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Flann O’Brien

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.

Of his three important works, At Swim met with the enthusiastic approval of Graham Greene and James Joyce—it was the last novel he ever read—but got largely puzzled reviews, sold poorly, and was swallowed up by the outbreak of World War II. The Poor Mouth was published in Gaelic, a language with few readers, and was appreciated largely as a brilliant in-joke. And The Third Policeman was rejected in 1940 by O’Brien’s publishers, Longman’s, who explained that they wanted him to become less fantastic and instead he had become more so. Humiliated, O’Brien put about the story that the manuscript of the novel had been lost. This was, at least metaphorically, true: the novel was not published until 1967, after O’Brien’s death, by which time he had cannibalized it for the vastly inferior novel The Dalkey Archive. O’Brien’s reputation as a novelist is thus largely posthumous, and it has remained somewhat cultish, at least until one of the characters in the American TV series Lost was seen to read The Third Policeman and baffled viewers caught on to the notion that the book might contain the key to the drama.

Yet if the conditions of post- revolutionary Ireland doomed O’Brien to neglect, they also forced him into fabulous invention. Sometimes, to take the most direct example, O’Brien’s jokes are a direct burlesque of the official censorship that disallowed any mention of sex. In The Poor Mouth, the funniest of the absurdly florid names given to the miserable peasant characters is Macsamailliún Uí Phíonasa (Maximillian O’Penisa). The joke (rather lost in translation) is that the Latin word “penis” would be banned if it appeared in an English text but can be smuggled into a Gaelic one. In At Swim-Two-Birds, the narrator mentions student societies at his university: “Some were devoted to English letters, some to Irish letters, and some to the study and advancement of the French language”—the final comic circumlocution arising from the inadmissibility of “French letters,” the colloquial term for condoms, which were also banned in Ireland.

There is, in The Third Policeman, a parody of the kind of trashy sex scene that would undoubtedly have fallen foul of the censors, were it not for the fact that the object of desire is not a woman but a bicycle. The narrator slavers over

the perfect proportion of its parts…. Notwithstanding the sturdy cross-bar it seemed ineffably female and fastidious…. I passed my hand with unintended tenderness—sensuously, indeed—across the saddle…. How desirable her seat was, how charming the invitation of her slim encircling handle-arms, how unaccountably competent and reassuring her pump resting warmly against her rear thigh!

Because he believes that people and objects exchange molecules and so infiltrate each other in the most intimate ways, the police sergeant in The Third Policeman, like the censors and priests who were obsessed with maintaining Ireland’s supposed purity, is driven to distraction “trying to regulate the people of this parish” and in particular the unnatural congress between them and their bicycles.

The banning of almost every serious Irish contemporary novel also created the strange literary culture in which O’Brien reveled, one in which officially approved reading was narrowed to theological reflections, Gaelic sagas, and peasant narratives while the thirst for contemporary stories was slaked by imported cowboy stories and cheap crime thrillers. O’Brien’s humor often derives from the absurd conjunctions implicit in this unlikely mix.

More importantly, O’Brien’s novels draw their dark energy from the sexual repression that lay behind the censorship. They are remarkable for the almost complete absence of either the nuclear family or healthy sexuality. O’Brien’s biographer Anthony Cronin notes of his student days that most of his friends “regarded him as a natural celibate, even a kind of anchorite…the cells of whose hermitage were the pubs, from which women were for the most part debarred.” Although O’Brien did marry and have children, his alcoholism ensured that he retained his monastic devotion to the all-male society of the pub and his novels are male-centered to the point of misogyny. The savant De Selby, to whose works the narrator of The Third Policeman is devoted, is afflicted by a complete inability to distinguish women from men, referring even to his own mother as “a very distinguished gentleman.”

In O’Brien’s work, fathers and mothers are almost entirely absent. The narrator in At Swim-Two-Birds lives with his uncle, as do the protagonists of The Hard Life, which begins with the death of the narrator’s mother. In The Third Policeman, the narrator is orphaned and finds a dangerous father substitute in the manipulative villain John Diveney. In The Poor Mouth, the narrator Bonaparte O’Coonassa’s main relationship is with his grandfather, the Old-Grey-Fellow—he meets his father just once, in a chance encounter in prison.

