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Brimming Jug

The Complete Novels of Flann O'Brien--That Funniest of Ireland's Literary Greats

Daniel Krall

By John Lingan | Posted 3/12/2008

Flann O'Brien is primarily celebrated as the third-most-famous Irish experimental writer of the 20th century--a faint legacy, but there's only so much you can do when in the company of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. The recent publication of The Complete Novels, an omnibus from Everyman's Library, is therefore a major step toward O'Brien's canonization. But O'Brien himself did as much as anyone to tarnish whatever reputation he accrued during his life: He grew artistically lazy, failed to publish his second novel, and succumbed to that most Irish method of self-annihilation, drink. Though he lived into the 1960s, no audio or video footage of O'Brien exists because he was never sober enough for a proper interview.

Such a yen for oblivion befits a man who spent a career reinventing himself in print. Born Brian Ó N%uFFFDalláin in 1911, his name was Anglicized to Brian O'Nolan. Upon entering University College, he wrote a column under the pseudonym Brother Barnabas, eventually publishing his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, in 1939 under the name Flann O'Brien. The novel received enthusiastic praise from Joyce, Graham Greene, and Dylan Thomas, but German firebombs destroyed the London warehouse that held all the copies mere months after publication.

It sold poorly in that initial run, but At Swim-Two-Birds has since become required reading for anyone interested in 20th-century Irish or avant-garde fiction, usually with the caveat, "If you loved Ulysses . . . " The book concerns a college-age writer who sits down to write a novel about a man who writes a novel; the characters from each begin to interact with one another, rebel against their authors, and eventually the distinction between reality and fiction is all but destroyed. It also contains one of literature's most apt epigraphs, from Euripides: "For all things change, making way for one another."

Indeed, later writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Donald Barthelme brought O'Brien's innovations to wider mainstream acceptance, inspiring scholars to brandish terms such as "metafictional" and "postmodern." At Swim-Two-Birds is essentially a vehicle for O'Brien's virtuoso stylistics, and even he would agree that works best on the level of pure humor.

His second novel, The Third Policeman, was initially rejected by his publisher, and O'Brien never did find another outlet. Instead, the manuscript lay unread in a drawer until it was discovered and published in the year following his 1966 death. O'Brien's novelistic confidence was crippled by this incident, although he soon began writing what would eventually form the majority of his total works--a column in the Irish Times called "Cruiskeen Lawn," which he wrote for 22 years under several pseudonyms. Chief among these was Myles na gCopaleen, often spelled phonetically as Myles na Gopaleen. Myles was a wild success; the Times published a collection of his columns and letters, and he achieved considerable literary fame. Perhaps inspired by the similar epistolary playfulness of fellow Irishman Jonathan Swift, O'Brien often wrote letters in response to his own articles, drumming up an entire fake readership for his columns. The exact number of Myles' pseudonyms is unknown, making a complete collection of the "Cruiskeen Lawn" columns basically impossible.

"Myles" also wrote a novella in Gaelic, the satirical faux-memoir The Poor Mouth that is the third selection in Everyman's chronologically arranged collection. The last two are The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, both from the 1960s and universally considered to be O'Brien's weakest works. The Poor Mouth, however, is possibly the best thing the man wrote; even in translation, the novella is a hilarious send-up of the sentimental fiction that peaked during the Irish literary revival and informed his contemporaries like Frank O'Connor. Its narrator catalogs the Irish people's various indignities while borrowing the bittersweet tone that defined so much of their literature:

Yes! life is extraordinary. One time when I returned from Galway in the black of night, what do you think I noticed but that we had acquired a new piglet in the end of the house [. . . ] I took it carefully and allowed it to drop from my hand with amazement when I realised precisely what I had. It had a small bald head, a face as large as a duck-egg and legs like my own. I had a baby child.

Still, it's At Swim-Two-Birds that secured O'Brien's worldwide literary reputation and is the dominant justification for Everyman's handsome new volume. The Third Policeman is a bit more straightforward in execution but no less experimental in content or loved by O'Brien's cult. The book takes the form of a murderer's dream world and ends in a somewhat predictable way considering the premise.

So that's what you find in the Everyman volume: two rightly celebrated novels available elsewhere, accompanied by one esteemed but tiresome experiment and two acknowledged minor works. Meanwhile, the bulk of O'Brien's/O'Nolan's/Myles' accomplishments, his columns, are missing except by mention in the introduction. A man whose work was so varied and whose own inclination was to avoid all categorization deserves a collection that more accurately represents his career. By all means, read At Swim and The Poor Mouth, but the rest of The Complete Novels' bulk will serve mainly to fill out your bookshelf.

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