Flann O’Brien, was born Brian O’Nolan in Strabane, Ulster, in 1911, and was also known as Myles na gCopaleen to the readers of his column “Cruiskeen Lawn” in the Irish Times. A lifelong civil servant in Dublin, his use of pseudonyms was prodigious and legend has it that he would write letters of complaint to The Irish Times about his own column under a false name! Along with Beckett and Joyce he is often described as one of the Holy Trinity of Irish post modernism and he published his first astonishing novel At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939, the same year as Joyce’s last work Finnegan’s Wake was published.
At Swim-Two-Birds is an undoubted masterpiece of postmodern literature. Featuring a deconstructed narrative, the mixing of historic tropes and the idea of language itself being all important, the book is about a student who is trying to write a book about an author, the characters of which are trying to take over the novel that the author is writing. It is a stunning pastiche of a wide range of cultural and literary references, from Irish folklore to cowboy stories and features O’Brien’s wonderfully inventive use of language.
The Third Policeman, his second novel, was never published during his lifetime, and is another absurdist allegory featuring fat policemen, scientific theory and a love affair between a man and his bicycle. O’Brien recycled much of The Third Policeman for the uneven The Dalkey Archive, the highlight of which features James Joyce as a barman who wishes to be a priest who continually denies all knowledge of having written Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.
Some of this inventiveness and surrealist joy in language and structure is evident in The Hard Times, but it lacks the imaginative heart of O’Brien’s earlier works.
The Hard Times, published in 1961, is subtitled ‘An Exegesis of Squalor’ and is dedicated to Graham Greene, ‘whose own forms of gloom I admire’. It’s an oblique title for a book that may feature orphans, alcoholism and neglect but there is little in the way of actual hardship. Finbarr (our passive narrator) and his brother Manus, are orphans who live with their half-uncle, Mr. Collopy and his daughter Annie. They are fed, looked after and given an education. Collopy spends most of his time arguing with his friend, the Jesuit priest Father Kurt Fahrt, while Manus, with the help of a found printing press, has big plans involving the fraudulent production of pamphlets that will teach people how to walk the tightrope, amongst other things.
Little happens until Callopy is sent on a far-fetched trip to Rome to meet the Pope, which ends disastrously (‘the Pope told them to go to Hell’) while his health declines following the ingestion of Gravid water – a concoction of Manus’ which has an awkward side effect of making the patient heavier without them gaining any actual weight.
Of all O’Brien’s novels, The Hard Life is probably the most realistic. It’s a linear tale, but is structurally weak, lacking any inner cohesion that would allow it to create its own world. Finbarr is an unusually dull narrator, with no focus or intention, his descriptions of the action being no more than that, simply descriptions. The second half of the book is told mainly in epistolary fashion, through increasingly garbled letters sent from Manus in London or Rome to Finbarr and although there is some satire around life in Dublin, the Catholic Church and Irish political structures, there is little in the way of bite.
They say piety has a smell. What they mean is only the absence of the smell of women
The novel’s main thrust seems to be to suggest that all language is subterfuge, lacking meaning or merit. Fr Fahrt and Mr. Collopy’s discourses are empty dialectic games. Collopy’s grand project, may or may not involve a plan to provide restrooms for the women of Dublin, but it is vague and elusive. Manus produces educational pamphlets with no educational merit, and promises qualifications from an educational institution that doesn’t exist but merely uses the language of learning to create an aura of authority and grandeur. Even the fabled meeting with the Pope is told in translation, with the actual offending discourse not being shared with the reader. That Manus should prove to be quite successful peddling empty words and meaningless lessons only emphasizes O’Brien’s point. It doesn’t however make for a very satisfying read and the lack of humour highlights the gloom.
However, the joy of language is still in evidence. Boys are ‘young thullabawns of fellows’ or ‘two pishrogues’, lunch is a ‘hang sangwich’ and a drink is a ‘smahan of whiskey’.
The Hard Times does contain some of O’Brien’s trademark flights of fancy, his obsession with tightrope walking is still in evidence,
The High Wire – Nature Held at Bay – Spine-chilling Spectacle Splenetizes Sporting Spectators – By Professor H.Q. Latimer Dodds
while Manus’s educational subjects and the incident with the gravid water still manage to raise a smile. These are few and far between though and the ongoing references to poisoning and purging (including a surprisingly blunt ending) written at a time when O’Brien was ill and alcoholic only serve to remind us of the epigraph from Pascal at the start of the book, that blames all the trouble of the world on people ever leaving their rooms.
If you are interested in reading O’Brien, I would highly recommend At Swim-Two-Birds or The Third Policeman, which are comic masterpieces. There may well be a resurgence of interest in his work as it has recently been announced that Brendan Gleeson will make his big screen directorial debut with At Swim-Two-Birds, starring every possible Irish actor you can name – Michael Fassbender, Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Gabriel Byrne.
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