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Tag: Flann O’Brien

Writers On Writers

“We cannot help but see Socrates as the turning-point, the vortex of world history.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

“Mayakovsky impregnated poetry in such a way that almost all the poetry has continued being Mayakovskian.”
Pablo Neruda

“I wouldn’t like to do what Elizabeth Bowen once told me she did—write something every day, whether I was working on a book or not.”
Angus Wilson

“Vladimir Nabokov, and I languidly English the name, takes up a good five feet of my library. “
Martin Amis

“Flann O’Brien is unquestionably a major author.”
Anthony Burgess

“Between thirteen and sixteen are the ideal if not the only ages for succumbing to Thomas Wolfe—he seemed to me a great genius then, and still does, though I can’t read a line of it now.”
Truman Capote

“As far as I’m consciously aware, I forget everything I read at once, including my own stuff. But I have a tremendous admiration for Céline.”
Henry Green

“It may really be said: You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

“Kingsley Amis and I used to exchange unpublished poems, largely because we never thought they could be published, I suppose.”
Philip Larkin

“Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction.”
Vladimir Nabokov

Sources: Wikipedia, Brainy Quote, The Paris Review  

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Writers On Writers

“The trouble with Freudian psychology is that it is based exclusively on a study of the sick. Freud never met a healthy human being—only patients and other psychoanalysts. “
Aldous Huxley

“I don’t know what service I provided for Cheever except to be delighted with his work.”
William Maxwell

“Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.”
Jean Cocteau

“I’ve tried to read Proust so often, and I recognize the beauty of his style, but he puts me to sleep.”

Ray Bradbury

“Nabokov is a natural dandy on the grand international scale.”
Anthony Burgess

“Ezra was right half the time, and when he was wrong, he was so wrong you were never in any doubt about it.”
Ernest Hemingway

“Descartes spent far too much time in bed subject to the persistent hallucination that he was thinking.”
Flann O’Brien

“What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!”
Tennessee Williams

“Only a technique like Faulkner’s could have enabled me to write down what I was seeing.”
García Márquez

“Beckett destroys language with silence.”
Eugène Ionesco

Sources: The Paris Review, Brainy Quote 

Brendan Behan: A drinker with a writing problem

There’s a lot to be said for a man who could drink all of his compatriots under the table and still walk a straight line, namely that he had to be Brendan Behan. I say that with the greatest admiration which I have had for Behan ever since reading Borstal Boy. I learned a lot about Behan vicariously through his notoriety and J.P Donleavy, who once characterised his fellow Irishman by saying: “Behan always wore his shirt open to the navel; he never had shoelaces and the tongues of his shoes would always hang out… He was tremendous company…And a very, very interesting and profound man. He was a great raconteur and entertained everyone. Although he was shrewd about fame, most people assume that recognition changed Behan, that he became a great bubbling over, a very talkative, almost loudmouthed crazy man because of success. But he was always like that. He would walk into a village and start to sing….He would carry on conversations everywhere and with everybody as he walked through a street…That was Behan.” But there was also another Behan; a Behan who had an incredible literary gift demonstrated impeccably in After the Wake, a collection of Behan’s writings published by O’Brien Press. The book, with a superb introduction by Peter Fallon, contains some previously unpublished material and boasts a cavalcade of 21 pieces, some fictional, some autobiographical, charting the political, social and cultural history of Irish life through the eyes of one of her most talented but troubled sons.