Sexuality, where it exists in the novels, is expressed only in dark and violent fantasies. In At Swim-Two-Birds, where literary characters are treated as real, the author Dermot Trellis has created the virginal Sheila Lamont but has then raped her “and [she] died indirectly from the effects of the assault.” The narrator and his friend Kelly, meanwhile, stalk the streets “following matrons, accosting strangers, representing to married ladies that we were their friends, and gratuitously molesting members of the public.” In spite of their importunities, they never actually have any kind of sexual relationship with women.

Instead of being merely desolate, however, this absence of family and sexual fulfilment is linked to O’Brien’s great conceit in At Swim—that of literary creation as a form of parthenogenesis. Writing is sex for an all-male, sex-averse society. Its children are conceived without all the bother and awkwardness of having to deal with women. In the bedroom that is the world of his narrators, congress with oneself generates the only life that is available—the life of words and stories.

In O’Brien’s novels, real sexual reproduction is a source of utter befuddlement. In The Poor Mouth, the narrator’s father is so astounded by his son’s birth (“he was a quiet fellow and did not understand very accurately the ways of life”) that he almost dies of fright. In The Third Policeman, the policeman Pluck refuses to use the word “pregnancy” and resorts to the contorted circumlocution of a woman being in “a very advanced state of sexuality.” Writing, on this analogy, is a very primitive state of sexuality, one in which conception, gestation, and birth can all take place in the head.

That O’Brien’s inventions were a response to Irish conditions is evident from the extraordinary parallels between his work and that of Beckett—a writer of very different background, temperament, and linguistic approach—with whom he shared little except his nationality. The common influence of Oblomov on their narrators’ habits is just one similarity. Both parody scientific and academic discourse—there are passages in At Swim-Two-Birds that directly prefigure Lucky’s stream of high-sounding nonsense in Waiting for Godot. Both use footnotes as a comic metafictional device to disrupt and subvert the narrative—O’Brien in The Third Policeman, where the narrator’s increasingly long footnotes on De Selby threaten to devour the text; Beckett, three years later, in Watt. Both not merely write in two languages, but deliberately create an English prose that feels like it has been translated from another tongue. The narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds, for example, describes the act of drinking with his friends with a comically convoluted awkwardness:

The three of us were occupied in putting glasses of stout into the interior of our bodies and expressing by fine disputation the resulting sense of physical and mental well-being.

Both are tormented and fascinated by the notion of dead words, in O’Brien’s case leading to one of the running features of his newspaper column, The Catechism of Cliché.

In response to the prevailing puritanism and its utter distrust of the body, both Beckett and O’Brien were concerned with the Cartesian duality of mind and body. In Murphy, the protagonist “felt himself split in two, a body and a mind. They had intercourse apparently, otherwise he could not have known that they had anything in common.” He is haunted by the way “the mental experience was cut off from the physical experience.” In O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive, the mad sage De Selby dismisses Descartes: “Cogito ergo sum? He might as well have written inepsias scripsi ergo sum and prove the same point.” (“I write ineptly, hence I exist.”) Both Beckett and O’Brien satirize Descartes, but in O’Brien there is a more agonized tussle between mind and body.

On the one hand, O’Brien sees fiction itself as the great riposte to the notion that thinking proves existence. He explodes the cogito by taking it literally—the characters that he thinks up are posited as real, preexisting people (a note on the title page of The Hard Life warns us that “all the persons in this book are real and none is fictitious even in part”) who can themselves invent more characters who are just as real. If the mind, rather than the body, determines existence, then there is no boundary between the fictive inventions of an author and the reality of living people.

On the other hand, however, this comic inflation of Descartes to the point at which he is thoroughly exploded does not prevent O’Brien’s imagination from being deeply troubled by the mystery of the self. If the mind can work outward, generating invented characters who in turn invent others, can it not also work inward? Is the self of the author really godlike, or is it just another unstable fiction behind which lurks another personality? The multiple names of the author (Brian O’Nolan, Flann O’Brien, Myles na Gopaleen, and other guises including Brother Barnabas, Stephen Blakesley, and George Knowall) seem to express a deeper unease.

