Flann O’Brien: Contesting Legacies
Eds. Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan, and Werner Huber
Cork University Press; £39.99
Review: Val Nolan
‘Flanneurs’ and ‘Mylesians’ rejoice! A hefty volume of essays originating in 100 Myles: The International Flann O’Brien Centenary Conference (Vienna, 2011) has recently been published and is an intelligent, rigorous collection whose contributors rise to the occasion of tackling one of the most scattershot bodies of work in Irish literature. As the editors put it in their introduction, Brian O’Nolan AKA Myles na gCopaleen AKA Flann O’Brien was an author who ‘combines the tags of “incomparable comic genius” and “avant-garde innovator” with that of “wasted talent”.’ A ‘polymorphic legacy’ if ever there was one, however it is from just these disputed spaces that Borg, Fagan, and Huber’s volume draws both its title and its critical focus.
The aim of the project is to rescue O’Nolan’s anarchic and absurdist commentaries on the strangeness of mid-twentieth century life from ‘the margins of Irish literary studies’. While the author’s best known work receives appropriate attention here, the real strength of Contesting Legacies comes from the attention payed to things that aren’t The Third Policeman (1967). This engagement with the breadth of O’Nolan’s stories, plays, journalism, and miscellaneous writings gives Contesting Legacies the kind of scope and authority which a study of an author as multi-faceted as O’Nolan demands. Moreover, and with only one or two exceptions, the individual essays of the book happily confound the stereotype of dry, unengaging scholarly prose and so the volume largely avoids the unevenness which is liable to tarnish any edited collection.
Keith Hopper begins the book by looking at the ‘submerged intertextual elements’ of O’Nolan’s story ‘John Duffy’s Brother’ (1940) as well as the author’s anxiety of Joycean influence (specifically how ‘John Duffy’s Brother’ mirrors Joyce’s ‘A Painful Case’). Anyone familiar with Hopper’s Flann O’Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist (revised edition 2009) will recognise the no-nonsense delivery of shrewd, insightful readings which he again supplies in this essay. Though the bicycle is the vehicle most frequently associated with O’Nolan’s work as O’Brien, Hopper here draws our attention to the frequent appearance of trains as “symbols of frustrated modernity and thwarted desire” (in the case of ‘John Duffy’s Brother’, the protagonist is overtaken by the belief that he actually is a train). It is, in many ways, the ideal opening for Contesting Legacies in that it distils from the too-easily dismissed nonsensical aspects of O’Nolan’s writing a tendency towards tales of ‘power and danger’, of the imagination, of language and literature, of de Valera’s Ireland, and of sexual uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts stronger than facts or reason. After reading it, one is certainly primed for the multitudes which O’Nolan’s work contains and which the rest of this volume explores.
Co-editor Paul Fagan also looks at the before, during, and after of the ‘psychotic episode’ which is ‘John Duffy’s Brother’. Taking his cue from houses leaning ‘outward as if to study themselves in the water’ in The Dalkey Archive (1964), Fagan examines O’Nolan’s use of metafictional strategies associated with Ovid’s Narcissus myth in the story, as well as the author’s ‘project of testing the Narcissus scene and the literary event as interchangeable sites for thinking through “an evanescent identity which is lost even as it is grasped”.’ It is effectively done, particularly with regard to the instances of failed recognition and misreading on the part of O’Nolan’s characters. What’s more, by tracing the evolution of these strategies in the macabre comedy of the story ‘Two in One’ (wherein the protagonist murders his boss and then wears the victim’s skin in order to hide the crime) Fagan convincingly identifies a different kind of ‘encounter with the self’ in O’Nolan’s work, one which develops into the more radical and unsettling portrayal of narcissism recognisable in the later writing.
Jack Fennell discusses Brian O’Nolan’s ‘familiarity with, and creative exploration of, the motifs and clichés of science fiction’, a topic of considerable interest to this reader. His focus is on two comic stories as Gaeilge from 1932, ‘Díoghaltais Ar Ghallaibh ’sa Bhliain 2032!’ (‘Revenge on the English in the year 2032!’) and ‘Teacht agus Imtheacht Sheáin Bhuidhe’ (‘The Arrival and Departure of John Bull’), as well as on The Dalkey Archive. The biggest surprise here comes from the stories, which were published in the Fianna Fáil organ The Irish Press and so in about as unexpected a venue for parodies of pulp science fiction tales as ever there was. Both depict a future nation where Irish is the spoken language of the citizenry (and in the case of ‘Teacht agus Imtheacht Sheáin Bhuidhe’, the language of the western world) and both hinge on the search for anyone who still speaks English. Fennell draws on theorists and theories well established within the science fiction field, such as Marc Angenot’s ‘Absent Paradigm’ and Darko Suvin’s ‘cognitive estrangement’, and his application of these to some of the most Irish literature imaginable makes me excited to start his recently published Irish Science Fiction (2014), a book which is currently on my desk.
