Flann O'Brien

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Flann O'Brien

Post  eddie on Mon Apr 18, 2011 12:15 am

Brian O'Nolan.

The great Irish comic writer Brian O'Nolan (aka Flann O'Brien) wrote a regular column for the Irish Times under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen.

Here's an old ATU thread on Myles' "Book-handling" service for the nouveau riche who wish to appear to seem well-read. Also incorporates new material on Myles' ventiloquist Escort Service:


A visit that I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting. I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.

'When I get settled down properly,' said the fool, 'I'll have to catch up on my reading.'
This is what set me thinking. Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.


Let me explain exactly what I mean. The wares in a bookshop look completely unread. On the other hand, a school-boy's Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the boy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary. Similarly with our non-brow who wants his friends to infer from a glancing around his house that he is a high-brow. He buys an enormous book on the Russian ballet, written possibly in the language of that distant but beautiful land. Our problem is to alter the book in a reasonably short time so that anybody looking at it will conclude that its owner has practically lived, supped and slept with it for many months. You can, if you like, talk about designing a machine driven by a small but efficient petrol motor that would 'read' any book in five minutes, the equivalent of five years or ten years' 'reading' being obtained by merely turning a knob. This, how-ever, is the cheap soulless approach of the times we live in. No machine can do the same work as the soft human fingers. The trained and ex-perienced book-handler is the only real solution of this contemporary social problem. What does he do? How does he work? What would he charge? How many types of handling would there be?
These questions and many - I will answer the day after tomorrow.
* * *


Yes, this question of book-handling. The other day I had a word to say about the necessity for the professional book-handler, a person who will maul the books of illiterate, but wealthy, upstarts so that the books will look as if they have been read and re-read by their owners. How many uses of mauling would there be? Without giving the matter much thought, I should say four. Supposing an experienced handler is asked to quote for the handling of one shelf of books four feet in length. He would quote thus under four heads:--

'Popular Handling--Each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark. Say, £1 7s 6d. Five per cent discount for civil servants.'

'Premier Handling-Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight leaves in each to be dog-eared, a suitable passage in not less than 25 volumes to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French on the works of Victor Hugo to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each. Say, £2 17s 6d. Five per cent discount for literary university students, civil servants and lady social workers.'


The great thing about this graduated scale is that no person need appear ignorant or unlettered merely because he or she is poor. Not every vulgar person, remember, is wealthy, although I could name...
But no matter. Let us get on to the more expensive grades of handling. The next is well worth the extra money.
'De Luxe Handling--Each volume to be mauled savagely, the spines of the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impres-sion that they have been carried around in pockets, a passage in every volume to be underlined in red pencil with an exclamation or interrogation mark inserted in the margin opposite, an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten book-mark (3 per cent dis-count if old Abbey programmes are accepted), not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains, and not less than five volumes to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors. Five per cent discount for bank managers, county surveyors and the heads of business houses employing not less than 35 hands. Dog-ears extra and inserted according to instructions, twopence per half dozen per volume. Quotations for alternative old Paris theatre programmes on demand. This service available for a limited time only, nett, £7 18s 3d.'


The fourth class is the Handling Superb, although it is not called that--Le Traitement Superbe being the more usual title. It is so superb that I have no space for it today. It will appear here on Monday next, and, in honour of the occasion, the Irish Times on that day will be printed on hand-scutched antique interwoven demidevilled superfine Dutch paper, each copy to be signed by myself and to be accompanied by an exquisite picture in tri-colour lithograph of the Old House in College Green. The least you can do is to order your copy in advance.
And one more word. It is not sufficient just to order your copy. Order it in advance.
* * *

IT WILL BE remembered (how, in Heaven's name, could it be forgotten) that I was discoursing on Friday last on the subject of book-handling, my new service, which enables ignorant people who want to be suspected of reading books to have their books handled and mauled in a manner that will give the impression that their owner is very devoted to them. I des-cribed three grades of handling and promised to explain what you get under am Four--the Superb Handling, or the Traitement Superbe, as we lads who spent our honeymoon in Paris prefer to call it. It is the dearest of them all, of course, but far cheaper than dirt when you consider the amount of prestige you will gain in the eyes of your ridiculous friends. Here are the details.

'Le Traitement Superbe'. Every volume to be well and truly handled, first by a qualified handler and subsequently by a master-handler who shall have to his credit not less than 550 handling hours; suitable passages in not less than fifty per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz:

Yes, indeedl
How true, how true!
I don't agree at all.
Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151.
Well, well, well.
Quite, but Boussuet in his Discours sur l'histoire Universelle has already established the same point and given much more forceful explanations.
Nonsense, nonsense!
A point well taken!
But why in heaven's name?
I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me.

Need I say that a special quotation may be obtained at any time for the supply of Special and Exclusive Phrases? The extra charge is not very much, really.


That, of course, is not all. Listen to this:

Not less than six volumes to be inscribed with forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work, e.g.,

'To my old friend and fellow-writer, A.B., in affectionate remembrance, from George Moore.'
'In grateful recognition of your great kindness to me, dear A.B., I send you this copy of The Crock of Gold. Your old friend, James Stephens.'

