“for Mr Ó Nualláin, ‘might have been’ has loomed largely in his college life – larger than his bantam strutting will admit”
“When Mr Fitzpatrick grows up, he will find that ‘might-have-been’ figures too largely in his own little life, as in everybody else’s, to be safely employed as a weapon against others.”
I’ve recently read No laughing matter, Anthony Cronin’s biography of Brian O’Nolan (a.k.a. Flann O’Brien). It’s one of those books that I bought on a whim but took a while to get round to reading, and when I say a while I mean ten or fifteen years. Having finally read the book, the delay seems horribly appropriate – this was someone who’d written two masterpieces before he was thirty, but then did basically nothing for the next twenty years. Reading the life backwards, as a biography inevitably does, makes him seem like a lifelong ‘might-have-been’ – even back when he was a might-have-been-to-be. (The exchange quoted above is from 1935, when O’Nolan was 23.)
It’s not a very good biography – Cronin knew O’Nolan and acknowledges assistance from his widow and several siblings, which may account for a slightly cramped, reined-in quality to some of the writing. There is too little on the great books (but rather too much on The Dalkey Archive, including a slightly embarrassing account of Cronin’s dismayed reaction to the work in progress); an account of the first Bloomsday celebration, in which Cronin and O’Brien were both involved, peters out midway without describing “the breakdown of the grand scheme”; there isn’t even a conclusion to the book itself, which simply stops at the moment O’Nolan dies.
What there is, though, is both suggestive and troubling. O’Nolan (at least, the young O’Nolan) emerges as someone who was brilliant – unstoppably, matchlessly brilliant – but not in any readily describable way. He was brilliant at something unique and unclassifiable which was what he did – and he put a lot of effort into it, both doing it brilliantly and keeping it unique and unclassifiable. What is At Swim-Two-Birds, for example? An avant-garde experimental fiction? A freewheeling comic fantasy? A mock-heroic tale of Dublin bohemia? A satire on the Gaelic Revival? All of the above? I think what it is, above all, is a performance: it includes all of these things – and makes them work, brilliantly – but there’s no compelling reason why it has to. No reason, other than that doing so will be really brilliant and really unexpected. And I think this says something about O’Nolan, and the way he both demanded public recognition and resisted it. He was deeply disappointed by the commercial failure of At Swim-Two-Birds – according to Cronin it sold 244 copies in its first six months and “was to sell scarcely any more” (until its reissue in 1960); he seems genuinely to have believed that writing a comical avant-garde tour de force would make his fortune. Fair play to him, it is a brilliant piece of work, but still. If you make an album of traditional bagpipe tunes arranged for steel band and bassoon, it may be a brilliant piece of work (it’ll probably have to be, if it’s going to work at all) but it won’t appeal to all those three groups of music-lovers. Or rather, it won’t appeal to any one of those groups as a whole: it’s only likely to appeal to the tiny overlap between all three. One way of thinking about what O’Nolan did in At Swim-Two-Birds was that he made the overlap as small as possible: a defiantly virtuosic stance – like a concert pianist not only playing a difficult piece but transposing it from C to C# on the fly – but also arguably a self-destructive one.
The Third Policeman is O’Nolan’s masterpiece, to my mind, and Cronin has a couple of interesting things to say about it. Like its precursor it’s an odd kind of bricolage, but the elements fit together much better this time. The overriding theme is a Kafkaesque black comedy of delay, frustration and panic. Bizarrely, this not only takes place in an idyllic rural Irish setting, but is narrated in the idiosyncratically plain style of a folk tale in translation. (Stylistically this book is a much less frenetic affair than At Swim-Two-Birds – more early Beckett (with jokes) than early Joyce (ditto).) Then there are the footnotes – and what footnotes! – and the grotesque, interminable parodies of science and philosophy which stud the main narrative. And then there’s the moral vision of the novel, which is understated but becomes surprisingly clear as it progresses: we’re looking at someone who’s done wrong, and he is being punished for it. This is despite the book’s tone – a light, bantering tone – which doesn’t waver between the first few pages and the last few. The narrator is in a setting you would never get tired of, a placid rural tranquillity interrupted only by exorbitant flights of fancy from the most stolid local characters (the weirdly eloquent Sergeant Pluck, the bizarre amateur scientist Policeman MacCruiskeen). You feel that the situation would be entirely agreeable if only it weren’t for some small nagging irritation – like the policemen who won’t stop asking about a non-existent bicycle; or the narrator’s inability to remember his own name; or a tour of an underground storeroom containing everything anyone could desire, but from which nothing can ever be taken back to the surface; or the realisation that the hammering noises the narrator hears one morning emanate from the construction of his own gallows. Odd little things like that. The footnotes on the mythical de Selby have this same quality of shading imperceptibly from amusing to unbearable: they immerse the reader ever deeper in a world of airless scholarship, where a man whose work is either nonsensical or (literally) unreadable is acclaimed as a great thinker, while his biographers write pseudonymous attacks on their own work and other writers dedicate their lives to writing biographies of the biographers. The final revelation – that the narrator is going to have to relive the whole story from the beginning, over and over again – seems at first blush like an arbitrary solution to the story’s lack of closure, but when you close the book you become aware of its true hellishness.
