flann-obrien

Truth is an odd number, and Death is a full stop. Flann O’Brien – Ireland’s comic Genius


This kind of strange proportionality is mirrored in the use of footnotes. As well as being a murderer the narrator is also a student of de Selby, a scientist who believes, for example, that the earth is not round, but sausage shaped. The book contains numerous footnotes and references to the works of commentators on de Selby. They grow beyond all the normal proportions of footnotes. The longest is four pages and contains in it a story all of its own and completely unrelated to the main narrative thread of the novel. Not only that, but all of de Selby’s theories are nonsensical and recognised as such by the commentators and yet a disproportionate amount of attention is given to these insane ideas. It is hinted that de Selby has other, reasonable theories, which presumably made his name, but these are never described or discussed by the narrator. We are left not knowing whether the narrator is unreliable, selecting only those ideas and discoveries that discredit de Selby, or if de Selby is simply insane, i.e. has no theories or inventions that would do him credit.

Just as, according to O’Brien, a lifetime spent in the saddle of a bike drives the rider’s personality into the bike and vice versa so that they come to resemble one another so do the footnotes start to resemble a novel proper. The longest footnote is an adventure story full of incident and excitement and involving two of de Selby’s commentators. Similarly, the novel proper is “contaminated” by de Selby, with several chapters beginning with the narrator musing on, for example, de Selby’s experiments with water, before returning to the plot of the novel.

But is the world presented in The Third Policeman really so strange? The policemen have a light which works by saving up shouts and hammering and other loud noises, and later converting them into light when needed. Rusi Taleyarkhan, a researcher in the US, has been working on “sonofusion” since 2001. This consists in attempting to release energy from liquids by bombarding the liquid with waves of ultrasound… And are the footnotes to de Selby so peculiar? They usually deal not so much with de Selby as with his admirers and detractors – a satire, in other words, on the acolytes of academia. De Selby himself, like a Derrida, rises above the babble of critics.

Cruiskeen Lawn

One of The Third Policeman’s many footnotes speculates that Kraus and du Garbandier, two of de Selby’s commentators, were one and the same person. Another de Selby expert, Hatchjaw, we learn, is arrested for impersonating himself and the possibility is mentioned that Hatchjaw was not Hatchjaw at all but “either another person of the same name or an impostor.” This ludicrous situation is one which O’Brien and friends attempted with great success to play out in real life, hijacking the letters page of the Irish Times with a host of letters written under false names. The letters formed a kind of chain, with O’Brien often writing in to sneer at letters he himself had written under a different name. The modern-day Irish Times will not publish pseudonymous letters and requests that writers provide a phone number so that their identities can be verified but the then editor, R. M. Smyllie, encouraged no doubt by the rising circulation, gave O’Brien his own column on the strength of the letters controversy (which he himself even joined in). O’Brien used the pen name Myles na Gopaleen (Myles of the little horses, or – according to himself – Myles of the ponies) and the column came to be known as An Cruiskeen Lawn (Irish for “the little full jug”). His position in the civil service meant that he could not express political opinions under his own name.

Through the pages of the Irish Times, O’Brien introduced us to Keats and Chapman, bores (e.g. the Man Who Has Read It In Manuscript), the Plain People of Ireland, Sir Myles na Gopaleen and too many other memorable characters to attempt to describe here. Keats and Chapman are the names given to two characters who have various adventures all with the purpose of ending the story with a punch line that is usually a bad pun, guaranteed to surprise the reader and yet elicit a groan of recognition. We meet the typical Dublin man, capable of accepting any ill fortune with equanimity, but meeting with outrage anything unprovoked or gratuitous. Relating a string of woes caused him by a visiting relative and including homelessness and bereavement, O’Brien’s Dublin man ends with “and I wouldn’t mind only on the way out he kicked the milk bottle to pieces.” At such times O’Brien will often adopt the neutral politeness of an anthropologist:

“’Ah, yes, [says the Dublin man] the two is in the one grave.’
Observe the unique Dublin dual number in full flight.”

Many observations are specifically related to language and difficult to appreciate in translation:

“I thought to myself, the chap said, that it was a right place to see wild angimals. I put. meself on a 10 bus last Thursda. We got held up on the way and do you know be
what?
I do not.
Be wild angimals.”

It is difficult to give a taste of the columns here. Comic timing was all-important, and quoting extracts often spoils the carefully built up effect. Anthony Cronin, his biographer, remarks that O’Brien would rehearse his columns in conversation but that there was often a great deal of repetition. Clearly a lot of work went into his monlogues before they appeared in the columns.

Myles na Gopaleen is often a difficult curmudgeon of a character, with his war on cliché, bores, official Ireland, sections of the Irish language movement, and civil
servants. Then there are his high-handed insults to his readers. In one column O’Brien refers to them as “you smug, self-righteous swine… self-opinionated sod-minded suet-brained ham-faced mealy-mouthed streptococcus-ridden gang of natural gobdaws!.” One critic writes: “O’Brien had a way of repeating hackneyed expressions until the reader could no longer tolerate them” (Gallagher). And yet his readers loved the column. Anthony Cronin writes that it was often hard to tell whether Dublin speech was the model for the column or if the column at times became a model for Dublin speech.

Cruiskeen Lawn, though its quality was not always consistently high, was not the kind of inconsequential, self-indulgent blather that now goes under the name of opinion columns. O’Brien was an erudite man and did not just dash off columns without doing his homework. They are a far cry from the school essay style meditations on “my summer holidays” or “why women are different from men” that now sully the pages of serious newspapers.

One unfortunate reader wrote to complain about what he thought were several factual inaccuracies in a column. O’Brien printed the letter and meticulously proved the correspondent wrong at every point. Where the correspondent complained that railway trains did not exist in 1800 (the period O’Brien was describing) O’Brien replied testily: “Mr. Hogan questions my reference to railway trains. Here we are back to this incapacity to read. I had no reference whatsoever to railway trains, and no hint whatsoever about steam locomotion… Railways were used by Hannibal.” Strong stuff.

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