Clive James in Prospect Magazine:
Thrumming discreetly in the deep regions of Addenbrooke’s Hospital here in Cambridge, the X-ray projectors continue to chase a dodgy little cancer from one of my facial cavities to the next, so I am still catching up with Christmas. One of my presents was The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, edited by Maebh Long, who must have wondered, towards the end of her task, what kind of nut-bag she had taken on. Justifiably regarded as an adornment to Irish literature, O’Brien was a funny novelist who was even funnier as a columnist, but there is nothing funny about hearing a grown mind fooling around with the word “nigger.” In his later years O’Brien, in his correspondence, did so habitually, although we perhaps need to see his bad habit in the oblique light cast by the further fact that he never gave up on the idea that St Augustine might have been black.
O’Brien knew a lot about St Augustine, whom he read in the original Latin and admired greatly, just as Philip Larkin, supposedly prejudiced against all blacks, greatly admired Sidney Bechet. Doesn’t O’Brien’s admiration temper the apparent disparagement of saddling St Augustine with the “n” word? One would like to think so, but only because one prefers a sane O’Brien to a festering racist, however talented. Not that he ever went public with his quirk. Like HL Mencken, who was anti-semitic but never said so in print, O’Brien had the sense to realise that his prejudice, if revealed, would poison the water supply. Or that, anyway, is what I prefer to think, while leaving room to be told that At Swim-Two-Birds is really a coded hosanna to Jim Crow.