Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Unluckiest Writer of the Twentieth Century?

I meant to post a couple of weeks back on a review by Fintan O'Toole on Flann O'Brien's Collected Novels (Everyman edition) that appeared in the New York Review of Books recently but I was stymied by the NYRB's limited online access (even to those of us that fork out for a print subscription). Now I seem to have mislaid the copy amid the piles of books, magazines, periodicals and manuscript papers with the words 'red rum' scrawled all over them that litter my flat. It was an interesting piece (if untimely, as the Everyman edition, to the best of my knowledge has been out for a long time), and on first reading I was most interested in the parallels O'Toole makes between Flanno and Beckett, a pair rarely thought of in the same moment yet who shared a similar knack for stepping outside the constraints of language (and their own language) and they also both shared a significant love for Ivan Gonchurov's Oblomov. The NYRB has now posted a podcast interview with O'Toole where he summarises his arguments in the essay. It's well worth a listen.

O'Toole comments on Flanno/Myles' writing in English as if he were writing it as a dead language, or one translated from another. It's a part fanciful, part persuasive idea but I was definitely taken by O'Toole's diagnosis of sexual repression in Flann's work, where he sees writing as taking the place of sex, scored out of the literature of official Ireland; I had never noticed before that much of the writing in At Swim-Two-Birds take place in bed (though that might have something to do with the fact that I read it as a student). I think that O'Toole (and others) are a little hard on the Ireland of O'Brien's time; while it was, of course a grey, priest-ridden, poverty-stricken place, it nonetheless managed to provide some unlikely cultural resistance. I also think that O'Brien, rather than being frustrated at being stuck in Ireland, stayed in the country out of a clear love for the newly-independent nation, you have to remember he was only 11 - and a fluent Irish speaker - at the establishment of the Free State. No matter how maddening he found the place, he was not necessarily given to flee it, especially as an (initially) idealistic and brilliant member of its fledgling Civil Service.

O'Toole is correct in saying that Flann was one of the unluckiest writers in 20th-century history, seeing At Swim-Two-Birds sink into obscurity shortly after its publication on the eve of World War II and then, of course, The Third Policeman was inexplicably rejected by his publisher. Even today Flann is criminally neglected with few people knowing his much funnier journalistic work (most of which is still in print) and even his name itself is little known outside cult literary circles, even within Ireland. Do yourself a favour this week and go out and read some Flann O'Brien, especially if you haven't already.

There's also a fine review of Flann's Collected Novels by Joseph O'Neill here.


Fionnchú said...

"Oblomov in Dublin" Thanks for the reminder on the FB Flann fan page that linked to your entry-- and here's the link you sought. I have scrawled a bit on the man myself on my blog now and then. Slán agatsa aríst, a Sheanachie.