Life of Brian

Kevin Barry

  • No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien by Anthony Cronin
    Grafton, 260 pp, £16.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 246 12836 4

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.

All of which makes the title of Anthony Cronin’s biography, No Laughing Matter, fit its subject, although its subject is the most purely comic Irish writer. The reader, therefore, comes to Cronin’s book with expectations and curiosities which are hard to satisfy. What was the nature of Brian O’Nolan’s disappointment? What was the relation between the privacy of his work and his multiple personae? What made an affluent middle-class blow-in Dublin’s favourite satirist? O’Nolan was widely known during his life as the Irish Times’s acid columnist, Myles na gCopaleen, and not as the author of two extraordinary novels. The question arises whether he changed as Dublin changed between 1930 and 1960? What kept him in Ireland for all but three weeks of his life? What constituted his cosmopolitanism and its limits? How much do we need to know about noggins and porter in order to reread his books? What ruined his art?

Brian O’Nolan’s life is both surprising and unremarkable. He was born in Strabane on the border of Donegal and Tyrone in 1911. Both his parents were comfortably middle-class: his mother, Agnes, from well-to-do shopkeepers; his father, Michael, from teachers, Classicists and Irish-speaking Parnellite nationalists. Michael O’Nolan gave to his 12 children his silence, his linguistic pedantry, and a home life in spacious houses unmolested by schooling until their middle teens. He was something of an author, as were at least three of his brothers, although he remained an unpublished one. His detective novel was accepted by Collins but he rejected their terms of payment.

The son followed the father, and not merely in their both being successful civil servants. According to family memoirs, the father appears almost never to have spoken and the children seemed as taciturn among themselves. In later life, after his father’s death, Brian would indicate to the younger children that he was home by the fact of his coat on its hook or a bag of sweets left in a drawer. What language was spoken in the home was Irish alone. Agnes, who survived her husband by many years, is an even more shadowy figure in these pages. Neither is subjected here to a psychobiography.

We know little about Brian O’Nolan’s relation to his parents. He has almost nothing to say about them, and other family memoirs give little away. But we do know that their physical comforts were many. Cameras, darkroom, trains, theatre, cinema, concerts, a joint of prime beef on Sundays sent with such regularity by a friend in Kilbeggan that at least one of the children wished to stick a knife in the donor.

In the first paragraphs of The Third Policeman we now may notice in a different way how the nameless narrator comments that his father ‘did not talk much’, that his father and he ‘were strangers and did not converse much ... we were all happy enough in a queer separate way.’ In another dimension we may reassess Brian O’Nolan’s pastiche of redundant talk and his scrupulous meanness, the continuity between his fiction and his journalism: ‘I go into a house, for instance. My “host” says “sit down.” Now why down? Why must he be so cautious and explicit ...?’ Again we may understand the continuity of his values with those of his family in his unromantic view of Gaelic as more difficult than English, more exact and austere: ‘Therein is the secret why Irish cannot be revived; the present age shrinks from precision and “understands” only soft woolly words which have really no particular meaning like “cultural heritage” or “the exigent dictates of modern traffic needs”.’

Brian O’Nolan conserved his family’s values. Not only in his idea of language and his contempt for ‘blather’, not only in his career in the Civil Service and in his view of himself as a writer, but also in his unfashionable Catholicism, in his exemplary sense of duty to his family after his father’s death in 1937, and in his temperament, which, according to Niall Sheridan, ‘was essentially aristocratic, fastidious and private’, and impatient of ‘the peasant or shopboy class’. With such a temperament Dublin could only be endured. To be labelled at 36 as a man with his best work far behind him, to be compared dismissively with Joyce, to be detected by Patrick Kavanagh as a journalist without a sustaining myth ‘that would carry all the stuff in his column, that would lift it onto a creative plane’, was to be cruelly caught in a half-truth.

For it is the distinction of Brian O’Nolan that amongst those writers who, in the generation after Joyce and after political independence, tore away at Ireland from within – Sean O’Faolain, Liam O’Flaherty, Patrick Kavanagh and Frank O’Connor – he alone mauled its vulgarity and provincialism in the formal modernity and impersonality of his work. Seamus Deane has described how an Irish literature of dissent registers alienation but is not a literature of alienation. In the formal habits of their narratives its authors conspire with and sustain the inertia they claim to despise.

From this charge Brian O’Nolan is exempt. His major work, At Swim Two Birds and The Third Policeman, exemplifies an aesthetic process both innovative and destructive without parallel among his contemporaries. That dominance of the aesthetic places O’Nolan in the tradition of Joyce and Beckett, a position acknowledged by Joyce in his collocation of At Swim Two Birds with Murphy as Jean quirit and Jean qui pleure. But the aesthetic is also a fence around O’Nolan’s reservation.

In 1973, in the only thorough essay we have on O’Nolan’s art, published in Miles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan, J.C.C. Mays delineated the complex development through which O’Nolan ‘recognised in Joyce the most dazzling star in the contemporary literary firmament, but in the end unsound’. That unsoundness can only appear to O’Nolan as a moral one. His attitudes become clearer in a set of oppositions between different kinds of writer. On the washstand shelf the narrator of At Swim Two Birds places books by Aldous Huxley beside those by James Joyce. In similar vein O’Nolan will later adapt Huysmans’s A Rebours to several of the governing tropes in The Third Policeman, while all the time his text criticises Huysmans’s values. Later still, he will contrast Patrick Kavanagh with Baudelaire. In each case his reservation can be put as a question: ‘Could the man of parts live without grocers?’

