Word Screen Park
Kevin McMahon
Six conversations on Flann O'Brien

Like most of the writers who matter to me, I started reading Flann/Myles/etc. as a teenager. During the summer 2010 break I finally got around to a writing about him.

 

ONE

A. What are you reading?
B. The Complete Novels of Flann O’Brien.
A. Flann … ?
B. The novelist Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) alias the civil servant Brian O’Nolan—also known as Brian Ó Nualláin, 1937-1953)—and the Irish Times columnists Myles na gCopaleen (1940-1952) and Myles na Gopaleen (1952-3) ….
A. Huh? (Reading the jacket cover) “… along with Joyce and Beckett, … part of the holy trinity of modern Irish literature …” Whew! So who was he?
B. An examiner.
A. A teacher? A lawyer?
B. No. I mean that in his novels, stories, plays, newspaper columns, he returns again and again to the same scene—the interrogation.
A. Interrogation?
B. The contest of an examiner confronting a person examined. Mr. A. demands Mr. B. to explain Who are you? What are you doing? Where did you come from? What’s that you’ve got there? And, most menacingly, What’s your name?
A. Grim.
B. Not necessarily. The tone can be light, and the material can consist of things you already know:

Of what was any deceased citizen you like to mention typical?
Of all that is best in Irish life.

Correct. With what qualities did he endear himself to all who knew him?
His charm of manner and unfailing kindness.

Yes. But with what particularly did he impress all those he came in contact with?
His sterling qualities of mind, loftiness of intellect and unswerving devotion to the national cause.

What article of his was always at the disposal of the national language?
His purse.

And what more abstract assistance was readily offered to those who sought it?
The fruit of his wide reading and profound erudition.

At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.

With what cause did he never disguise the fact that his sympathies lay?
The cause of national independence.

And at what time?
At a time when lesser men were content with the rôle of time-server and sycophant.

What was he in his declining years?
Though frail of health, indefatigable in his exertions on behalf of his less fortunate fellow men.

Whom did he marry in 1879?
A Leitrim Lady.

And at what literary work was he engaged at the time of his death?
His monumental work on The Oghams of Tipperary.

And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.”

A. I didn’t follow all of that.
B. But you get the idea. “The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché” was a recurring feature of the Irish Times columns. Some of the funniest things ever written.
A. There are novels, too?
B. Something similar happens in the novel The Hard Life, which consists largely of arguments between Uncle Collopy and Father Fahrt. They talk in jargon, aimless and mad. It is comic, but the manner is more exaggerated.
A. Father Fahrt?
B. Father Kurt Fahrt, Society of Jesus.
A. Our author is getting silly.
B. Yes. He goes even further in his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, near the end of which is a scene in which the fictional novelist Dermot Trellis is put on trial by an outraged gang of characters he has created, led by the Pooka MacPhelliney. One after another testifies against him, and he’s condemned.
A. A joker, obviously.
B. Usually. But mood often turns black, as when the narrator of The Third Policeman is stuck in an exasperating conversation with Mathers, who answers every question with “No.”
A. Annoying.
B. That’s just the start. After much aimless back and forth our author gets to something truly horrible:

I turned to him again, fearing that his fit of talkativeness had passed.

‘Where is the black box which was under the floor a moment ago?’ I asked. I pointed to the opening in the corner. He shook his head and did not say anything.

‘Do you refuse to tell me?
‘No.
‘Do you object to my taking it?
‘No.
‘Then where is it?
’What is your name?’ he asked sharply.

I was surprised at this question. It had no bearing on my own conversation but I did not notice its irrelevance because I was shocked to realize that I did not remember who I was. I was not certain where I had come from or what my business was in that room. I found I was sure of nothing save my search for the black box. But I knew that the other man’s name was Mathers, and that he had been killed with a pump and spade. I had no name.

