The Hard Life
by Flann O’Brien
Scribner, UK, 2003
It is not that I half knew my mother. I knew half of her:
the lower half ...
Thus the opening lines of The Hard Life, and immediately the reader knows where he is. He settles himself on the sofa, stretches forth his legs (the more willingly to have them pulled): he’s in Flann O’Brien land, where everything is reasoned and logical, and nothing is ever as it should be. It’s a queer land of unlikely contrasts: of precision and extravagance (the one often born of the other); of squalor and fantasy (or, more correctly, of squalid fantasy and fantastical squalor); of pedantry and wit. It’s a place of outlandish invention, where books can have as many beginnings as they choose, where footnotes present a parallel but unconnected narrative, where a reformed James Joyce pens devout religious tracts, and romance is a man’s love for his bicycle. The reader may know well where he is, but he can have no idea at all where he’s going.
Flann O’Brien was the soubriquet of Brian O’Nolan. That personage was born in Strabane (now in the Six Counties) in 1911, joined the Irish Civil Service in 1935, rising to the exalted rank of Principal Officer for Town Planning; and died in Dublin in 1966. But as Flann O’Brien he has a far more intriguing biography. Flann is a prankster, a wag, a boozer. He’s ageless, he’s Irish for sure, but he comes from no identifiable county or town. Flann is a writer: he wears a black hat. His novels range from the 1939 classic, At Swim-Two-Birds, to The Third Policeman, published posthumously in 1967. But the oddest thing about Flann O’Brien (soubriquet of Brian O’Nolan) is that Flann had a pseudonym himself: Myles na Gopaleen. Under this guise he wrote his wonderful whimsical satirical column, the Cruiskeen Lawn, for the Irish Times newspaper.
It is not to be expected that a man with so many names can be Gradgrinded into easy facts. This is manifestly true of his publishing history. His last published work, The Third Policeman, was actually written in 1940. Skip 20 years to 1961 and we come to the present volume, The Hard Life, followed in 1964 by The Poor Mouth, subtitled “A Bad Story About the Hard Life”. But The Poor Mouth had first seen light of day as An Béal Bocht in 1941, an Irish-language skit on Irish-language revivalism. That same year, 1964, brought us The Dalkey Archive which is a sequel or a prequel, or an embellishment or a reduction of, or at any rate a return to, the as-yet-unpublished Third Policeman. Is there any sense to made of all this? Well, perhaps, if we take it slowly.
At Swim-Two-Birds had issued upon a world somewhat preoccupied with the outbreak of WW2. It sold perhaps three hundred copies, but with the support of luminaries such as Graham Greene in London and James Joyce in Paris, it began to be thought a ‘critical success’ – that happy formula for any aspiring writer. Critical success, to be convincing, must adumbrate an actual success. Flann O’Brien believed he had provided for this in 1940 when he completed the manuscript of The Third Policeman. Ironically, for it is now his most widely-read novel, it was rejected by the London publishers. For the rest of his life, Flann or Brian or Myles (whichever he currently was) excused the non-appearance of this masterpiece by the disappearance of its manuscript, variously explaining to his drinking cronies that he had lost it in a pub or mislaid it on a train. The fobbery of lost manuscripts is the stuff of Dublin legend: but this particular manuscript was found, after the author’s death, on a sideboard in his home where it had lain apparently undisturbed and in daily view for 26 years, a mocking reminder of the London houses’ rejection – of a masterpiece, and of him, too, as its author, we may presume.
He turned to journalism (or more correctly, columnism), and over the next twenty years, as Myles na Gopaleen, he was the scourge of pretension throughout Ireland. The humour of the Cruiskeen Lawn column – its running jokes, invention, the sheer hilarity of it – compels our admiration. (Half a dozen volumes of collection and selection are now available.) But we cannot but regret the brilliance of the early novels.
Until the Sixties, the world’s opinion of Flann O’Brien, novelist, was that he was a failure. It comes as a surprise that Brian O’Nolan, personage, shared this opinion, propagated it even. He dismissed At Swim-Two-Birds as “mere juvenilia”. As late as 1964, in an interview on Irish radio, he was calling it “that damn book”, and insisting “I cannot express my detestation” for it. This is all the more remarkable for in 1960 At Swim-Two-Birds had been reissued to mass critical acclaim. It was recognized immediately as a modern classic. It even became a “seller”. But in Flann O’Brien we look in vain for that confidence and conviction which seem so necessary a part of the writer’s armour; the curmudgeonly assurance of one’s ultimate worth in the face of the world’s cold shoulder. All we find, really, is the curmudgeonliness. For twenty years the world had insisted on the failed brilliance of his first novel: he was damned if now, at the world’s whim, he was to revise that view.
