The Tragicomic Dubliner

At Swim-Two-Birds

by Flann O'Brien
Dalkey Archive Press, 316 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Flann O'Brien
Flann O'Brien; drawing by David Levine

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read comic novels of the century, At Swim-Two-Birds, and a fictional masterpiece, The Third Policeman, which remained unpublished in his own lifetime—he died in 1966 when he was fifty-five—and which he cannibalized for a much inferior work, The Dalkey Archive (his latest American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…

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