Germán Asensio Peral
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Creative Commons 4.0 by Germán Asensio Peral. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Edited by Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan and John McCourt.

Cork: Cork University Press, 2017. 330 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-78205-230-2


Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority purports to examine the concept of authority as applied to Irish writer Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen. In their Introduction, the editors advance the volume’s intention “to make a pitch for a mode of inquiry more finely attuned to the multifacetedness and prodigality of the writer’s riotous imagination in its own inveterate questioning of fixed positions and commonplaces” (9). Furthermore, the introduction traces O’Nolan’s history of both authoritarian, mock-authoritarian and anti-authoritarian rhetoric throughout his oeuvre, starting with Blather (the short-lived journal co-founded in 1934 with his brother Ciarán and lifelong friend Niall Sheridan), to his long-lasting Irish Times column Cruiskeen Lawn (1940-1966), noting his “knack for dissecting the spurious authorities of institutions” (6) and his ability to write “against the weight of received wisdoms [and] inherited sureties” (8). The volume is thus arranged in a thematic way; divided into three heterogeneous parts, each with five individual chapters thematically resonant with each part as a whole.

The volume’s opening section, “‘neither popular nor profitable’: O’Nolan vs. The Plain People” pits O’Nolan’s work against the popular and common, thus magicking him away from the elevated modernist and post-modernist pedestal where he normally stands under the eyes of academic scrutiny. Carol Taaffe’s essay opens the section by building on her seminal Ireland Through the Looking-glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate (2008) by displacing him from a generally perceived status as a self-appointed knight of the Dublin intelligentsia, conversely remarking his “instinct to orientate himself towards the daily press rather than the world of the limited edition” (33). She sees Blather, Cruiskeen Lawn and the pieces published in The Bell as challenges to Ireland’s social and cultural conservatism of the mid-twentieth century. Taaffe argues that these are examples of O’Nolan’s democratic, therefore anti-authoritarian, energies as a writer, and are, in turn translated into never-ending dialogue with the public sphere. In the same vein, Maebh Long’s chapter makes a compelling case to see some of O’Nolan’s works – Blather, Cruiskeen Lawn and his plays and teleplays – as predominantly engaged with Irish popular culture. She contends that O’Nolan wields rather than discards cliché in an attempt to show that “the stereotype has so long interacted with national and international senses of Irish identity that the real was always contaminated, and O’Nolan is authentically representing the already inauthentic” (49). Consequently, these works can be understood as openly criticizing how post-independence Ireland bizarrely embraced the Wildean notion of life imitating art, thus concluding that Irish identity was partly driven to performance and inauthenticity. Maria Kager switches the focus to the linguistic realm but retains the interest in the popular sphere by examining O’Nolan’s representation of Irish localisms, clichés, poor or ungrammatical language and accents in the early bilingual or multilingual Cruiskeen Lawn columns. By employing neurolinguistics and psycholinguistics as a theoretical background, Kager interestingly brings to the fore how O’Nolan’s bilingualism might have resulted in heightened metalinguistic awareness. Similarly, Catherine Flynn expands on O’Nolan’s multilingual interests while adding a pinch of the political to the mix. In her illuminating essay, Flynn addresses a set of Irish-language Cruiskeen Lawn columns dealing with the role of Japan in the Second World War and discloses O’Nolan’s intention to indicate the existence of political and linguistic similarities between Japan and Ireland through what she shrewdly terms as “an aesthetics of the half-said” (72). She notes that the attention devoted to Japan in Cruiskeen Lawn served to “lead readers to consider the position of Ireland in world politics, while offering oblique commentary on the Irish state’s own territorial policies, all the while evading strict wartime press censorship” (72). Katherine Ebury closes the section with an intriguing essay on O’Nolan and the popularization of science – Einstein’s physics in particular – through the figures of Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans, who were prone to literary allusions to bodily distortions so as to make explanations more accessible and closer to popular religious views. Ebury looks at O’Nolan’s Cruiskeen Lawn, The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive and observes the changing dynamics of O’Nolan’s reception, and the reversion to the authority posed by said popularizations by comparing the representation of bodily distortions in these works. She concludes “O’Nolan treats self-critique by Jeans and Eddington, and equally their attempts to reconcile science and faith, as material for satire” (102).

