Clutching at Railings

Jonathan Coe

There were many wonderful running jokes in the first few years of ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, the Irish Times column written, on and off, for almost a quarter of a century by Flann O’Brien (or, if you prefer, Myles na Gopaleen, or Brian O’Nolan). My favourite has always been the catechism of cliché.

When things are few, what also are they?
Far between.
What are stocks of fuel doing when they are low?
Running.
How low are they running?
Dangerously.
What does one do with a suggestion?
One throws it out.
For what does one throw a suggestion out?
For what it may be worth.

In one of his last columns, published in March 1966, O’Brien looked back on his catechism, compiled more than twenty years earlier, and described it as ‘an exegetic survey of the English language in its extremity of logo-daedalate poliomyelitis, anaemic prostration and the paralysis of incoherence’. One month after writing that, he was dead, and yet within a year a remarkable renaissance was taking place, with the long-delayed publication of his great comic fantasy The Third Policeman and, soon afterwards, the first of many anthologies of the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ columns, this one entitled The Best of Myles.

What could this resurgence almost be said to resemble?

A miracle.

By how much did it fall short of being a miracle?

Little.

Even so, when I discovered Flann O’Brien in the late 1970s, background information could not easily be found. In Patrick Power’s excellent translation I read The Poor Mouth (An Béal Bocht) with enjoyment but without suspecting that it was intended as a parody of a whole sub-genre of Gaelic misery memoirs. I read The Best of Myles through a fog of cheerful ignorance about the political and cultural wars fought in 1940s Dublin, which inspired some of its most brilliant contents. For the interested reader there were only two books around that helped to explain what O’Brien was about: Anne Clissmann’s Flann O’Brien: A Critical Introduction to his Writings and Myles, Timothy O’Keeffe’s collection of anecdotal essays by various hands.

Today, however, we inhabit a new age. The age of?

Information.

Indeed, from what do we sometimes suffer, with respect to information?

An overload.

And where Flann O’Brien studies are concerned, in what complete and novel sporting pastime do we find ourselves engaged?

A whole new ball game.

With what mortifying surfeit do we find ourselves faced?

An embarrassment of riches.

The consequence is that we now know almost everything there is to know about Flann O’Brien; and out of this knowledge a story has emerged, a received narrative, which makes a more upsetting kind of sense than anything he ever wrote in his books. Our main, certainly our most detailed source for this story is an item that seems to be out of print: Anthony Cronin’s biography No Laughing Matter, published in 1989. Rarely can a book have borne such an apposite title. Cronin casts O’Brien’s life as a relentless catalogue of frustration, bitterness and repression, accompanied of course by a slow descent into alcoholism. In his account (which seems accurate in all essentials), O’Brien had peaked as a writer by his late twenties. By then he had completed the three works now recognised as his finest: At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman and An Béal Bocht. At the same time he began writing ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, and by general consent the most scintillating contributions were written in the first few years of the column’s existence. Between 1941 and 1961 he published no new books but became a familiar figure around Dublin’s pubs and bars, sometimes observed clutching at park railings as he made his unsteady way home after a day’s drinking. With such fame as he then enjoyed arising from his newspaper work rather than his more or less forgotten novels, the columns became ever less exuberant and ever more tetchy and cynical. As Joseph O’Connor wrote: ‘His fate, at least I think so, was to suffer one of the worst things that can happen: to be brilliant at something you don’t like doing. He deserved better than the disappointment, and the raucous praise of a small town. He was maybe our unluckiest genius.’ (It’s hard not to see echoes of the career of Peter Cook, who also peaked early: he reached the limits of his marvellous talent while still in his twenties, and thereafter turned to drink to cope with the sense of anti-climax, the inability to top – though why should he? – what was already a matchless achievement.)

