Friday, March 16, 2012

Why You Should Read Flann O'Brien (and Give James Joyce the Finger)

Victoria in Dublin pretending
to break up with the statue of writer
Patrick Kavanagh. They are, however,
still seeing each other.
Official Bio: Victoria Davis holds a PhD in Irish Literature and is a manuscript editor at the University of Texas Press. "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues is her karaoke jam. Clearly she is Irish.

What we dug up: Victoria Davis is a member in good standing with the Covenant Of Copy Editors. They worship the Chicago Manual of Style (they read it backwards over the graves of writers in order to raise them from the dead to spread the word on the proper use of the semi-colon). 

Oh, and THIS is actually her karaoke jam:

Continuing our Irish focus, here's a guest piece from Victoria Davis.

Why You Should Read Flann O'Brien (and Give James Joyce the Finger)

“We are not making any Ireland. We just live here... some of us even work here.”
--Flann O'Brien

Victoria after her covenant meeting.
Brian O'Nolan, aka Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, was a civil servant, journalist, novelist, and playwright who wrote about Ireland during the decidedly unromantic period of the 1930s–1960s. This was not the Ireland of Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival, lousy with noble bards speaking the pure Gaelic, hotly chaste warrior queens, and wacky cattle raids. Instead, it was an economically depressed and socially repressed fledgling nation trying to navigate problems both inside and outside its borders while wearing the heavy mantle of revolutionary ideals. In short, it was the kind of place that writers left. Writers like Joyce and Beckett. The guys who couldn't stand the heat, and yet get all of the attention. Wankers.

Flann O'Brien
Yes…yes... Yeats and his ilk inspired a revolution with their creation of a glorious, yet pretty dang fictional past for Ireland. Joyce made the map of Dublin synonymous with modernism. Beckett replaced the city with an existential crisis. Revivalist, modernist, postmodernist…literary critics call O'Brien a "failed" dabbler in each of these movements. Why? Well, I could go on and on about all of that, but I think the short answer hinges on the long shadows cast by these other figures and that troubling word, "parody." O'Brien did indeed parody all three movements (and writers), but with a highly sophisticated grasp of their structures and tropes. And, he used these structures and tropes to critique the Ireland in which he lived and worked. AND he did it living under state censorship and the restrictions imposed upon him as a civil servant.

So, that's much of why you need to read Flann O'Brien… Now here's what you need to read:

1. An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), 1941. An Béal Bocht is widely considered one of the greatest Irish-language novels of the twentieth century. (For those of us who don't read Irish, an English translation by Patrick C. Power, with illustrations by Ralph Steadman, was published in 1996.) This darker-than-dark comic novel parodies the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area) autobiographies that were used in the Irish school system to teach the Irish language and which were known for their depictions of unrelenting misery.

2. At Swim-Two Birds, 1939. At Swim-Two Birds is O'Brien's best-known work, and it is regarded as one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction. (If the word "metafiction" hasn't gotten you all excited, Dylan Thomas famously said that At Swim-Two-Birds was "just the book to give your sister--if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl.") The book is narrated by a college student who sets out to write a book with three beginnings--one involves a very urbane devil, the Pooka MacPhellimey; another involves John Furrisky, the fictional "son" of a disreputable and equally fictional writer of Westerns, Dermot Trellis; and the last involves the resurrection of Irish legendary figures, particularly Finn Mac Cool and Sweeney. Eventually the three main threads interrupt each other and become hilariously, sometimes violently, intertwined.

3. The Third Policeman, 1967. The Third Policeman was written between 1939 and 1940, but it wasn't published until after O'Brien's death. To put it simply, The Third Policeman is a vision of hell set in the rural Irish midlands and peopled with a narrator (an amateur scholar of a questionable scientist named DeSelby), three mysterious policemen who bend the rules of physics, a one-legged bandit, and "Joe," the narrator's soul. There is, seemingly, one storyline, but that soon becomes engulfed by footnotes explaining DeSelby's theories on various phenomena. Again, a very dark and hilarious book… and, it was featured in a 2005 episode of Lost!

Enjoy, and happy St. Patrick's Day! 
Victoria's threat to us all.


  1. Great article! I'm hoping these titles might be available at S. Congress Books.