'Well, A.B., both of us are getting on. I am supposed to be a good writer now, but I am not old enough to forget the infinite patience you displayed in the old days when guiding my young feet on the path of literature. Accept this further book, poor as it may be, and please believe that I remain, as ever, your friend and admirer, G. Bernard Shaw.'

'From your devoted friend and follower, K. Marx.'

'Dear A.B.,-Your invaluable suggestions and assistance, not to mention your kindness, in entirely re-writing chapter 3, entitles you, surely, to this first copy of "Tess". From your old friend T. Hardy.'
'Short of the great pleasure of seeing you personally, I can only send you, dear A.B., this copy of "The Nigger". I miss your company more than I can say... (signature undecipherable).'
Under the last inscription, the moron who owns the book will be asked to write (and shown how if necessary) the phrase 'Poor old Conrad was not the worst.'

All this has taken me longer to say than I thought. There is far more than this to be had for the paltry £32 7s 6d that the Superb Handling will cast you. In a day or two I hope to explain about the old letters which are inserted in some of the books by way of forgotten book-marks, every one of them an exquisite piece of forgery. Order your copy now!

* * *

I PROMISED to say a little more about the fourth, or Superb, grade of book handling.

The price I quoted includes the insertion in not less than ten volumes of certain old letters, apparently used at one time as bookmarks, and forgotten. Each letter will bear the purported signature of some well-known humbug who is associated with ballet, verse-mouthing, folk-dancing, wood-cutting, or some other such activity that is sufficiently free from rules to attract the non-brows in their swarms. Each of the letters will be a flawless forgery and will thank A.B., the owner of the book, for his 'very kind interest in our work', refer to his 'invaluable advice and guidance', his 'unrivalled knowledge' of the lep-as-lep-can game, his 'patient and skilful direction of the corps on Monday night', thank him for his very generous--too generous--subscription of two hundred guineas, 'which is appreciated more than I can say'. As an up-to-the-minute inducement, an extra letter will be included free of charge. It will be signed (or purport to be signed) by one or other of the noisier young non-nationals who are honouring our beautiful land with their presence. This will satisfy the half- ambition of the majority of respectable vulgarians to maintain a second establishment in that somewhat congested thoroughfare, Queer Street.

The gentleman who are associated with me in the Dublin WAAMA League have realised that this is the off-season for harvesting the cash of simple people through the medium of the art-infected begging letter, and have turned their attention to fresh fields and impostures new. The latest racket we have on hands is the Myles na gCopaleen Book Club. You join this and are spared the nerve-racking bother of choosing your own books. We do the choosing for you, and, when you get the book, it is ready--rubbed, ie, subjected free of charge to our expert handlers. You are spared the trouble of soiling and mauling it to give your friends the impression that you can read. An odd banned book will be slipped in for those who like conversation such as:--

'I say, did you read this, old man?'
'I'm not terribly certain that I did, really.'
'It's banned, you know, old boy.'

There is no nonsense about completing a form, asking for a brochure, or any other such irritation. You just send in your guinea and you imme-diately participate in this great cultural uprising of the Irish people.


Occasionally we print and circulate works written specially for the Club by members of the WAAMA League. Copies are sent out in advance to well-known critics, accompanied by whatever fee that is usually required to buy them. We sent one man ten bob with a new book and asked him to say that once one takes the book up one cannot leave it down. The self-opinionated gobdaw returned the parcel with an impudent note saying that his price was twelve and sixpence. Our reply was immediate. Back went the parcel with twelve and sixpence and a curt note saying that we were accepting the gentleman's terms. In due course we printed the favourable comment I have quoted.

But for once we took steps to see that our critic spoke the truth. The cover of the volume was treated with a special brand of invisible glue that acts only when subjected to the heat of the hands. When our friend had concluded his cursory glance through the work and was about to throw it away, it had become practically part of his physical personality. Not only did the covers stick to his fingers, but the whole volume began to dis-integrate into a viscous mess of treacly slime. Short of having his two arms amputated, putting the book down was an impossibility. He had to go round with the book for a week and submit to being fed like a baby by his maid. He got rid of the masterpiece only by taking a course of scalding hot baths that left him as weak as a kitten.

That's the sort of customers we of the WAAMA League are.

Letters have been pouring in in shoals (please notice that when it is a question of shoals of letters they always pour) regarding the book-handling service inaugurated by my Dublin WAAMA League. It has been a great success. Our trained handlers have been despatched to the homes of some of the wealthiest and most ignorant in the land to maul, bend, bash, and gnaw whole casefuls of virgin books. Our printing presses have been turning out fake Gate Theatre and Abbey programmes by the hundred thousand, not to mention pamphlets in French, holograph letters signed by George Moore, medieval playing cards, and the whole paraphernalia of humbug and pretence.

