At Swim-Two-Birds, 1939
An Béal Bocht, 1941 (pb. in U.S. as The Poor Mouth, 1973)
The Hard Life, 1961
The Dalkey Archive, 1964
The Third Policeman, 1967
Cruiskeen Lawn, 1943
The Best of Myles, 1968
The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman and the Brother, 1976
Myles Away from Dublin, 1985 (selected essays from journal columns)
Stories and Plays, 1973
A Flann O’Brien Reader, 1978
Flann O’Brien had as many names as writing styles. As a novelist, journalist, playwright, critic, and short-story writer, he was known as Myles na Gopaleen, Brother Barnabus, the Great Count O’Blather, John James Doe, and George Knowall. Born Brian O’Nolan in Strabane, Ireland, on October 5, 1911, he was the third of twelve children. Because his father’s job required travel, the O’Nolans moved from Strabane to Dublin several times before they finally settled in Dublin in 1923. It was there that O’Brien began his formal education, a process he found neither challenging nor enjoyable.
His family spoke both Irish and English, and O’Brien was fluent in both languages. As a student at University College, Dublin, he majored in Celtic studies, writing his master’s thesis on modern Irish poetry. During this time, O’Brien also wrote his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. His background in Irish literature profoundly influenced his first novel, often referred to as an antinovel. Although critically acclaimed as a landmark in comic creativity when it was published in 1939, it had little popular success.
After finishing college, O’Brien worked as a civil servant. As Myles na Gopaleen, he also began writing a column for the Irish Times, “The Cruiskeen Lawn.” Despite his busy schedule, by 1940 O’Brien had written The Third Policeman, the tale of a surreal journey through Hell. This novel marks a significant change in his style. He imposes a less convoluted structure on the novel, making the plot easier to follow, and he begins to move away from the literary devices that set At Swim-Two-Birds apart from the mainstream. Nevertheless, he could not convince his publisher that The Third Policeman would be more accessible to a wide audience than his first novel, and a disheartened O’Brien hid the unpublished manuscript, fabricating tales of its loss. It was not published until 1967, after his death.
Despite his disappointment, O’Brien quickly wrote his third novel, this one in Irish. The Poor Mouth, published in Irish in 1941 and eventually translated into English in 1973, is a brilliant parody of a memoir of life in western Ireland’s Gaeltacht region, where the old ways still flourished. Ironically, although he directed the parody at the Gaelic revivalists who idealized the old ways, the revivalists were his main audience, as they were the few who still had an interest in the Irish language.
Discouraged that his novels did not bring him financial success, O’Brien did not write another for twenty years. During the interim he wrote a trio of plays, several short stories, and articles for a variety of publications. Commercial success eluded him, although his column for the Irish Times brought him local fame.
When O’Brien retired from civil service in 1953, he still did not return to novel writing. Instead, in addition to writing “The Cruiskeen Lawn,” he tried his hand at everything from a television play to formula detective stories. Trying to find a more satisfying and dependable way to support himself, he also sought unsuccessfully several positions at Trinity College.
When At Swim-Two-Birds was republished in 1960, it finally brought O’Brien recognition and inspired him to write his last two novels. The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive were nothing like his first three novels. Looking for an audience, O’Brien exchanged the literary traditions he knew best for realism, a tool he had neither the training nor literary spirit to ply skillfully. Despite the weaknesses in these last two novels, O’Brien had finally achieved some popularity when he died of cancer in 1966.
O’Brien established his genius in At Swim-Two-Birds, his satiric, distinctively Irish fantasy that mocks the popular conventions of the realistic novel. He incorporates a multitude of styles, characters, settings, and fictive devices–many drawn directly from Irish literary tradition–in a box-within-a-box narrative. The narrator, a college student, writes about the novelist Dermot Trellis, who impregnates one of his characters, causing her to give birth to a son, Orlick, who is also a writer. By promptly breaking each reality he establishes, the author ridicules the impertinent notion that a writer should try to fool the audience into taking fiction too literally. In one short novel, O’Brien manages to lay bare and make vulnerable the literary devices that writers of realism use to bring fiction to life. In exposing the inner workings of the contemporary realistic novel, O’Brien revels in the very nature of fiction, forcing the reader to join him.
With each novel, O’Brien moved further away from his Irish roots and toward realism. However, because he had already skillfully exposed realism’s mechanisms, revealing modern literary conventions for the tricks they are, his attempts to remask them in the later novels render those works less than convincing.
There has been much speculation about O’Brien’s creative decline. The strain of trying to make a living at his art certainly took its toll. Naill Sheridan, a close friend of O’Brien, suggested that O’Brien’s long career as a journalist may have scattered and drained his energy, leaving him unable to focus on writing seriously. O’Brien also spent much of his later life plagued by increasingly debilitating alcoholism and chronic illness, which blunted his creativity. Although his career did not fulfill the promise of his first novel, appreciative audiences still recognize O’Brien as a writer whose creative genius surfaced often and powerfully, if not consistently.