The 'Lost' world of Flann O'Brien

Forty years after the death of one of Ireland's most eccentric literary stars, thousands of Americans are rushing out to buy his work. Why? Because one of his books appeared on a hit television drama series. David McKittrick reports

Flann O'Brien, one of Ireland's more neglected literary lions, would undoubtedly have been both bemused and amused by the revival of interest in his works sparked by, of all things, the American television drama Lost. He imagined and created many fantastic and creative things in his writing career, but the idea that television should suddenly cause such a rush on his book would surely have caused him to blink in disbelief.

Yet the Lost series has such a large and mesmerised following that even a fleeting glimpse of his novelThe Third Policeman was enough to send thousands of American viewers hurrying to the bookshops.

Although its cover was shown on-screen for just one second, the book sold 15,000 copies after a scriptwriter hinted that it had been chosen "very specifically for a reason".

But fans anxious to unravel the mysteries of Lost will find no easy answers in O'Brien's book since it is, in one reviewer's words, "a fusion of the real, the fantastic and the legendary". Another reader has it as a "brilliant comic novel about the nature of time, death and existence". Decades of debate among O'Brien devotees have failed to pin down quite what the book is all about.

It is about hell, involving a murder and a policeman fixated on the possibility of molecular transference between a bicycle and its habitual rider, so that each partially becomes the other. The narrator, who is one of the murderers, is himself blown up and killed in the first chapter. But, not realising this, he narrates on. The reader, meanwhile, is made aware that something has happened, but is not told that the narrator is dead.

There are, plainly, no easy answers in this book though at least it does not start, as another O'Brien novel does, with three separate openings. As this suggests, those venturing into the world of Flann O'Brien will find it funnier than that of Lost but, if anything, even more bizarre, absurd and baffling.

Though much of the literary world would not agree, quite a few in Ireland speak of him in the same breath as Joyce and Beckett. Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas were among his admirers, while a small but ardent cult following means the world of letters has never forgotten him since he died in 1966, at the age of 54. The story of his life is an extraordinary tragi-comic tale: comic in that the few books he produced are ranked by some as among the most brilliant humour ever written; tragic in that his legendarily heavy drinking may well have shortened his life.

Many of those who knew him were utterly fascinated by him. "He was pugnacious and obnoxious but he was wonderful," Anthony Cronin, who wrote his biography, No Laughing Matter, said yesterday. "There is a sense in which he was genius or bust. There was a quality of extraordinary originality and brilliance about him."

Another Irish author, Tony Gray, described him in his book on Irish journalism as "a small, shy, taciturn character with teeth like a rabbit and a greasy felt hat". He added that he was "by far the angriest man I ever met". Gray, who worked with O'Brien at The Irish Times, summed him up as "not one character but many, all of them angry, intolerant, irascible, extremely critical of the Establishment, violently opposed to pretension in any shape or form, and all very, very funny".

The story of how O'Brien came to write a column for The Irish Times is as peculiar and outlandish as anything in his writings. A brilliant Gaelic and classical scholar, he started his own college magazine, called Blather, announcing in its first issue: "Blather has no principles, no honour, no shame. We are an arrogant and a depraved body of men, as proud as bantams and as vain as peacocks."

As a Dublin civil servant during the Second World War O'Brien was strictly forbidden to express his opinions publicly, and so resorted to pen names instead of his own name, Brian O'Nolan. He carried this practice to extremes, writing spurious letters to The Irish Times, sometimes in the names of actual people: then he would write follow-up letters denouncing his own correspondence.

He did this so well that the editor of The Irish Times, R M "Bertie" Smyllie, became greatly worried that the letter columns were being hijacked with bogus correspondence.

Eventually Smyllie, who was himself something of a character, announced: "I have decided to employ O'Nolan as a columnist. If we pay the bugger to contribute to this shuddering newspaper, he will probably no longer feel tempted to contribute gratis, under various pseudonyms, to the correspondence columns."

The result was a stream of columns, written under the name of Myles na Gopaleen, which O'Brien filled with the most idiosyncratic humour which was often combined with lacerating satire. The paper gave him an extraordinary degree of licence, even allowing him to write parodies of its own leading articles on the same page. With collections still in print, the columns have given him a double reputation among admirers as an author and journalist.

His best-known books, The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, meanwhile have bizarre histories of their own. The latter, written while he was at university, was well received but got less attention than might have been expected.

First, it was rather overshadowed by the outbreak of the Second World War and, second, most of the copies were destroyed during the Blitz: it was a scenario, some said, worthy of O'Brien himself.

The Third Policeman had an even more difficult genesis: O'Brien was so crushed at its rejection by a London publisher that he hid it away, claiming to his friends that it had been lost. He produced the typically surreal explanation that the manuscript had been placed in the boot of a car and, during a drive round Ireland, had blown away, page by page. It was only after his death that the text was retrieved and published, to some acclaim.