Part II, “Mixed Inks: O’Nolan vs. his Peers” situates O’Nolan in the context of twentieth-century writing, both Irish and European, and offers well-thought comparisons with local and international authors writing in English, Irish and Italian. Dirk Van Hulle’s essay on the models of cognition depicted in works by Joyce, Beckett and O’Nolan challenges more typical assessments of O’Nolan’s work as a postmodernist. He nests The Third Policeman and “John Duffy’s Brother” inside a “continuum between modernism and late modernism” (118) due to their performance of what he terms as Umwelt research; that is, studying how organisms perceive their surroundings. For Van Hulle, the use of the Umwelt model in these novels is evidence of O’Nolan being halfway between Joyce’s modernism and Beckett’s late modernism. Ronan Crowley diverts attention towards the Irish Revival and O’Nolan’s protean qualities in terms of his use of pseudonyms. Traditionally, the Irish Revival has been read as an inherently anti-modernist movement, a notion that could be induced from O’Nolan’s satire-clad thoughts on the Revival. By overviewing the Revival’s literary bloodline and its constant recourse to pseudonymity, Crowley argues that O’Nolan is deeply nested in the Revival tradition precisely because of his creation of many literary personas. He convincingly suggests that “rather than the mugging of the funny-man, his practice of employing pseudonyms should be recognized as part of a dialectic internal to the broader Revival” (134-135). Next, R. W. Malsen puts forth a comparative study between James Stephen’s The Crock of Gold (1912) and O’Nolan’s The Third Policeman. He expertly detects the political undercurrents running through both texts, and advances his argument that O’Nolan turns the amiable and hopeful post-independence Irish utopia of Stephen’s novel into a dismal metaphor of an Ireland infected by the authoritarian political trends played out in Germany and Italy. Most importantly, Malsen notes “O’Nolan’s decision . . . to redraft Stephen’s book in the context of the nationalist ferment that preceded the Second World War can itself be seen as a political act” (137). Ian Ó Caoimh’s essay examines the incongruities between Ciarán Ó Nuallain’s Óige an Dearthár .i. Myles na gCopaleen (1973), Anthony Cronin’s biography No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (1989) and the representation of the Gaeltacht in O’Nolan’s An Béal Bocht (1941) and Irish mythology and folklore in At Swim-Two-Birds. Ó Caoimh’s meticulous examination of Cronin’s translation of certain passages from Ciarán’s biographical account reveals that they were mistranslated or misinterpreted, noting that “clearly, Cronin’s translation from Ciarán’s Irish source tends towards the baroque” (161). John McCourt’s essay closes the section with a close examination of The Hard Life and the chapters that cover Collopy, Father Fahrt and Manus’ trip to Rome. McCourt takes up the theme of squalor, which is central to the novel, and suggests that O’Nolan used it as a platform from which to make fun of literary and religious authority while acknowledging that “the reality is that its confrontation with authority – clerical and lay – is underpowered” (171).

Part III is titled “Gross Impieties: O’Nolan vs. the Sacred Texts”. This final section of the volume concerns O’Nolan’s debunking, deconstruction or whimsical alteration of the authorities of the past. Louis de Paor’s opening essay delves into O’Nolan’s university years and his MA thesis on nature in Irish poetry, with the aim of determining to what extent did early Gaelic literature and contemporary translations of crucial Irish language texts influence both his bilingualism and future writing. De Paor considers their relationship to bilingualism to exemplify Roland Barthes’ notion of ‘unalienated language’ – “The dream of an unalienated language is a defining element of Brian Ó Nualláin’s writing, intensified by his knowledge of pre-colonial Gaelic Irish literature and his own ambiguous relationship with the Irish language” (203). Alana Gillespie’s fascinating essay sheds new light on At Swim-Two-Birds and The Dalkey Archive by drawing on theories of tradition and the past by Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida. She examines how O’Nolan’s novels both deconstruct and redesign myths, sacred texts and received narratives while at the same time reaffirming the presence and duty of the reader: “O’Nolan calls attention to authors’ and readers’ shared responsibility to sift, choose and reaffirm, to inhabit a narrative willfully” (218). Ruben Borg continues the trend of signaling O’Nolan’s simultaneously modernist and traditionalist discourse by summoning the conversion of Paul the Apostle as a context in which to understand the ambiguities at the heart of his literary identification. He pinpoints the death-in-life motif in The Dalkey Archive, Cruiskeen Lawn and “Two in One” and Paul’s paradoxical neither/nor-but-both-at-once attitude towards the persecution of Christians and Christianity. Borg marks O’Nolan’s “invention of a new way of being the world … by which one belongs to and sets oneself apart from the authority of the past” (229). Dieter Fuchs takes a well-trodden direction with his essay on The Dalkey Archive and its Menippean satirical elements. The essay overviews the Menippean tradition and reads O’Nolan’s last completed novel as a satire in which Mick resists and overcomes religious, philosophical, artistic, scientific and administrative authority but is confronted at the end with an impending brand of matriarchal authority. In truly Menippean fashion, Fuchs contemplates the conclusion of the book in an open-ended way – “a reading of O’Nolan’s book results in the Socratic insight that all that one knows is that one knows that one knows nothing” (241). Tamara Radak’s chapter closes the collection with a thought-provoking dissection of the use of footnotes in The Third Policeman and their distortion of temporal, spatial and narrative “authorities”. Supported by a solid critical background (Deleuze, Todorov, hypertext theory and possible worlds theory), she sees the novel’s flashing and intentionally confusing hypertexts as the source of “multiple pathways that lead to different possible worlds as well as a surplus of possible meanings that can never be completely exhausted” (254).

Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority is overall an invigorating, thematically sound book. Its scope is ample enough to cover a wide swath of O’Nolan’s work (including as yet unchartered waters such as his MA Thesis and Blather), even though the book could have benefitted from dedicated study of O’Nolan’s plays and teleplays on a number of occasions, most notably in Parts I and II. While it was partly inspired by the proceedings of Problems with Authority: The II International Flann O’Brien Conference, held at Università Roma Tre in 2013, the essays that compose the collection are nevertheless critically up-to-date and follow consistently the current trend of O’Nolan studies kickstarted during the early 2010s with the founding of the International Flann O’Brien Society and the plethora of book-length contributions and academic articles on the author to have appeared in recent decades.