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Nobody Knows My Name: Flann O’Brien’s Collected Letters – TLS

15/08/2018

In September 1952 Brian O’Nolan wrote to the Secretary of Ireland’s Department of Local Government. “I PROTEST TO YOU IN THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS AGAINST THE EXCLUSION OF MY NAME”, he fulminated in a long and detailed letter concerning his omission from a list of people recommended for promotion. It was an early shot in a battle which would eventually see him scuppering his career as a high-ranking civil servant. The question of names exercised O’Nolan all his life, as we can see in this new volume of Collected Letters, edited by Maebh Long. Now famed in his homeland as the last of Ireland’s literary trinity – the antic holy ghost, coming in third after James Joyce, the father of modernism, and Samuel Beckett, the son – elsewhere in the world O’Nolan’s reputation is more uncertain. Is It About a Bicycle? is the title of a recent collections of essays on Flann O’Brien, the pen name which he used primarily for fiction but which makes its first appearance here as the signatory of a series of mischief-making letters to the Irish Times, and is given to the volume as a whole. Other than the image of a bicycle, and the character of a policeman, which crop up repeatedly in his work, it is O’Nolan’s multiple names – their meaning and proliferation – for which he is perhaps best known.

Born Brian Ó Nualláin in 1911, to a Catholic, Gaelic-speaking family in Strabane, schooled at home with his siblings to avoid contamination by what his father considered an imperialist language and education, it was not until he was eleven years old, when he began attending school, that he spoke English on a regular basis. A brilliant student, he read German at University College Dublin and then, like his father, went on to the civil service. But the urban Gaelic he heard in Dublin was different from that which was spoken at home, and the English he learnt at his Christian Brotherhood school was different again from the “official” English spoken in the halls of government. The difficulty O’Nolan consequently had in finding a secure home in language, and his scepticism about its capacity to generate meaning or facilitate communication, are ever-present and alive in his writing, constituting a strong source of its ingenuity, as well as, at times, some obscurity.

O’Nolan’s noms de plume – or noms de guerre as he calls them in these spiky letters – were not merely, as many supposed, a means of separating his daily conforming work life from his dissident life as a writer. They were also an expression of this uncertainty as to where he stood in relation to language, and the problem, therefore, of identifying himself simply or singly. The refusal to limit himself, or to be put in his place, is apparent in his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), in which the narrator, a literature student, famously announces: “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with”. The many beginnings and endings of a book, he goes on, may be entirely dissimilar, “inter-related only in the prescience of the author”. It is a telling phrase, raising the idea of gamesmanship, a kind of cat-and-mouse the reader must play in order to detect those ideas O’Nolan has in mind, which hold together multiplying narrative threads. That some meanings might remain ambiguous did not bother O’Nolan. In a letter to a publisher, worried about how comprehensible his work would be for an American audience, he rebukes him: “a measure of bewilderment is part of the job of literature”. This undermining of reality, and the doubt it builds in the reader, was not without purpose: in his writing O’Nolan is an exuberant iconoclast, ridiculing received ideas of Art (“misterpiece”, not masterpiece), pieties concerning the Irish language, and the tricks or lies perpetrated by powerful institutions such as the Catholic Church. Graham Greene, in the jacket blurb for to At Swim-Two-Birds, wrote that it incites in the reader “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on stage”. Formally, too, O’Nolan parodied and toyed with many genres, in the process exposing the power plays at work in them. These are some of the reasons why he has been called the godfather of postmodernism, why his work has proved so elusive, and why it has engendered a cult following of dedicated cognoscenti, John Banville, Jonathan Coe and the actor Brendan Gleeson among them.

In letters to colleagues in the civil service O’Nolan uses both the Gaelic Ó Nualláin and the anglicized version of his name (though at one point he denies that this is the case). These, together with Flann O’Brien, and the one he adopted for his journalism, Myles na cGopaleen (later, just na Gopaleen), make up his own (un)holy trinity of names. But there are many other denominations in his pantheon, among them: Brother Barnabas, Count O’Blather, An Broc, Lir O’Connor, the Sligo of Southpaw and George Knowall. In his second novel, The Third Policeman, written in 1939–40 but rejected by publishers, only coming into print posthumously in 1966, the protagonist has forgotten his name, leaving other characters to try and affix one to him so that he can be hanged for murder. A name will damn you, hang you, far better to have none or many. In his letters he is always on the alert for other people’s name changes, particularly where they indicate pretension or the wish to smuggle in covert meaning. One letter to the Irish Times takes the form of a poem in which he mocks contemporaries who have changed their names after falling victim to the “Celtic twilight”, outing Seán Ó Faoláin as “plain John Whelan”.

