on 5 July 2009
I bought this after stumbling across the synopsis of The Third Policeman on the net, I was intrigued and bought the collected works as this was only a little more expensive than the paperback edition of that one novel. Unique, witty and clever while remaining completely accessible and fun, these stories surpassed my expectations and no doubt will bear repeated readings. I generally prefer paperbacks because I can stuff them onto crowded shelves and lend them out with little thought, but I was very pleased with the exceptional quality of the paper and binding which together with the incredible writing make this is a book to treasure. Highly recommended!
on 16 January 2009
Absolutely great to have these fine novels in one very fairly priced volume. O'Brien is a comic genius and his wild and unpredictable imaginaton is endlessly entertaining.His baleful and sardonic vision subverts the pretentions and hypocrises of what we thoughtlessly term reality. The 3rd Policeman is an overlooked masterpiece - surrealistic,subtle,inventive,wholely original and haunting. At Swim2birds is the original post-modern manifesto - I don't know where contemporary literature would be without it . O'Brien provides the material for whole generations of imitators . Surely the time has come to acknowledge this colossos of the comic novel.
on 30 July 2011
In a recent international conference some important forces at work in O'Brien's novels were both neutralized into clichés by too much remembering and re-energized by the natural crisis of clichés in a moving world.
O'Brien became, after WW2, or even during it, the skeptical voice of post-modernism. It is true the support of many in 1940 in Ireland for the German Blitz on London was short and badly lived by some. Naturally enough O'Brien used the most Irish trait of Irish literature to build a position for himself in Ireland, viz. black humor so typical since Daniel Defoe, and the cultivation of extreme irrationality that goes back to Bran, Mael Duin and King Sweeney at the time of the crossover from pagan beliefs to Christian faith, vengeance to forgiveness.
O'Brien became an institutionalized voice: the voice of derision, dark humor, skeptical disbelieving beliefs. He never left Ireland and his approach to the world and history is something like: I believe you must disbelieve all beliefs to be able to believe in rational and faithful disbeliefs. You could add some more whorls to that doggy yarn running after its tail. That produces "The Poor Mouth", written in Irish and then translated into English, a novel on the fate of the deepest and most authentic Gaels. It does not contain one single act pf religious belief, cult, rite or whatever. If there is a god it is not religious but a vast and vague belief in its existence as the fuel of the fate that brings absolute alienation to the Gaels, absolute bliss in deprivation, absolute depravation of any vital thing, ecstatic beauty in the inevitable apocalypse that will put an end to this world of want, lack and loss with the supreme form of the same want, lack and loss.
O'Brien worked on stories that have several levels of creativity, one contained in the other, and he tried to make us forget he was the master of it all. He is the first creating author. But "At Swim-Two-Birds" he is telling the story of characters rebelling against their author, of the death sentence they will agree upon against him, pronged and prompted by the thorns of the invading ghost of King Sweeney, supposed to be mad. And we forget that these characters are the characters of two authors. That these two authors are created by a creative writing student who is himself the creation of the first creating author, Flann O'Brien himself. If we forget that the intrusions of King Sweeney are absurd though they are the intrusion of a story that is at the very crossroads that leads from pagan territorial attachment to Christian salvation in punishment and forgiveness.
If we forget that the first creating author is the only real one then what he tells us is forgotten. He tells us that life is nothing but a farce where you are nothing but puppets in the hands of a puppeteer. But the rebellion of the puppets can kill the puppeteer though this one is in the hands of a higher puppeteer who is in fact the one who pulls the strings, and yet that very string puller is himself manipulated by an institution that orders him to create a tale, and even a lot more by the real author who sets this student in this context with that objective. And that is not one iota funny because it is a direct vision of our present mediatic virtual society. Do we have any other existence than to be a persona in a virtual tale that is discarded by some unknown higher entity to the back of that entity's mind, or more certainly to the closest garbage dump and disposal to end as minced "non-entity" in a world where we could be the fodder of eternity.
But O'Brien goes so much further in his "Third Policeman". All life is nothing but the imagining - by an author - of the adventures of a man after his accidental but well deserved death. In that vision nothing is true, nothing exists and this vision is not even a phantasm, or the erection of a sausage phallic symbol into the fair companion of the mechanical sexless illusion of movement and life that a bicycle may be. We are then totally empty of everything, even the famous unconscious Id or Es of any de Selby surrogate you may think of. Life is a big laugh and that is tragic. The only thing we can do is laugh AT it and eventually give up the illusion and move away into the shadow of a sheltering shadow.
"The Hard Life" will surprise you by its deeply Dickensian realism, slightly out of place with O'Brien. At the same time it is the only novel in which he clearly speaks of the Catholic church, though maybe marginally as the educating institution used to prepare the kids in this novel both hardly-scarcely and hardly-brutally to their future real hard life. It is fun in a way to get into a bleak atmosphere of a melodramatic situation turned into a tragicomic adventure.
So this author makes people laugh because it is ludic, if not ludicrous, but in fact we should revisit him as a deep, bleak, dark, black, tragic drama that has no happy ending because it has no end, no objective, no target. Life is nothing but a trap in which we have no say. So let's have a laugh. Isn't that the most superb illusion of all, the illusionary laugh at an illusionary fate in an illusionary non-existing world that is not even mental in any meaning of the word because we have no mind.
Seen and read like that, Flann O'Brien is not comical, has no humor, is perfectly tragic, because life is tragic and to laugh at it is the only outlet, compensation and exudative escape for our deeply sick and both retarded and deranged minds.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU