Updike on Flann O’Brien: “His novels begin with a swoop and a song but end in an uncomfortable murk and with an air of impatience.”

When I first started blogging, on blog-spot, atswimtwobirds was the URL I chose, in honor of the great and the weird Flann O’Brien (aka Myles na gCopleen, aka Brian O’Nolan). Flann O’Brien’s most well-known novel is probably At Swim-Two-Birds – which I read in college – and recently re-read. In the O’Malley family At Swim-Two-Birds was ubiquitous around the house – and I have written before (well, you’d have to buy The Sewanee Review, their Irish issue from 2006 to read it – and whatever, not to brag – oh what the hell, I’ll brag – they’re promoting me on the main page of their website right now.) about the allowance ritual in my family – where my father assigned each of us Irish authors, and we had to memorize their book titles – in order to get, oh, 75 cents. Siobhan was assigned Flann O’Brien, so to hear her, at 4 years old, rattle off “At Swim-Two-Birds” – is a potent family memory. It’s a crazy book. It truly does defy description. It’s a romp. It’s an intellectual smorgasbord. And it prefigures books like Catcher in the Rye, or even later than that … Dave Eggers, for example, is definitely in the Flann O’Brien continuum. It’s a book that admits it’s a book. There’s a “meta” feeling to the whole thing. It’s laugh out loud funny, doesn’t take itself too seriously – and yet somehow it seems to encapsulate all of the insanity of Irish history, with its Finn McCool trajectory, its Cuchalain myths and legends … and yet it’s also about an aimless Irish youth, lying in his room, smoking cigarettes, and pondering the great novel he wants to write. It’s one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read, and frankly, one of the most enjoyable.

Flann O’Brien has been on my mind because of this great essay on him by John Updike. I’ve seen it linked to everywhere, in the blogs I read – and I highly recommend it. Even if you know nothing about Flann O’Brien (or should I say, sorry, Myles? Or Brian?) – even if you haven’t read his books … well then so much the better. Perhaps Updike’s piece will inspire you to give him a go. He’s a major player in Irish literature, and that is obviously very difficult to achieve – since Irish literature is so full of goddamned great writers. Also, O’Brien was a contemporary of James Joyce, Sam Beckett. They cast a huge shadow. They do to this day – but imagine trying to publish novels in the 30s and 40s, post Ulysses. Flann O’Brien openly wrestled with his contemporaries – and put all of that into his books. In At Swim-Two-Birds, the young writer lies in bed, and he’s sick so he’s taken drugs – and the characters he is dreaming up for his book (we see his outlines, his notes) kind of take over. Old Irish kings and fairies enter the narrative. The novelist has lost control of his own book. He tries to control his characters, wrestling with them, essentially – like: “No! I am in charge here – not you!” But once let loose, it’s very hard to get control again.

Updike has this to say about O’Brien’s third novel An Béal Bocht, written in Gaelic:

O’Brien, who spoke Irish Gaelic in his childhood home, wrote his next extended fiction, “An Béal Bocht,” in Gaelic, in 1941; in 1973, it was translated, by Patrick C. Power, into a spirited imitation of O’Brien’s English as “The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story About the Hard Life.” Less than a hundred pages long, the tale has the advantage of a relatively clear, if extravagant, story line and a distinct satiric point—i.e., that the Irish Republic’s official cherishing of the nearly extinct Gaelic language ignores the miserable poverty of its surviving speakers, the rain-battered peasantry of the countryside. In one episode, government orators at a Gaelic feis parrot and praise the venerable language while in their audience “many Gaels collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening.” In another, a folklorist from Dublin, visiting O’Brien’s fictional Gaeltacht area of Corkadoragha, and frustrated by the drunken taciturnity of an assembly of local males, records the muttering of a pig under the impression that it is Gaelic: “He understood that good Gaelic is difficult but that the best Gaelic of all is well-nigh unintelligible.” Parodying sentimental novels and memoirs in modern Gaelic by such authors as Tomás Ó Criomhthainn and Séamas Ó Grianna, O’Brien protests on behalf of a depressed Irish population: “In one way or another, life was passing us by and we were suffering misery, sometimes having a potato and at other times having nothing in our mouths but sweet words of Gaelic.”

Updike writes:

The man was ingenious and learned like Jim Joyce and like Sam Beckett gave the reader a sweet dose of hopelessness but unlike either of these worthies did not arrive at what we might call artistic resolution. His novels begin with a swoop and a song but end in an uncomfortable murk and with an air of impatience.

It has made me want to re-visit some of Flann O’Brien’s stuff again, as challenging and bizarre as it is. He’s like a jazz musician, going off on riffs as his creativity demands … hoping the audience will follow … or perhaps not even. Perhaps he doesn’t care whether or not we follow. He can be a challenge, because sometimes you want to shout at him, “GET BACK TO THE POINT, FLANN!” – but for him, the riff IS the point. He’s an important writer because of that.

Also a helluva lot of fun. At Swim-Two-Birds made me laugh out loud repeatedly, and there were times when he knocked my socks off – with his inventiveness, and what he had to say about the process of writing itself. It is the most myopic of books – and yet, as with most Irish writers, the past presses in – everywhere. The kings and priests and fairies of Celtic golden ages gone by … they are not just influences on Flann O’Brien – they are so huge that they insert themselves into the novel, and demand to be taken seriously. He, the writer, tries to make them behave. They will not. What a great metaphor.

Check him out, if you haven’t.

Here’s the full article by Updike.

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5 Responses to Updike on Flann O’Brien: “His novels begin with a swoop and a song but end in an uncomfortable murk and with an air of impatience.”

  1. Ted says:

    I still have GOT to read this book. It’s sitting on that pile.

  2. red says:

    Ted – I think you will get such a kick out of it. It’s confusing, ridiculous – and not at all serious. It’s not just ABOUT the creative process – it IS the creative process. How can one wrestle one’s fictional characters into a plot. What if they say, “Nope. I am NOT going to participate in the book you want to write. But I still demand that you give me life”?? What do you do then?

  3. DBW says:

    “and the essay by Sheila O’Malley about her father in our recent Irish issue was her first publication.”

    That is an exciting line to read.

  4. jean says:

    Sheil – does at swim two birds have anything to do with mad sweeney? isn’t that where he ended up?

  5. red says:

    Yes! Exactly right. Mad King Sweeney turning into a bird! At Swim-Two-Birds (the place).

    Such a weird book. But a lot of fun!

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