There will be black sheep in every fold, of course. Some of our handlers have been caught using their boots, and others have been found thrashing inoffensive volumes of poetry with horsewhips, flails, and wooden clubs. Books have been savagely attacked with knives, daggers, knuckle-dusters, hatchets, rubber-piping, razor-blade-potatoes, and every device of assault ever heard of in the underworld. Novice handlers, not realising that tooth-marks on the cover of a book are not accepted as evidence that its owner has read it, have been known to train terriers to worry a book as they would a rat. One man (he is no longer with us) was sent to a house in Kilmainham, and was later discovered in the Zoo handing in his employer's valuable books to Charlie the chimpanzee. A country-born handler 'read' his books beyond all recognition by spreading them out on his employer's lawn and using a horse and harrow on them, subsequently ploughing them in when he realised that he had gone a little bit too far. Moderation, we find, is an extremely difficult thing to get in this country.


That, however, is by the way. A lot of the letters we receive are from well-off people who have no books. Nevertheless, they want to be thought educated. Can we help them, they ask?

Of course. Let nobody think that only book-owners can be smart. The Myles na gCopaleen Escort Service is the answer.

Why be a dumb dud? Do your friends shun you? Do people cross the street when they see you approaching? Do they run up the steps of strange houses, pretend they live there and force their way into the hall while you are passing by? If this is the sort of a person you are, you must avail yourself today of this new service. Otherwise, you might as well be dead.


Here is how it happened. The WAAMA League has had on its hands for some time past a horde of unemployed ventriloquists who have been beseeching us to get them work. These gentlemen have now been carefully trained and formed in a corps to operate this new escort service.

Supposing you are a lady and so completely dumb that the dogs in the street do not think you are worth growling at. You ring up the WAAMA League and explain your trouble. You are pleased by the patient and sympathetic hearing you get. You are instructed to be in attendance at the foyer of the Gate Theatre that evening, and to look out for a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman of military bearing attired in immaculate evening dress. You go. You meet him. He advances towards you smiling, ignoring all the other handsome baggages that litter the place. In an instant his moustaches are brushing your lips.

'I trust I have not kept you waiting, Lady Charlotte,' he says pleasantly. What a delightfully low, manly voice!
'Not at all, Count,' you answer, your voice being the tinkle of silver bells. 'And what a night it is for Ibsen. One is in the mood, somehow. Yet a translation can never be quite the same. Do you remember that night. . .in Stockholm. . . long ago?'


The fact of the matter is, of course, that you have taken good care to say nothing. Your only worry throughout the evening is to shut up and keep shut up completely. The trained escort answers his own manly ques-tions in a voice far pleasanter than your own unfeminine quack, and gives answers that will astonish the people behind for their brilliance and sparkle.

There are escorts and escorts according to the number of potatoes you are prepared to pay. Would you like to score off your escort in a literary argument during an interlude? Look out for further information on this absorbing new service.

'Well, well, Godfrey, how awfully wizard being at the theatre with you!'
'Yes, it is fun.'
'What have you been doing with yourself?'
'Been trying to catch up with my reading, actually.'
'Ow, good show, keep in touch and all that.'
'Yes, I've been studying a lot of books on Bali. You know?'
'Ballet is terribly bewitching, isn't it? D'you like Petipa?'
'I'm not terribly sure that I do, but they seem to have developed a complete art of their own, you know. Their sense of décor and their general feeling for the plastic is quite marvellous.'
'Yes, old Dérain did some frightfully good work for them; for the Spectre, I think it was, actually. Sort of grisaille, you know.'
'But their feeling for matiére is so profound and... almost brooding. One thinks of Courbet.'
'Yes, or Ingres.'
'Or Delacroix, don't you think?'
'Definitely. Have you read Karsavina?'
'Of course.'
'Of course, how stupid of me. I saw her, you know.'
'Ow, I hadn't realised that she herself was a Balinese.'
'Balinese? What are you driving at?'


This ridiculous conversation took place recently in an Irish theatre. The stuff was spoken in loud voices so that everybody could hear. It was only one of the many fine things that have been done by the Dublin WAAMA League's Escort Service. The League's horde of trained ventrilo-quists can now be heard carrying out their single-handed conversations all over the city and in the drawing-rooms of people who are very import-ant and equally ignorant. You know the system? If you are very dumb, you hire one of our ventriloquists to accompany you in public places, and he does absolutely all the talking. The smart replies which you appear to make will astonish yourself as much as the people around you.

The conversation I have quoted is one of the most expensive on the menu. You will note that it contains a serious misunderstanding. This makes the thing appear extraordinarily genuine. Imagine my shrewdness in making the ventriloquist misunderstand what he is saying himself! Conceive my guile, my duplicate duplicity, my play on ignorance and gullibility! Is it any wonder that I have gone into the banking business?

Last edited by eddie on Tue Jun 14, 2011 10:24 pm; edited 4 times in total

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Re: Flann O'Brien

Post  eddie on Mon Apr 18, 2011 12:27 am

Extracts from the Myles Na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché, as they originally appeared in The Irish Times:

What is a bad thing worse than?