With typical whiplash flippancy Brendan Behan once noted that the key defining quality of the Irish is “that that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody”. This could not have been more true of Behan himself, as both his life and his work was marked by a distinctive tone of sedition. After Behan died in 1964 from sclerosis of the liver, Flann O’Brien wrote his obituary in The Irish Times, describing his one-time drinking pal as “more a player than a playwright, or, to use a Dublin saying, ‘He was as good as a play’.” Behan was indeed a hell of a showman, and a master deipnosophist, but he was also a remarkable writer with a knack for storytelling, an ear for dialogue, rambunctious wit and a dash of comic mayhem surging through his veins. He joined Fianna Boys (an Irish Republican Youth Organisation) at the age of 14, but was discharged for disorderly conduct under the influence of drink. Behan, nevertheless, carried his Republican politics like a tocsin and spent time in prison for a number of offences, including plotting with the IRA to bomb the Liverpool docks and an attempt to kill two gardaí. It was in jail that he honed his writing skills and gathered up material for his canon. Initially Behan’s literary reputation was built on the back of innovative work, but gradually his writing became secondary to the drinking which killed him aged 41. He died in Meath hospital after reportedly telling a nun looking after him: “Ah, bless you, Sister, may all your sons be bishops.”

Behan began his literary career by contributing patriotic prose and verses to Fianna, The Voice of Ireland, Wolfe Tone Weekly and The United Irishman between 1937-9. But his name became a household one after the publication of Borstal Boy in 1958; an autobiographical account of Behan’s arrest and imprisonment (1939 to 1943) for his involvement with the IRA. After the Wake contains a precursor to the autobiography entitled I Became a Borstal Boy initially published in The Bell in 1942. Written in emblematic Behan fashion with a quaint and loquacious medley of Irish and British slang, it alternates between the stark adrenaline-infused reality of confinement and the delicate and tender nuances of friendship informed, subconsciously, by the axiom that “no man is an island, entire of its own”. I Became a Borstal Boy recounts Behan’s sentencing to “three years’ Borstal detention” in a British correctional facility, and a brief description of another fellow who’d “battered in” his wife. With a sense of poignancy, Behan muses: “He spoke with such evident sincerity that when I read later an account of his execution I wondered if he has been guilty after all.” The piece immediately after, called “The Execution”, was first published in 1978 by Liffey Press, and follows three men as they take a snitch out far beyond the city and to his death, the narrator reasoning that if those who  “give away dumps on us” are overlooked “there’d soon be no respect for the army.” In retrospect, and with a dash of sympathy, the narrator says, “the poor devil wouldn’t have run even if we had let him,” and then with an unexpected sense of subdued altruism: “We put him in the grave. He felt quite warm. I told the lads to be careful not to get any bloodstains on their clothes. We began to shovel in earth. I moved a big stone off my shovel – it might smash in his face.” Behan’s writing has a ubiquitous quality and a remarkable vicissitude as it jumps seamlessly from the coarse to the doleful, thereby deliquescing convention to find a voice entirely its own.

The title story, After the Wake, charts Behan’s friendship with a married couple. The husband, a beautiful blonde man “always a little cultured, proud and happy to be so broad-minded”, she [the dying wife] always full of “adolescent pride in the freedom of her married state to drink a bottle of stout and talk about anything with her husband and husband’s friend.” It caused a bit of a stir upon initial publication in the Parisian magazine Points in 1950 for its portrayal of male friendship and unceremonious allusions to homosexuality. The story stands apart from all the others, whatever the provenance, due to its muted tone and the masterly balance of dramatic tension; for its illuminations of certain perdurable human truths and the ability of people to find solace in one another irrespective of circumstance. Behan concludes the story with a resigned sense of cynicism: “I fancied her face looking up from the open coffin on the Americans who, having imported wakes from us, invented morticians themselves.” Some people have dismissed After the Wake on account of moral turpitude and confusion over Behan’s sexuality. But, according to Behan’s wife Beatrice, the semi-destitute Behan was writing pornographic prose in Paris after the war for money rather than to add to his autobiographical catalogue. Either way, the story is marvellous.

