by Shawn Crawford
Why do we stay? We lack the resources or the opportunities. We remain faithful to a place given to us through an accident of birth. We rage and complain but never wander very far, the reasons a cipher to ourselves. Even in America, a land of nomads and self-fashioning, most of us eventually find a place that is our Place, and feel compelled to return again and again. I continually meet people that define where they are merely in terms of where they left. We stay even in our absence.
The exodus of Irish writers from their country in the early 20th Century, most notably James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, would influence all of literature for the rest of the century. Before both could create, they would have to come to terms with an Irish culture that offered both a deluge of artistic tradition and a stifling insularity that threatened to eat every beautiful creature Irish writers produced. But they would become exiles in very different ways, although Beckett would work as Joyce’s literary secretary for a time, until he left to find his own identity and narrative path.
Joyce never left Dublin no matter how far he roamed. He occupied Dublin in his mind, obsessed over its topography, demanded to know of every change from friends, wrote of no place else his entire career. But Beckett would succeed by leaving in the most astonishing manner: not only would he leave Dublin in his work to inhabit a place that was Everywhere but Nowhere, he would leave English and begin writing exclusively in French. Moving to another language would give Beckett the order, discipline, and what he called the “impoverishment” needed to find his own voice and literature. He would create as close to the bone as possible and find the heart of modern human existence. And then he would put the work back together again in an English stripped of all flourishes.
While Beckett and Joyce would grow into titans of modern literature, another Irish writer would stay in Dublin, laboring to survive while producing a body of work both utterly brilliant and utterly unknown today except for a devoted cult following. That man was Flann O’Brien.
O’Brien, born Brian O’Nolan, did not flee Ireland as so many artists did in the years of Revolution and Independence. I will not begin to try and describe the desperate poverty and repressive culture the Irish lived under. Get yourself a copy of Angela’s Ashes. I once heard Bob Geldof, growing up in the tail end of those years, speak about his ferocious need to escape that world, a place he described as always cold and him always shivering, and head to London in his teens so he could make a life and music.
Although he was a brilliant student, mastered several languages, and could write anyone into the ground, O’Brien stayed in that trying world. We know little about O’Brien’s private life, but he seemed to stay to care for his eleven brothers and sisters; he seemed to stay because he thought it was his Ireland too; he stayed and became a sort of trickster and folk hero and sage all in one. He died young like Joyce, virtually unknown even to those that loved his writing because of the masks he had to wear to stay and survive.
Faced with caring for his family after the early death of his father, O’Brien chose to stay in the only profession that offered any hope of a certain income and a dependable pension: the Irish Civil Service. But the service required its employees to stay above politics and government disputes, so to pursue his writing Brian O’Nolan became Flann O’Brien and a host of other pseudonyms. He once carried on a literary feud with himself and a host of other Irish writers by sending countless letters under various names to the Irish Times, sometimes supporting his previous position and sometimes railing against it. The dispute proved so entertaining O’Brien would write a regular column under his other great pen name Myles na gCopaleen.
O’Brien lived his life speaking fluent Irish at home and English in public. He could think in Irish, unlike other writers who often just dallied with Gaelic, and it gave him an authority and voice beloved by both the local literary crowd and the barman reading Myles in the Irish Times. O’Brien refused to romanticize the Irish peasant the way so many expats and Yeats did; he knew the brutality of trying to survive and wrote a satiric novel about such mythologizing of Irish rural life called The Poor Mouth. Fittingly, it was composed in Irish and only translated into English years later.
In 1939 O’Brien’s masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds was published under the urging of the English author Graham Greene. Some critics will argue the book not published during O’Briens’s life, The Third Policeman, should receive the greater praise, but those critics are ninnies and should be slapped about the face and shoulders with the NYRB.