The radical aesthetic of O’Nolan is self-destructive. In his fiction the most intense imagination is a regressive condition of the dead and of the damned. The abyss of selfhood (der selbe) becomes a comedy of footnotes and of policemen. De Selby and McCruiskeen: fantastic, jaunty and terrifying. And yet O’Nolan is not without issue. John Banville’s most recent novel, The Book of Evidence, catches unmistakably the voice and fate of the unnamed narrator of The Third Policeman. Both are murderers, laconic, fastidious, their imaginations stunned. Both find themselves in ‘a queer country’ where the mountains ‘kept hemming us in and meddling oppressively with our minds’. Banville has rejected Joyce and Beckett as influences. O’Nolan surprisingly fills the bill.

O’Nolan and Banville, although they are both disdainful of it, compel themselves to imagine the ordinary. Brian O’Nolan stayed put in Dublin not least because of this moral conservatism. The best of O’Nolan’s work transforms that personal attachment into detachment and impersonality. Anthony Cronin’s biography registers the fact that this tension shaped the art and ruined the man. Eventually, its severity ruined the art as well.

Cronin’s biography is absorbing. It examines the legends O’Nolan fabricated about himself (his years in Germany, his authorship of Sexton Blake) which other biographers have embroidered. Cronin accurately dismisses them. It is ironic that this makes O’Nolan’s life less exciting and leaves us guessing about his dissatisfactions with it. Cronin maps some of the answers. We are not in Raymond Carver’s world, where alcoholism and storytelling renew each other. It does emerge that Brian/Flann/Myles wrote his best work before he was thirty and before he was an alcoholic.

On the evidence given to us here, little conversation from the period of O’Nolan’s alcoholism is memorable, either in Cronin’s own recollection or in that of other friends. Indeed Cronin details the rigorous dreariness of literary badinage in the select bars. He admits the lack of intellectual curiosity. He acknowledges that those days are best put behind him. Yet too much of the dreariness leaks into these pages. Cronin, as biographer, cannot detach himself from the milieu in which he grew up as a friend and acolyte to O’Nolan. However, Cronin has achieved that distance in his more significant role as poet, especially in his underrated recent collection, The End of the Modern World. Cronin, as biographer, persists in the literary stereotype of Dublin’s boozy writers no less than in that of rural naivety and decrepitude. These remain immune to history and can be applied to any period. Cronin can only gesture toward perspectives that would distance his subject. He brings forward Fredric Jameson, quotes his definition of Post-Modernism from the 1982 New Left Review, and inserts into the definition both At Swim Two Birds and his own early recognition that with this book something drastic and irreparable had happened to literature. This has several difficulties about which Cronin says even less here than he did when he raised this precursory hare in the Irish Times in 1986. He now assumes that there is a consensus that Post-Modernism is ‘a good thing’, that Jameson is part of that consensus and that O’Nolan and Cronin anticipated it all. None of this holds good. Objection must also be made to Cronin’s comparison between O’Nolan and Karl Kraus. It is made at second hand, and a glance at Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kraus shows such comparison to be disorientating because it is so imprecise.

These attempts at perspective fail. Cronin’s other failure, to hunt down the pathology of O’Nolan’s satire, its purity and its cruelty, in the recesses of neurosis and sexuality, is an honourable one. What this memoir does give us is a storehouse of information about O’Nolan at university, about the influence upon him of Niall Montgomery and his peers, about the shape of the life. Cronin also illuminates the militant intelligence with which O’Nolan as a civil servant could punish his masters: ‘The Civil Service superannuation code ... is unjust, cynical and immoral but achieves its purpose so well that many of its dupes have come to regard it as a divinely ordained norm ... psychologists recognise that in conditions of exceptional morbidity the sufferer conceives his disorder to be a precious possession and a great delight; he pities others who are not subject to it and will consider that he is conferring an enormous favour by communicating it to them.’ That condition could also afflict a generation of writers.

Much has now been written on Irish social and cultural history between the Thirties and the Sixties. The researches of Ronan Fanning, J.H. Whyte and Tom Garvin, the overview of Terence Brown, must be placed against the official dreariness of the literary set. Cronin does not do this. Nowhere does it emerge from the pages of this book that economics, politics and the relationship of church and state were complex in these years. Many of the literary figures remain marooned in the clichés and taboos of their own dissent. However, Dublin in the war years and after was – in the judgment of many, natives and visitors alike – romantic, innovative, culturally diverse and fun.

It is depressing to watch the writers of that period conspire to prolong the very claustrophobia and lovelessness they had habitually attacked. O’Nolan’s derision of the cinema is only one instance of this. And it is pathetic to watch O’Nolan, who had been matchless in his ridicule of Irish parochialism, mock ‘Joyce and his little bit of a wife, both of them from Dublin’ for speaking Italian to one another in Italy. Where assumptions are shared between Cronin and O’Nolan confusion replaces explanations. The lack of irony with which O’Nolan and Cronin dismiss the first-generation culchie in the metropolis masks the fact that they were exemplary first-generation culchies themselves. At other moments Cronin mistakes his own expectations of those years for an objective assessment. O’Nolan’s father, according to Cronin, ‘was no more or no less expressive of love for his wife than other Irish parents of the time’. This, by pretending to have said everything, says nothing at all.