A. No name? Doesn’t know his own name?
B. A recurring nightmare of our author.
A. Or joke.
B. Yes, both: a nightmare/joke. Later in that same story someone tells the narrator what it means that he doesn’t have a name: “’Anything you do is a lie and nothing that happens to you is true.’”
A. Grim.
B. Perhaps the definitive version is in The Poor Mouth, where the country boy describes his first morning at English-language school:

—Phwat is yer nam?

I did not understand what he said nor any other type of speech which is practiced in foreign parts because I had only Gaelic as a mode of expression and as a protection against the difficulties of life. I could only stare at him, dumb with fear. I then saw a great fit of rage come over him and gradually increase exactly like a rain-cloud.

 … I heard a whisper at my back:
--Your name he wants! …

Before I had uttered or half-uttered my name, a rabid bark issued from the master and he beckoned to me with his finger. By the time I had reached him, he had an oar in his grasp. Anger had come over him in a flood-tide at this stage and he had a businesslike grip of the oar in his two hands. he drew it over his shoulder and brought it down hard upon me with a swish of air, dealing me a destructive blow on the skull. I fainted from that blow, but before I became totally unconscious I heard him scream:

--Yer nam, said he, is Jams O’Donnell!

… When my eyes were in operation again, there was another youngster on his feet being asked his name. It was apparent that this child lacked shrewdness completely and had not drawn good beneficial lessons for himself from the beating which I had received because he replied to the master, giving his common name as I had. The master again brandished the oar which was in his grasp and did not cease until he was shedding blood plentifully ….

He continued in this matter until every creature in the school had been struck down by him and all had been named Jams O’Donnell”

A. A bit over the top, don’t you think? Hard to take straight.
B. There’s a cartoonish aspect, but the panic is pretty raw. Losing your name! Everyone having the same name equals nobody having a name.
A. A belligerent game.
B. One that is only seemly between men.

 

TWO

A. I’ve been reading up on our author and I’ve got him all figured out. Don’t look at me that like that.
B. Go on.
A. His biography explains it all. He grew up in an eccentric household. A dozen kids. The parents insist on their speaking only Irish. Hence none go to school until very late. At age 11 our author encounters life outside of his family for the first time, and well as systems of history, literature, philosophy, theology, politics, and religion in the form of the extraordinarily brutal and stupid Christian Brothers school. Listen to how his brother described it:

From being able to do exactly as we wanted from our birth until this time, without having any companionship or contact with other boys, no duties to fulfill, with no stranger having a right to get in on us or give us tasks to do, to be unburdened with lessons to prepare or do correctly—there is no imagining the great anxiety all this caused us, it was like a terrible test, putting people into a fire or into icy water. Indeed it was so hard on us and took us so long for us to get used to it, that I would nearly say that the freedom of our young days was not worth the high price we paid for it.

