Flann O’Brien’s Lies

Colm Tóibín

There were three cities; each of them had known a certain glory. In each of them, there was a sense that the glory was absent or ghostly, that the real world was elsewhere, that the cities in which there was excitement, or cultural completeness, or publishers and readers, were elsewhere. All three cities remained untouched by the Second World War; they were not bombed, nor were they transformed by reconstruction when the war ended. Even in the 1980s and 1990s it was possible to walk around many parts of these cities and notice that nothing much had changed for many, many decades.

These were three capital cities in which politics and culture could be best treated as a joke, or a game between dull factions, in which one faction would remain dominant in a dormant or an indecent sort of way for many years. These were difficult cities for young men with literary ambitions; they were places in which both the present and the future seemed like a hundred years of solitude. These three cities, in which three geniuses felt trapped, isolated and dismayed, made their way slowly, inevitably into the essence of the writers’ work. The cities both disabled them and gave them an immense imaginative power, poisoned them and nourished them, made their spirits playful but made two of them lock away some of their best work, allow it to gather dust.

The sense that there was no one much to read the work these writers were producing ate its way into the tone and structure of the work itself. Their books did not come from the world, their books became the world; in the beginning was the word, but there was often nothing except the word and its hollow echoes, and this gave their playful spirits an edge that was often melancholy, often manic. The fact that these cities were the capital cities of ostensibly Catholic countries did nothing to help. Yet out of the emptiness, out of the non-sacramental, at the heart of where they were, the three writers found words and literary forms, old ones and hybrid ones, fascinating. Some dream impelled them towards work, towards producing work which would eventually make them famous.

The idea for them of what lay between the old and the hybrid, however, was a problem; a great tradition in fiction in which characters had choices and chances and possessions, and destinies to fulfil, was for them a great joke, a locomotive in a siding whose engine was all rust. They began by dismantling the escape routes and then removing the wheels. For them the notion of character, and even identity, was to be undermined, or driven over. Then they set out to undermine not only choice and chance and destiny, but the idea of time and indeed space – infinity and eternity would fascinate them – and the idea of form. It was not an accident that these three men had no children, that they did not write about women, or, in the case of two of them, indulged in a rare to medium-rare misogyny. When two of them married it came as a great surprise to their friends; they seemed more at home (or more happily desperate) as uneasy bachelors than fathers or husbands. All three, indeed, if this is any of our business, may have died virgins. One of them took the view that ‘I have no ambitions and no desires. To be a poet is not my ambition, it’s my way of being alone.’

The cities in which they were alone were Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Dublin. The writers were Fernando Pessoa, born 1888, died 1935; Jorge Luis Borges, born 1899, died 1986; Flann O’Brien, born 1911, died 1966. Each of them was brought up not only in a shadow country and city, or a place that felt as though it lived now in the shade, but also with two or more languages and with an often disruptive relationship between the languages. Language for them was not nature, it was culture, it was strange and strained, it meant displacement, unsettlement. They came into manhood trapped in a sour memory of a Tower of Babel where there had once been ease. The idea of a mother tongue was a sort of joke. All three of them were, for a time, educated at home or in libraries, away from the company of other boys and the influence of teachers. They made up their own world through their dreams and their displacements. Pessoa lived in Durban in South Africa between the ages of seven and 17, returned to Lisbon speaking English better than Portuguese; he wrote poems in English. Borges had an English grandmother who lived with the family, and was brought up speaking English and Spanish; he lived in Geneva between the ages of 15 and 22, speaking English, French and Spanish. O’Brien spoke only Irish until the age of nine or ten, when he began to speak English as well; he wrote in both English and Irish.

Each of these writers made up new names for himself. Pessoa became, among others, Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos, Bernardo Soares; Borges became, among others, B. Suarez Lynch and H. Bustos Domecq; O’Brien’s real name was Brian Ó Nualláin and he also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen. All three of them at various times worked out strategies to present a fresh persona to the world as well as fiction in which they invented further personae and indeed further worlds.

Borges was acutely conscious that the world he and Flann O’Brien came from, the narrow, isolated and hybrid culture which gave rise to them and in which they struggled, was both restricting and liberating. In a lecture from 1951 called ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, he discussed the energy and sense of innovation that came from the margins. He believed, he wrote, that the Argentine tradition ‘is the whole of Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to this tradition, a greater right than that which the inhabitants of one Western nation or another may have.’ He went on to consider an essay by Thorstein Veblen on ‘the intellectual pre-eminence of Jews in Western culture’. Veblen wondered, Borges wrote,

if this pre-eminence authorises us to posit an innate Jewish superiority and answers that it does not; he says that Jews are prominent in Western culture because they act within that culture and at the same time do not feel bound to it by any special devotion; therefore, he says, it will always be easier for a Jew than a non-Jew to make innovations in Western culture.

Borges then considered the position of Irish writers in this context. ‘We can say the same of the Irish in English culture,’ he wrote.

Where the Irish are concerned, we have no reason to suppose that the profusion of Irish names in British literature and philosophy is due to any social pre-eminence, because many of these illustrious Irishmen (Shaw, Berkeley, Swift) were the descendants of Englishmen, men with no Celtic blood; nevertheless, the fact of feeling themselves to be Irish, to be different, was enough to enable them to make innovations in English culture. I believe that the Argentines, and South Americans in general, are in an analogous situation; we can take on all the European subjects, take them on without superstition and with an irreverence that can have, and already has had, fortunate consequences.

The theory that modernism in literature was the invention of writers who were Irish or Jewish or South American (or indeed homosexuals or expatriates) did not begin as a theory, but as a practice; it did not begin as a plan, it began as though by necessity, because for many writers there seemed to be no choice. The tone of Borges’s early stories and O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, arose in the way an oasis, and the vegetation around it, will spring up only in a desert. An oasis will not appear in a fertile plain. It is impossible to write fiction filled with choices and chances and continuities in a society where these things are thinly spread. In a society where there is no body of readers, it is not easy to write with a reader in mind, a reader who wants a story in which time is represented in a straight line and in which characters are filled with feelings and longings, and in which plot satisfies some large set of rules which insist on completion, and in which words represent what the dictionary states they represent, and in which language is natural and part of a shared culture. It is much easier to make a story or a novel in which the reader is already built-in and which wrong-foots or even usurps the idea of reading. While novelists who wrote in formed, settled and multi-layered societies held a mirror up to those societies in all their variety or to the vicissitudes of the human heart, Borges and O’Brien and Pessoa held instead a mirage up to an oasis, the strange place they came from which gave them their first taste of thirst. It is not an accident or a mere whim on the part of writers that there is no Irish novel that ends in a wedding. For O’Brien, it was not even a question of how to end or begin a novel, it was a question of an urgent need to put the kibosh on the novel’s pained demands, put the tricks the novelist uses out of their misery by exposing them and all their messy entrails.

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