When Looby mentioned that it was Flann O’Brien’s birthday today, I wished the late gentleman a happy birthday on Twitter (a superstitious folly committed to the air, like saluting a magpie) and decided: that was that. But it’s since been pointed out to me that it’s your man’s centenary this year, so I’m not able to let it pass.
Explaining the dark, deep gravitational pull of Brian O’Nolan to those who haven’t encountered him at all is fraught with difficulties. For a start, what’s his name? A veritable study in pseudonymia, he wrote his column Cruiskeen Lawn for the Irish Times as “Myles na gCopaleen;” his innovative, fascinating novels At Swim-Two-Birds and The Dalkey Archive are apparently by “Flann O’Brien;” and he responded to a review of a Patrick Kavanagh poem by denying the poet’s existence, in a letter signed “Lir O’Connor.” These pseudonyms proved ultimately both necessary and insufficient: aged 43, he was forced out of his day job in the civil service for some of his more acerbic Times writing about local politicians.
Love it or hate it (and I know K. occasionally finds it annoying), O’Brien’s work is that of a creative force that’s sometimes almost too blinding to look directly at. He interspersed falling-down-funny caricatures of people around him with multilingual jokes; the admiration of his early contemporary James Joyce led to him being immortalized in Finnegans Wake. O’Brien would never compromise; indeed, he would often respond to criticism at length in his next column, with gradually more and more grindingly bitter digs at his critics. Yet he was never a dense read: light, lyrical, twinkling-eyed, cocking a snook both at literary establishments and at other snook-cockers.
Hunt down his novels: they’re clever, engaging and utterly readable. Trawl through the collections of his Times columns: they’re the sort of thing that Beachcomber was always aiming at when he wrote for the Express, but could neither love nor hate enough to compose. And note, please, that all of these accomplishments were achieved while he was paid numerous pittances that merely added up to one pittanced whole, shared among his family; and that suffered from alcoholism for much of his later life, dying of a heart attack at only 54. While the story about him hiding and then consuming a bottle of whisky in a toilet cistern during an interview is indeed riotously funny, it’s also terribly, terribly sad. I wouldn’t necessarily call a centenary stamp fitting recompense, from the nation that spurned its artists for so long. (Repeat it, more quietly, to oneself: fifty-four.)
Along with other Irish truisms, O’Brien took that modernist one – that the Irish are in some senses more inventive in their English than the English – and hardened it, through protean postmodern flourishes and techniques, into an indisputable truth in relation to his own work. He mopped and soak up anything and everything he found around him, and boiling it down to a glittering, beautiful distillate of language for the pure joy of language. Whenever I despair of writing, or of the written word; when an apparently lauded work strikes me as turgid and badly written – from Jeffrey Deaver to William Gibson – and I wish it could be otherwise; whenever I pick up a pen and feel the impossibility of moving myself to write: there stands Flann O’Brien, offering advice, launching a slightly curt insult, grinning at the absurdity of it all.
Both then and now, it’s neither profitable nor popular to write or have written like O’Brien: unless you’re already dead. But it’s worth it for the end result alone. For this, and for the joy I receive every time I pick up one of his books: happy birthday, the late Brian Ó Nualláin, aka Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien, aka Myles na gCopaleen. Breithlá sona duit, agus siochan leat.