If Flann O'Brien had not existed, it would have been necessary for Brian O'Nolan (born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1911 or '12, depending on your source) to invent him.
In fact, O'Nolan did, along with Brian Ua Nuallain (his name in Gaelic), Brother Barnabas (his pen name for the school paper at University College, Dublin) and Myles na Gopaleen (pronounced na-gop-a-leen, translated by the author as "Myles of the ponies," the significance of which has been lost to history).
But all you need to know is that the man championed by some of the greatest writers of the 20th century as one of the funniest writers who ever lived has just had all of his novels, previously available only individually, collected in one handy volume by Everyman's Library.
Such a thing would have staggered O'Brien himself, who regarded his literary career as an abysmal failure. Some critics agreed with him. As Hugh Kenner put it in A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, "Was it the drink was his ruin? For ruin is the word. So much promise has seldom accomplished so little." By the end of O'Brien's life, which came in 1966, "a great future lay behind him."
But the testimony of James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Samuel Beckett, William H. Gass and Graham Greene (on the strength of whose recommendation O'Brien's first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published) would argue against the accusation he accomplished little.
Only a fool would attempt to make sense of Flann O'Brien's novels. So here goes.
At Swim-Two-Birds was praised by Dylan Thomas as "just the book to give to your sister, if she is a dirty, boozey girl." The plot, if such a word can be used, regards an unnamed narrator who is writing a book about a writer named Dermot Trellis who, it so happens, is also writing a book. But Trellis' characters want to be left alone and conspire to keep Trellis asleep as much as possible. Trellis stays awake long enough to create a female character, Sheila Lamont, who bears his child.
To be honest, I kind of lost the thread at this point. I can testify that the story involves two American cowboys, the great Irish hero Finn McCool, the Pooka Fergus MacPhellimey — pookas are a species of human Irish devil endowed with magical powers — and "a cellar full of leprechauns." It is a truly fine, funny book.
The novel flopped, at least in part because German planes destroyed some of the British publisher's printing materials. But that story may have been propagated by O'Brien himself, who suggested Hitler had started the war to prevent circulation of his novel. (After its 1939 release, it was out of print until 1960.)
The book that should have established O'Brien's reputation, The Third Policeman, was rejected in 1940 and remained in his desk for the rest of his life. A phantasmagorical crime story, The Third Policeman concerns a petty thief and murderer who finds himself trapped in a cosmic police station where he learns about atomic theory and the intertwined destinies of men and bicycles. The narrator, who is also the murderer, is dead through much of the story (not a spoiler).
The Hard Life (1961) and The Dalkey Archive (1964) made it into print before he died. The latter features characters no less eminent than St. Augustine and James Joyce. (O'Brien's Joyce maintains that Ulysses was written by a committee of criminals.)
The Poor Mouth — which O'Brien, in a particularly perverse mood, wrote in Gaelic — was published in 1941 but not translated into English until 1973. It's a parody of typical Irish hardscrabble autobiographies: "The house was narrow, upon me soul, 'twas a tight troublesome situation we were in when the night came. My grandfather slept with the cows and I myself sleep with the horse, Charlie, a quiet, gentle animal. The sheep used often start fighting and many times I went without a wink of sleep. . . ."
Of The Third Policeman, V.S. Pritchett wrote, "In O'Brien, the object is a box that contains a box containing boxes getting infinitely smaller, until they are invisible." He might have added that in each box there is a joke funnier than the one before it, even if the punch lines are sometimes as enigmatic as a Gaelic pun.
Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.