Tuesday , May 21 2024

Many Myles to go: Paul Fagan about Flann O’Brien

This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

We are very happy to have on Italish Magazine Paul Fagan, Lecturer in British Literature at the University of Tromsø and Adjunct Lecturer (Modernism & Irish Studies) in University of Vienna. Paul is the Co-Founder of the International Flann O’Brien Society, which is hosting the II International Flann O’Brien Conference at the Università Roma Tre this summer from the 19-21 June.

First of all Paul, thank you for the interview.

Paul Fagan: My pleasure.

Starting with “something personal”: you are Irish, you are an “emigrant” in Wien, quite close to Joyce’s Trieste and not so far from Beckett’s Paris. So: why and how did you approach Flann?

Rome Logo FinalPaul Fagan: My parents had a lot of really good literature around the house when I was growing up – a lot of Hemingway, John Fowles, Ken Kesey, that type of thing – and I spent most of my teenage years working my way through it. I must have been about fifteen when I came across At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, and I remember that something clicked with me from the first moment – they were just clearly the most absurd, funniest, most terrifying, strangely moving books I had ever come across, and they were extremely formative for me.

When I relocated to Vienna to study I was very lucky to find a supervisor in Werner Huber, who is the head and founder of the Centre for Irish Studies there, who was also very interested in Flann (he wrote his MA thesis on forms of humour in The Third Policeman back in 1976). Around the same time I and another Flanneur, Ruben Borg from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, got to chatting – in a smoky Keller during the 2010 James Joyce Symposium in Prague as I remember – about how it had always seemed to us that there were discrete pockets of “Flanneurs” who had no conferences or any other forums through which they could engage each other, and that somebody should put together the platforms and structures for an O’Brien academic community.

Also, while a lot of the O’Brien criticism over the years had been well intentioned, and important and groundbreaking in a number of ways, a lot of it scanned over, or diminished, what we considered to be Flann’s potential as a rich and fertile subject for scholarship and discussion – and when Ruben and I started thinking seriously about this, Keith Hopper, Carol Taaffe, and Joseph Brooker had just released monographs on Flann that pointed towards a number of interesting directions that such a project could take.

So Werner, Ruben, and I announced an International Flann O’Brien Conference in Vienna, to take place in the summer of O’Brien’s Centenary Year in 2011, which we called 100 Myles. The response was phenomenal – not only from scholars but also artists, authors, filmmakers, and performers – and it took off, eventually evolving into the largest academic event ever held on O’Brien. I think everybody at the conference was really invigorated and excited, and maybe even a little surprised, by the high standard of the papers and engaged discussion. So off the back of the Vienna conference we founded the International Flann O’Brien Society to maintain and focus that momentum moving forward.
The Parish ReviewSince then we’ve established a biannual Society journal called The Parish Review. The latest issue, guest edited by Jennika Baines (who also edited the excellent collection Is It About a Bicycle?: Flann O’Brien in the Twenty-First Century for Four Courts Press in 2011), is dedicated to the Flann Archive.
There are vast collections of O’Brien’s correspondence, manuscripts, drafts, and even unpublished works housed in Illinois, Boston, and Texas (in far Amurikey, as Sergeant Pluck says in The Third Policeman), so as part of our general mandate of providing resources and forums for Flann scholarship we wanted to give the Flann community some access to these valuable collections. We have also established a biennial conference, which brings us to the Dipartimento di Lingue Letterature e Culture Straniere in the Università Roma Tre this summer from the 19-21 June. The host organizer is John McCourt – the author of The Years of Bloom: Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920 and also the co-founder and director of the Trieste Joyce School – who has put together an excellent programme, including a poetry reading from Award-winning Irish poets Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, and Aifric Mac Aodha at the beautiful Collegio di Sant’Isidoro.
All in all, it’s an exciting time for O’Brien studies and it has been a rewarding experience for us, especially because it’s been such a community effort.

Give us a ‘Flann for dummies’ guide: who is Flann, main themes, reading order?