Or rather, its true Hellishness. Like many other comic writers, O’Nolan knew enough about philosophy to satirise its pretensions, or thought he did. What underlay O’Nolan’s impatience with intellectualism, however, wasn’t Douglas Adams’s common-sense rationalism or Terry Pratchett’s unapologetically soft-centred humanism, but something much harder and more unforgiving. The pages devoted to de Selby’s absurd writings or MacCruiskeen’s experiments with infinity are not free-standing satires on the pretensions of science and philosophy; nor is the narrator being shown as an unworldly intellectual who drifted into the crime that damned him. Rather, science and philosophy are being shown to be empty and meaningless – while still claiming the narrator’s and our attention – in the context of a description of Hell. Cronin argues that for O’Nolan, as a Catholic, the great questions of life could only ever be the questions of salvation and damnation; science, philosophy, law and society existed within a framework defined by the truths of the Church. Thus to devote oneself endlessly to dividing matter ever more finely, or to trying to make sense of incomprehensible writing which aspires to profundity, is to be damned – both because the pursuit is futile in itself, and because to pursue it at all is to turn away from God.
O’Nolan’s dedication to finding the smallest possible area to work in comes to the fore here. Beneath its surface larkiness, The Third Policeman is a vision of the torments of the damned – but, of course, a deeply heterodox vision, in a setting (the Catholic Church, in Ireland, in the 1940s) which wasn’t noted for its openness to heterodox visions. Not only that, but the setting for this vision of Hell was, in Cronin’s words, “somewhere near Tullamore”. Even to 21st-century British eyes, O’Nolan’s evocation of a semi-mythical rural Ireland comes across as skilful, affectionate and often beautiful; to his intended audience, who would have been familiar with both the literature and the reality of the area, it would have slipped down very easily indeed. Until, that is, they realised they were reading about the torments of the damned. Like a personally-tailored drug (or poison), The Third Policeman seems to have been designed to make the most sense to precisely that audience (Irish, devout Catholic) which would be most offended by it. (A similar although less extreme impulse seems to have lain behind O’Nolan’s next book, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth): a satire on Gaelic revivalism and Irish-language memoirs of rural misery (The gentlemen from Dublin who came in motors to inspect the paupers praised him for his Gaelic poverty and stated that they never saw anyone who appeared so truly Gaelic…), but written in Irish.) It’s probably not too surprising that O’Nolan initially had trouble getting The Third Policeman published.
Sadly, it’s also probably not too surprising that – after these initial difficulties – O’Nolan gave up completely on getting The Third Policeman published, telling anyone who asked that he had lost the manuscript. This strange, troubling, hilarious, beautiful book, currently available as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic, wasn’t published until after its author’s death. O’Nolan’s self-destructive streak extended far beyond a taste for affronting his readers, and can perhaps be traced back to a mismatch between his goals and his choice of medium. Ultimately, he doesn’t seem to have cared that much about literature; what he wanted was fame and fortune. (Towards the end of O’Nolan’s life, Cronin comments: “All his life Brian O’Nolan, avant-garde author, disciple of Joyce, industrious bureaucrat and underpaid journalist, had dreamed of getting rich quick.”) The younger O’Nolan wanted to burst onto the literary scene like a comet, and gave up on literature when that turned out not to be feasible; the older O’Nolan settled into a groove of regular journalism, which didn’t offer much in the way of stardom but did at least mean he was talked about. Ironically, fame could almost certainly have been his if he’d worked harder at the writing; he could have been as celebrated an author in his lifetime as – well, as he is now. Instead, he repeatedly chose the path of doing a bit less and aiming a bit lower – after all, none of it meant anything, and it was all a racket anyway (Cronin notes “Brian O’Nolan’s general impatience with poetry and his intolerance of those who set themselves up as ‘the artist’ or ‘the poet’”).
