Tag Archives: Flann O’Brien

The Third Policeman

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Third Policeman [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Flann O’Brien, introduction by Denis Donoghue.

O'Brien The Third Policeman

I am puzzled by the jacket copy on the John F. Byrne Irish Literature Series edition of The Third Policeman, which calls it a “brilliant comic novel.” Surely, this story is dark as dark can be, and portrays a tragedy with exacting, clinical detail. The tale is in fact profoundly absurd, and checkered with the narrator’s preoccupation with a perverse body of scholarship surrounding a narcoleptic alchemist. But that’s bicycling for you.

To experience the full effect of this novel, I recommend avoiding advance glosses of the plot, although the plot is really only a fraction of the value of reading it, but this plot is reeled out in an unusual and impressive manner. Moreover, such glosses tend to have inaccuracies, like the jacket copy’s misconception that the “narrator … is introduced to … de Selby’s view that the earth is not round but ‘sausage-shaped'” while at the police station, when in fact he has clearly done his exhaustive study of de Selby long before.

The 1999 introduction by Denis Donoghue insists on quoting a piece of a letter from author Flann O’Brien to William Saroyan, in which the ending of the book is perfectly spoiled. This same letter excerpt also appears at the end of the book, having been appended by the editors at the original (posthumous) 1967 publication, apparently in the belief that readers might need this assistance after failing to comprehend what they had read, despite it being as plainly put as possible. Donoghue’s introduction is otherwise worth reading (after the novel), with its brief biography of O’Brien (pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan) and a debatable attempt to classify the book as Menippean satire.

But the real attraction of this book is the wonderful language, which alternates among three modes. There are artful descriptions of imponderables. “The silence in the room was so unusually quiet that the beginning of it seemed rather loud when the utter stillness of the end of it had been encountered” (105). There are careful reviews of academic argumentation. “His conclusion was that ‘hammering is anything but what it appears to be’; such a statement, if not open to explicit refutation, seems unnecessary and unenlightening” (144-5 n). And there are personal encounters featuring ambivalent dialogues in spare and careful language. “And as I went upon my way I was slightly glad that I had met him” (49).

The book is organized into twelve chapters. If these reflect an esoteric infrastructure such as astrological houses, I haven’t persuaded myself so. The pace of the prose is fast, even if the pace of events described is sometimes so slow as to be entirely immobile. The Third Policeman had been on my virtual TBR pile for many years, and my actual one for some months, when I finally read it in a matter of a few days. Alas, I may read it again!

At Swim-Two-Birds

Hermetic Library fellow John Eberly reviews At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien.

Flann O'Brien At Swim-Two-Birds

“Flann O’Brien” is one of several nom de plume’s of Irish writer Brian O’Nolan, best unknown by most for his 1939 masterpiece of experimental fiction At Swim-Two-Birds. Cited by Time magazine as one of the best 100 English language novels between 1923 and 2005, both book and author remain virtually undiscovered by the mainstream. Sometimes associated with the later “Angry Young Men” movement in Irish literature and J.P. Donleavy’s novel The Ginger Man, in reality, they are vastly different in style and tone to O’Brien’s oeuvre. At Swim-Two-Birds has also been compared to James Joyce, however, O’Nolan was once quoted as saying “I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob.” It may be that the only thing these authors really have in common is Ireland itself. At Swim-Two-Birds brims with Irish tradition and folklore. Indeed, in many ways it may be the most “Irish” novel anyone –including Joyce- has ever written. The story revolves around a young man attending college who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel. What the college writer and the writer he writes about have most in common is that neither of them seem to be able to get out of bed. Living with his long-suffering uncle while occasionally attending classes and drinking sessions with his friends at various pubs, the unnamed student lets the characters in his novel come to life in order to rival the plot expectations of his somnambulist author/main character. Along the way, we meet the Pooka (remember the movie Harvey with Jimmy Stewart? This is a different type of Pooka!) MacPhellimey, “a member of the devil class,” as well as legendary Mad King Sweeney, and many other colorful folk as three different stories emerge and eventually converge. This is brilliant satire as opposed to parody of traditional mores and literary forms. A master at creating literary conundrums of his own, Jorge Luis Borges said at the time of At Swim-Two-Birds initial publication, “I have enumerated many verbal labyrinths, but none so complex as the recent book by Flann O’Brien.” Full of humor and intelligence, At Swim-Two-Birds is an unforgettable reading experience. [via]