Flann O’Brien and the way he might look at you...

The boozy ge­nius emerges as his own great­est comic cre­ation in these hi­lar­i­ous let­ters, says SI­MON HEFFER

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS -

On September 5, 1960, Brian O’Nolan wrote to a friend that “the in­come tax bas­tards are try­ing to eat me alive here, just like ants... I am a mess.” It is in­dica­tive of what life had be­come for the man who, at the time, was al­most cer­tainly Ire­land’s great­est living comic writer and, in­deed, pos­si­bly Ire­land’s great­est living writer with no ad­jec­tive re­quired (though Beck­ett, for one, might have dis­sented).

O’Nolan, then 49 but a phys­i­cal wreck be­cause of drink­ing, smok­ing and an un­canny in­abil­ity to get in a car or even on a bus with­out it crash­ing and in­jur­ing him in some pro­found way, was a man of three iden­ti­ties. To his fam­ily, and the tax in­spec­tor, he was Brian O’Nolan, born in Stra­bane in 1911, grad­u­ate of Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin, and a denizen of its lit­er­ary scene. To readers of his un­de­servedly ob­scure but fan­tas­tic nov­els, such as At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) or his mas­ter­piece, The Third Po­lice­man , only pub­lished a year af­ter his death in 1966, he was Flann O’Brien, the nom deguerre un­der which Maebh Long has cho­sen to pub­lish this su­perb, and finely edited, col­lec­tion of let­ters. To readers of The Ir­ish Times, he was Myles na gCopaleen, writ­ing sev­eral times a week the comic col­umn The Cruiskeen Lawn — “il­lus­trat­ing the ax­iom that the Duo­fold is might­ier than the Shil­le­lagh”. Dalkey Archive, hard­back, 672 pages, €24

This was a man of ge­nius, who ended as ge­niuses so of­ten do: dead by the age of 55, os­ten­si­bly from cancer of the throat, but with most of the rest of his body poised to clap out im­mi­nently. These let­ters, which start in 1938 and go through to three months be­fore his death, un­ques­tion­ably re­veal that ge­nius.

Us­ing a fourth pseu­do­nym, Lir O’Con­nor, he writes in 1940 to his own news­pa­per to take is­sue with some­thing he has writ­ten — “Per­haps Mr na gCopaleen shares my own opin­ion that it was the hog-pen hooli­gan­isms which be­founded the clean pages of Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture which earned for our coun­try the name Bon­nevah [piglet] from a proud but none the less dis­cern­ing in­vader” — and so on.

The early let­ters of­ten re­veal such mis­chief, whether to friends or whether un­der var­i­ous names to The Ir­ish Times. He tells the artist re­spon­si­ble for the dust-wrap­per of Brian O’Nolan aka Flann O’Brien aka Myles na gCopaleen

By the last few years of his life, as he be­comes drunker and sicker, the bile has turned into a tor­rent

An Beal Bocht (1941) that “a de­cent cover on an Ir­ish book is un­heard of, of course, and this de­par­ture should be ap­pre­ci­ated”. But soon his tone sours and sharp­ens.

Like all bud­ding writ­ers he has a day job — as a civil ser­vant — which he does not like, and from which he takes more and more sick-leave un­til they stop pro­mot­ing him, which out­rages him. The book is filled with de­mands to those who pub­lish his writ­ings to pay him bet­ter — some­thing not un­heard of in jour­nal­is­tic cir­cles — which must be no sur­prise, given the amount he is clearly spend­ing on drink.

There are let­ters to im­pre­sar­ios and, by the early Six­ties, to tele­vi­sion pro­duc­ers, who give him a new in­come stream as he writes for the stage and comes up with gags for co­me­di­ans, no­tably the stand-up Jimmy O’Dea. Yet O’Nolan can­not bring him­self to watch tele­vi­sion, to the ex­tent that he can­not bear to have one in the house, as he guile­lessly tells one pro­ducer, de­scrib­ing those who make their ca­reers on “the di­a­bol­i­cal lit­tle box” in terms that can­not be re­pro­duced in a fam­ily news­pa­per.