The conflict that Fennell mentions between religion and science is but one aspect of the tension between tradition and modernity which recurs throughout O’Nolan’s work. Indeed, it is at the heart of another very strong offering here, Alana Gillespie’s examination of how O’Nolan depicted ‘the role of science in shaping a modernising, independent Ireland’. Gillespie looks specifically at the Cruiskeen Lawn columns from the Irish Times which address the intersection of ‘religion, science, education, tradition, and anxieties about Ireland’s international reputation’. Beginning with a consideration of O’Nolan’s infamous mockery of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS issued a writ for libel against the Irish Times), Gillespie’s essay expands into a wide, intriguing discussion of how science was regarded by the government and by the people of Ireland at the time (‘What has St. Patrick got against theoretical physics?’ she asks). It’s a fair and balanced essay too, bringing in key players from both the scientific and theological sides of the divide.
Your only man…
A different approach to plausibility and possibility is provided by Ondřej Pilný, who looks at the similarity of O’Nolan’s writing to the ‘anti-discourse’ of ‘pataphysics’ (the ‘science of imaginary solutions’) as put forward by Alfred Jarry. In essence it is another way of looking at Flann O’Brien as a link between fantasy and science fiction in an Irish context, however Pilný argues that what makes The Third Policeman pataphysical in nature is the wedding of ‘frightening inventions’ and enigmatic machinery’ to ‘unique linguistic creativity’. He builds his essay around an intriguing version of O’Nolan’s imagination whereby real-life scientists like Erwin Schrödinger (with whom O’Nolan was familiar during the physicist’s time at DIAS) inspire fictional counterparts such as de Selby and Policeman MacCruiskeen, and, in turn, the fantastic developments in science by all parties become indistinguishable from one another. Pilný’s essay forms a loose trilogy with the Fennell and Gillespie contributions (with all in turn building on previous work by Hopper, Neil Murphy, and so on) which, more than providing a strong backbone to Contesting Legacies, suggests the continuing fruitfulness of O’Nolan and science as a field of study within the larger Flannian discourse.
That said, two of the most engrossing and interesting essays here are focused on O’Nolan’s relationship with very identifiable aspects of Irish literature and, regrettably, life. The first, by John McCourt, considers O’Nolan (in his na gCopaleen guise) as a ‘Joyce scholar’ (something he says would have made O’Nolan ‘brindle’) and serves nicely to knit the author more closely into those aspects of Irish writing regarded as more conventional and which are more widely studied, especially aboard. The second, by Tom Walker, is a standout in Contesting Legacies. It details The Third Policeman’s fascinating debt to the true story of a Garda officer killed in Clare in 1929 and so to ‘a further Irish historical context: terror’. Walker’s essay is this lapsed historian’s favourite of the volume and is no doubt going to be quite popular with those teaching the novel in that, like McCourt’s contribution, it underlines how O’Nolan was perhaps not such an outlier in Irish writing after all.
Of course there is far too much in this book to cover in a short review (wait, this is a short review?!). Maebh Long analyses ‘the ontological implications of “Jams O’Donnell” and the position of the name and the Irish language’ in An Béal Bocht (1941). Thomas Jackson Rice questions why ‘marriage, sexual life, and women’ are frequently presented as sources of ‘high anxiety’ in O’Nolan’s work. Marion Quirici looks at the way O’Nolan ‘calls attention so freely and so frequently’ to the framing aspects of his narratives as well as to the ‘role of the narrator as both listener and teller of stories’. Jennika Baines smartly examines the ways ‘O’Nolan uses murder to convey notions of justice’. Thierry Robin – informed very much by the work of Linda Hutcheon – takes an interesting look at the ‘proto-postmodern philosophy of history throughout O’Nolan’s typically ironic representation’ of actual Irish history in ‘The Martyr’s Crown’ and the playlet Thirst. Ute Anna Mittermaier contributes a hugely entertaining look at O’Nolan’s pseudonymous letters to the Irish Times (particularly concerning The Spanish Civil War) and the question of whether or not he was the enigmatic figure ‘Oscar Love’. Meanwhile, Neil Murphy covers a lot of ground in intelligent fashion by examining the degree to which An Béal Bocht parodies canonical Irish language texts in a manner which combines a satirical impulse and genuine admiration.
It is true that there is a lot going on in this volume, but that is inevitable (one might even say responsible on the part of the editors) given the still astonishing multiplicity of modes and genres – let alone authorial identities and publication contexts – which characterize O’Nolan’s writings (The O’Nolan O’Euvre, anyone? No? Okay.). By re-evaluating O’Nolan’s ‘lesser-known works and personae’, investigating his debts and influences on an international level, and probing his canon with such a varied range of critical perspectives, Contesting Legacies is very much the volume which the author’s work deserves. It is furthermore a model of an edited collection of essays, not just in the quality of its contents or its enjoyability as a reading experience (how often does one get to hail a volume of academic essays for that?) but for its wide appeal. Flann O’Brien: Contesting Legacies is to be praised for its avoidance of the distancing and alienating academese which turns so many of, if I may borrow a Mylesism, ‘the Plain People of Ireland’ off contemporary literary scholarship. It is, in the end, a book which will be of interest (even delight!) to those Flanneurs beyond the academy as much as to those within.
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