This is part of a batch of letters from the late 1930s in which O’Nolan, deploying a series of aliases, mocked with increasing brilliance and comic cunning the pretensions of O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor and others, by generating evidently bogus personas with anachronistic biographies and false memories. These farcical “characters” betray themselves at every turn, exposing their humbug while displaying O’Nolan’s considerable skewering skills. In one, he writes “‘Flann O’Brien’ – who is this hooligan skulking behind a pseudonym? Who Is Sylvia?”, then slyly alludes to O’Connor’s own modified appellation: “Mr. O’C.nnr . . . (who can rest easy that his name is safe with me)”; repeats to the point of redundancy the phrase “One more word and I have done”; and is “reminded of” a French walking tour with Yeats in the 1890s, the poet loftily and absurdly claiming that his address was simply “Dublin”, before signing off with his own address as Tintern Abbey. The Irish Times’s editor finally called a halt to this malarkey, but not before recruiting O’Nolan to write “Cruiskeen Lawn”, one of the most extraordinary and long-lived columns in newspaper history, in which O’Nolan continued to parade fake erudition, deflate grandiosity, decry cliché and comment on neologisms and street talk.

The year before his death, the matter of names was still exercising O’Nolan. In two scathing missives to the poet John Jordan, he attacked his drinking companion for violently contradicting him on the matter of George Bernard Shaw’s pen name: Corno di Bassetto. The reply from Jordan accusing him of libel elicits a withering request: “I beg you to stop using words you do not understand”, then lectures him on etymology: “LIBELIUS (dem of L., Liber) ‘A little book’”, and the clue it gives that libel must be published. He can send by closed post, O’Nolan adds threateningly, the “most derogatory appraisal of yourself and your behaviour, and there is no libel”. As with his Irish Times letters, O’Nolan is still intent on taking down a peg or two those he deems to have offended, but the boasting and excess, once deployed in the spirit of mockery and fun, of a game that gave pleasure to readers and which others joined in, now seems reduced to a nasty put-down. There was, however, perhaps a point to his pedantry: O’Nolan was an expert provocateur (“to be offensive . . . takes skill and practice”), and knew precisely the limits of his art.

Or so he imagined. Reading the letters today, the humour still burns brightly but among many laugh-out-loud moments and fascinating subversions there is one case of provocation that sticks in the craw. In The Dalkey Archive (1964), the last novel O’Nolan published in his lifetime, rehashing portions from the then unpublished The Third Policeman, there are two “feature” characters. One is James Joyce, who has faked his death and is living incognito as a barman in Skerries; the other is Saint Augustine. In letter after letter to friends and acquaintances, O’Nolan asks – and it is nearly always in capital letters – “WAS AUGUSTINE A NIGGER?” The only one of his correspondents who seems to have challenged him about this was the dramatist John Keyes Burn, who went by the name of Hugh Leonard, and who adaptedThe Dalkey Archive for the stage in 1965 as The Saints Go Cycling In. In a draft of the play, Leonard uses the word “black” to describe Augustine, but is overruled on the basis that this is a “neutral humbug term”.

O’Nolan’s delight in the frisson of the word and his “dead-set” insistence on using it, even against Leonard’s reminders of its “contemptuous meaning”, is deeply offensive, and it won’t do to excuse this as a matter of the times in which O’Nolan was living. As the letters show, like all serious journalists he was a voracious reader, often commenting on world events such as Kennedy’s assassination or the Cold War nuclear stand-off. He was aware, too, of the Civil Rights movement, making reference to Martin Luther King’s knowledge of the American Constitution, and calling the all-white South African rugby team who were visiting Ireland, cowardly “penny-boys of a fascist regime”. But his provocative impulse went further than bandying around an odious word: what the letters also suggest is that in his research on Augustine O’Nolan believed he had uncovered a little-known fact about the saint but was frustrated in his attempts to confirm it. “Don’t tell me in reply what you THINK”, he says to his recipients, “I know more about that man than does anybody on this earth but I still don’t know the colour of his skin.” In Augustine he felt that he had found a stick with which to “chide the church” (“not to jeer at God or religion”), and to expose its hypocrisy about who Augustine was. He brags in a letter to W. L. Webb (my father), then literary editor of the Guardian, that The Dalkey Archive is a book “so new, so bombastic and so disrespectful it will create holy murder”. It seems O’Nolan believed he was on the same track that later a very dif­ferent kind of iconoclast would take: in Black Athena (1987, 1991, 2006), Martin Bernal, too, argued that powerful institutions, in this case, universities, had denied the African roots of Western civilization.