What can one do with fierce resistance?
Offer it.

But if one puts fierce resistance, in what direction does one put it?

In which hood is a person who expects money to fall out of the sky?
Second child.

If a thing is fraught, with what is it fraught?
The gravest consequences.

What does one sometimes have it on?
The most unimpeachable authority.

What is the only thing one can wax?

What happens to blows at a council meeting?
It looks as if they might be exchanged.

What does pandemonium do?
It breaks loose.

Describe its subsequent dominion.
It reigns.

How are allegations dealt with?
They are denied.

Yes, but then you are weakening, Sir. Come now, how are they denied?

What is the behaviour of a heated altercation?
It follows.

What happens to order?
It is restored.

Alternatively, in what does the meeting break up?

What does the meeting do in disorder?
Breaks up.

In what direction does the meeting break in disorder?

In what direction should I shut?

When things are few, what also are they?
Far between.

What are stocks of fuel doing when they are low?

How low are they running?

What does one do with a suggestion?
One throws it out.

For what does one throw a suggestion out?
For what it may be worth.

What else can be thrown out?
A hint.

In addition to hurling a hint on such lateral trajectory, what other not unviolent action can be taken with it?
It can be dropped.

What else is sometimes dropped?
The subject.

"A cliché," said O'Nolan, "is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage. Thus it appears that clichés reflect somewhat the frequency of the same situations in life. If this be so, a sociological commentary could be compiled from these items of mortified language."

Last edited by eddie on Tue Jun 14, 2011 9:59 pm; edited 2 times in total

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Re: Flann O'Brien

Post  Constance on Mon Apr 18, 2011 4:44 am

The book-handling column is my favorite funny thing.

Glad you resurrected it!


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Re: Flann O'Brien

Post  eddie on Mon Apr 18, 2011 5:01 am


I remember you liking it, Constance.

I believe you went on to read one of Flann O'Brien's novels, "The Hard Life". I cautioned at the time that it's not his most accomplished but I seem to remember, too, that it was the only one available through your local library service.

"The Third Policeman" is well worth a look, if you're still interested.

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Re: Flann O'Brien

Post  Constance on Mon Apr 18, 2011 8:47 am

eddie wrote:^

I remember you liking it, Constance.

I believe you went on to read one of Flann O'Brien's novels, "The Hard Life". I cautioned at the time that it's not his most accomplished but I seem to remember, too, that it was the only one available through your local library service.

"The Third Policeman" is well worth a look, if you're still interested.

"The Hard Life" was the only one in the library system, too bad. Wasn't there something about Keats at the end? I wish I could read Flann O'Brien's columns.


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Re: Flann O'Brien

Post  eddie on Tue Jun 14, 2011 10:07 pm

Whims and Shams, Puns and Flams

Jamie O’Neill travels marvellously in the company of the great Irish humourist, Flann O’Brien

The Guardian, London, November 22, 2003

Edited extract from Jamie O’Neill’s introduction to
The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman by Flann O’Brien,
re-issued by Scribner, 2003.


On first looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

We ‘did’ this poem at school – and even to my schoolboy’s eyes it seemed an unlikely brew. A hotchpotch of names – Keats, Chapman, Homer: they bounce the reader through literature, through time. A giddy geography – we’re swept from Apollo’s Aegean to Cortez on his Pacific shore. We begin with a traveller who tells of ancient bards, he briefly tries his hand at astronomy, till ‘silent, upon a peak’ he’s transformed to the ‘stout’ conquistador. Three poems have we here: Homer’s original Iliad, Chapman’s rendering of this into English, and rounding it all off, on the page before us, Keats’ wonderment on ‘first looking into’ Chapman’s translation. All this in fourteen lines.

The schoolboy is quite stupefied and who can blame him if once more his arms fold on his desk, he daydreams out the window. Outside it is raining, as it always is for English class on Friday afternoons. The pigeons troop to the windowsill, drooping under the shelter. And slowly a smile forms on the schoolboy’s face. On first looking into Chapman’s Homer .... of course! He giggles; nudges his deskmate to share the joke. Chapman’s homer, do you see? – it’s a pigeon. A chalk grazes his ear, fired from the blackboard where the teacher glowers.

‘Do we detain you, Mr O’Nolan?’

‘No, sir.’

‘You find Mr Keats humorous, do you?’

‘Not at all, sir.’

‘Pay attention, boy.’

But the glory of Brian O’Nolan is that he did pay attention, a precise delightful attention to words, and the fantastical whimsy – given leash – they will convey. Brian O’Nolan was his given name. Sometimes he rendered it in Irish: Brían Ó Nualáinn. Nowadays, he is best known to us as Flann O’Brien, the soubriquet under which he published his novels, which range from the 1939 classic, At Swim-Two-Birds, to The Third Policeman, published posthumously in 1967. In his lifetime, however, he was celebrated by yet another pseudonym – Myles na Gopaleen – under which he wrote his Cruiskeen Lawn column for the Irish Times, whence the current selection is taken.