Booze had a part to play, as it often does in self-destructive lives. O’Nolan was a heavy and persistent drinker from quite early on. In 1953, when he was 41, he was induced to take early retirement from the Civil Service, which had been his main source of income throughout his life as a writer; Myles na Gopaleen’s journalism had bitten the hand that fed him once too often. The consequences for his lifestyle were predictably disastrous: instead of taking long lunches and finding pretexts for absenting himself from the office, O’Nolan would simply drink all day, going into town in the morning with nothing planned except to do the rounds of the bars. Cronin: “it now became unusual for him to be sober later than the afternoon, and his bedtime advanced accordingly”. Sometimes he would sleep it off for a few hours, then get to work writing letters or articles, propped up in bed with his typewriter on his knees. This doesn’t seem like any sort of life for a man in his forties – let alone for the author of The third policeman.
The journalism, however, is great – well, some of it’s great; when Myles na Gopaleen was good, he was very good. The cross-grained pedantry, the yarn-spinning, the love of logical puzzles and bad puns, the displays of weirdly polymorphous and useless erudition – in short, that thing that he did in At Swim-Two-Birds – it’s all there in the Irish Times columns. The good ones, anyway – I’d advise anyone who’s curious to start with the pieces collected in The best of Myles, and to stop there as well. The drop in quality when you start on the next-best collection Further cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn is so pronounced as to be almost physically palpable – and the less said about Myles away from Dublin, the better. As Mat Coward says, the collective noun for what a freelance writer produces is “stuff” – and O’Nolan over the years turned out an awful lot of stuff.
There’s a darkness in Myles’s journalism even at its best – as there is in The third policeman, and from a similar source. Cronin: “Self-interest, self-deception, hypocrisy and fraud bulk large in all human affairs; and however much Myles na gCopaleen might devote himself to exposing them, his basic assumption is that they will continue to do so”. While to begin with there was a real playfulness alongside this theologically-informed pessimism, in later years this gave way to a tetchy plain-man truculence, combined oddly with intellectual and social snobbery. Cronin records that O’Nolan conducted what can only be called a vendetta against the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Andy Clerkin, ostensibly on the trivial grounds that the clock on his business premises was stopped. The real message of the campaign was carried by O’Nolan’s motto ACCISS (Andy Clerkin’s Clock Is Still Stopped); Clerkin was a man of few words, who didn’t think well on his feet and was apt to refer difficult questions to his wife Cissie (“I’ll ax Cis”). The joke is hardly worth being explained, and leaves a bad taste when it is, but O’Nolan ran with it for weeks on end.
This wasn’t the Myles of the Keats and Chapman stories or the Cateclichmchism of Cliché. Then again, maybe it was. A 1964 letter quoted by Cronin makes uncomfortable reading (the context is that O’Nolan had been in dispute with the Electricity Supply Board):
Though not a peasant I have a nose, e.g. I can tell that a plate of food is not right merely by looking at it. In this case I am convinced that this shower of bastards is relying on the general impression that their outrageous behaviour MUST have a legal sanction simply because it is thus carried on. It is possible as you say that they are covered by umbrella regulations long pre-dating them. But I think it is unlikely. They are very shy in themselves and would by now have cited their authority in a dry faceless note if in fact they had any to cite. I share your own horror of litigation but they also think every citizen is too terrified to challenge them. Both of us could be on to something here, with the State doing the paying.
Dreadful stuff – querulous, obsessive, pettish. It’s tempting to apologise for this kind of thing by saying that O’Nolan was an old man – he died two years later – but in fact he was 52. It’s sad to read now, both in itself and in the retrospective shadow it casts on Myles’s work: that linguistic fluency, that effortless shifting of gears between bureaucratese and bar talk, that tone of aggressive pedantry – was that what we were laughing at for all that time? Reading Myles, you assume the tone is part of the performance, but perhaps the tone was the man all along. Certainly the tone was what O’Nolan himself valued about his writing, more than the invention or even the wit; in later years he seems to have taken himself seriously as a crusading journalist rather than a humorist, while dismissing his earlier work (At Swim-Two-Birds was “a painfully bad book”, “written by a schoolboy”).
Brian O’Nolan was a might-have-been until the day he died – The third policeman was published the year after. The mismatch between his achievements and his posthumous fame is painful to contemplate. But there was also (and I don’t think this is just biographical coherence talking) a relentless debunking and destructive vein running through O’Nolan’s work from the start: a sense that any medium in which he performed didn’t mean anything or matter a damn, or if anything that the medium meant and mattered less after he’d given his performance than before. By the time he died, the genius that had informed his first three books was a thing of the past, but that tone of defiant negation was his to the end – and by the end it defined his public voice. Perhaps O’Nolan’s real tragedy is that he finally succeeded in becoming what he wanted to be.
Photo of Antony Cronin, Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and others celebrating Bloomsday on Sandymount Strand courtesy of the Irish Times.