Kevin Barry, 25 January 1990
Between 1947 and 1950 Samuel Beckett and Francis Stuart produced a clutch of novels which extend Irish fiction into the world of Europe. Beckett’s life in wartime Paris is not irrelevant to Molloy, Malone dies and The Unnamable, nor is Stuart’s in wartime Berlin to The Pillar of Cloud, Redemption and The Flowering Cross. Ten years earlier Brian O’Nolan, alias Flann O’Brien, had written At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman. These two works, of which only the first was published in the author’s lifetime, differ from those of Beckett and Stuart in many ways, not least in the sharp, impersonal brevity of O’Nolan’s art. One distinction of the earlier novels is the shortness of their horizon and the narrow intensity of their privacy. It would not be difficult to argue that At Swim Two Birds and, more especially, The Third Policeman are streets ahead of Beckett and Stuart in their realisation of an aesthetic. Yet Brian O’Nolan never developed his writing beyond that limited, youthful variety, and never wrote anything else of comparable sustained exactness.