Thursday, February 14, 2013

`The Suspicion That This Man Was a Poet'

Newspaper columns are a bastard form, of infinite promise and niggling accomplishment. Most are dull, strident argument-fodder, or folksy and faux–naïf. Given enough wit and verbal imagination, a column ought to be the most compelling thing to read in a newspaper. Most are unreadable. The obvious exception is “Cruiskeen Lawn,” the column turned out for twenty-five years by Myles na gCopaleen, Brian Ó Nualláin (or Brian O’Nolan, or Flann O’Brien, or The Badger [An Broc], or Brother Barnabas) in The Irish Times. Today, forty-seven years after its final appearance in newsprint, we read Myles as literature alongside Flann’s At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. The columns have been collected in various volumes -- The Best of Myles, The Hair of the Dogma and Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn, among others.   

From 1960 to 1966, the year of his death on April Fool’s Day, O’Brien wrote another, less well-known column, “Bones of Contention,” for The Nationalist and Leinster Times of Carlow, a town some forty miles southwest of Dublin, in County Carlow. The columns appeared under yet another nom de plume, George Knowall. A selection from them, Myles Away from Dublin, was first published in 1985 and has been reissued by the Lilliput Press of Dublin. I hadn’t read them before, and it soon becomes apparent that Myles changed not only his name but his manner. The editor, Martin Green, writes in the introduction that he “took on a new persona, that of a quizzical and enquiring humorist who might be found in a respectable public house in Carlow.” Knowall is no Dublin man. Much of the old savagery and charm is gone, replaced by something more like folksiness, a desire not so much to confound readers as woo them. 

By 1960, O’Brien’s alcohol consumption had turned pathological. Drink was corroding his body and gift, and he was failing as an artist and man. His final two novels, The Hard Life (1962) and The Dalkey Archive (1964), have their moments but seem tired and predictable, unlike the wondrous early books. And George is no Myles. In No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (1989), Anthony Cronin writes of “Bones of Contention”: 

“It was discursive and pedestrian rather than funny or astringent and he made shameless use of the Encyclopedia Britannica in writing it. It seemed crazy that he should be doing it at all for he now had an international reputation [since At Swim-Two-Birds had been reprinted in the U.S. in 1960].” 

The prose occasionally shows the old ferocity, absurd statements articulated with finicky Irish erudition, but too many columns trail off at the end. Years of reading Myles, especially the Keats and Chapman routines, sets us up to expect punch lines or puns, but  here the shaggy dogs too often wander away indifferently. In a column titled “Weighty Volume,” Knowall tells of a visit to a Dublin bookshop. It sounds uncomfortably close to the life of an unhappy writer we know: 

“At this sixpenny barrow I bought the autobiography, in two volumes, of Henry Taylor. When I got the books home, I weighed them on my wife’s balance in the kitchen and they weigh four and a quarter pounds. I have never heard of Henry Taylor but the books were published in 1885 by Longmans, Green and Co. [original publisher of At Swim-Two-Birds, in 1939]. I have not read Mr. Taylor’s account of himself but a furtive glance at one volume gives me the suspicion that this man was a poet, or thought he was. A frontpiece portrait shows him looking very old and sporting an enormous white wig. Why did he waste so much valuable time growing so very old and writing that poetry that nobody nowadays reads and probably never read? 

“The subtitle of the first volume intrigues me. Just this modest phrase -`Vol. I: 1800-1844.’ Forty-four years of abject futility, squeezed into one volume, weighing over two pounds avoirdupois.”

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