B. And so?
A. The world and its wisdom came to our author in the form of a terrifically violent assault.
B. Yes, except for the fact that our author saw some value in it, boasting in the Irish Times, that “I read contemporary literature in five languages, thanks to the Christian Brothers and an odd hiding now and again.”
A. Did I mention that there was also a civil war going on at that time? Imagine what that must have felt like, after growing up in a household of kind-hearted, cultured patriots. Centuries of nationalistic passion around the cause of national independence culminating, at the long-awaited moment of freedom, in sectarian atrocities and journalistic, nationalistic and bureaucratic blather.
B. The name of the little magazine he started at UCD.
A. What?
B. Blather.
A. And can you imagine what his father felt when he read, “Níl aon ní ar an doṁan co deas no co Gaelaċ le ḟeis-Ghaeil ḟíor-Ghaelaċa aḃíonn ag cainṫ ḟíor-Ghaeilge Ghaelaí I dṫaoḃ na Gaeilge Ghaelaí.”
B. Eh?
A. In Patrick Power’s English rendering: “There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Galeic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.” I ask you, what did his father think of this?
B. Nothing; his father never saw it. He was dead by then, and our author, like it or not, was head of his family.
A. Which is another thing: at the moment he starts to become a writer, he takes on the responsibility for his Mom and dozen siblings. No skipping off to Paris to lead the literary life for him. He walks from a dazzling extemporaneous oration at the Literary & Historical Society to a government desk and stays chained to it for the next sixteen years.
B. I reject the premise that the life explains the work. Besides, his own big mouth eventually got him in hot water with his superiors, and he was booted out.
A. Because in his Irish Times columns he exposed muddled thinking and bad faith hiding behind fine words. He was like George Orwell, or Karl Kraus in Austria, especially attentive to dishonest uses of language.
B. Orwell and Kraus were passionate about distinguishing truth from lies. This passion is something I don’t find in our author.  He doesn’t play the game with the same seriousness.
A. He was just a mocker, then? Just taking shots?
B. No: he wasn’t merely a humorist, either. His seriousness came from a mistrust of language.
A. Mistrust?
B. Or call it a feeling: a feeling for the eeriness of referentiality.
A. Cripes.
B. The intention of using words to express, explain …. The Third Policeman is an epic composed of panicky and vain attempts to account for things. Mirrors reflecting into mirrors. The narrator describes his experience. Everyone he encounters describes themselves and the things around them. De Selby’s descriptions lurk in the background. A ceiling represents a landscape, there is this stuff called omnium which can become anything, there is this underground room called Eternity, whose walls are lined with cabinets in which you can find anything you’re looking for ….
A. Nonsense.
B. It is. But it is also music—delightful word music. You want it to go on forever. But there is no escape from it’s nullity of non-meaning. The narrator in A Hard Life says it all when he confesses, “It is seemly, as I have said, to give that explanation but I cannot pretend to have illuminated the situation or made it more reasonable.”
A. Poor words, mis-used.
B. But the words themselves don’t quite mean what they might:

The Irish lexicographer Dinneen, considered in vacuo is, heaven knows, funny enough. He just keeps standing on his head, denying stoutly that piléar means bullet and asserting that it means ‘an inert thing or person’. Nothing stumps him. He will promise the sun moon and stars to anybody who will catch him out. And well he may. Just take the sun, moon and stars for a moment. Sun, you say, is grian. Not at all. Dinneen shouts that grian means ‘the bottom (of a lake, well)’. You are a bit nettled and mutter that, anyway, gealach means moon. Wrong again. Gealach means ‘the white circle in a slice of a half-boiled potato, turnip, etc.’

A. It ends in pedantry.
B. But it also returns to the heart of the interrogation—the inability of the examiner to acknowledge the examined. In the Dalkey Archive, when the aged, fictionalized James Joyce explains his unexpected but sincere desire to join the Jesuits, Father Cobble so completely misunderstands that he seriously proposes to put him “in charge of the maintenance and repair of the Fathers’ underclothes in all the Dublin residential establishments.” The scene repeats, in a mode of quaintly puerile blasphemy, the inability to acknowledge his worth that drove the real Joyce to abandon his country in the first place.
A. This is where our author’s pseudonyms come in. If you won’t acknowledge there’s any value in me being me, then I will be other people, anybody: Head of a Large Family, Civil Servant, Gaelgoir, University wit, columnist, celebrity, unknown, novelist, genius, failure, ….
B. “No author should write under his own name nor under one permanent pen-name; a male writer should include in his impostures a female pen-name, and possibly vice-versa.”
A. And he wrote about fictional creations that take on a life of their own. That take on their Creator. The apotheosis is in the farcial trial in At Swim-Two-Birds, and poor Hatchjaw, about whom, “newspaper readers of the older generation will recall the sensational reports of his arrest for impersonating himself ….”
B. Art tending to become life, and all that.

