Tuesday, October 05, 2010

`A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man'

We celebrate two Flann O’Brien birthdays this month, a minimally appropriate gesture for a man of proliferating identities. Born Brian O’Nolan (or Brian Ó Nualláin) on Oct. 5, 1911, he became Flann O’Brien in 1939 with the publication of At Swim-Two-Birds, the funniest book in the language (or languages), rivalled only by another grim Irishman's. On Oct. 4, 1940, his first “Cruiskeen Lawn” (from crúiscín lán, Irish for “brimming small-jug”) column appeared in The Irish Times under the name An Broc ("The Badger"). Soon the columnist became Myles na gCopaleen (“Myles of the Little Horses”) and remained so until his death on April Fool’s Day 1966.

O’Brien earns observances during Poetry Month for at least two good reasons. Early in At Swim-Two-Birds a character named Shanahan recites to his friends Lamont and Furriskey a poem he attributes to Jem Casey, “the Poet of the Pick.” Shanahan says of this work: “By God you can’t beat it. I’ve heard it praised by the highest. It’s a pome about a thing that’s known to all of us. It’s about a drink of porter.” Here is that “pome,” “The Workman’s Friend”:

“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 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 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 time of trouble and lousy strife,
You have still got a darlint plan
You still can turn to a brighter life -

It's not Yeats but surely funnier than Yeats, and it gave the world O’Brien’s most-quoted words, known even by nonreaders: “A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.” O’Brien’s real accomplishment as a poet can be found in his prose, which has a peculiar parodic precision about it and is never cheaply “poetic.” His choice of words often is unexpected, without the implied italicization indulged in by others.

I have just reread The Third Policeman, written by O’Brien immediately after At Swim-Two-Birds but published posthumously, in 1967. Ostensibly a more conventional novel, it renders a more disturbingly unconventional universe, mingling the modes of Dante and Chuck Jones, creating a fiction in which “cartoon physics,” a phrase favored by my younger sons, applies. Consider the nameless narrator’s first view the police station:

“As I approached, the house seemed to change its appearance. At first, it did nothing to reconcile itself with the shape of an ordinary house but it became uncertain in outline like a thing glimpsed under ruffled water. Then it became clear again and I saw that it began to have some back to it, some small space for rooms behind the frontage. I gathered this from the fact that I seemed to see the front and the back of the ‘building’ simultaneously from my position approaching what should have been the side. As there was no side that I could see I thought the house must be triangular with its apex pointing towards me but when I was only fifteen yards away I saw a small window apparently facing me and I knew from that that there must be some side to it. then I found myself almost in the shadow of the structure, dry-throated and timorous from wonder and anxiety. It seemed ordinary enough at close quarters except that it was very white and still. It was momentous and frightening: the whole morning and the whole world seemed to have no purpose at all save to frame it and give it some magnitude and position so that I could find it with my simple senses and pretend to myself that I understood it.”

The police station, he says, comes as his “greatest surprise” since seeing the “old man in the chair,” who, by the way, is the same man the narrator and his partner had earlier beaten to death with a bicycle pump and spade. Again, “cartoon physics,” or metaphysics. Much of the novel’s humor is of the cracked-logic, word-drunk, straight-face Irish species, as in this exchange between Policeman MacCruiskeen and the narrator, which might have shown up in a column by Myles:

“`What would you say a bulbul is?’

“This conundrum did not interest me but I pretended to rack my brains and screwed my face in perplexity until I felt it half the size it should be.’

“`Not one of those ladies who take money?’ I said.


“`Not the brass knobs on a German steam organ?’

“`Not the knobs.’

“`Nothing to do with the independence of America or suchlike?’


“`A mechanical engine for winding clocks?’


“A tumour, or the lather in a cow’s mouth, or those elastic articles that ladies wear?’

“`Not them by a long chalk.’

“`Not an eastern musical instrument played by Arabs?’

“He clapped his hands.

“`Not that but very near it,’ he smiled, `something next door to it. You are a cordial intelligible man. A bulbul is a Persian nightingale. What do you think of that now?’

“`It is seldom I am far out,’ I said dryly.”

Policeman MacCruiskeen shows the narrator an elegant wooden chest with brass fittings he made as a boy. Inside is an identical though slightly smaller chest, and inside that another one, and another, and so on – a neat metaphor for the novel we’re reading. The narrator says of the policeman's creation: “It was so faultless and delightful that it reminded me forcibly of, strange and foolish as it may seem, something I did not understand and had never even heard of." That too describes The Third Policeman and the best of O’Brien’s other work. Happy birthdays, Flann.

1 comment:

zmkc said...

Is it in The Third Policeman that he talks about the danger of bicycles being allowed into the house?