The Literary Comic Genius of Flann O'Brien:
Flann O'Brien is one of my literary mentors (along with Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Twain, James Joyce, and Flannery O'Connor, among others). That O'Brien's novels are for readers who prefer adding a smile or even a laugh to their "deep" thoughts becomes obvious to anyone who opens one of his books. His work sometimes straddles the modernist/postmodernist divide, and as one reader said about one of his novels: "It is also one of the few satires that doesn't succeed by denigrating us and one of the few post-modern works that does succeed by making us howl with laughter."
"That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit. A really funny book."James Joyce on Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds.
Note: The following is a combination of Amazon descriptions and
my own observations about Flann O’Brien’s work.
A Master Storyteller of the Hilarities of Multidimensionality
Flann O’Brien, along with Joyce and Beckett, has been described as part of the holy trinity of modern Irish literature. I describe him as a master storyteller of the phenomenological and ontological hilarities of multidimensionality. His five novels, which are a monument to his inspired lunacy and genius, include At Swim-Two Birds and his last novel, The Third Policeman.
Flann O'Brien’s real name was Brian O'Nolan, and he also wrote under another pen name: Myles na Gopaleen. Born in 1911 in County Tyrone, he was a resident of Dublin who graduated from University College while editing a magazine called Blather). He joined the Civil Service, in which he eventually attained a senior position. O’Brien wrote throughout his life, which ended in Dublin on April Fool’s Day, 1966.
The Third Policeman
A comic trip through hell in Ireland, as told by a murderer, The Third Policeman is an inspired bit of confusing and brilliantly warped storytelling from O’Brien’s lovably demented pen. The narrator of The Third Policeman, who has forgotten his name, is a student of philosophy who has botched a robbery and committed murder. He wanders into a surreal hell where he encounters such oddities as the ghost of his victim, three policeman who experiment with space and time, and his own soul (who is named “Joe”). Some readers have favorably compared The Third Policeman to such twentieth century masterpieces as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
At Swim-Two-Birds (which one critic called “the funniest novel of the twentieth century”) is an exuberant literary send-up in which the novel’s narrator is writing a novel about another man writing a novel, in a Celtic knot of interlocking stories. The riotous cast of characters includes figures “stolen” from Gaelic legends, along with assorted students, fairies, ordinary Dubliners, and cowboys, some of whom try to break free of their author’s control and destroy him.
His Other Novels
The Poor Mouth, a bleakly hilarious portrait of peasants in a village dominated by pigs, potatoes, and endless rain, is a giddy parody aimed at those who would romanticize Gaelic culture. A naïve young orphan narrates the deadpan farce The Hard Life, and The Dalkey Archive is an outrageous satiric fantasy featuring a mad scientist who uses relativity to age his whiskey, a policeman who believes men can turn into bicycles, and an elderly, bar-tending James Joyce.