By the last few years of his life, as he be­comes drunker and sicker, the bile has turned into a tor­rent. He tells a pub­lisher who is ask­ing him to help pro­mote his 1961 novel TheHardLife that “my long daily as­so­ci­a­tion with The Ir­ish Times is in­clined to make the oth­ers pre­tend I don’t ex­ist. There are many bas­tards in this town”.

Dr Long pep­pers the last sec­tions of the book with O’Nolan’s abu­sive let­ters to pub­lic bod­ies — whether the lo­cal coun­cil, the elec­tric­ity board or his mort­gagees — who he de­cides have, in some way, dis­obliged him, and who al­ways end up be­ing threat­ened with the full majesty of the law be­ing brought down upon them: “The se­ques­ter­ing by your So­ci­ety of money which does not be­long to you is equally un­law­ful,” he tells his build­ing so­ci­ety in May 1960, “and it might be on that com­plaint by me the State might con­sider mak­ing a charge of crim­i­nal con­spir­acy. Apart from the un­law­ful­ness of the con­duct, it is the height of im­per­ti­nence and pre­sump­tion,” he con­cludes, in his best Lady Brack­nell.

As ill­ness and mis­for­tune be­set him he does, how­ever, draw on his sense of hu­mour to cush­ion the blow, at least to oth­ers. “I have been fever­ishly sick,” he tells a friend, “caused by the im­pact of ter­tiary syphilis on the cere­brum, a dose the doc­tor in­sists on call­ing ‘in­fluenza’.” Or: “I met with what might have been a se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent by be­ing struck by a bus while in the bus, with sus­pected frac­ture of the coc­cyx, which is the ex­trem­ity of the spine from which an­thro­poid ages grow, and hu­mans used to grow, their tails.” Or: “I have been laid low by what I thought was le­prosy but which the doc­tor says is bronchial pneu­mo­nia.”

Like Joyce be­fore him, he sets out to shock. He rev­els in telling friends the plot of TheHardLife—a de­ci­sion to pe­ti­tion the Pope about the shortage of ladies’ lava­to­ries in Dublin. He sus­pects that the Cen­sor­ship of Pub­li­ca­tions Board, set up by “a con­fed­er­a­tion of pi­ous hum­bugs” and “com­posed ex­clu­sively of ig­no­rant bal­loxes”, will seek to ban the book not least be­cause one of its main char­ac­ters is a Catholic priest named Fa­ther Fahrt. Whose “mere name... will jus­tify the thun­der­clap”.

He re­tained his ca­pac­ity to throw bricks through win­dows to the end. Dis­gusted by the clerico-fas­cist state that was de Valera’s Ire­land, and de­pressed by the coun­try’s in­abil­ity to move on from the di­vi­sions of the civil war more than 40 years ear­lier, he uses the ex­huma­tion from Pen­tonville of Roger Case­ment, and his re-burial in Ire­land in time for the 50th an­niver­sary of the Easter Ris­ing, to sug­gest that the au­thor­i­ties got the wrong body, and they have in fact buried in great state Dr Crip­pen in­stead. He accuses Fianna Fáil of engi­neer­ing the Case­ment re-burial for elec­toral pur­poses, telling the edi­tor of The Sun­day Tele­graph of “the es­tab­lished fact that de Valera is a bas­tard” and that the Bri­tish pub­lic would “die laugh­ing” if they knew how Ire­land was re­ally gov­erned.

But there is a deep sad­ness in these last years as this man of sub­lime tal­ent looks to sell off his manuscripts to make some money, or ap­plies for mid­dle-man­age­ment jobs (none of which he gets) to help make ends meet. By that stage, his let­ters had made him his own great­est comic cre­ation. They de­serve the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, as do his mag­nif­i­cent writ­ings, ripe for re­dis­cov­ery by a new gen­er­a­tion for whom re­al­ity is so of­ten stranger than fic­tion.

NON-FIC­TION The Col­lected Let­ters of Flann O’Brien Edited by Maebh Long

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