But the 1960 republication of At Swim-Two-Birds did have one important effect. It stirred him to try his hand at a new novel. That new novel, first published in 1961, is the current work, The Hard Life, subtitled “An Exegesis of Squalor”.
It was written quickly over a period of two months. At first glance it contains all the usual O’Brien themes: pedantic conversations, bizarre preoccupations; humour amidst the squalor; myth (the fool visiting the Pope is a very old tale); insistence on disease and the curiosity of scientific fact. It’s a male world, avuncular, fraternal, where maternity seems no more than an accident of birth. The narrative, too, is familiar: slangish and sesquipedalian by turns, fussy and fluid. Deeper down, there’s the sense that words have in some way become separated from use, that language itself is creaky and ill-used, requiring constant lubrication (here provided by Mr Collopy’s ever-present jug). There’s the outlandish fantasy, but it says something of the oeuvre that a novel which culminates in a papal audience on the topic of, ahem, ladies’ conveniences, should be the least fantastical of O’Brien’s books.
But there are anomalies, too. The overlying sense is rather of restraint than innovation. Manus is an ineffectual narrator, and he’s entirely incidental to the plot. There are plot-holes: would the brother really have invited Collopy to Rome? There’s even a plot, with a whimper of an ending. It’s possible to read the novel as an attempt at realism, a turning away from the early works, as though the personage O’Nolan were bringing the modernist O’Brien to heel. As such, The Hard Life fails magnificently. Modernism will out. Who, after all, but Flann O’Brien would write an historical novel entirely devoid of history?
Seemingly, O’Brien entertained a hope of the book being banned in Ireland. Censorship was still rigorously in force in 1961. All the great Irish prose-writers (save, oddly, Joyce) had been banned at some point in their careers. The “banned book” had become the ultimate proof, without which no Irish writer could truly be said to have arrived. Unfortunately for O’Brien the Censorship of Publications Act proscribed literature only on grounds of obscenity (which at the time included, bizarrely, the advocacy of contraception). O’Brien never approached sexual matters in his writing. Even romance is rare, and only when the love-object is a bicycle – as in The Third Policeman – is there any hint of ardour in his characters. True, The Hard Life has its smattering of loose living and venereal consequence, but these references are couched in a language so rarefied (“Lymphogranuloma Venereum”) as to render them hilarious and wholly invisible to the stuffed collars of a censorship board. Obscenity?
No, O’Brien’s hopes rested on the clerical matter, as though the censorship board should make an exception in his case. The family priest is named Father Fahrt. The conversations between that cleric and Mr Collopy provide the comic highlights of the book. All is urbane, gentlemanly, suave; the whiskey jug goes gently down; while Collopy assails without let the priest’s Jesuit order. To the non-Irish reader this might be thought scandalous, a plot nicely contrived to ruffle priestly feathers. But the Irish reader merely smiles, as (so it turned out) did the board of censors. The portrait of Father Fahrt is rather endearing than irreverent. It comes in a long line of endearing portraits of fatherly Irish priests.
And in Mr Collopy’s “argufying of religion” there is at least as much tribute as satire. Much of the comedy is in the futility of the dispute. At no point does Mr Collopy expect or even desire to convince the priest. The object of his argument is never the search for truth: it is the display of words, facts, dates. And to the Catholic mindset of the period, this was exactly what argument was for: to be scholastic, punctilious, ultimately futile. We may suspect, of O’Nolan at least, that he preferred things that way.
But the comedy remains, the invention, the language, the meticulous portrait of genteel Dublin, all parlour and kitchen-range; the rain. Consider this: “The murmured Latin at the graveside seemed to make the weather worse.” There’s a wistfulness here not often encountered in O’Brien.
The business of a master-writer is the writing of masterpieces. But all writers nod. Compared to the early fireworks of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, this inevitably is a lesser work. But it remains the work of a genius, and should be read as such.