bocht. The one significant problem with the Everyman edition of O’Brien’s collected novels is that though it necessarily includes the drawing of the Sea-cat, it leaves out the rest of the visual apparatus of the book, including a compass on which every direction is west and a map of the world as seen by the people of the fictional village, Corkadoragha.

  2. 2

    O’Connor’s article in the January 1942 edition of Horizon is reproduced in Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader, edited by David Pierce (Cork University Press, 2000), pp. 499–503.

  3. 3

    Translated by David Magarshack (Penguin, 1954), p. 14.

  4. 4

    The name came from a character in Dion Boucicault’s 1860 play The Colleen Bawn, and means “Myles of the Little Horses.” O’Brien changed it so that he could return to The Irish Times after a row in which he had sworn that Myles na gCopaleen would never write for the paper again.

  5. 5

    Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (London: Grafton, 1998), p. 186.

  6. 6

    Flann O’Brien, “The Dance Halls,” The Bell, February 1941.

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