FLANN O'BRIEN died very appropriately on April 1st, 1966. The date was appropriate because O'Brien liked to fool people. Once during World War II he was interviewed by Time magazine and fed the interviewer big servings of nonsense about himself. O'Brien told the man from Time about his trip to Germany in 1933. During the trip, O'Brien revealed, he not only "managed to get himself beaten up and bounced out of a beer hall for uncomplimentary references to Adolf Hitler" but also married an 18-year-old blonde violinist who died a month after the wedding. Time swallowed all.
But O'Brien's biggest hoax involved his own name. Or names. For nearly 20 years he worked as a civil servant, using his "real" name, Brian O'Nolan. He began using the pseudonym "Flann O'Brien" in 1938 when he orchestrated a controversy in the Irish Times by writing letters to the editor under various assumed names. When his master-piece At Swim-Two-Birds was published in 1939, he stuck with the O'Brien alias. Meanwhile, the editor of the Irish Times was so impressed with O'Brien's letters, and with the increase in circulation they stimulation, that he offered O'Brien a job as a columnist. The result was his column Cruiskeen Lawn , written under the name Myles na Gopaleen. The column ran for over 20 years.
O'Brien first novel At Swim-Two-Birds enjoyed critical, but not commercial, success and was out of print for a great part of its life; The Third Policeman , his second novel, was not published until after his death; The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive were written in the last years of his life; his novel in Irish An Beal Bocht was not translated until 1973; and The Best of Myles , a selection from O'Brien's newspaper work, was published posthumously. So it is only in the years since his death that O'Brien's work has become more widely known outside of Ireland. With this new sampler, A Flann O'Brien Reader , Stephen Jones has made the range and variety of O'Brien's writing more accessible to American readers. It is a valuable book.
O'Brien was an eccentric writer of tremendous comic spirit. His work reveals an impressive knowledge of science, philosophy, literature, and theology. But his attitudes are always playful and satiric. Like Swift, who made fun of the Royal Society in Gulliver's Travels , O'Brien had a talent for making the principles of science seem ridiculous. The Sergeant in The Dalkey Archive , for example, explains the "Mollycule" theory: "Now take a sheep. What is a sheep only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around doing intricate convulsions inside the baste." This is all by way of explaining that people who spent too much time on bicycles, according to the Sergeant, "get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles". In the same novel, the crazy genius and fraud De Selby invents a substance to "abolish air" - and destroy the world. He calls it DMP (after "The Dublin Metropolitan Police") and it brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut's "ice-nine".
O'Brien described himself as an "austere neo-platonist, motor-salesman, mystic, horse-doctor, hackney, journalist and ideological catalyst". He was born in the County Tyrone in 1911, but raised mostly in Dublin. At University College, Dublin, he was a star student, known for his addiction to hard work and alcohol and for his spectacular debating abilities and mastery of billiards. After he resigned from the civil service in 1953 (for reasons he never really explained), the problem of earning a living became more severe. Frequent accidents and illnesses made his situation even more difficult. Anne Clissman, in her 1975 study of O'Brien's work, writes: "The years after 1945, and even more after 1953, were quite different. These were years of disappointment, increasing bitterness, illness and frustration. It was hard to see in the irascible and contentious man of those year the brilliant wit, the dynamic personality" of the younger O'Brien.
After the civil service, he had to rely more and more on his newspaper work. But O'Brien's "better-class journalism," as he called it, is largely work that seems to ride on the coattails of his talents as a novelist: the journalism is a little too close to, and not quite as good as, his fiction. George Orwell was a prolific journalist, and a novelist as well, who maintained certain distinctions in style and attitude between his fiction and essays. In Orwell's case, his career in journalism was parallel to his life as a writer of fiction. In fact, the journalism is sometimes superior to the fiction. But O'Brien's newspaper work is more a run-off from his fiction. The fiction of Flann O'Brien bleeds into the journalism of Myles na Gopaleen. And the loss of blood is crucial. It was wise of Brian O'Nolan, the civil servant, to stay out of this almost cannibalistic relationship between O'Brien and Myles.
O'Brien jokingly wrote, "I continue to write out of the depth of my feeling for dark groping humanity." The truth is that he almost never wrote "out of the depth" of his feelings. This refusal to be serious is at first a relief from the high-minded self-importance of many artists. But after hundreds of pages of jokes, put-ons, puns, satires, and parodies, the reader starts to become ravenous for something more directly from the heart. The constant humor, like the pseudonyms, is a way of disguising the "real" O'Brien, or O'Nolan, or Myles, or whoever this man is, providing him with some very effective, self-protective distance from his audience.
Brendan Behan, who also wrote in irish and English, was, like O'Brien, a Dubliner and a comic writer. And Joyce's Ylysses is probably the greatest comic novel ever written. But both Joyce and Behan have in their work a dimension of seriousness, of self-revelation, that makes their comedy all the more convincing. This dimension if missing from O'Brien's work.
What is strikingly present in the work of Flann O'Brien is his intelligence, anger, and wit. He called himself "an accomplished literary handy-man," but he was more than that. He produced a body of work that ais funny, innovative, and all his own. he was a singular writer whose gifts are well represented in A Flann O'Brien Reader .