Flann O’Brien, Catholicism and some other stuff

Hello! Someone called Nicola Byrne in The Observer is commenting on last year’s big news:

It is a bizarre twist that would not have been out of place in one of his novels. After suffering ignominy and ridicule during his lifetime, the Irish writer Flann O’Brien is enjoying a huge revival in Britain, Ireland and the United States, thanks to the hit television series Lost.

Nicola Byrne, if you ever go vanity surfing, Nicola Byrne, I hope, Nicola Byrne, you find this: you’re an idiot. Stay away from books. If your editor ever again asks you to do anything involving literature, either refuse or do some fucking research. Do you not understand that it’s just plain rude to take the life of one the greatest enemies of clichés, a man who mocked, with true imagination and wit, any idiocy or slackbrained phrase that got into print, and then mangle that life into a cliché itself? And an enormously inaccurate one:

O’Brien, whose real name was Brian O’Nolan, counted James Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene among his small but devoted band of admirers. However, the mainstream rejected him as an eccentric crank.

Yeah. From what I remember, he was reduced to sitting around Dublin, writing for underground ‘zines like the Irish Times.

If you have to use clichés – perhaps you once had a novel thought, it traumatised you and you won the case where you sued your brain for being a bit scary – there’s a perfectly serviceable ‘talent wasted drunkenly’ box that you can just about bash his life into. The Third Policeman was rejected, too, so you can try this for the second sentence:

After suffering rejection and falling prey to alcoholism during his lifetime, the Irish writer Flann O’Brien is enjoying a huge revival in Britain, Ireland and the United States, thanks to the hit television series Lost.

Still makes little or no sense, but at least we’ve got it down to ‘clichéd and pretty misleading’, rather than ‘did a badly broken machine write this?’

Enough. To happy thoughts.

I enjoyed the recent O’Brien/O’Nolan/Na Gopaleen action over at Golden Rule Jones: I’d seen this piece in The Guardian (that by grace of intelligence, warmth towards the subject and some wit survives the awfulness of ‘doing’ O’Brien while writing about him) which makes similar points about his Catholicism. Makes sense to me. I’m not much interested in O’Brien as a metatextual postmodern prankster: there’s no need for a Scotch House Nabokov. The number of narrative levels that are transgressed in At Swim-Two-Birds doesn’t have much interest for me in itself; I like the abusrdity, tone switches, the mimicry and mockery, extrapolations, the whole texture of it. Same goes for the columns: if you try to sell me something about deictic strategies w/r/t the Plain People of Ireland, you’ve instantly tattooed yourself as a bore.

Even truer of The Third Policeman. There’s something spooky and a bit nauseating – in a most excellent way – about the inventions in that book. It feels very far from pomo tricks: more focused, cleaner and more powerful. (I haven’t read Keith Hopper’s book book on The Third Policeman, and people who know about these things say it’s good. It might persuade me differently, but it’s like an academic book, and do you have any idea how much I have to read? So I’m probably not going to read it – apologies to the author.)

I can go for a lot of this as being the result of a Catholic sensibility. Maybe O’Brien can explain it himself. I’d never seen this article of his on Joyce before now:

The number of people invited to contribute to this issue has necessarily been limited. Yet it is curious that none makes mention of Joyce’s superber quality: his capacity for humour. Humour, the handmaid of sorrow and fear, creeps out endlessly in all Joyce’s works. He uses the thing, in the same way as Shakespeare does but less formally, to attenuate the fear of those who have belief and who genuinely think that they will be in hell or in heaven shortly, and possibly very shortly. With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humour needs this background urgency: Rabelais is funny, but his stuff cloys. His stuff lacks tragedy.

You’d take that as the critic recasting the artist in his own image, wouldn’t you?

I’d be hard-pressed to say which parts of O’Brien I’d see as coming from Catholicism – and I mean Catholicism as much as it can be separated from Irish Catholicism here. Something about finding the world absurd and faintly disappointing; something else too in the tendency to parody, doing styles just because he can, since they don’t mean anything in themselves and the whole earthly shebang is rather flimsy in comparison to the Big Things.

By the way, I am well aware I may just be arguing for O’Brien’s Catholicism since I was raised a papist, and want an opportunity to sit there and say ‘Yeah, Catholic sensibility, I’ve got one of those. They’re dead brilliant.’

The English converts of the early Twentieth are a good comparison point. There’s something of O’Brien’s hell in the ending of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust; and while that comparison could go a lot further, I’ll leave it for now, since I want to ramble on about Beachcomber, a.k.a J B Morton, a.k.a. the English Myles Na Gopaleen.

In the introduction to The Best of Beachcomber, Michael Frayn takes his own pass at ‘Catholicism and gags – are they related?’

I think one would know Mr Morton was a Catholic from reading him, even without any direct reference. There is an echo in his work of that tone of voice, hard to describe yet curiously distinctive, which sounds through a great many of the English Catholic writers. Perhaps it is a certain intellectual perverseness. I find it can become irritating, particularly when it takes the form, as it does, not in Morton, but in Chesterton and Graham Greene, of a galloping obsession with paradox.

I’m in two minds about whether you can apply some of that to O’Brien. ‘Intellectual perverseness’, yes; but he’s got nothing, really, of Chesterton.

Morton and O’Brien, however –

Wait –

This post is far too long –

I’m going to continue on Beachcomber later. For now, Clive James’ copy of Morton’s Memoir of Hilaire Belloc on ABE.