Paul Fagan: Well, first of all I would say Flann O’Brien is the author of two of the most creative (Irish, modernist, post-modernist, etc.) novels of the twentieth century: At Swim-Two-Birds, and The Third Policeman, which were written at the end of the 1930s when he was still in his twenties. I’m fond of saying that either of these could easily take a seat alongside Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, and Ulysses at the head table of comic literature masterpieces. Perhaps this is particularly the case with The Third Policeman, which offers a fantastically comic and dark vision of the Irish midlands re-imagined as a kind of hellish machine populated by grotesque bicycle-obsessed policemen (and policeman-obsessed bicycles). But At Swim-Two-Birds is also ground-breaking in the way it folds various genres and books within books within books into each other with a kind of electric anarchic energy, in which characters start to revolt against their authors.
Flann O'BrienFlann O’Brien is also Myles na gCopaleen, author of the Irish Times column Cruiskeen Lawn from 1940 to 1966. It’s really a kind of anti-column, a vast storage house for many of his wildest ideas, catalogues of clichés, excoriations of various bores, and brilliantly devised (intentionally) “bad” puns, that would often (literally) run over the edges of the column into other parts of the paper. It has some of his funniest stuff (Keats and Chapman and The Brother in particular), but also a great deal of high calibre satire, commentary, and thought. Myles is also the author of a beautiful and hilarious little Irish language modernist masterpiece called An Béal Bocht, the supposedly ‘found’ memoirs of Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa (aka Jams O’Donnell) and his life in the relentlessly rainy and relentlessly Gaelic Corca Dhorcha, which was translated as The Poor Mouth by Patrick C. Power in 1974.
An Béal BochtFlann is also Brother Barnabas, George Knowall, Count O’Blather, Lir O’Connor and a host of other figures and authors. He is possibly Stephen Blakesly, author of three editions of the popular post-war detective comic series Sexton Blake. He is probably not James Joyce. Finally he is Brian O’Nolan, the Irish civil servant, who as a result of his father’s early death, was obliged to work to support his siblings, stay at home in Ireland, and write overlooked masterpieces at night.

Being compared to Joyce and Beckett has probably been Flann’s doom: if the three of them were policemen, Flann would be the third… But what is the real place of Flann O’Brien in Irish literature? And what does Flann have in common with James and Samuel? In what is he absolutely peculiar?

Paul Fagan: The question of O’Brien’s – or O’Nolan’s – attitude to Joyce is one of the most fascinating aspects of his legacy. He tended to vacillate between praise and condemnation, although much of the latter was directed against the new wave of American Joyce scholars. Aspects of Ulysses, mostly the Cyclops and Ithaca episodes, clearly inform many of the comic devices of At Swim-Two-Birds and Cruiskeen Lawn, and O’Nolan was certainly a great admirer of Joyce’s humour, if he remained cautious about some of “the Master’s” later experimentalisation.

The Dalkey ArchiveO’Nolan organized the first Bloomsday celebrations, in 1954 with John Ryan, but then again, Joyce turns up in Flann’s last novel The Dalkey Archive only to be humiliated as a doddery and pious old man who claims he never wrote Ulysses (and has never heard of Finnegans Wake) and ends up repairing Jesuits’ underwear. So clearly O’Nolan had a sustained and complex – or at least playfully antagonistic – response to Joyce, both the writer and the myth.
Interestingly, Joyce himself read At Swim-Two-Birds towards the end of his life, and is supposed to have considered it a comic work of remarkable creative power, so the appreciation was mutual, if strained, it seems.
However, the whole idea that O’Nolan is suffering under a kind of anxiety of influence with Joyce has often, unfortunately, had a limiting and suffocating effect on O’Nolan scholarship, tending to overshadow and crowd out his many equally nuanced engagements with not only his Irish contemporaries (Seán Ó Faoláin, Austin Clarke, and Frank O’Connor were frequent targets in the Irish Times), but also his English contemporaries (Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene), Romantics (he seems to be obsessed with KeatsOn First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer), continental philosophers and writers (his biographer Anthony Cronin notes his early admiration for Pascal, Proust, Kafka, Kierkegaard, the 19th century Russians, and the Brothers Čapek), and ancient authorities (and bores) of various stripes.
As such, it’s important for us that so many papers at the upcoming Rome conference point towards this need to broaden our thinking on Brian/Flann/Myles beyond his encounters with Joyce, as this kind of expanded investigation into his various debts and inheritances was one of the major ambitions in setting up the society and the biennial conference. For example, there will be papers reading him against his Irish contemporaries such as James Stephens (by Robert Maslen, University of Glasgow), Brinsley MacNamara (Ondrej Pilný, Charles University Prague), and Patrick Kavanagh (Joseph Brooker, Birkbeck, University of London), as well as Europeans such as Bertolt Brecht (Kerry Wendt, Emory University) and Alfred Jarry (John Coyle, University of Glasgow), and, importantly for his connections with Italian literature, with Luigi Pirandello (Simona Vannini, Università Roma Tre). There’s a lot more to be said about O’Nolan and Joyce, I think, but as a community we may need to take a break to explore these other aspects of O’Brien’s work, so that we can return to the Joyce question with a more nuanced view.
As for Beckett, there is a huge amount of potential for looking into the resonances between the two authors – Joyce, by all accounts, once referred to Beckett as Flann O’Brien’s pessimistic twin. It’s fascinating, in fact, to consider the extent to which Beckett and O’Brien return again and again to similar imagery and ideas. M. Keith Booker, author of Flann O’Brien, Bakhtin, and Menippean Satire, has noted how they each keep returning to images of bicycles, pigs, big dumb Irish policemen, cripples, slothful narrators who lie in bed while constructing their fictions, and abject instances of violence and degradation, in strangely uncanny, vaguely unsettling, vaguely Irish landscapes. All of which is obviously particularly striking and curious when you think that The Third Policeman was only published posthumously, in 1967.
A couple of critics have written on Sam and Flann – Rolf Breuer and Terence Brown, for example, and also, more recently, Kimberly Bohman-Kalaja – but I think there is huge scope for a much broader project of reading the two authors side by side. As such, we’re also happy that at the Rome conference Erika Mihálycsa from Babes-Bolyai University Cluj is going to take up Keith Hopper’s challenge to read Beckett’s Watt beside The Third Policeman, and our keynote speaker Dirk van Hulle is a Beckettian who will be talking on The Third Policeman and Beckett’s The Unnamable, so I’m sure there will be a lot of fruitful discussion on the topic this summer.
To the essence of your question, about the real place of Flann, Myles et al. in Irish literature, I think one of the most exciting things about the current wave of O’Nolan scholarship is that we’re still finding out what his place is – in an Irish context, in a Modernist or Postmodernist context, in the context of the history of ideas, and so on. Also, we’re still discovering and publishing texts by him. This year Dalkey Archive Press have two very important publications coming out, with collections of O’Nolan’s short stories (edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper) and dramatic works (Daniel Jernigan), which will mean that a huge amount of previously unpublished short stories, Gaelic texts, plays, and teleplays will become accessible to a great number of people for the first time.
No doubt these overlooked texts will force us to re-evaluate O’Nolan’s place in Irish and World literature, and we are delighted Neil, Keith, and the translator Jack Fennell will be holding a roundtable dedicated to O’Nolan’s oft-overlooked shorter fiction at the conference, in which they will discuss the joys and challenges of finding, reading, translating, editing, and collecting Flann’s shorter work.