My favourite, however, has to be The Confirmation Suit first published in The Standard in 1953. It is near impossible to reduce a reader to tears, but the story had me lachrymose; the coruscating, hardy prose describing an episode from Behan’s childhood is both tender and provocative, and relays the making of his Confirmation garb by his grandmother’s neighbour. He recalls his grandmother and Miss McCann, who proudly made the garments, crying as they saw him “in the velvet suit, with its small lapels and big buttons” and later celebrating with a “drink to the strength of my having grown to be a big fellow in the space of 12 years.” Embarrassed, Behan wears his topcoat during the ceremony, recollecting afterward how every Sunday from thereon in “my mother fought over the suit. She said I was a liar and a hypocrite, putting it on for a few minutes every week, and running into Miss McCann’s and out again, letting her think I wore it every week-end.” Only later, following the death of Miss McCann who loved him more than any kid she knew, does he realise what it meant to her to have fashioned the ceremonious regalia, concluding: “After the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.” One of the most distinguishable qualities of Behan’s work is its ability to evoke unsolicited emotion and he does do throughout. Similarly, in the first, and formerly unpublished, story of the collection called The Last of Mrs Murphy which records Behan’s memories of an elderly neighbour who, on his fifth birthday, took him to “Jimmy the Sports” for his first “dandy glass of porter” and a bit of “white snuff”. But the story is about more than that; it is about the collective consciousness of a community closely knitted together trough fallen skies, madness, old age, marriage, death and beyond. When Mrs Murphy is taken to the “Refuge of the Dying” by Behan’s grandmother, Lizzie MacCann and Long Byrne, the three neighbours conclude that: “It’s not the kind of place I’d like to leave a neighbour or a neighbour’s child.” The scene ends with a little ardent banter between a nurse and Byrne, when the former says, sniffing at Mrs Murphy, “I get a distinct smell of whiskey”, to which Byrne replies: “How well you’d know it from the smell of gin, rum or brandy… Ah well I suppose practice makes perfect.”

The other previously unpublished piece of the collection is The Catacombs, a part of an unfinished novel, which commences with the following: “There was a party to celebrate Deirdre’s return from her abortion in Bristol” for which Behan “put up the money for the trip and the readies to pay the quack”. The story gets both more absurd and funny, as Behan relays his interaction with Deirdre’s Catalonian-Irish family, her “screwy old bitch” mother, Deirdre’s brother and fellow IRA sympathiser Ciaran, and uncle Hymie who mostly sits “in the corner blind drunk as he has been for sixty years” and infects the world with his poisonous yet comical persiflage. The seemingly copacetic state of affairs quickly develops into garboil as Behan gets embroiled in a forbidden dalliance, is accused of selling “Jesus Christ for three-quarters of a pound of beef,” and nicks a tenner while making his exodus from the pandemonium before heading down to the pub. The Catacombs is a brilliant piece of prose, as are most in the collection; not least the last of the longer pieces entitled A Woman of No Standing. First published in Envoy in 1950, and then some years later as That Woman in Creation the story is an all too human portrait of a deceased man’s “other woman” and her appearance at his funeral. On his death bed in “Pigeon House sanatorium” the man in question is absolved from all his sins, with the priest concluding: “It’s not when you die, but how you die that matters”. As for the other woman, “no one saw her to know what she thought of it, but the priest gave strict orders that she wasn’t to be let near the funeral”. The wronged wife forgives her husband “whatever lingering scald her heart might hold” only to be confronted by the other woman who, “bent in haggard prayer, dressed in the cast off hat and coat of some flahoo”, passes the widow by with “her head down and a pale hunted look in her eyes”. A Woman of No Standing has a wonderful human quality to it, a gift which Behan had in abundance and more than any of his contemporaries.

The remainder 14 pieces under the blanket title of The Same Again, Please were published in The Irish Press between 1954-6. Amusing, impulsive, perceptive, funny, they range in content and tone and style, as the opening of each attests. The following are some of my favourites, starting with: The Turnip Boat which commences with a somewhat arbitrary statement: “For some reason a friend of mine wanted to ship turnips from Six Counties port.” Another one called Toronto Spinster Frowned opens with an even more peculiar thought: “Myself and Winston Churchill were once upon a time in the same organisation; he as an Elder Brother of Trinity House and I as a painter for the Irish Lights.” Then there’s a piece called Red Jam Roll, the Dancer which sees Behan recollecting something with great wordplay: “I am reminded of boxing matters by an encounter I had this day with a former opponent of mine, pugilistically speaking. I do not mean our encounter this day was a pugilistic one, but it was pugilitstically speaking we last spoke.” And Three Celtic Pillars of Charity which deems: “This life is full of disappointments.” That may be true generally speaking, it is not so when it come to Behan. While there’s always a fear that a writer one admires but has read very little of might, in the end, turn out to be a disappointment, After the Wake is an Emerald Isle gem and much like the man himself a heady mixture of “hell and heaven and despair and presumption and hope”.

