Oversight of the Month

Confronted by all sorts of anniversaries this month: the centennial of California’s much-overexercised initiative system; the centennial of women’s suffrage in California; the twentieth anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills fire disaster; the twenty-second anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake; the twenty-fifth of Bill Buckner’s Error; the eighth of Steve Bartman catching hell; the five hundred ninety-sixth of the Battle of Agincourt (despite what Henry V said, I don’t feel accursed or hold my manhood cheap for not being there).

But there’s one I overlook every year: the birthday on October 5 of Brian O’Nolan, better known to many as Flann O’Brien or Myles na gCopaleen (that last name, O’Nolan’s Irish pseudonym for his long-running Irish Times column, is pronounced GAHP-a-lean, and the pseudonym is supposed to mean “Myles of the Little Horses.” Why “the Little Horses”? I cannot tell you).

It’s especially annoying to have missed his birth this time around: O’Nolan/O’Brien was born one hundred years ago this month. I have not time now to indulge in offering a passage of his work. My favorite has long been “At Swim-Two-Birds,” which has been featured at many a St. Patrick’s Day reading; I’d also recommend his collected newspaper columns (reprinted in “The Best of Myles” and other volumes) and the nightmarish “The Third Policeman” as well. Here are a couple decent posts that give some insight into his work and who he was:

Slate: “Why Flann O’Brien Is So Funny

A fan’s blog post: “Flann O’Brien Centennial

BBC Radio 4: “The Man with Many Names

Guest Observation: Jem Casey

In honor of the day. From Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds,” whence this comes, and where it might be better appreciated in context.

Workman’s Friend (or, A Pint of Plain)

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –

When money’s tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say that you need a change,

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –

In times of trouble and lousy strife,
You still have got a darlint plan,
You still can turn to a brighter life –

“… There’s one thing in that pome, permanence, if you know what I mean. That pome, I mean to say, is a pome that’ll be heard wherever the Irish race is wont to gather, it’ll live as long as there’s a hard root of an Irishman left by the Almighty on this planet, mark my words.”

Finn and His People

In honor of the day:


(from “At Swim-Two-Birds,” by Flann O’Brien)

“… Finn Mac Cool, a hero of old Ireland, came out before me from his shadow, Finn the wide-hammed, the heavy-eyed, Finn that could spend a Lammas morning with girdled girls at far-from-simple chess play. …

“Too great was he for standing. The neck to him was as the bole of a great oak, knotted and seized together with muscle-humps and carbuncles of tangled sinew, the better for good feasting and contending with the bards. The chest to him was wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs. The arms to him were like the necks of beasts, ball-swollen with their bunched-up brawnstrings and blood-veins, the better for harping and hunting and contending with the bards. Each thigh to him was to the thickness of a horse’s belly, narrowing to a green-veined calf to the thickness of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was wide enough to halt the march of warriors through a mountain-pass.”

His People

“… Relate then the attributes that are to Finn’s people. …”

“I will relate, said Finn.

“Till a man has accomplished twelve books of poetry, the same is not taken for want of poetry but is forced away. No man is taken till a black hole is hollowed in the world to the depth of his two oxters and he put into it to gaze from it with his lonely head and nothing to him but his shield and a stick of hazel. Then must nine warriors fly their spears at him, one with the other and together. If he be spear-holed past his shield, or spear-killed, he is not taken for want of shield-skill. No man is taken till he is run by warriors through the woods of Erin with his hair bunched-loose about him for bough-tangle and briar-twitch. Should branches disturb his hair or pull it forth like sheep-wool on a hawthorn, he is not taken but is caught and gashed. Weapon-quivering hand or twig-crackling foot at full run, neither is taken. Neck-high sticks he must pass by vaulting, knee-high sticks by stooping. With the eyelids to him stitched to the fringe of his eye-bags, he must be run by Finn’s people through the bogs and marshes of Erin with two odorous prickle-backed hogs ham-tied and asleep in the seat of his hempen drawers. If he sink beneath a peat-swamp or lose a hog, he is not accepted of Finn’s people. For five days he must sit on the brow of a cold hill with twelve-pointed stag-antlers hidden in his seat, without food or music or chessmen. If he cry out or eat grass-stalks or desist from the constant recital of sweet poetry and melodious Irish, he is not taken but wounded. … One hundred head of cattle he must accommodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men or Erin, or he is unknown to Finn. …”

