“Flanneurs,” as devotees of Flann O’Brien are called, were undoubtedly thrilled with last year’s release, from Dalkey Archive Press, of the author’s collected short fiction. Indeed, the book — including the manuscript for an unfinished novel, Slattery’s Sago Saga, a short prose typescript heavily edited by O’Brien himself, and a parody of pulp science-fiction stories which, though published under the mysterious name John Shamus O’Donnell, contains compelling evidence that O’Donnell was yet another of O’Brien’s authorial masks — seems a gold mine for scholars curious about the evolution of that wildly inventive oeuvre. Or fans whose copies of the masterpieces At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman are so well worn they are eager to devour any further discoveries from the vault of O’Brien’s forgotten prose.
But The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien (edited by Neil Murphy & Keith Hopper, with translations by Jack Fennell, 2013) is not of interest only to Flanneurs. Newcomers, unhindered by the compulsion to probe the text for clues or recognizable motifs, will delight in O’Brien’s trademark wit and narrative prowess, on full display in each of the pieces selected for this collection. The introduction from editors Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper, as well as an excellent note from translator Jack Fennell on those pieces originally published in Gaelic, serves to guide aficionados and novices alike through the complexities of O’Brien’s body of work and will surely win more than a few converts to the Flanneurs’ cause. The added benefit of publication notes, citing which of the author’s many pseudonyms served as byline for that particular story, and headnotes originally appearing with the works, further orients the reader through the postmodern labyrinth that is O’Brien’s fictive world.
The book is divided into four principal sections, the first of which contains five stories translated from the Irish. Not only does the translator’s note provide context elucidating the political significance which underlies O’Brien’s decision to write many of his stories in Irish, but it further delves into the various dialects of Gaelic employed by the author and the multitude of narrative tricks — including neologism, puns and clever use of two differing scripts — which mark O’Brien as a brilliant, if not maddening, prose stylist in either language. Fennell admits that his footnotes, in trying to explicate the author’s embedded humor, mar its impact. Nevertheless, these five stories stand out in the entire book as some of the most linguistically playful and subtly trenchant, and Fennell’s translation renders them with painstaking dexterity. O’Brien was, of course, aware of the pitfalls of working between languages: Such was his own personal lot, having been raised bilingual and, for his first few years, hearing nothing but Ulster Gaelic at home, according to the translator’s note. And so, despite the sharp, laugh-out-loud humor coursing through the final English-language text, it is O’Brien who has the last laugh, for his Irish stories are like inside jokes, meant for those whose sensibilities grew out of their shared circumstances as members of an oppressed minority. For the rest of us, uninitiated, we may forever be peeling the onion, savoring what we can of the outer layers but never arriving at the heart.
Of the nine English-language stories, highlights include “Scenes in a Novel,” (published under the name Brother Barnabas); “John Duffy’s Brother,” (Flann O’Brien); and “I’m Telling You No Lie!” (Lir O’Connor). Flanneurs will recognize in these stories many of the same threads running through his novels, but those unfamiliar with At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman can also appreciate them as brief studies into the various modes of storytelling. O’Brien’s obsession with narrative structure and his wholly original skill with metafictional layering are arguably his greatest assets as a writer. Here the reader glimpses him experimenting with the complexities of voice and the storyteller’s authority, his prose, moreover, displaying a musicality which proves these stories are anything but amateur. “Scenes in a Novel” relays an author’s last words as he learns the characters he has created are conspiring to kill him. “John Duffy’s Brother” recounts the story of an unnamed man who decides, in a brief interlude of insanity, that he is a train. “I’m Telling You No Lie!” is a picaresque “memoir” told in response to the Irish Digest’s writing prompt, “A Character I Could Never Forget,” in which the “character” is Lir O’Connor himself. Though it is tempting to view in each piece a plot that gleefully unravels into the absurd, one can hardly ignore the fastidiously tight structure underpinning it: Almost all stories begin with a relation of how the narrator came to learn of the events in question, creating an intricate scaffolding which keeps the author ever-present in the text, even while burying him under layer upon layer of narration. Further, the attentive reader may notice a slightly differing voice underlying each pseudonym, signaling O’Brien’s skill in maneuvering among narrative identities. But beyond these technical considerations, the stories grab the reader instantly, with imaginative premises that never disappoint.
The unfinished novel, Slattery’s Sago Saga, is a bit of a curiosity, which, more than anything, leaves the reader somewhat puzzled. As a novel, the fragment is far too short to discern what O’Brien would have done with it, let alone to engross the reader in its plot. And for O’Brien aficionados it will doubtless seem aberrant next to his other, completed novels. However, it is a valuable piece of writing simply for the strains of historical/cultural satire already apparent. The story centers upon a young Irishman, Tim Hartigan, left in charge of his adopted father’s estate, and the arrival of the father’s new wife, an American of Scotch descent, who dogmatically sets about converting the Irish farmers to sago instead of potatoes.
Appended to the collection are two pieces which shed further light on this elusive author and his writing process. The heavily edited manuscript titled “[For] Ireland Home and Beauty” (the “For” having been added by O’Brien) gives readers a glimpse into the author’s meticulous revisions method, while the final piece, “Naval Control,” a pulp science fiction story published under the name John Shamus O’Donnell, may be of principally critical interest to scholars eager to find a textual basis for an O’Brien provenance, but is, nonetheless, a fascinating study in O’Brien’s sheer versatility. Its amusing plot shows, once again, that skill for parody which marks its probable author’s other works.
Whether you approach this book as a newcomer, a Flanneur, or someone in between, the stories it contains are exemplars of the short-story form. But, perhaps more important, they reveal a concern for the art of storytelling itself — that altogether human compulsion which transcends the particular context of O’Brien as the quintessential Irish modernist. As Brother Barnabas, in the last words of “Scenes in a Novel,” asserts: “I must write!” I was reminded of Flann O’Brien himself, who grew increasingly despondent over critical rejection, yet continued to write, albeit it under myriad authorial disguises, according to Keith Donohue’s introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of Flann O’Brien’s The Complete Novels. How fortunate for readers of every stripe that he did, even if, sometimes, it requires a bit of effort to connect the dots. The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien will stand together with the author’s masterpieces, composing a highly original body of work which has left its indelible mark on all of world literature.