Over the years O’Nolan’s two principal correspondents were his friend from uni­versity, the architectural writer and Joyce scholar Neil Montgomery; and, later, Timothy O’Keefe, the publisher to whom he owed the resurrection of his career when he brought At Swim-Two-Birds back into print in 1960. (There is surely a book to be written on literature’s saints of rescue – O’Keefe, Francis Wyndham, Diana Athill, Randall Jarrell, John Calder et al – who revived the careers of forgotten writers.) Montgomery was a lifelong supporter, apart from a brief moment in 1964 when, after starting his own newspaper column, he trod on Cruiskeen Lawn territory, and O’Nolan accused him of plagiarism. Montgomery withdrew the column and the men continued their habit of co-operative letter-writing in which they often annotated one another’s epistles before returning them. In one of these annotations, Long tells us, Montgomery identified O’Nolan’s use of “massive incomprehension” as part of his intellectual armament. And in other letters, O’Nolan displays a keen ear for the Irish propensity for refusal following centuries of domination by the British state and the Catholic Church. In one to O’Keefe, it is not the refusal to acknowledge but the refusal to believe that amuses him. At a party given by the crew filming Of Human Bondage, Brendan Behan’s father – “Stephan Behan (the da)” – is sceptical about the story of Christ on the cross. “But the nails, Myles, the NAILS!” “What nails Stephen?” “Sure there were no nails at all in them days. Dya folly me? Yer man was TIED to the cross!”

Many of O’Nolan’s letters concern money. There are fierce but fastidious compositions directed at banks, insurance companies, the police, the passport office, and the paymaster general, usually arguing that he has been left out of pocket, and challenging unyielding bureaucracy with his own equal intractability. The letters are reminders to any aspiring writer about the financial precariousness of most literary lives, as well as the amount of business that has to be contended with. A stream of documents detail his painstaking relations with editors, publishers, agents, book designers, adapters of his work, and translators from many countries. Frustrated by a system in which so many parties take a cut, reducing his income to pennies, O’Nolan mounts a successful campaign to force the Irish government into a tax agreement with West Germany. “Publishers tend to treat their authors as pimps their whores”, he protests. He had a reputation as a boozer, but O’Nolan was also extremely hard-working and resourceful: besides novels in English and Gaelic, a variety of newspaper columns, reviews and translations, he wrote plays (Faustus Kelly, for the Abbey Theatre) and a television series (O’Dea’s Your Man for RTE).

And he was a great getter-up of schemes, proposing elaborate ideas, often while touting for work, about how to promote or improve, for instance, Guinness, the Irish Hospital Sweepstake, or the Irish Tourist Board, as well as a host of literary magazines. Even towards the end of his life, he was still on the look-out for new avenues for his writing. When my father reviewed the newly republished At Swim-Two Birds, praising it, as Long observes in a footnote, as “one of the few experimental works of twentieth-century fiction which seem not to be sick at heart”, O’Nolan wrote to him. He said that after publication ofThe Dalkey Archive he might have to decamp to Mexico, though some snags had arisen in attempts to rent Trotsky’s former villa, but meanwhile might he make a “modest proposal” for a weekly news and advice column on Ireland: “I guarantee not to send you any rubbish”. He signed off with the legendary line: “I await your view on this proposal that I should have my agony in the GUARDIAN”.

In the next two years O’Nolan’s health deteriorated, following multiple (often alcohol-induced) accidents. Subjected to endless blood transfusions, he lay in his hospital bed suffering “sheer day and night pain”, without entirely understanding what ailed him: “some complicated glandular disorder insofar as anybody can say . . .”. But in his final letter he is still thinking of new ruses, hoping to be back “on active service again” and planning a lecture tour in Germany. Writing about his latest idea for a television series, he describes the character of one Policeman Pluck: “In addition to being the dumbest cluck imaginable, he is an amalgam of Frankenstein, Groucho Marx, the Little Flower and President Johnson . . . he transcends all his situations”. But for all his creative copiousness, death had his name and this was one “situation” he could not invent his way out of. Brian O’Nolan died a fortnight later, on April Fool’s Day in 1966.

This review of The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, edited by Maebh Long, appeared in the TLS on 3.8.2018 as “A Measure of Bewilderment”.

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