Bicycles. Lots of bicycles. Why are bicycles so important in Flann’s opus?

Paul Fagan: Well, to employ that old cliché (Myles no doubt would be revolving in his place of permanent address) there are as many readings of Flann’s bikes as there are readers. In a sort of obvious sense, Flann is playing on the comic absurdity of atomic interchange and man-machine love stories, as well subtly playing with and parodying the bicycle as a very real aspect of Irish life at the time, as the national vehicle. In this sense it stands, I suspect, as a kind of comic symbol of Ireland’s resistant progress into modernity, while going around in circles in a rural traditional frame of mind (Terry Eagleton has argued that Modernism springs from the estranging impact of modernizing forces on a still deeply traditionalist order, and I think something of that effect is happening with Flann’s bikes here). Of course, in this sense the bicycle is also a neat little synecdoche of the book’s circular structure.
Yet there have been a number of other provocative readings. In his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist Hopper has read Flann’s bikes as symbols of repressed Catholic sexuality, and elsewhere Booker reads them as standing for the mechanical half of a kind of Cartesian duality – again, a very Beckettian function. The bike in Flann basically runs the whole gamut from comic to profound, the sublime to the ridiculous – as a comic symbol of the real conditions of the Ireland in which O’Nolan wrote and as an absurd figure by which to test philosophical ideas. Its expansiveness as a central image points to the scope of O’Nolan’s writing, which is perhaps why it has been such an enduring image from his works.

Next June Rome will host Problems with Authority: The II International Flann O’Brien Conference: the Italian Capital, an Irish author, an international conference. What can you tell us about it?

Problems with Authority: The II International Flann O’Brien ConferencePaul Fagan: Despite the significant increase in O’Nolan-related events and publications since the Vienna conference – and in a number of ways probably because of them – a lot of interesting work remains to be done in exploring O’Nolan’s writing.
For example, the shorter texts and plays – some of which are simply wonderful (I’m particularly fond of the short stories John Duffy’s Brother and Two in One) – as well as a whole wealth of Irish language writing going back to at least 1932, needs to be brought into the fold of these broader conversations about Flann’s place in Irish literature.
In that sense we’re delighted to have Mikel Murfi and Mark O’Halloran as our performers at the conference. They are the director and star, respectively, of a very elegant short film adaptation of John Duffy’s Brother that Park Films made a couple of years ago (Mark is also the screenwriter of what in my view is some of the best work in modern Irish cinema with Adam and Paul and Garage).
They’re going to screen the film and hold a Q&A session at the conference, and they’re also going to perform John Duffy’s Brother and Two in One as part of the social programme.