Let us go then, you and I, and ponder At Swim-Two-Birds. To wit, a student in Dublin embarks upon a novel about a man named Trellis, himself an author of Westerns set in Dublin. The characters in the novel live a rich and full life outside the book while the author sleeps and begin to plot how to do away with him for good. In between there occur digressions, a sub-plot with Irish heroes such as Finn MacCool, Mad Sweeny, and my personal favorite, the Pooka MacPhellimey, who likes to argue luck, philosophy, kangaroos and the importance of numbers because “evil is even, truth is an odd number, and death is a full stop.” If you are confused, just remember that for your sake I am leaving out a many other good bits for clarity.
O’Brien inhales all of Irish folklore and the conventions of the modern novel, rearranges them, satirizes them, exaggerates them, out-styles their style, and says, “Top that.” And to my mind no one ever has. Once you read At Swim-Two-Birds you realize how a movie like Being John Malkovich owes everything to it without surpassing its brilliance. The ability to point out and disassemble what you are doing at every turn while simultaneously entertaining the audience watching the performance has been the great enterprise of postmodern art. That for the most part these efforts just turn into a lot of winking and nudging and boredom testifies to the genius of O’Brien. Producing mediocrity and then justifying the mediocrity by proclaiming our self-knowledge of said mediocrity (Get it? Get it! I know it sucks, too. Hilarious. Now let’s make a sequel) is still just mediocrity.
Enjoy O’Brien in his own habitat. At one point in the novel we are notified by a press release that Trellis has managed to deliver a full-grown man without aid of conception through a process called Aestho-autogamy. Trellis gives credit for his success to Mr. William Tracy, a fellow writer of Westerns. Mr. Tracy felt many problems could be solved “if issue could be born already matured, teethed, reared, educated, and ready to essay those competitive plums which make the Civil Service and the Banks so attractive to younger breadwinners of today.” The article ends by informing us that
Mr. Tracy succeed, after six disconcerting miscarriages, in having his own wife delivered of a middle-aged Spainard who lived for only six weeks. A man who carried jealousy to the point of farce, the novelist insisted that his wife and the new arrival should occupy separate beds and use the bathroom at divergent times. Some amusement was elicited in literary circles by the predicament of a woman who was delivered of a son old enough to be her father but it served to deflect Mr. Tracy not one tittle from his dispassionate quest for scientific truth.
Despite his many guises, the true identity of O’Brien and gCopaleen was known to most of his Dublin admirers. Eventually his scathing wit, especially about Irish politics and government, would lead to his forced retirement from civil service. O’Brien would continue writing on a host of subjects and in many genres, including script work for radio and television (he once wrote a ballet for radio), until his early death, on April Fool’s Day, in 1966, at age 55.
In 1954, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events in Joyce’s Ulysses, O’Brien and his friend John Ryan embarked upon the first Bloomsday celebration. You heard me right; O’Brien helped invent Bloomsday. The crew consisted of O’Brien, Ryan, the poet Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, AJ Leventhal, and Joyce’s cousin Tom Joyce. Horse drawn cabs ferried the men about the city, retracing the path of the book. Each man played roles from the novel, and in suitable fashion the project had to be abandoned halfway through at the Bailey pub, owned by Ryan, due to drunkenness and general mayhem. Only an Irishman could manage to be thrown from his own premises. This fact alone makes O’Brien a constellation in the Irish firmament.
The romantic in me wants to see O’Brien as a great hero, the man that stayed and attended his responsibilities and remains in relative obscurity for his efforts, ending his short life as an angry and somewhat broken alcoholic. I think about O’Brien when I see a yammering head ensconced in a New York studio claim to know what life is like here in the heartland, in the Oklahoma, as parochial and impenetrable as O’Brien’s Dublin, where I have chosen to stay. He doesn’t even speak our language, understands nothing of our daily existence, our joys and sorrows and above all fear, a fear that seems bent on consuming everything I love in the here here.
Perhaps all artists are exiles. All of them give up Life in some way to create beauty and truth for us, not because we deserve it, but because they cannot exist without such toil. You cannot gaze upon their creations without wanting to weep for their sacrifice and rejoice for what they have wrought.