He had two personal forms of escape from reality, his writing and alcohol. He took to drink while at college and throughout his life drank with steady dedication throughout the day, beginning in the morning. He came up with some brilliant ideas, a friend recalled, "in the brief interval between the time when his hangover was so insufferable that he couldn't bear to talk to anybody at all, and the time when the 'cure' (ie more drink) began to take effect."

He drank so much, in fact, that he was generally in bed by early evening. According to Anthony Cronin: "He wrote in the early mornings, and his writing would be done by 12 o'clock in the morning. On the very rare occasion when you might meet him at eight or nine o'clock in the evening, you'd be inclined to say, 'Hey, it's way past your bedtime, what are you doing here?'"

The Ireland of the 1940s and 1950s is known as a dull literary period when a number of writers emigrated, complaining about a suffocating atmosphere and a lack of artistic appreciation and freedom. But The Irish Times gave O'Brien a quite astonishing amount of licence to write literally thousands of columns poking fun at many politicians, government policies and the sacred cows of the time.

He did not spare his own readers from his attacks, addressing them in one column as "you smug, self-righteous swine, self-opinionated sod-minded suet-brained ham-faced mealy-mouthed streptococcus-ridden gang of natural gobdaws".

He also benefited from another huge element of licence in his day-job in the famously dull Dublin civil service. He was not supposed to voice any public opinions; nor was he supposed to drink himself senseless during the working day. But he had understanding and sympathetic civil service superiors who for years shielded him from disgruntled government ministers. In the end, though, he wrote one political attack too many, and was eased out of his job.

The hurtful rejection of his book, together with his general view of the human condition, did nothing to change his self-destructive drinking habits, described by Tony Gray as "a highly expensive method of killing oneself". Anthony Cronin concurs, believing that drink shortened his life. Both Gray and Cronin think he would have benefited from more recognition. According to Cronin: "There was an element of non-fulfillment about him, an element of unfulfilled promise.

"He was unwavering in his self-confidence but the rejection dented him. Like a lot of humourists he took a fairly gloomy view of life and of human destiny, and the view expressed in The Third Policeman is rather grim."

So what would O'Brien have made of Lost? Cronin guesses: "He would claim he was interested in the money aspect of it, and he would say it was of no great importance."

And what would he have made of his own reputation, given that he is now held in higher regard than he was in his own lifetime? Gray concluded, in terms as slashing as O'Brien himself would have used, that he would pour "devastating scorn on the spin-off industry and all the pretentious cod that has been written about him by gombeen-men scholars and literary blatherers".

Flann's famous five

* THE THIRD POLICEMAN

An Irish country boy who has committed murder grapples with the concepts of time, death and existence in Flann O'Brien's second novel. As the narrator travels through rural Ireland, three eccentric policemen present notions of guilt and time through a series of peculiar and irrational ideas, including a sound-to-light converter, the atomic theory of the bicycle and a human soul called Joe. The novel was published posthumously in 1976.

* THE POOR MOUTH

"The sweet words of Gaelic were oftener in their mouths than the potato," writes O'Brien in his satirical take on the Irish potato famine. First published in Gaelic in 1941 and not translated into English until 1973, the story follows the life of Bonaparte O'Coonassa, who is raised in abject poverty in a rural beauty spot. As comic as it is bleak, The Poor Mouth parodies the melancholy musings of the time, laughing at its language and poverty in equal measure.

* THE HARD LIFE

Subtitled An Exegesis of Squalor, The Hard Life is set in whisky-sodden, turn-of-the-century Dublin, where alcoholism, unemployment, crime and illicit sex jostle for centre stage and bad language flows like Guinness. This 1961 novel is widely hailed as one of O'Brien's funniest. The author himself would have loved to have seen it banned by the uptight Irish authorities, saying: "No writer worth his salt would write a book that wasn't banned." He failed.

* AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS

Widely considered O'Brien's greatest novel. A student who never goes to class takes a literary jaunt through the grime of 1930s Dublin in this bewildering novel about other novelists. The characters, most of whom are borrowed from other works of fiction, wreak havoc on the two parallel strands of narrative. Dylan Thomas famously praised it as "just the book to give your sister - if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl".

* THE DALKEY ARCHIVE

James Joyce teams up with St Augustine, a crazed philosopher and a man who is in danger of turning into a bicycle in O'Brien's 1964 parody of the Irish state. Part science fiction, part nod to chaos theory, the comic narrative follows a mad scientist's attempt to suck all the oxygen out of the world using a device he calls the DMP (also known as the acronym for the Dublin police).

Kate Thomas

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