 

THREE

A. If he had any regard for literature, he kept it to himself. All his erudition and literary jokes put literature on the same level as the stupid speeches of politicians or the clichés of newspapers or the jargon of the civil service. He was knowledgeable about it, but nothing in his writing indicates that he was every moved or touched by any book.
B. But, on the other hand, writing creates meaning, it motivates. He prefaced A Hard Life with the disclaimer: “All the persons in this book are real and none is fictitious even in part.”
A. Yes, but writing has only a trivial physical reality. It does not compel attention; it can be ignored, silenced, reduced to nothing. Besides, books are not a source of light, they are a curse. They are The Enemies of Promise, the curse of all clever boys.
B. Unlike Joyce, Beckett, Raymond Roussel or any other anti-novelist our author might be compared to, he strives to entertain.
A. Exactly: a moralist not an aesthete. Art, intellectual inquiry, myth and all the other modes of human creation and inquiry are necessary parts of life, but they tend to become their own ends. Hence vain and vicious.
B. In The Third Policeman, ingenuity of art and argument becomes central torment of Hell.
A. I’m glad you mentioned that book. It’s important to this topic. His biography makes it clear that his publisher’s rejection of it in 1940, age 29, confirmed his suspicion that life was a botch. If he had any hopes of a literary life, they were now crushed. It takes the re-issue of At Swim-Two-Birds twenty years later to revive his interest in fiction.
B. I suspect it was a confirmation, not a cataclysm.
A. A year later he begins the story John Duffy’s Brother with a clarification—in case anyone had any doubts—of the pointlessness of writing:

Strictly speaking, this story should not be written or told at all. To write it or to tell it is to spoil it. This is because the man who had the strange experience we are going to talk about never mentioned it to anybody, and the fact that he kept his secret and sealed it up completely in his memory is the whole point of the story. Thus we must admit that handicap at the beginning—that it is absurd for us to tell the story, absurd for anybody to listen to it and unthinkable that anybody should believe it.

B. And in the same vein, Samuel Beckett claimed, eight years later, to have “nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express."
A. And what about Beckett?
B. Compatriots, contemporaries, acquaintances, … and opposites.
A. Opposite in what sense?
B. Beckett valued refinement. And also myth. Neither of those words meant anything to our author.
A. But come on! They both devoted their careers to documenting obsessive, futile talkers. And the atmosphere is almost identical.
B. It’s the difference between the highly cultivated, literary sense of the absurd and a joke.
A. Murphy and Watt aren’t that far from Third Policeman.
B. But from Molloy he followed a different path from our author: language without overtones, simplification, fragmentation, myth. And Beckett had a taste for horror, for muck, for the grotesque. His radio play All That Fall is the only thing that could have been written by our author. There’s connections. But I don’t have enough affection for Beckett to unravel them.
A. It’s funny though that one school of commentators on Beckett seem devoted to making him into a recorder of the Dublin scene, seeing a real-life prototype of his Murphy in Stoney Pockets, “walked round the Dublin streets with a pronounced tilt to one side, keeping his right-hand pockets filled with stones to straighten himself up.” Eoin O’Brian’s The Beckett Country has a delicious moment when he admits, “I was at a loss to explain why Voice A [in That Time] even considered the number eleven bus, as there are other more direct bus routes to Foxrock.”
B. Beckett believed in art in a way our author did not. The aestheticism exemplified by people like Joyce and Beckett annoyed him. When he gets around to writing his own theory of art in the Fifties, the image is futile and rude:

But surely there you have the Irish artist? Sitting fully dressed, innerly locked in the toilet of a locked coach where he has no right to be, resentfully drinking somebody else’s whiskey, keeping fastidiously the whole on the outer face of his door the simple word, ENGAGED.

A. The emphasis on the isolation.
B. Ah, well ….

 

FOUR

A. What, then, was there left for our author to do?
B. Listen and record the world’s talk. Think of his disembodied voices—The Good Fairy in At Swim-Two-Birds and Joe the Conscience in Third Policeman—as precursors of Beckett’s disembodied voices in That Time and Footfalls. In a different key the Irish Times he warned about malevolent ventriloquists:

Let me give some further details of the Escort mess I mentioned the other day. When it became generally known that a non-union man had succeeded in extracting a five-pound note from a client by menaces, hordes of unscrupulous ventriloquists descended upon the scene and made our theatre foyers a wilderness of false voices, unsaid remarks, anonymous insults, speakerless speeches and scandalous utterances which had no known utterer.