So what exactly stopped Flann O’Brien in his tracks? From Cronin and other sources we might identify at least three factors. First, there was the rejection of The Third Policeman by his publisher, Longman, in 1940, an act of boneheaded literary myopia on which it is dangerous to reflect for too long, lest one explode with anger and sadness at the thought of the damage it inflicted. (And part of that anger rebounds on O’Brien himself: why did he not have more faith in the book? Why did he take the rejection at face value? Why did he hide this great work away in a drawer for the rest of his life?) Then there was an episode in his professional, non-literary life. As a senior civil servant in the Department of Local Government, O’Brien found himself chairing the committee set up to investigate one of wartime Ireland’s most distressing accidents: the burning down of an orphanage in Cavan on the night of 23 February 1943, with the loss of 35 children’s lives. Although O’Brien made no published response to the episode other than a curt, sarcastic limerick, it’s hard to see how his joie de vivre could have been enhanced by coming into such close contact with this crassly mishandled tragedy. (The death toll was much higher than it should have been, allegedly because the nuns would not at first admit the firefighters in case they saw any of the young girls in a state of undress.)

The third factor, it becomes increasingly clear, was the commercial failure of his play Faustus Kelly, now made available to us again in this edition of O’Brien’s Plays and Teleplays. Daniel Keith Jernigan, the book’s editor, oddly claims in the body of his introduction that the play ran at the Abbey Theatre for ‘nearly two months’ in 1943, though he adds in a footnote that Peter Costello and Peter van de Kamp, in Flann O’Brien: An Illustrated Biography, give the length of the run as only two weeks. Cronin also says that it ‘ran for two weeks’, and perhaps the most reliable source of all, the Abbey Theatre’s online archive, gives the exact number of performances as eleven. In any case, it’s clear that the play was a flop. Rereading it now (it has appeared in print before, in the Claud Cockburn-edited Stories and Plays) one can easily see why. The central conceit has a local councillor selling his soul to the devil for a seat in the Dáil, and that’s really all there is to it. O’Brien’s ear for dialogue is as convincing as ever (I hesitate to say ‘accurate’, not having lived in Ireland in the 1940s) but the play is repetitive: it lacks conflict and structure, and takes an age to make its way to the admittedly good punchline. Eleven years later, O’Brien wrote in ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ that Faustus Kelly was ‘a masterpiece, saturated with a Voltaire quality, and penetrating human stupidity with a sort of ghoulish gusto’. But this self-glorifying irony will be familiar to anyone who knows the column’s style. And neither the critics nor the Abbey audiences seem to have agreed with him.

It’s good to have the play back in print, and it’s good to have it sitting alongside so many rare companion pieces: O’Brien’s full-length reworking of Karel and Josef Čapek’s The Insect Play; his shortest but most effective theatre piece, Thirst; five previously unpublished television plays and one episode each from the two comedy series he wrote for RTE in the 1960s. Lovers of Flann O’Brien cannot do other than smack their lips at the bringing to light of these obscurities. Most of them, as it turns out, are not very good. But by what singular constituent of the Greek alphabet does this not matter?

One iota.

*

The volume suffers from some minor editorial shortcomings. Jernigan starts well, giving us complete cast lists and dates of first production for the stage plays, but after four hundred pages or so, he seems to lose interest. Of the two television series, O’Dea’s Your Man and Th’Oul Lad of Kilsalaher, which consisted of 26 and 15 episodes respectively, we get only the first episode of each series, chosen as ‘representative samples’. If every episode had been included, Jernigan says, ‘the length of this collection would far exceed the standards of readability.’ True – but these episodes are only six or seven pages long, so another handful could comfortably have been squeezed in. And besides, the first episodes of TV series are rarely ‘representative’. Critics have argued that O’Brien’s handling of the medium became more assured, with the later episodes of O’Dea’s Your Man showing a firmer grasp of screen dialogue and character interplay: it would have been good to have been able to judge this for ourselves. For that matter, do any of the broadcast episodes survive? (Yes: RTE has one on its website.) What exactly is the status of the archive? Kernigan is silent on this matter. Nor does he give us basic information like broadcast dates for the episodes, or tell us that the cast of O’Dea’s Your Man consisted of Jimmy O’Dea and David Kelly, or that Th’Oul Lad of Kilsalaher featured Danny Cummins and Máire Hastings. All a bit half-hearted.