Flann O’Brien: A man with a brain like “an ivy near where swallows fly”

Whizzing around Portobello Road on a Saturday afternoon, trying to avoid somatic collision with supernumerary tourists, I popped into the Oxfam bookshop and elbowed my way to the fiction section; snapped-up a Flann O’Brien paperback and hastily elbowed my way out. The Third Policeman, O’Brien’s second novel, failed to interest his publisher on the basis of being even more preternaturally “fantastic” than his debut. O’Brien’s first book, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published in a spectacularly fortuitous turn when Graham Greene, then on the editorial staff of Longman’s, deemed it nothing short of brilliant, later saying he read it with the sort of “amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage”. Unfortunately, his second book didn’t quite garner as much momentum and remained locked away in a draw of O’Brien’s escritoire for the next two decades.

The Third Policeman opens with a murder confession by an innominate narrator who dispassionately imparts onto the reader that he has killed “old Philip Mathers”, by smashing his jaw in with a spade, after his co-conspirator, John Divney, struck the “queer mean” eremite down with a “special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself”. The ostensible subject of the narration concerns the murder committed by the two men in order to steal a money box which is then hidden in the old man’s house until “things quiet down”. And once they do, the narrator insists on retrieving it himself.  As well as being a murderer, he is also a proselyte of a sophist academician known as De Selby who believes that happiness is not “un-associated with water” which “if not abused, can achieve absolute superiority” and argues that the earth is not round but curvilinear like a sausage.  Upon entering Mathers’ home, the narrator experiences a sudden “inscrutably subtle, yet momentous” change and “an awful alteration in everything” which “holds the universe at a standstill for an instant, suspending the planets in their courses, halting the sun and holding in mid-air any falling thing the earth is pulling towards it”. This is the first indication of the hypnagogic playful chaos, supernatural gambols and corybantic vignettes that are to unfold in the next 200-odd pages.

While in the house the narrator enjoys the hospitality of the man he murdered and “buried in a field”. The money box, in his eyeshot, suddenly and miraculously vanishes while he, unable to move, sits on the floor staring at old man Mathers in a “spellbound gaze”. From this point onward events take an aberrant turn, deviating from all ratiocination, and bending toward the absurd as the narrator discovers his soul whom he names Joe and sets off on a sojourn in search of the money box which leads him to an strange police station and a pair of policemen who “do not confine their investigations or activities to this world or to any known planes or dimensions. Their most casual remarks create a thousand other mysteries”.

Peculiar characters such as “brother of the wooden leg”, De Selby, women in “very advanced stages of sexuality,” Joe the soul, Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen feature throughout the book and partake in the symbiosis of finely tuned humour and nonsense dialogue. The conversations between the characters range from the philosophical to the banal and the downright dotty. In the opening chapters, Mathers, for example, explains his ideology on life, to the narrator, by saying: “I discovered that everything you do is in response to a request or a suggestion made to you by some other party either inside you or outside. Some of these suggestions are good and praiseworthy and some of them are undoubtedly delightful. But the majority of them are definitely bad and are pretty considerable sins as sins go… I therefore decided to say No henceforth to every suggestion, request or inquiry whether inward or outward.” The polemic here contains all the pragmatic precepts of socio-political liberty. And while meditations of such nature abound, they are simultaneously on a par with balderdash madcap dialectic riddles, such as for example when the narrator arrives at the station and meets Sergeant Pluck, who greets him with his very own catchphrase: “Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.” The two men go on to have a conversation, revolving mainly around the subject of bicycles, rat-trap pedals, the dangers of loose plates, pumps, high-saddles, wooden rims, white pneumatics and an “American gold watch” which the narrator reports to have been stolen. To which Sergeant Pluck replies incredulously: “Why should anybody steal a watch when they can steal a bicycle?” Before adding that once the watch is recovered he shall “have to start searching for the owner”. Every premise of every exchange is based on deviatory logic, most leading to the subject of bicycles, which makes for a disjointed, absurdist dynamic with a streak of slapstick binding the consecutive chapters together.

