It’s rare when we’re able to pinpoint with precision our first encounter with a favorite writer. The sentence above, read forty-two years ago in the library at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, I found not in a book by their author, Flann O’Brien, but as the epigraph to Chapter VII, “Beyond Fiction?,” of Bernard Bergonzi’s The Situation of the Novel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970). Soon I discovered more references to O’Brien in Vivian Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition (1962). I was a freshman reveling in my first romp through a university library, a sort of literary theme park where I could pursue every reference to its origin. From Latin I recognized lacuna in the quoted sentence, but palimpsest was something new and intriguing. Even then, one book inevitably led to another, the start of an unbroken lifetime’s chain of reading. In the library I found the source of the O’Brien sentence, At Swim-Two-Birds, and on the same shelf The Third Policeman, The Hard Life, The Dalkey Archive and The Best of Myles, the collection of his newspaper columns from The Irish Times written under the name Myles na gCopaleen. O’Brien had died just four years earlier, on April Fools’ Day 1966.
Bergonzi’s book, newly published, served as one of my adjunct professors. He alerted me not only to O’Brien but to B.S. Johnson, Laurence Sterne and Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, and steeled my interest in Joyce, Borges, Beckett, Nabokov, Anthony Powell, John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Except for the last two, all remain among my frequently reread favorites. Soon I enrolled in a class called “The Eighteenth-Century English Novel,” which came with this inspired reading list: Don Quixote, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Roderick Random, Humphrey Clinker, Tristram Shandy and The Sot-Weed Factor. You’ll note the first and last titles are neither English nor of the eighteen century. The professor, Donna Fricke, reinforced in me the importance of literary tradition, the almost infinite elasticity of the novel and by extension, literature in general. Bergonzi quotes another passage from At Swim-Two-Birds:
“I was talking to a friend of yours last night, I said drily. I mean Mr Trellis. He has bought a ream of ruled foolscap and is starting on his story. He is compelling all his characters to live with him in the Red Swan hotel so that he can keep an eye on them and see that there is no boozing…Most of them are characters used in other books, chiefly the works of another great writer called Tracy. There is a cowboy in Room 13 and Mr McCool, a hero of old Ireland, is on the floor above. The cellar is full of leprechauns.”
The professors have had their way with O’Brien, blathering on about self-reflexivity and meta-fiction, but we read him because his books are funny and savage, like Swift’s and Beckett’s, and because his black Augustinian Irishness abhors both the cruel and the sentimental. Anthony Cronin, who knew O’Brien, writes in No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (1989):
“…most of those who had any acquaintance with him regarded him as a fairly formidable customer with whom liberties could not be lightly taken. He was known for his extreme vituperativeness when roused and, apart from his general or even his literary reputation, there was a somewhat canine aspect to him which kept people on their guard.”
O’Brien was born Brian Ó Nualláin on this date, Oct. 5, in 1911, in Strabane, County Tyrone. Here is a sample of Flann-as-Myles at work, titled “Home Hints” and collected in At War (1999):
“I have just discovered that a slow fire can be lit up in a jiffy with gramophone records. A record is as inflammable as a bucket of petrol, although it is not a satisfactory substitute for petrol when motoring.
“I have also found that the works of Walter Pater burn with a steady blue flame and leave a fine grey residue, not unlike cigar ash. A book by Seoirse Moore will smoulder and emit pungent fumes: it will glow brightly if you use a bellows on it, and even burst into dull yellow flames if you mix a little Proust or a little of Miguel Botticelli’s memoirs with it (Miguel was the brother): the residue takes the form of coarse clinkers.
“If you want a roaring white carefree conflagration and the feathery residue whipped up the old-world Irish chimney, try some of the masterpieces of Gaelic literature. The modern ones, I mean, with all the nice idioms."