I can find only one video clip online of Flann O’Brien being interviewed, from 1964. It’s astonishingly depressing – the man is so alcohol-raddled that he can hardly get a sentence out – so the surprising thing is not that these later TV works are weak, but that he was able to write them at all. Th’Oul Lad of Kilsalaher is contemporary with Slattery’s Sago Saga, O’Brien’s final, uncompleted novel, previously available in Stories and Plays and now reissued as part of Dalkey’s other new anthology, The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien. Like the TV work, it’s disappointingly flat. Towards the end of his life O’Brien seems to have decided that he wrote fiction better in the third person: a basic misreading of his own talent, as any comparison of The Dalkey Archive with The Third Policeman will show. Nearly all of O’Brien’s novels start from a single, cute premise, but Slattery’s Sago Saga is more gimmicky than most, involving a plot to keep the Irish from emigrating to America by turning all its land over to sago cultivation in order to prevent another famine. The hero is a diffident young man called Tim Hartigan, into whose mind we are allowed entry, as in the following passage:

The forenoon passed quickly and it was about two o’clock in the early autumn day when Tim sat down to his heaped dinner of cabbage, bacon, pulverised sausage, and sound boiled potatoes of the breed of Earthquake Wonder – with Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy propped up against the milk jug … Some people, Tim reflected as he finished his food, thought Hardy a rather repressed and dismal writer, more taken with groans than lightness of the heart. Well, he was long-winded all right but the problems he faced were serious, they were human questions, deep and difficult, and the great Wessex novelist had brought to them wisdom, solace, illumination, a reconciliation with God’s great design. And he had repeopled the English countryside.

After so many decades of obfuscation, ambiguity, multi-layered irony and concealment behind pseudonyms, there is something touching and refreshing about O’Brien laying out his own (unless I am misreading) literary opinions in this artless way. But there is no doubt that it also indicates some weariness, some fatal diminution of comic spark.

At fifty pages, the unfinished Slattery’s Sago Saga is much the most substantial piece in this volume. The other stories are slight, to put it mildly. Most of them are merely distended jokes. Some have already appeared in Stories and Plays but there is one that was new to me and that is quite marvellous, a macabre anecdote about a murderous taxidermist called ‘Two in One’, which has all the dark grotesquerie of The Third Policeman concentrated into a few shockingly ingenious pages. Worth the price of the book alone, as they say. Elsewhere the editors have made a contentious move by including a science fiction story published in 1932 under the pseudonym John Shamus O’Donnell, claiming that there is ‘a compelling case for O’Brien’s authorship’ although ‘no archival material has been found to verify the story’s provenance. Electronic concordancing and corpus linguistics may be of some value here, but we leave that investigation for another time.’ Hmm. Surely the right time for such an investigation would be before you decide to include the story in a definitive collection? The editors have tucked it away in an appendix, thereby nicely hedging their bets, and their insistence that its inclusion is a ‘speculative gesture designed to generate further discussion and discovery’ is fair enough, in a lawyerly sort of way.

The exhumation of so many minor works seems symptomatic of a yearning – on the part of the editors, of readers, of all of us – that the achievement of Flann O’Brien (or Myles na Gopaleen, or Brian O’Nolan) should not have stopped where it did, that logic, humanity, basic literary justice demand there be more, somehow. But perhaps this is needless. He wrote three short but perfect works of twisted comedy, and ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ itself – too often seen as the thing that extinguished his talent – is a sprawling, fragmented, unclassifiable masterpiece. The undoubted brilliance of these works casts an enduring glow over all his other writings and, for me, nothing that O’Brien wrote, failed or successful (whatever that means), will ever lose its fascination. Along with his other devotees, I’ll continue to read him … until which act of bovine retrogression?