If Samuel Beckett was literary heir to James Joyce, the one who had studied at the feet of the master, assisted him at his labors, and carried forward the banner of modernism, Flann O’Brien was Joyce’s wayward second cousin, one who hauled the banner further still, into the post-modern absurd, but only after spitting on it, pissing on it, and ripping it to shreds.
A generation younger, O’Brien’s prose held undeniable echoes of Joycean wit and wordplay, sharing a common register but attenuating toward a stranger, more comic, key. In life, his relationship to Joyce was conflicted. The older man was influence and inspiration, but his brilliance cast a long shadow, particularly deep for Irish writers of the ensuing generation, and one from which O’Brien has only posthumously, over very many years, managed to emerge.
His real name was Brian O’Nolan and his legacy rests primarily on his two English-language novels At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. The first is a masterpiece of comic metafiction in which a college student is writing a novel about a writer whose characters rebel against him. (For those who tend to think “tedious” instead of “comic” when they see the word “metafiction,” rest assured that in O’Brien’s hands, it is less like “homework” and more like Monty Python.) Repurposing characters from Irish myth, the novel is steeped in Irish history and language. It sold poorly.
Many reviewers at the time of its release in 1939 considered it either a pale reflection or a weak parody of Joyce. Others, more prescient, heard a unique voice deployed on a distinctly less reverent and more subversive mission. Joyce himself, nearly blind at the time, expressed support: “That’s a real writer with a true comic spirit.” It would be the last book James Joyce ever read. A poetic torch-passing was not in the cards for O’Brien, however. A simple torching was. When the publisher’s London offices fell victim to a Luftwaffe bombing raid during the Blitz, the inventory of unsold copies went up in flames. Never one to underestimate his accomplishments, O’Brien speculated that Hitler started the war to limit the book’s reach.
In The Third Policeman, an unnamed narrator passes into a warped dimensionality − a place with resemblance to both rural Ireland and Hell − after participating in a murder resulting from his obsession with a philosopher-scientist named de Selby. His confrontation with two policemen at a barracks feature reflections on the fundamental energy of the universe (omnium), the shape of the universe (sausage-like), the nature of night, eternity, and, most importantly, bicycles, which the policemen suspect that local citizens are being turned into. The book was turned down by the house that published At Swim-Two-Birds and O’Brien never again submitted it for publication in his lifetime.
What Happened Next
O’Brien was a career civil servant, a plum position in poverty-stricken pre-war Ireland earned partly on the strength of his proficiency in Gaelic. Under the name Myles na gCopaleen, O’Brien wrote a longstanding satirical column for the Irish Times and an Irish-language novel, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth.) Under the name Flann O’Brien, he wrote two lesser-regarded English-language novels, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, as well as various stories and plays.
O’Brien was a lifelong alcoholic in ill health for much of his later years who died of a heart attack in 1966 at age 54 while also suffering from throat cancer. A year later, O’Brien’s widow managed to get The Third Policeman into print through the publisher MacGibbon & Kee.
Where Are They Now?
James Joyce is one of the most influential writers in the history of English literature. Many people have read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Somewhat fewer people have read Dubliners and fewer still have read Ulysses. No one has ever read Finnegan’s Wake.
Flann O’Brien’s reputation has grown by degrees from general critical acceptance, to belated enthusiasm, to a bona fide cult-like fame, which is ironic since in his later life, O’Brien actively resisted what he called “the cult of Joyce.” He was championed by the likes of Dylan Thomas, Jorge Luis Borges, Anthony Burgess, and Grahame Greene. The International Flann O’Brien Conference held in 2011 during the centenary of his birth spawned an International Flann O’Brien Society which is still active today. The Third Policeman had a cameo mention in the TV series Lost.
If you meet someone at a party and end up talking about Ulysses, you are both English majors. If you meet someone at a party and end up talking about The Third Policeman, you’ll be secret friends forever.