on 25 August 2004
The Hard Life is generally acknowledged as being one of O'Brien's lesser works. The interesting introduction to the book says so itself. This is less surreal than O'Brien's other books too. Actually, that's a very strange thing to say about a story in which a man goes to Rome to visit the Pope in order to enlist his help to get ladies public lavoratories built in Dublin. And then there's "the brother" - a pamphlet-writing scam-artist, who appears to be walking on thin air. Or is he?
There's an hilarious serious of whiskey-fuelled arguments between a jesuit priest and Collopy the grass roots Irish Catholic.
Just like with Father Ted (the brilliant channel four TV series that owes a debt to O'brien) you don't need to be Irish or a Catholic (I'm neither) to enjoy this very funny book. But it probably helps.
There's also a brief, unexpected romantic subplot involving Finbarr, the narrator, and Penelope, the sister of one of his card-playing buddies. It's all the more sweet for staying in the background.
All in all a very good (if unsual) laugh.
Note: it's about 150 pages long, quite big print. Took me an evening to finish and I'm not a particularly fast reader.
In the final years of his life O'Brien decided to go back to writing and this is one of the effects. A fairly slim novella on hard times, set in the turn of the century (19th and 20th) Dublin with two orphan brothers reaching maturity under the care of a busy (in his thoughts mainly) Dubliner. The book can be funny at times but generally it lacks a clear direction. Is it a veiled criticism of the Catholic Church? If so, it is so veiled the Church failed to notice as O'Brien allegedly hoped for a censorship ban on the book.
If you fell for At Swim-Two-Birds and need more O'Brien you may try it but keep your hopes low. If this is your first O'Brien ever you better move to At Swim-Two-Birds or The Third Policeman as soon as you can and rest assured you will not regret it. Last but not least - if the combination of "Ireland", "children" and "hard times" makes you think of Angela's Ashes you can't be more wrong in this case.
on 15 May 2002
Flaan O Brien's last novel is one of his finest. Flaan was perhaps the greatest Irish author to ever be seen round these parts or any other for that matter (Yes, that includes Joyce). His blinding genius flows through this book and his others (The Poor Mouth, The Third Policeman, The Dalkey Archives, At Swim Two Birds)like a fine glasheen of whiskey.
This simple tale concerns two orphans who are brought up in the care of their eccentric uncle and his poorly wife. It is told with the greatest of economy and never lags for a second. Highlights include an interview with the pope, high-wire walking and Flaan's persistent heretic nature.
The Hard Life would make excellent beach or travel reading this summer and is a book you will return to time and again...
on 23 December 2007
Not just one of Flann O'Brien's lesser books but one of the lesser books in the Western canon generally, The Hard Life was written in an attempt to get itself banned. According to Anthony Cronin's biography, O'Brien deliberately set out to write something so sordid and blasphemous that it would get put on the banned list and so promote its own sales. He failed, and managed to turn out something that lovers of good writing (such as his own earlier books) should quietly ignore. Flatulent prose meets feeble attempts at outrage (the big joke of the book is that a priest has the name Father Kurt Fahrt), the whole thing being laced with rancid misogyny (when the hero is faced with the prospect of marriage to the lacklustre serving girl, his only response is to throw up).
O'Brien wrote nothing good after the early 1940s, and it's a shame that fidelity to his memory has led to these novels being promoted as if they are on the same level of achievement as the masterly Third Policeman and Poor Mouth. (I personally believe that At Swim-Two-Birds is a mere student effort.) If you love his writing, avoid this.
on 15 August 2008
Flann O'Brien's second-last novel (his last was actually 'The Dalkey Archive', fact fans) is a hungover, witless, sloppy disgrace. The genius that created the glittering fireworks of At Swim-Two-Birds, the savage wit of An Béal Bocht and the mysterious gargoyles of The Third Policeman is entirely missing in this book, which was written as a cynical attempt to get itself banned by the Catholic censors. O'Brien hoped that by doing so, his reputation might recover. It didn't work, except in the eyes of people who think he can do no wrong. 'The Hard Life' is an ugly, boring, misogynistic exercise in lame satire, and it's to be regretted that O'Brien went on to write the equally dull and bad 'The Dalkey Archive' instead of just giving up fiction completely. In the meantime, avoid this blot on the career of a once great writer; if you want to have fun, read either his first three novels or any of the collections of his journalism.