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Friday 18 April 2014

At swim again with Flann O'Brien – a master of satire

JP O'Malley on a new collection of forgotten gems by the great Irish writer

This collection gathers together an expansive selection of Flann O'Brien's shorter fiction in a single volume, as well as O'Brien's last and unfinished novel, Slattery's Sago Saga. Also included are new translations of several stories originally published in Irish, and other rare pieces; some of these stories appear here in book form for the first time and others have been unavailable for decades. All of which makes this book a must for Flann O'Brien fans.

Among the stories included there is a memorable one entitled Donabate. In this humourous tale – first published in 1952 under the pseudonym of Myles na gCopaleen – the reader is introduced to Sir Sefton Fleewod-Crawshaye, an Englishman living in Dublin who has given his life over to alcohol. "It was a glass of doom," the author writes. "The velocity of his disintegration was startling."

While these words describe the downward spiral of an old English aristocrat, they could also be used to explain the tragic life of the man who wrote them.

Brian O'Nolan – who was commonly known by his most favoured nom de plume, Flann O'Brien – was born in 1911, and died on April Fool's Day in 1966. If the Tyrone-born writer looked destined for immediate world fame, his road to recognition got off to a slow and unlucky start.

Despite the kind words that his debut novel, At Swim Two Birds, received from writers like Graham Greene and James Joyce, it initially sold a paltry 244 copies. The Third Policeman, his second novel, was rejected by his publishers in 1940, and finally saw the light of day in 1967. These two books are considered his greatest achievements.

While O'Brien's literary career when he was alive bordered on failure, his popularity has soared posthumously.

In this concise anthology there are five new translations of Irish language stories that were originally published in the early 1930s.

In The Arrival and Departure of John Bull O'Brien pokes fun at the dogmatism of Irish cultural nationalism. We see a Gaelic noble introducing so-called great works of Irish literature to an Anglo-Saxon giant. Some of the cliché-ridden titles include: 'Yesterday and Today'; 'Love and Gloom'; and 'Day and Night'.

The various short stories presented here that O'Brien wrote in English are laced with his caustic wit, and absurd comic anecdotes.

In 'John Duffy's Brother' we meet a Dublin office clerk who imagines he is a train "with white steam escaping noisily from his feet and deep-throated bellows coming rhythmically from where his funnel was".

We are also given a brief glimpse at the unfinished novel Slattery's Sago Saga, which O'Brien worked on from 1964 until his death two years later.

The plot involves a wealthy American woman who visits Ireland and proposes a ban on growing potatoes. The staple diet for Irish people will now become sago, she explains. This will help to prevent "another invasion of the United States by the superstitious thieving Irish".

O'Brien's exceptional ability to ridicule and parody has deservedly earned him his place in literary history as the modern day successor to a master of satire, Jonathan Swift. But his weakness as a writer– which is evident in many of the stories here– is an overkill of irony, and a refusal to bring any sense of closure to his work.

Postmodernist critics today will excuse these unpolished stories as art with a penchant for failure, which distrusts the use of a conventional narrative technique.

But a more honest interpretation of this collection must reflect upon an evident truth: one of the great talents of Irish literature in the 20th Century ended his career as an embittered genius, who drank more than he wrote.

In doing so, O'Brien hoped to forget the dreams he could have achieved in his own lifetime, with a pen, rather than a pint glass.

Irish Independent

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