Sunday, April 1, 2007

'Is it about a bicycle?'


Today marks the 41st anniversary of Flann O'Brien's death, April Fools' Day 1966.

He was born in 1911. Best known for
At Swim-Two-Birds, said to be one of the last novels Joyce read before he died, my favorite work of his is unquestionably The Third Policeman. Not only is it one of the funniest works of Irish fiction, a strong case could be made for it as the funniest book I've ever read, surpassing not only those of Beckett & Joyce, but everyone, worldwide, forever. (In truth, it probably falls short of Finnegans Wake and Don Quixote, but I'll allow myself the hyperbole, today especially.)

I first read the book at what proved to be a very formative time for my reading & collecting habits. It was in stock, inexplicably, at a Tower Records/Bookstore in Richmond, VA, during the 2nd half of my sophomore year. I had spent my first year of college in Charleston, the previous semester abroad in France, & decided to come home. At that point in time I didn't know I'd be soon returning to Charleston, with the rest of my life waiting to happen there. I had just started to read literary fiction on my own the previous semester, beginning with books like The Crying of Lot 49, Journey to the End of the Night, White Noise, The New York Trilogy, & Catch 22, basically with no other guide besides the lists on Amazon.com. The same Tower Records store also stocked Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, & it was between those books that I first noted the role of the publisher, which in this case was Dalkey Archive. Always attracted to lists, I pored over the titles on the back few pages of Yellow Back & Policeman, eventually landing at Dalkey's website, which in turn led to one of the first important moments of library expansion: their deal of 100 books for $500, a bargain I ended up taking advantage of twice within about 6 months.

In those days, my library was at least two-thirds Dalkey Archive, New Directions & Grove Press titles, if not more. Dalkey released an anthology, Innovations, edited by Robert L McLaughlin, that was particularly formative. In its pages I read Coover, Gaddis, Barth, & Stein, among others, for the first time; I
specifically remember Cris Mazza's "Is it Sexual Harrassment Yet?" & the creative & problematic way the story was presented. But even more importantly, at the end of the Innovations volume there was included a list of 101 "Highly Eccentric Books for Further Reading". Though the book constricted itself only to American writers, the list did not. I practically memorized it, & started to acquire as many titles as possible. This lead me to writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Julio Cortazar, Danilo Kis, John Hawkes, Jose Donoso, Georges Perec, & Juan Rulfo.

Back to Flann O'Brien. In addition to the titles Dalkey put out, which include The Poor Mouth, The Hard Life, The Dalkey Archive (I'm not sure if this is where the press took its name, but I've always assumed so), & several volumes of his journalism, I've also acquired Stories and Plays and A Flann O'Brien Reader, both put out by Viking in the 70s. The latter includes a sampling of all of his novels with introductions to each, & most importantly some of the less popular, more occasional writings, along with a bibliography; it is such a good volume that it literally falls apart as you read it, whether from cheap glue or prior mistreatment, I can't say. The most interesting works in Stories and Plays are "Slattery's Sago Saga, or From under the Ground to the Top of the Trees" which is billed as an unfinished novel, & the play "Faustus Kelly", written by another of Flann's pseudonyms, Myles na Gopaleen (Flann O'Brien was itself a pseudonym of Brian O'Nolan). The only overlap between the two Viking editions is the well-known "A Bash in the Tunnel"--making both worth owning for fans of his major works.

The Third Policeman
also marked the first indication of the importance of the publisher's role for me, as the book went unpublished in Flann's lifetime. It is true that At Swim-Two-Birds never sold well, its publication coinciding with the onset of WWII. From William Gass's introduction to At Swim: "According to its author, Adolf Hitler hated At Swim-Two-Birds so vehemently he started World War II in order to interfere with its sales. 'In a grim irony that is not without charm,' O'Nolan wrote, 'the book survived the war while Hitler did not.'" All comedy aside, it is inexplicable that The Third Policeman went unpublished at the time.
From the intro of the book by Denis Donoghue: Flann "was disconsolate. He could not face the humiliation of telling Dublin that his second novel had been rejected in two continents, so he took a desperate step. He pretended that the sole typescript of the novel had been lost and that he could not write it again. Donagh MacDonagh was the only friend to whom he confided the truth. The book was not published till 1967, a year after O'Brien's death." One cannot help but wonder what further novels of brilliance O'Brien may have been able to produce had he not suffered the ego blow that was having Policeman rejected.