At Swim-Two-Birds had issued upon a world somewhat preoccupied with the outbreak of WW2. It sold perhaps three hundred copies, but with the support of luminaries such as Graham Greene in London and James Joyce in Paris, it began to be thought a ‘critical success’ – that happy formula for any aspiring writer. Critical success, to be convincing, must adumbrate an actual success. Flann O’Brien believed he had provided for this in 1940 when he completed the manuscript of The Third Policeman. Ironically, for it is now his most widely-read novel, it was rejected by the London publishers. For the rest of his life, Flann or Brian or Myles (whichever he currently was) excused the non-appearance of this masterpiece by the disappearance of its manuscript, variously explaining to his drinking cronies that he had lost it in a pub or mislaid it on a train. The fobbery of lost manuscripts is the stuff of Dublin legend: but this particular manuscript was found, after the author’s death, on a sideboard in his home where it had lain apparently undisturbed and in daily view for 26 years, a mocking reminder of the London houses’ rejection – of a masterpiece, and of him, too, as its author, we may presume.

He turned to journalism (or more correctly, columnism), and over the next twenty years, as Myles na Gopaleen, he was the scourge of pretension throughout Ireland, most particularly in the rising governmental class – and at a time, let us be plain, when it was neither popular nor profitable so to be. The milieu is the Dublin of the Forties and Fifties, a city hard now to conjure save in the tones of grey and grey-green. We picture the lumbering Liffey and the clouds trundling overhead. We visit the quayside haunts – the Palace Bar, the Scotch House – mix with the clientele, behatted, besuited, shabbily genteel. The pints of plain are flowing, along with the balls of malt. We listen to the jokey banter that passes for intellectualism. It’s a smoky masculine world: women scarcely exist save to mother or to serve. Around us Dublin is rotting, dear old dirty Dublin. Beyond lie the wastes of sadness, whence all brightness is exported in the emigrant ships to Liverpool, New York. The paralysis of Joyce’s Dubliners had briefly been jolted by the fireworks of independence: now conformity reigns. It turns out that Ireland’s eight-hundred-year struggle had not been for freedom at all: merely for separation, a wall against the new.

‘The Cruiskeen Lawn’ was originally conceived as an Irish-language column for the Irish Times newspaper – an unlikely home for such an enterprise, as that paper was still largely Unionist in outlook, though by the Forties it condescended to nod to the new civil order. The column soon outgrew its roots and within a year Myles was writing predominantly in English, though he still made the odd sortie into Irish (and into punning Latin and Modern European languages too, if the maggot bit). At odd times he wrote in a mocking miachstúir of English–Irish or English speilt as Irish.

The column grew, over the years, to a sustained chronicle of wit and whimsy, a treacle well of satire. The running jokes are legendary: The Brother, that quintessential Dubliner (or is it the brother of The Brother who is truly quintessential?); The Plain People of Ireland with their proprietorial demands to be told; the Research Bureau and its absurd inventions (see diagram); the Catechism of Cliché, whose form, if not its fun, may be traced to Aquinas. A personal favourite is the Book-Handling Service, whereby for a small fee, Myles’s team will attend the client’s home, fox the pages of his books, scribble on them even, underline obscure but pertinent passages, thus affording the busy bourgeois the appearance of a well-read man.

It became the required reading of the Dublin intellectuals, that inward coterie of wags and pranksters (amongst whom Myles undoubtedly numbered himself) who, like the Free State, were victims of promise and for whom, in the clerical orthodoxy that was Eire, promise was safer than success. It reflected their preoccupations, but simultaneously commented upon them: for all affectation, even his own, was grist to Myles’s mill. Pomposity, the sham of authority, jobbery of the State: these were his quarries. A balloon might not swell, but Myles’s pen was there to pierce it. His attacks might be short or sustained, but their surest end was if someone Myles disapproved of joined in the assault: whereupon he would lampoon his unlucky and interim ally with all the scorn previously reserved for the original target.

If there is any philosophy here at all, it is that we are all much of a muchness and nowhere is much better than anywhere else. The great battles have been fought, our humanity was long ago weighed in a sort of Thomist summation. Nothing much needs to be added, save perhaps St Thomas might have underestimated the extent of evil in this world and the fallen state of its inhabitants. Progress is not only illusory but impractical. Knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, is no more than intellectual recreation.

It has been called Manichaeism, and there is in much of Flann’s and Myles’s writing a sense of the arcane, a cabalistic insistence on number, knowledge as gnosis, as ritual. The truth is Brian O’Nolan remained a Catholic, believing and practising, all his life. And the Catholic Church – surely the most bloated balloon of all – was rarely the butt of his jokes.

None of this is to detract from the comedy of the column, the sheer hilarity of its invention. But humour is a serious business: nonsense has its purpose. Its purpose, for Brian O’Nolan, was to disagree – the prerogative, and perhaps the province, of all writers.

He died in – but let us rather, in the style of his column, play a short game of Catechism.

What bread did Brian O’Nolan earn?
His daily bread.

And how was such necessary sustenance procured?
By following his father into the Irish public service.

