Wednesday, October 05, 2011

`The Handmaid of Sorrow and Fear'

The initiated will know our man – or men -- from the first line:

For Your Cliché Album

In what can no man tell the future has for us?


With what do certain belligerents make their military dispositions?

Typical Teutonic thoroughness.

In what manner do wishful thinkers imagine that the war will be over this year?


Take the word, `relegate’. To what must a person be relegated?

That obscurity from which he should never have been permitted to emerge.

What may one do with a guess, provided one is permitted?


And what is comment?


The final exchange in this “Catechism of Cliché” is inarguably true of its author, Brian Ó Nualláin (dba Brian O’Nolan, Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, etc.), born on this date one-hundred years ago in Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland. Dissecting humor to biopsy its life force is homicide, which hardly deters the coroners of academe. I have in front of me `Is It About a Bicycle?’: Flann O’Brien in the Twenty-First Century (Four Courts Press, 2011), edited by Jennika Baines. The collection is not entirely horrible, and we can be grateful to its contributors for liberally quoting from the great man’s work, but one of the assembled scholars has the tin-eared temerity to write of At Swim-Two-Birds:

“The modes of play that facilitate cooperative dialogues on L1 (ilinx) and L2 (alea-agôn) become increasingly cluttered with competing voices across L3 (mimicry and agôn) and L4 (untempered agôn).”

As Myles na gCopaleen puts it: “a harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print.” The only worthwhile way to celebrate a writer is to read him, chronologically in O’Brien’s case. Let’s begin with At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), this will do, picked at random with the finger method:

“Quickly they repaired to a small room adjoining Miss Lamont’s bedroom where the good lady was lying in, and deftly stacked the papered wallsteads with the colourful wealth of their offerings and their fine gifts—their golden sheaves of ripened barley, firkins of curdy cheese, berries and acorns and crimson yams, melons and marrows and mellowed mast, variholed sponges of crisp-edged honey and oaten breads, earthenware jars of whey-thick sack and porcelain pots of lathery lager, sorrels and short-bread and coarse-grained cake, cucumbers cold and downy straw-laced cradles of elderberry wine poured out in sea-green egg-cups and urn-shaped tubs of molasses crushed and crucibled with the lush brown-heavy scum of pulped mellifluous mushrooms, an exhaustive harvesting of the teeming earth, by God.”

I love the self-parodying Irish excess of such passages, sweet on the tongue. O’Brien’s second novel, posthumously published as The Third Policeman (1967), is a metaphysical horror story (Its final line: “`Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.”), and some readers prefer it to At Swim-Two-Birds. I know an Irish-born professor of mechanical engineering who grew up reading Myles’ “Cruiskeen Lawn” column in The Irish Times, and who has read An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) in the original Irish. I spoke with him last week and we swapped favorite Myles bits and laughed till we sputtered and coughed. He’s particularly fond of the running Keats and Chapman routines. This sample of Keatsiana is for Michael Carroll:

“Keats was once presented with an Irish terrier, which he humorously named Byrne. One day the beast strayed from the house and failed to return at night. Everybody was distressed, save Keats himself. He reached reflectively for his violin, a fairly passable timber of the Stradivarius feciture [a word not found in the Oxford English Dictionary], and was soon at work with chin and jaw.

“Chapman, looking in for an after-supper pipe, was astonished at the poet’s composure, and did not hesitate to say so. Keats smiled (in a way that was rather lovely).

“`And why should I not fiddle,’ he asked, `while Byrne roams.’”

Myles turned out “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns from 1940 until the death of Brian Ó Nualláin and the others on April Fool’s Day 1966. The publishing event of the young century would be an intelligently edited and annotated edition of all The Irish Times columns. In “A Bash in the Tunnel,” written in 1951 on the tenth anniversary of James Joyce’s death, O’Brien defines his own “stuff”:

“Humour, the handmaid of sorrow and fear, creeps out endlessly in all Joyce’s work. He uses the thing in the same way as Shakespeare does but less formally, to attenuate the fear of those who have belief and who genuinely think that they will be in hell or in heaven shortly, and possibly very shortly. With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humour needs this background urgency: Rabelais is funny, but his stuff cloys. His stuff lacks tragedy.”

[See what Roger Boylan has to say herehere and here about Flann O'Brien.]

[As to "feciture," it's Dave Lull to the rescue here.]

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