- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

AT WAR

By Flann O’Brien

Edited by John Wyse Jackson

Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95, 191 pages

REVIEWED BY JACK MATTHEWS

How many readers can identify the following — Brian O’Nolan, Flann O’Brien, Myles nagCopaleen? And who among you can pronounce the last? (Let me know if recognizably human sounds can be made of it.)

All three are one man, Brian O’Nolan, who lived from 1911-1966; if you know of him at all, it will almost surely be as Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who gained the praise of another O’Brien, Edna, and of none other than James Joyce.

But identities are tricky business, which O’Nolan/O’Brien (speaking as Myles) acknowledges in the following spasm of high-rhetoric waggery: “What is he, after all? Is he one of those terrene-housed spiritual agglomerates which, for the want of a better term, I call MYSELF?”

The pieces in the volume “At War” were selected by John Wyse Jackson from some 3,000 newspaper columns that appeared in The Irish Times, the first in 1941. This was obviously a labor of love on Mr. Jackson’s part, for of his subject he says, with no attempt at fussy qualification: “He was the funniest writer there was.”

Furthermore, Mr. Jackson conceives of these fugitive pieces as “a hugely original and triumphantly sustained work of art.” Whatever the measure implicit in these sweeping claims, a reader can surely understand the enthusiasm that fires them. The writer in question reinforced the stereotype of an Irishman in his heavy drinking and his off-the-wall wit.

The heavy drinking is often a felt influence in his writing, and in one place Myles refers to “the masculine task of large-scale drunkery.” Then, after deciding that those who would drink whiskey out of a horse trough should be neither despised nor ignored, he contemplates opening an exclusive pub with “dainty jeweled horse troughs.”

Much of the humor involves turning things upside down. Or inside out, or something — anything, providing it’s preposterous. An early piece has Myles na gCopaleen (somebody really should do something about that name) giving an account of his going to the dentist to have a tooth extracted, but “In reality, the whole body is amputated from the tooth.”

No one is spared O’Brien’s runaway japeries, not even the reader; and when he refers to the gentle Elia not as Charles Lamb but as William Hazlitt, it’s enough to afflict all the crossword enthusiasts east or west of Galway with hiccups; only the joke will be on them, for they’re immediately sucker-punched with a footnote saying: “Please do not write to the editor pointing out that William Hazlitt was not Elia. He probably knows.” (That “probably” has a touch of art in it.)

All this energy in and out of focus provides some enormous fun for the reader. Consider this lovely, disgustingly visceral sea scene: “The crazy cook has the door locked, he is bathing his sore foot in the tea. The monstrous sea is belching and squirming with millions of coloured fish and rubber-hued whales in its dirty belly.”

All over the place, Myles is obsessed with puns and cliches — or is it the other way around? “Rome was not built in A.D.,” he wrote, which is probably correct, no matter which way you turn it. And elsewhere, frozen assets are transformed into “frozen acids.”

Then there is this confession: “I am, as you know, an Irish person and yield to gnomon in my admiration and respect for the old land.” (It’s conceivable that an M.A. thesis could be written on that pun; indeed and alas, maybe one has been.)

Not that Myles is hesitant about expressing himself. “My own view,” he says, “is that man has made three things that are perfect [let me here interrupt to ask, who with red blood in his brains could fail to finish reading that sentence?] …the sailing ship, the violin and brandy.”

Myles tells us that people calling at his lodgings often ask if being Irish is itself an art form, but then he slyly tells us that he’s not so sure that the answer could be yes. But we know he’s not so sure it’s not, either. And being Irish could be a full-time occupation, although it must be admitted that it is an occupation that does not always and necessarily lead to the accumulation of great wealth or success in life.

In writing about Flann O’Brien (or whatever his name was), one runs the risk of being infected with the slam-bang joyousness of his style. Consider this splendid sentence Mr. Jackson writes in his introduction, referring, of course, to his subject: “Much given to hiding behind the truth, he is rarely without a mask.”

And so it is with the mask a reviewer feels the compulsion to wear, suspecting that a defiant and utter immunity to such gorgeous nonsense as that found in Flann O’Brien’s writing might well be symptomatic of that most dreadful of afflictions, a dearth of brains, or cerebral paucity.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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