To what exalted position did he eventually rise?
Principal officer for town planning.

And under what did he resign?
Under pressure.

State the rigorosity of said pressure.

Was it severe pressure brought on by ill-health and the thirsty pursuit of too many balls of malt?
That, and the rancour of the powers-that-were who would no longer abide a civil servant lambasting them in the daily press.

Did he die in a state of happy fulfilment?
No, he died in 1966.

Give the standard life.
Anthony Cronin, No Laughing Matter: the life and times of Flann O’Brien; Grafton Books, London, 1989.

But the best game of all, played now on websites throughout the World Wide Web, is the atrocious execrable punning of The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman.


Whims and shams, puns and flams runs the old derogatory rhyme. Quips, quirks, figaries, quodlibetifications; ‘the frothy quibble’ ... ‘a vile clench’ ... ‘that mongrel miscreated wit’ ... No, the pun is not loved in the English-speaking world. ‘His comic wit degenerating into clenches’ – thus Dryden on Shakespeare. ‘One poor word a hundred clenches makes’, laments Pope. Smollett gives us this couplet:

Debauch’d from sense, let doubtful meanings run
The vague conundrum and the prurient pun.

In his dictionary Johnson defines ‘conundrum’ as a low jest; a quibble; a mean conceit. But, in passing, Johnson was no mean hand at the pun himself. Here is my favourite. Two termagants are quarrelling across a lane from tenement windows. ‘They’ll never agree,’ Johnson remarks, ‘for they’re arguing from different premises.’

And there you have the essence of the pun: the double meaning and the extravagant clash of ideas. Too well is it called a clench, for we do feel an involuntary musculation, a clinch of recognition as though our buttocks truly had squeezed.

It is perhaps only in Ireland that the pun is given its proper due. Listen to the banter in any Dublin pub: pun upon pun spiralling in wafts of surreality to hang under the ceiling in the cigarette smoke, ‘that incense,’ as a friend described it, ‘which heaven doesn’t want.’ In Ireland we have a playfulness with our English. The language is not a national treasure. It’s a borrowed thing, a loaned vocabulary on an older Gaelic syntax. Picture it and you see peasants cavorting in the Big House, chopping up the Chippendale for low use on the fire. We have a child’s delight in vocabulary, as though the novelty had yet to wear off.

There is a certain anarchy, too, in the Irish make-up, a lust for licence, an anti-authoritarianism. And a corresponding love of rules – the better to know how to break them, perhaps. This dazzles in the fireworks of Joyce, even in Wilde. But it is in Flann O’Brien (or Myles na Gopaleen) that it finds its comic exemplar.

So how do we approach these tall tales? Well, on first looking into Myles’s Keats and Chapman, we’re struck by their fantastic, almost Gothic, structure. We find our two heroes in the most unlikely circumstances. They are strolling players in France, explorers on behalf of the Royal Society, they go beer-tippling in the South of England, they supervise the construction of the Zurich tram-car system. They are duellists, biochemists, carnival showmen, amateur physicians, potato factors, economists of the Manchester School. They attended Greyfriars together. They visit the Vale of Avoca. Was ever in English letters a comparable duo?

Well, of course not. The direction of the extravagance is the pay-off of the pun. But its purpose is the extravagance itself. It goes without saying that these tales were written backwards. The pay-off came first. And the prodigality of the supporting structure is all the more fantastic for having been, necessarily, erected downwards.

The temptation, when reading the tales, is to follow this course, to jump to the last line and find out where on earth we’re travelling. This would be ... (what dolorous misadventure would this be?) ... a sad mistake. The punchline, such as it is, needs to be earned: arrive too soon, and you’ll wonder why you bothered. Better, far better, to travel marvellously.

And there you have them, The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman. Not art for art’s sake, perhaps: but extravagance for the sheer joy of extravagance. Caveat lector.

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Re: Flann O'Brien

Post  eddie on Tue Jun 14, 2011 10:16 pm

A few sample Keats & Chapman anecdotes:

Keats's Irish terrier, Byrne, failed to come home one night. Chapman found the poet playing the violin, and remarked on his composure. "Keats smiled . . . 'And why should I not fiddle,' he asked, 'while Byrne roams?' "


Keats was once a potato factor and, while delivering a ton of potatoes, was attacked by a ferocious pet pomeranian.

He kicked the dog and carried on. " 'When I make up my mind to deliver spuds,' he remarked afterward to Chapman, 'I have no intention of letting a pomme de terre me.' Chapman took no notice."


Chapman and Keats went on tour with a pair of performing bears. Keats refused to believe they were tame and harmless, but consented to feed them. Chapman found Keats injecting a local anesthetic into the bears. They were numb but upright. "Chapman flew into a feverish temper and demanded the reason for this brutal and cynical outrage. 'There's safety in numb bears,' Keats said."


It is not generally known that…

O excuse me.

Keats and Chapman (in the old days) spent several months in the county Wicklow prospecting for ochre deposits. That was before the day of (your) modern devices for geological divination. With Keats and Chapman it was literally a case of smelling the stuff out. The pair of them sniffed their way into Glenmalure and out of it again, and then snuffled back to Woodenbridge. In a field of turnips near Avoca Keats suddenly got the pungent effluvium of a vast ochre mine and lay for hours face down in the muck delightedly permeating his nostrils with the perfume of hidden wealth. No less lucky was Chapman. He had nosed away in the direction of Newtonmountkennedy and came racing back shouting that he too had found a mine. He implored Keats to come and confirm his nasal diagnosis. Keats agreed. He accompanied Chapman to the site and lay down in the dirt to do his sniffing.

‘Great mines stink alike,’ he said.

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Re: Flann O'Brien

Post  eddie on Tue Jun 14, 2011 10:22 pm


Plot summary

At Swim-Two-Birds presents itself as a first-person story by an unnamed Irish student of literature. The student believes that "one beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with", and he accordingly sets three apparently quite separate stories in motion. The first concerns the Pooka MacPhellimey, "a member of the devil class". The second is about a young man named John Furriskey, who turns out to be a fictional character created by another of the student's creations, Dermot Trellis, a cynical writer of Westerns. The third consists of the student's adaptations of Irish legends, mostly concerning Finn Mac Cool and mad King Sweeney.

In the autobiographical frame story, the student recounts details of his life. He lives with his uncle, who works as a clerk in the Guinness Brewery in Dublin. The uncle is a complacent and self-consciously respectable bachelor who suspects that the student does very little studying. This seems to be the case, as by his own account the student spends more time drinking stout with his college friends, lying in bed and working on his book, than he does going to class.

The stories that the student is writing soon become intertwined with each other. John Furriskey meets and befriends two of Trellis's other characters, Antony Lamont and Paul Shanahan. They each become resentful of Trellis's control over their destinies, and manage to drug him so that he will spend more time asleep, giving them the freedom to lead quiet domestic lives rather than be ruled by the lurid plots of his novels. Meanwhile, Trellis creates Sheila Lamont (Antony Lamont's sister) in order that Furriskey might seduce and betray her, but "blinded by her beauty" Trellis "so far forgets himself as to assault her himself." Sheila, in due course, gives birth to a child named Orlick, who is born as a polite and articulate young man with a gift for writing fiction. The entire group of Trellis's characters, by now including Finn, Sweeney, the urbane Pooka and an invisible and quarrelsome Good Fairy who lives in the Pooka's pocket, convenes in Trellis's fictional Red Swan Hotel where they devise a way to overthrow their author. Encouraged by the others, Orlick starts writing a novel about his father in which Trellis is tried by his own creations, found guilty and viciously tortured. Just as Orlick's novel is about to climax with Trellis' death, the college student passes his exams and At Swim-Two-Birds ends.

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Re: Flann O'Brien

Post  eddie on Tue Jun 14, 2011 10:35 pm


Plot summary

The Third Policeman is set in rural Ireland and is narrated by a dedicated amateur scholar of De Selby, a scientist and philosopher. The narrator, whose name we never learn, is orphaned at a young age. At boarding school, he discovers the work of de Selby and becomes a fanatically dedicated student of it. One night he breaks his leg under mysterious circumstances – "if you like, it was broken for me" – and he is ultimately fitted with a wooden leg to replace the original one. On returning to his family home, he meets and befriends John Divney who is in charge of the family farm and pub. Over the next few years, the narrator devotes himself to the study of de Selby's work and leaves Divney to run the family business.

By the time the narrator is thirty, he has written what he believes to be the definitive critical work on de Selby, but does not have enough money to publish the work. Divney observes that Mathers, a local man, "is worth a packet of potato-meal" and eventually it dawns on the narrator that Divney plans to rob and kill Mathers. The narrator and Divney encounter Mathers one night on the road and Divney knocks Mathers down with a bicycle pump. The narrator, prompted by Divney, finishes Mathers off with a spade, and then notices that Divney has disappeared with Mathers's cash box. When Divney returns he refuses to reveal where the cash box is, and fends off the narrator's repeated inquiries. To ensure that Divney does not retrieve the box unobserved, the narrator becomes more and more inseparable from Divney, eventually sharing a bed with him: "the situation was a queer one and neither of us liked it".

Three years pass, in which the previously amicable relationship between the narrator and Divney breaks down. Eventually Divney reveals that the box is hidden under the floorboards in Mathers's old house, and instructs the narrator to fetch it. The narrator follows Divney's instructions but just as he reaches for the box, "something happened":

It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation.

The box has disappeared, and the narrator is perplexed to notice that Mathers is in the room with him. During a surreal conversation with the apparently deceased Mathers, the narrator hears another voice speaking to him which he realises is his soul: "For convenience I called him Joe." The narrator is bent on finding the cash box, and when Mathers tells him about a remarkable police barracks nearby he resolves to go to the barracks and enlist the help of the police in finding the box. On the way, he meets a one-legged bandit named Martin Finnucane, who threatens to kill him but who becomes his friend upon finding out that his potential victim is also one-legged.[12] The narrator approaches the police barracks and is disturbed by its appearance:

It looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing.