The narrator’s encounter with the second policeman is even more cryptic as he finds himself bamboozled by MacCruiskeen’s impromptu orphic performance with a “little small piano” and brass pins of tunes “that cannot be appreciated by the human earcup”. MacCruiskeen’s astonishment at the narrator’s “no-bike status” outdoes that of Sergeant Pluck’s, so much so that he urges the former to document it saying “that is a story that would make your golden fortune if you wrote down in a book”. Bicycles loom heavily throughout and eventually lead the narrator to Sergeant Pluck’s aoristic Atomic Theory which dictates that “everything is composed of small particles if itself and they are flying around in concentric circles…They are as lively as twenty leprechauns doing a jig on a tombstone…The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadstead of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of atoms” thus becoming “half people and half bicycles”. The events in this crackpot masterwork confound the reader as much as the narrator, who finds himself “packed tight with fears and miscellaneous apprehensions” with the turning of every page. O’Brien’s subversively crackbrained satire is laden with topsy-turvy twists and dazzling gags but also with an underlying cynicism which comes together in a perfect syzygy. The wisdoms dispensed throughout are chaotically prodigious and mind-buckling, but the strabismic goes in hand with the profound to form a plane of comic genius.

The eponymous policeman is remarked upon throughout, but neither Pluck nor MacCruiskeen see him “because he is always on his beat and never off it and he signs the book in the middle of the night when even a badger is asleep. He is as mad as a hare, he never interrogates the public and he is always taking notes.” Too preoccupied with bicycles and bicycle theft, to the oversight of all other crimes, they are the masters of a sort of barometric equilibrium in the environment which is in constant threat of falling into anarchy. Somewhere mid-way through the book the story moves away from the murder and the quest for the box and transverses into a thesis on bicycles, with the narrator’s own annotations conveyed through De Selby’s scholastic teachings and Joe’s commentary. It later retrogresses back to its original premise and the innominate raconteur finds himself a suspect in the crime for which he cannot be punished because he’s nameless – until Sergeant Pluck contradicts this theory by saying: “For that reason alone, we can take you and hang the life out of you and you are not hanged at all and there is no entry to be made in the death papers. The particular death you die is not even a death only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard, a piece of negative nullity neutralised and rendered void by asphyxiation and the fracture of the spinal string. ”

O’Brien’s knack for the downright cranked is spellbinding and reflected best in the virtuoso dialogue, which often revolves around the most disparate subjects such as the lather in a cow’s mouth, German steam engines, brains like “an ivy near where swallows fly” and one’s inability to “make fire without a brick” or definitions of words such as omnium which is the “essence inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the roof of the kernel of everything and it is always the same,” and bulbuls which is not “one of those elastic articles that ladies wear” but a variety of “Persian nightingale”. Nothing in The Third Policeman is as it seems and follows the thought that “anything you do is a lie and nothing that happens to you is true”. Thus the idea of human-bicycles and travelling through a passage “with bolted sheets of pig iron” to eternity, where there is an “eight day clock” and one’s beard does not grow, becomes fully conceivable, if surreal. The plot orbits in concentric circles and the narrator ends up where he begins, or rather the reverse, meeting Policeman Fox, who in exchange for the money box offers him a “house  packed full of strawberry jam, every room so full that you could not open the door”. And that ties-in quite nicely with the arbitrary scheme of things. Beyond that there is no real plot, no discernible storyline, nor method to the madness, but rather an unconditional flouting of literary convention and surrender to the bizarre and hilarious pandemonium of infinite regress which makes The Third Policeman a “monkey work of no mean order”. In other words: superb.

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