A. Ha!
B. But besides the odd case of speech without a speaker, the real danger begins when, as in Third Policeman, the reality of the world is undermined by the insane blather of Sgt. Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen.
A. Undermined?
B. The stability and identity of things and people in the world are undermined—or, rather, infected—by 

  • Infinity. The infinitely divisible, the infinitely fine (the birthday gowns made of winds, the infinitely internestled ornamental chests, Policeman Fox living in-between the walls of Maters’s house)
  • Mutability/Changeability. One thing becomes any thing, potentially all things. No fixed identity (omnium)
  • Eternity. In the sense of time stopped (the underground Eternity), and endless repetition (the story ends where it began)
  • Adulteration/Corruption. Unlike things fusing (people and their bicycles) 

A. But isn’t the novel a murder mystery? I looked.
B. Yes, plus a story of abandonment temptation, murder, theft, betrayal, and damnation.
A. I don’t remember any of those things being mentioned in it.
B. They aren't.
A. If the talk is not to the point, then what’s its point?
B. The music—accents, dialects, patterns.
A. Patterns?
B. Conventional phrases, jargon, rhetoric, clichés.
A. All the things that clutter conversation, that are the opposite of creative literature, the opposite of poetry.
B. Not so fast.
A. What about all the pages and pages of rubbish attributed to De Selby in Third Policeman and Dalkey Archive? His accounts of travel, time, water, men & women … and De Selby’s other commentators?
B. Alternatives to reality.
A. Pointless alternatives.
B. No argument. But our author, whatever misfortune he may have suffered as a schoolboy or as Principal Officer in the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Local Government, he maintained appreciation for the poetry of systematic thought.
B. Thomistic theology?
A. And bureaucratic procedure, political praise or dispraise.
B. Didn't his character Mick end a reverie in St. Stephen’s Green by noticing “Was there not a futility about what was nice and orderly?”

 

FIVE

A. But what about talk? What about it mattered to him?
B. Five things:

  • Talk that reveals where (in Ireland, in Dublin) you are from.
  • Talk that betrays conventional thought. He loved bores and conventional thinkers for their stereotyped speech. He loved bores more than literary artists. His nihilism. His rejection of Joycean/Beckettian aestheticism.
  • Talk that betrays vanity. He loved talkers, people in love with the sound of their own voices. People puffing themselves up.
  • Talk that betrays idleness, inertia. People passing the time.
  • Talk that betrays arrogance. Orators presuming to know more than they can.

A. I’ve decided that our author is a Christian, Catholic moralist. His writing comes from the point of view of a theologian observing with amusement the spectacle of men (always men) attempting to reason without the gift of special revelation. The spectacle of men going about their lives without reference to God. Hence, despite ingenuity, emptiness. Our author writes in the spirit of Ecclesiastes complaining, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
B. What about the blasphemy? St. Augustine making an underwater appearance to exclaim, “How could Origen be the Father of Anything and he with no knackers on him? … Two Saint Patricks? We have four of the buggers in our place and they’d make you sick with their shamrocks and shenanigans and bullshit.”
A. The Catholic Church is another very beautiful engine of emptiness, ingeniously accomplishing very little. Mockery of its worldly face doesn’t necessarily imply dissent from its mission.
B. Nothing he wrote even hints at any belief—belief in religion or in anything else.
A. Like La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, which a Janesnist contemporary praised “an ingenious satire on the corruption of nature by original sin.”
B. I concede the possibility. But he is bleaker: not only no hope and no escape, but no possibility of vision, not even a glimpse.
A. But the aesthetic …
B. No: no aesthetic transcendence. There is no point in writing, no point in being an artist. He refused the career, the vocation of artist.
A. A Dadaist saint: Jacques Vaché, Arthur Cravan, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven ….
B. No: he refused the vocation of martyr, too. None of that nonsense.
A. Granted.
B. Here’s a completely different approach: think of him as a naturalist, a gentleman-amateur scientist, a collector of specimens, a collector of observations, readings.
A. This from the man who wrote, “A note in my diary says: ‘Ten to the power of seventy-nine. Write on this joke.”
B. Still, it saves having to make him out to be secret agent for the Vatican.
A. Another thing: if he’s a collector, then the columns for the Irish Times become his central work, counting more than the novels.
B. I know: that doesn’t sound quite right.
A. Well, it’s a thought.

