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
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