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Slainte, Brian/Flann/Myles

A day late and almost moreso, let me say "happy birthday" to one of the billions of our fellow earthlings who can no longer appreciate it. But unlike nearly all of those, this one — Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen (note to judy b: that gC combo is, for once, not a typo) — has occasioned uncounted hours of literary fun and amazement to uncounted masses, but most importantly to me and my friends.

He — Brian O’Nolan, who later became those other fellows — was born 94 years ago yesterday in Ireland somewhere. Through the usual peculiar circumstances of genius and screwed-up upbringing and abusive strait-laced education, he produced many thousands, or hundreds of thousands of pleasing words. In his mid-20s, he produced a novel that was a send-up of Joyce, modernist fiction and literary experimentation, Irish mythology and classic poetry, and, probably, people like me. The novel is called "At Swim-Two-Birds," and has gained enough currency that, well, it’s still in print. His second novel, "The Third Policeman," has built enough of a reputation that no less than the University of California at Berkeley, my current and no doubt temporary paycheck provider, has placed it more than once on its unofficial summer reading list. (For O’Nolan/O’Brien’s part, he reportedly became so upset by early rejection of this manuscript that, in reflecting on the nature of his story, he attempted to destroy it as sacrilegious).

There will be a centennial in six years’ time, with many tributes to one of the half- (or two-thirds-) recognized geniuses of 20th century letters. Until then, you might entertain yourself with — with what? With this short passage from "At Swim-Two-Birds":

"… The stout was of superior quality, soft against the tongue but sharp upon the orifice of the throat, softly efficient in its magical circulation through the conduits of the body. Half to myself, I said:

Do not let us forget that I have to buy “Die Harzreise.” Do not let us forget that.

“Harzreise,” said Brinsley. There is a house in Dalkey called Heartrise.

Brinsley then put his dark chin on the cup of a palm and leaned in thought on the counter, overlooking his drink, gazing beyond the frontier of the world.

What about another jar? said Kelly.

Ah, Lesbia, said Brinsley. The finest thing I ever wrote, How many kisses, Lesbia, you ask would serve to sate this hungry love of mine?–As many as the Libyan sands that bask along Cyrene’s shore where pine-trees wave, where burning Jupiter’s untended shrine lies near to old King Battus’ sacred grave:

Three stouts, called Kelly.

Let them be endless as the stars at night, that stare upon the lovers in a ditch–so often would love-crazed Catullus bite your burning lips, that prying eyes should not have power to count, nor evil tongues bewitch, the frenzied kisses that you gave and got.

Before we die of thirst, called Kelly, will you bring us three more stouts. God, he said to me, it’s in the desert you’d think we were.

That’s good stuff, you know, I said to Brinsley. A picture came before my mind of the lovers at their hedge-pleasure in the pale starlight, no sound from them, his fierce mouth burying into hers.

Bloody good stuff, I said.

Kelly, invisible to my left, made a slapping noise.

The best I ever drank, he said.

As I exchanged an eye-message with Brinsley, a wheezing beggar inserted his person at my side and said:

Buy a scapular or a stud, Sir.

This interruption I did not understand. Afterwards, near Lad Lane police station a small man in black fell in with us and tapping me often about the chest, talked to me earnestly on the subject of Rousseau, a member of the French nation. He was animated, his pale features striking in the starlight and his voice going up and falling in the lilt of his argumentum. I did not understand his talk and was personally unacquainted with him. But Kelly was taking in all he said, for he stood near him, his taller head inclined in an attitude of close attention. Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff-colored puke. Many other things happened on that night now imperfectly recorded in my memory but that incident is still very clear to me in my mind. Afterwards the small man was some distance from us in the lane, shaking his divested coat and rubbing it along the wall. He is a little man that the name of Rousseau will always recall to me. …"