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Flann O'Brien: Godfather of the post-modernist movement


Contesting Legacies cover

Contesting Legacies cover

The Hard Life: Flann O’Brien - real name Brian Ó Nualláin - was penning his own style of post-modernist literature before the term was invented.

The Hard Life: Flann O’Brien - real name Brian Ó Nualláin - was penning his own style of post-modernist literature before the term was invented.

Contesting Legacies cover

To say Flann O'Brien's literary career took a while to get going is an understatement to say the least. When his debut novel At Swim-Two-Birds initially appeared in 1939 it sold just 247 copies. Then in September 2005, a character in the American TV series, Lost, appeared clutching a copy of his second novel, The Third Policeman. Within two days, the book sold 10,000 copies.

I would confidently guess this amounts to more books than O'Brien sold before he died in 1966 at the age of 54.

He was a literary genius whose bizarre style of tragic-comic-satire has ensured he's deservedly earned his place alongside the pantheon of other Irish modernist demi-gods. But it wasn't always this way.

Upon publication, At Swim-Two-Birds was lavished with praise from James Joyce and Graham Greene. But the novel never received the critical acclaim it should have. And while The Third Policeman was completed in 1940, it didn't make into print until 1967.

O'Brien was penning his own style of post-modernist literature before the term itself was properly invented.

This probably explains his initial lack of critical acclaim.

Hitherto, most scholars have claimed O' Brien's best work was behind him before he turned 30. They see the latter half of his writing career as a downward spiral of second-rate-parochial-style-prose, which was fuelled by alcoholism and bitterness due to his lack of success.

Flann O'Brien, Contesting Legacies aims to turn that long held consensus on its head.

The argument being put forward here is that O' Brien's less celebrated work - such as his Cruiskeen Lawn columns in the Irish Times, which he wrote for over two decades under the pseudonym of Myles na Gopaleen, or his neglected An Beal Bocht novel, which first appeared in Irish in 1941, then eventually in English in 1973 - possesses far more merit than he's ever been given credit for.

Although unapologetically academic in tone, the book will, I believe, also appeal to a more general reading audience. What makes these diverse range of essays so attractive is the wide breadth of subjects they cover.

Dr Keith Hopper describes how O'Brien - in an era of extreme censorship in Ireland, during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s - through a metonymic code of writing, was able to discuss issues like abortion, contraception, and even his own supposed repressed homosexuality. These accusations about O'Brien's sexual orientation resurface a number of times in the book.

For example, Thomas Jackson Rice points out how women are largely absent from nearly all of O'Brien's work. He also claims O'Brien's marriage to Evelyn MacDonnell was most likely done for a pay rise in the Civil Service, rather than a natural desire for a heterosexual relationship.

But much of this prying into O'Brien's personal life is gleaned from Anthony Cronin's 1989 biography, No Laughing Matter. And it provides us with no fresh analysis as such. Moreover, this nose poking into O'Brien's personal affairs appears to be loosely based on nothing more than passing value judgments, guess work and gossip.

Where the book really comes alive is in the analysis of O'Brien's writing itself: its technical genius and the layers of meaning hidden underneath his prose, which are constantly cloaked in ambiguity, subversion and irony.

If history has a potential meaning for O'Brien, Thierry Robin explains, "it seems to imply it cannot escape narration and interpretation."

Meanwhile, Marion Quirici contends that the tropes of failure contained within O'Brien's highly underrated short fiction - which are full of references to the mortality of the writer and the act of writing itself - is a deliberate attempt by him to call attention to the very limits of what language can actually achieve.

Above all, these brilliant essays constantly remind us how, as both an artist and a man, O'Brien was a walking contradiction.

For example, he constantly ridiculed De Valera's attempt to create a rural-Gaelic speaking Ireland built on tradition. And yet, he continually wrote in Irish, and held deeply conservative values: these arose from his deep commitment to Catholicism.

This unwillingness to completely give his creative soul over to the modernist European tradition, in the same vein as say, Joyce or Beckett, is what distinguishes O'Brien as a true original and a severely complex man.

Flann O'Brien Contesting Legacies is a marvellous addition to the growing scholarship that is thankfully- with each passing year- mounting on Ireland's greatest satirist. And it will become a seminal text for anyone wishing to further their knowledge on the unpredictability, daft humour, numerous paradoxes and general madness contained within the prose of the Godfather of the post-modernist movement.


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