There are also still a number of critical gaps on the academic record, and we’re delighted to have three excellent keynote speakers to address some of these areas. I already mentioned Dirk Van Hulle, but we also have Carol Taaffe, who is the author of one of the most important studies on O’Nolan ever written with her Ireland Through the Looking-Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate, and Jed Esty from the University of Pennsylvania, who is going to talk about Flann and John Ford.
We’re very proud of the response and of the programme, and I’m certain it’s going to be a rewarding and engaging – as well as entertaining – event.
As I mentioned before, the Flann community is very open and welcoming, so anybody who wants to come along and attend for the talks, performances, and film screenings is more than welcome – all the details are on the International Flann O’Brien Society website.

From an Italian perspective: what do you know about the translation of Flann’s opus in Italian? Can Flann really be translated? And: are there Italian writers inspired by Flann (Calvino, maybe?)?

Paul Fagan: There have been a lot of Italian translations of Flann – almost all of the major works have been translated by either Daniele Benati, Adriana Bottini, Bruno Fonzi, Gabriella Mannoni Lanzoni, Alex R. Falzon, or Juan Rodolfo Wilcock.
The question of whether Flann can be truly translated is a particularly interesting one, given all the puns, the Irishisms, the allusions and so on, and the challenges of adapting and translating Flann is just one of the conversations that will be going on at the conference – not only with Mikel Murfi and Mark O’Halloran, but we also have a panel dedicated to the difficulties and joys of translating Flann with Francesco Laurenti of IULM University Milan and Inmaculada Lara Jaén.
As for Flann’s Italian correspondences, with his various ground-breaking approaches to self-referential stories about writers creating autonomous and rebellious characters, there are no doubt debts and inheritances to Pirandello and Calvino – I’m certain that, too, will be a matter much discussed over panels and pints this summer.

I love Roddy Doyle’s status updates on Facebook: as you know they became a book (‘Two Pints’) and they remind me of Cruiskeen Lawn. How would Flann have approached the social networks (I can imagine lots of pubs’ check-in on Foursquare…)? And do you think that Roddy Doyle or other Irish contemporary writers have something of Flann?

Paul Fagan: Given that Myles’s main currency was hardly enthusiasm, I find it hard to imagine that he’d have any truck with that type of thing – still, given his tendency towards shameless self-promotion one could imagine him lambasting Facebook from his column while developing the Myles Catechism of Cliché App in the background. No doubt he’d have a million absurdly creative and brilliant ideas for how the technology could be used towards some Rube Goldberg-esque ends.
As for contemporary writers, there are a number of excellent Irish writers at the moment who owe a debt to Flann.
Patrick McCabe and Dermot Healy clearly deserve to be mentioned in the same company, in my own view, but also a number of new writers.
Kevin Barry, for example, who was recently nominated [and now, winner! @maxmag87] for an International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his excellent, and very O’Brien-esque, City of Bohane, or Paul Murray, whose Man Booker-nominated Skippy Dies exhibits a Third Policeman-esque fascination with String Theory and quantum flux. For my money Julian Gough, the author of Jude in Ireland and Jude in London, is writing some of the best and most under-appreciated comic novels in the Flann O’Brien vein.
The problem with the O’Brien-esque brand of humour – with its various darkly comic absurdities and ridiculously elaborate set-ups for puns or allusions – is that if you don’t get it right it really falls on its ear; Gough gets it right, I think. We’re also delighted that he’ll be attending Rome this summer to talk about Flann and contemporary sci-fi, and give a reading from his own award-winning short story The iHole.
One of our primary goals in the Society is to keep the lines of communication open between Flann scholars and the creative community who are engaging with Flann’s works in so many absorbing ways, so it’s gratifying and important I think, when we can have talented writers and performers such as Gough, Murfi, and O’Halloran involved.

Where can people go to find out more about the conference?

Paul Fagan: They can visit our society website. Membership of the Society is open to scholars and fans alike, and anybody interested in joining to receive The Parish Review and other society updates should drop us a line at viennacis.anglistik[@]univie.ac.at.
Those interested in Flann studies in general can also find the IFOBS Brian O’Nolan Bibliography page on our website, which is our first attempt at a comprehensive Flann bibliography, which lists all of his original works and every article, thesis, translation, and adaptation on or of his works. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks Paul, and best of luck with the conference!

Paul Fagan: My pleasure, Max, I enjoyed it!

About QRob

Massimiliano "Q-ROB" Roveri writes on and about Internet since 1997. A philosopher lent to the IT world blogs, shares (and teaches how to blog and share) between Ireland and Italy.

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