 

SIX

A. We’ve gone on and on about our author without discussing what is surely the most extraordinary thing about his writings—the absence of sex, love and romance.
B. And the absence of female characters.
A. Which might be related.
B. Well?
A. Yes, it begs for some kind of explanation. About the absence of love, I think there are three possible explanations:

  • Prudery. Our author as essentially compliant with his prudish milieu, in which sex and romance were not acceptable matter for books.
  • Aesthetics. Joyce and Lawrence having done all you can do with sex and passion, our author recoiled. Sex had been done.
  • Personality. Our author didn’t have romantic passions. He didn’t have passionate feelings about anything. He was a bottled-up, self-contained person who didn’t permit himself to cut loose.

B. So our author is not only a narrow-minded clodhopper and a snob, but also a cold fish? Are you going on to call him and out-and-out misogynist? You've got to do better than that.
A. Hm ….
B. Here’s a thought: interior life didn’t interest him. The kind of subjective, interior experience that constitutes the meat and potatoes of almost all modern literature didn’t interest him. Our author’s focus was on the public life of his characters. His account in Dalkey Archive of the feelings of Mick for Mary (those names!) is cut off before it begins with the observation that “The mutual compulsion is a mystery, not just a foible or biogenesis, and this sort of mystery, even if comprehensible to the two concerned, is at least absolutely private.”
A. But … public life?
B. It would be more accurate to say pub life, since his characters haunt the pubs. And even if not explicitly set inside one, a lot of his writings have the air of being transcriptions of pub talk.
B. The pub talk of men.
A. Which was the other unaccountable fact. Do you have any thoughts on that?
B. As a matter of fact, I do.
A. Go on.
B. First of all, I don’t entirely accept the claim that our author doesn’t have any female characters. There’s the wonderfully horrible MacPherson …
A. … who appears in a posthumous fragment.
B. The very self-contained first seven chapters of an unfinished novel.
A. And seems modeled on Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha
B. An Aunt Agatha who buys Ireland to make it her private plantation out of hatred of the Irish. There’s also Margaret in Faustus Kelly, who’s the only character besides The Devil to realize what her circle of Irish patriots had become "vulgar despicable hypocrites, a gang of drunken louts, worrying all day and all night about your own delicate hides.” Anyway, my favorite is Annie Collopy, Miss Annie.
A. She does nothing and barely utters a word.
B. But every time she does appear she utters the word “seemingly.”
A. She’s barely there.
B. Exactly: she’s haunting.
A. Well, whatever she is, she and her sisters don’t constitute much of a force in the oeuvre complete. Was our author queer?
B. Undoubtably, but probably not in the sense you mean.
A. One thought could be that since, like Borges—a writer who he probably has more in common with than Beckett—he writes about unbalanced theologians, and they tend to be men ….
B. It's hard to imagine our author feeling constrained by any claim of realism.
A. Did he know any women? Did he have female friends?
B. Oh, please.
A. Did he find women boring and domestic? The guy in Third Policeman remarking, “I never saw my mother outside the kitchen in my life ….”
B. In conclusion, I stress the obvious point that our author’s field wasn’t life but the pub. He did not seek to understand family, life, work, society, God but to escape from them, to dispel their power to oppress for a moment by means of wit, bravado, camaraderie, and goofing off.
A. When did you start reading this stuff?
B. At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
THE PLAIN PEOPLE OF IRELAND. You make our man sound serious.
B. That wasn’t the intention. Sorry.

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