Gass, at the end of his introduction to
At Swim (in which he calls Policeman "beautiful to a degree unrecognizable") finishes thus: "Through an irony perhaps too broad to be believed, death claimed Brian O'Nolan on the first Fools' Day of April, 1966, a day when Flann O'Brien was absent, participating in the celebration and drinking deep." In another irony that is perhaps difficult to believe, though nonetheless highly pleasant, in October of '05 the book was featured in the popular TV show Lost, & in the intervening year & a half it has sold many more thousands of copies than it ever did from 1967 up until that point, becoming Dalkey's best-selling title to date. Flann would undoubtedly be pleased that so many people are finally reading his book, even for the silly reason of gaining insight into a TV show. I personally am pleased to think that thousands of new readers are searching for answers in passages such as this:

'Well, now,' he said again. He had his little lamp beside
him on the table and he played his fingers on it.
'That is a fine day,' I said. ' What are you doing with
a lamp in the white morning?'
'I can give you a question as good as that,' he responded.
'Can you notify me of the meaning of a bulbul?'
'A bulbul?'
'What would you say a bulbul is?'
This conundrum did not interest me but I pretended to
rack my brains and screwed my face in perplexity until I
felt it half the size it should be.
'Not one of those ladies who take money?' I said.
'No.'
'Not the brass knobs on a German steam organ?'
'Not the knobs.'
'Nothing to do with the independence of America or
such-like?'
'No.'
'A mechanical engine for winding clocks?'
'No.'
'A tumour, or the lather in a cow's mouth, or those elastic
articles that ladies wear?'
'Not them by a long chalk.'
'Not an eastern musical instrument played by Arabs?'
He clapped his hands.
'Not that but very near it,' he smiled, 'something next
door to it. You are a cordial intelligible man. A bulbul is a
Persian nightingale. What do you think of that now?'
'It is seldom I am far out,' I said dryly.
He looked at me in admiration and the two of us sat in
silence for a while as if each was very pleased with himself
and with the other and had good reason to be.
'You are a B.A. with little doubt?' he questioned.
I gave no direct answer but tried to look big and learned
and far from simple in my little chair.
'I think you are a sempiternal man,' he said slowly.
He sat for a while giving the floor a strict examination and
then put his dark jaw over to me and began questioning me
about my arrival in the parish.
'I do not want to be insidious,' he said, 'but would you
inform me about your arrivial in the parish? Surely you had
a three-speed gear for the hills?'
'I had no three-speed gear,' I responded rather sharply,
' and no two-speed gear and it is also true that I had no
bicycle and little or no pump and if I had a lamp itself it
would not be necessary if I had no bicycle and there would
be no bracket to hang it on.'
'That may be,' said MacCruiskeen, 'but likely you were
laughed at on the tricycle?'
'I had neither bicycle nor tricycle and I am not a dentist,'
I said with severe categorical thoroughness, 'and i do not
believe in the penny-farthing or the scooter, the velocipede
or the tandem-tourer.'
MacCruiskeen got white and shaky and gripped my arm
and looked at me intensely.
'In my natural puff,' he said at last, in a strained voice, 'I
have never encounteered a more fantastic epilogue or a
queerer story. Surely you are a queer far-fetched man. To
my dying night I will not forget this today morning. Do not
tell me that you are taking a hand at me?'
'No,' I said.
'Well Great Crikes!'
He got up and brushed his hair with a flat hand back
along his skull and looked out of the window for a long in-
terval, his eyes popping and dancing and his face like an
empty bag with no blood in it.
Then he walked around to put back the circulation and
took a little spear from a place he had on the shelf.
'Put your hand out,' he said.
I put it out idly enough and he held the spear at it. He
kept putting it near me and nearer and when he had the
bright point of it about half a foot away, I felt a brick and
gave a short cry. There was a little bead of my red blood
in the middle of my palm.
'Thank you ver much,' I said. I felt too surprised to be
annoyed with him.
'That will make you think,' he remarked in triumph,
'unless I am an old Dutchman by profession and nation-
ality.'

1 comment:

MH said...

I did not know Flann O'Brian was on Lost. Holy shit.

I like this here blog.