The image of a self behind the self recurs in O’Brien. It is comically absurd in The Third Policeman in De Selby’s experiments with infinitely regressing mirrors. The savant, struck by the thought that a reflection shows one’s face not as it is but as it was a tiny fraction of a second before, constructs a series of parallel mirrors in which he sees an image of himself as a twelve-year-old boy. More generally, though, the self-behind-the-self haunts the dark, Gothic side of O’Brien’s writing. In The Third Policeman, the narrator comes face-to-face with the man he has murdered, Old Mathers. He is terrified by the man’s eyes, and by the thought that they are mere fronts for an almost endless series of eyes behind them:

But the eyes were horrible. Looking at them I got the feeling that they were not genuine eyes at all but mechanical dummies animated by electricity or the like, with a tiny pinhole in the centre of the “pupil” through which the real eye gazed out secretively and with great coldness. Such a conception, possibly with no foundation at all in fact, disturbed me agonizingly and gave rise in my mind to interminable speculations as to the colour and quality of the real eye and as to whether, indeed, it was real at all or merely another dummy with its pinhole on the same plane as the first one so that the real eye, possibly behind thousands of these absurd disguises, gazed out through a barrel of serried peep-holes.

Likewise, in O’Brien’s macabre story “Two In One,” published in The Bell magazine in 1954, a young taxidermist murders his master and disposes of the body, retaining only the skin. He then has the idea of making his crime a perfect one by assuming both the skin and the identity of his dead employer. The ruse rebounds on him, however, when the police investigate his own disappearance and he ends up being hanged for his own murder.

This notion of infinite regression is one way out of the stasis of an Irish history that has reached a kind of conclusion (an independent state) but no fulfilment. If time dissolves, so does history. As O’Brien noted in a letter, giving his own simplistic version of Einstein,

The idea is that time is a great flat motionless sea. Time does not pass; it is we who pass. With this concept as basic, fantastic but coherent situations can be easily devised, and in effect the whole universe torn up in a monstrous comic debauch.7

If time is meaningless, the most blissful state imaginable is that in which it is most fully suspended—sleep. This is one of the things that distinguishes O’Brien most thoroughly from Beckett. In Beckett, the state that the characters most truly desire is death. In O’Brien it is sleep. Death is not an option—since the characters do not exist except as endlessly recycled literary tropes, they can never really be killed off. The narrator of The Third Policeman realizes that since he has no name (which is to say no actual identity), “I cannot die.” Having neither life nor death, the best O’Brien’s characters can hope for is that in-between world of sleep, a condition that has the great advantage of rendering the despised body redundant. “When a man sleeps,” says Byrne in At Swim-Two-Birds,

he is steeped and lost in a limp toneless happiness: awake he is restless, tortured by his body and the illusion of existence. Why have men spent the centuries seeking to overcome the awakened body? Put it to sleep, that is a better way. Let it serve only to turn the sleeping soul over, to change the blood-stream and thus make possible a deeper and more refined sleep.

In The Third Policeman, the narrator’s one great comfort in the endless doom of the afterlife, in which he will forever be arriving in a demented Irish village ruled by policemen who are both godlike and fatuous, is sleep. His hero, the savant De Selby, suffers from narcolepsy, and regularly falls asleep in public. He himself reflects happily on

the immeasurable boon of sleep, more particularly on my own gift of sleeping opportunely. Several times I had gone asleep when my brain could no longer bear the situations it was faced with.

His finest moment of bliss is “a full and simple sleep. Compared with this sleep, death is a restive thing, peace is a clamour and darkness a burst of light.”

For O’Brien, in the soporific culture of mid-twentieth-century Ireland, the novel itself is a kind of sleep, a way of being neither dead nor alive and thus of drawing energy from entropy. But in that sleep, what dreams may come? In Ulysses, James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Daedalus called history “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” For O’Brien, there is nothing to awaken to, no escape from history’s dull culmination. There is only the recurrent nightmare of lingering dissolution, broken by dreams of pure, glorious invention.