Inside the barracks he meets two of the three policemen, Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen, who speak largely in non sequitur and who are entirely obsessed with bicycles. There he is introduced to various peculiar or irrational concepts, artifacts, and locations, including a contraption that collects sound and converts it to light based on a theory regarding omnium, the fundamental energy of the universe; a vast underground chamber called 'Eternity,' where time stands still, mysterious numbers are devoutly recorded and worried about by the policemen; a box from which anything you desire can be produced; and an intricate carved chest containing a series of identical but smaller chests. The infinite nature of this last device causes the narrator great mental and spiritual discomfort. It is later discovered that Mathers has been found dead and eviscerated in a ditch. Joe suspects Martin Finnucane, but to the narrator's dismay he himself is charged with the crime because he is the most convenient suspect. He argues with Sergeant Pluck that since he is nameless, and therefore, as Pluck observed, "invisible to the law", he cannot be charged with anything. Pluck is surprised, but after he unsuccessfully attempts to guess the narrator's name he reasons that since the narrator is nameless he is not really a person, and can therefore be hanged without fear of repercussions:

The particular death you die is not even a death (which is an inferior phenomenon at best) only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard[...].

The narrator calls on the help of Finnucane, but his rescue is thwarted by MacCruiskeen riding a bicycle painted an unknown colour which drives those who see it mad. He faces the gallows, but the two policemen are called away by dangerously high readings in the underground chamber. The following day he escapes from the barracks on a bicycle of unusual perfection.

As he rides through the countryside, he passes Mathers's house and sees a light. Disturbed, he enters the house and finally meets the mysterious and reportedly all-powerful third policeman, Fox, who has the face of Mathers. Fox's secret police station is in the walls of Mathers's house. He tells the narrator that he is the architect of the readings in the underground chamber, which he alters for his amusement, thereby inadvertently saving the narrator's life. Fox goes on to tell the narrator that he found the cash box and has sent it to the narrator's home, where it is waiting for him. He also reveals that the box contains not money but omnium, which can become anything he desires. Elated by the possibilities before him, the narrator leaves Fox's police station and goes home looking forward to seeing Divney once again; on arrival he finds that while only a few days have passed in his own life, his accomplice is sixteen years older, with a wife and children. Divney can see the narrator, although the others cannot, and he has a heart attack from the shock. He shouts that the narrator was supposed to be dead, for the black box was not filled with money but a bomb and it exploded when the narrator reached for it. The narrator leaves Divney on the floor, apparently dying.

Feeling "sad, empty and without a thought", the narrator leaves the house and walks away down the road. He soon approaches the police barracks, the book using exactly the same words to describe the barracks and the narrator's opinion of it that were used earlier, the story having circled around itself and restarted. This time, John Divney joins the narrator on the road; they neither look at nor speak to each other. They both enter the police station and are confronted by Sergeant Pluck, who repeats his earlier dialogue and ends the book with a reprise of his original greeting to the narrator:

"Is it about a bicycle?" he asked.

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Re: Flann O'Brien

Post  eddie on Fri Oct 07, 2011 1:17 am

My hero: Flann O'Brien

'Imagine: you're better than James Joyce; you end up like Miles Kington'

Ian Sansom
guardian.co.uk, Friday 30 September 2011 22.55 BST

My old editions of the novels smell of mushrooms, with that delicious paperback dried-prune top note. I am guided through their familiar landscape by an ancient system of strips of paper, Post-Its, pencil markings and crisp corner-turnings, identifying landmarks and little phrases. "Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular, and by nature it is interminable, repetitive, and nearly unbearable" (The Third Policeman). "The continual cracking of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of road come up into you" (The Third Policeman). I wish.

Flann O'Brien, born 100 years ago on 5 October, had a proper job and took his family responsibilities seriously – though as Anthony Cronin points out in his biography No Laughing Matter, in the end he was destroyed by them, "by a too ready acceptance of the necessity of emulating the life pattern of the majority who do not have a special vocation".

He suffered the fate of all comic writers: people don't take you seriously. James Joyce, when he read At Swim-Two-Birds, remarked: "A really funny book." Great writers don't write really funny books. They write great books.

He wrote his best book – At Swim-Two-Birds – first. The TLS called it "as clever as paint". A back-handed compliment. He suffered a lifetime of back-handed compliments. And bad luck. The warehouse containing copies of the novel was bombed. His second novel, The Third Policeman, was rejected by his publisher. His play, Faustus Kelly, flopped in 1943. He descended into journalism. Imagine being remembered for ever for your light-hearted newspaper columns. Imagine: you're better than James Joyce; you end up like Miles Kington.

"'That is about the size of it,' said the sergeant. I felt so sad and so entirely disappointed that tears came into my eyes and a lump of incommunicable poignancy swelled tragically in my throat" (The Third Policeman).

He died on April Fool's Day 1966. The year I was born. You can't choose your family. You can choose your forebears.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.

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