Priest, Gangster, Drinker, Gent, Novelist, Funnyman, Genius
Flann O’Brien, Brian O’Toole
From Boston Review:
“A really funny book,” was James Joyce’s verdict on At Swim-Two-Birds, the comic masterpiece by his compatriot Brian O’Nolan, a.k.a. Flann O’Brien. Graham Greene said he read it “with excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” Despite such accolades, the novel sold a dismal 244 copies before the Luftwaffe finished it off by bombing the publisher’s London warehouse in 1940. O’Nolan’s second masterpiece, The Third Policeman, completed soon after, was rejected by the same publisher, killing his hopes for it. The manuscript sat gathering dust in his home until he died, in 1966. At his death O’Nolan was well known in Dublin as an Irish Times columnist under the pen name of Myles na Gopaleen, but unappreciated under his other nom de plume of Flann O’Brien as a novelist of genius.
Since then, however, Flann’s ghost has returned to claim his rightful place. His books appear on TV shows; pubs are named after him; undergraduates giggle over his works. And now, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, there are commemorative events in several places: Dublin, of course, but also in less likely venues, such as Singapore and Vienna. I missed Singapore, but had the good luck to be invited to the “100 Myles” conference in Vienna to read from my own Flann-induced novels, Killoyle and The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad.
Why Vienna, unvisited by O’Nolan? Why not? After all, Joyce never crossed the Atlantic, and America teems with Joyce seminars. The University of Vienna has a big, well-funded Irish Studies department. There are Celtic connections between Austria and Ireland, via medieval Irish monks. Vienna is a Catholic metropolis, a city of churches, and O’Nolan was nothing if not Catholic. Vienna is also, of course, the birthplace of psychoanalysis; the apartment of Dr. Freud, who allegedly observed that the Irish were one race of people “for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever,” is a couple of streets from the university. An irony well suited to Flann’s ironic oeuvre.