“A really funny book,” was James Joyce’s verdict on At Swim-Two-Birds, the comic masterpiece by his compatriot Brian O’Nolan, a.k.a. Flann O’Brien. Graham Greene said he read it “with excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” Despite such accolades, the novel sold a dismal 244 copies before the Luftwaffe finished it off by bombing the publisher’s London warehouse in 1940. O’Nolan’s second masterpiece, The Third Policeman, completed soon after, was rejected by the same publisher, killing his hopes for it. The manuscript sat gathering dust in his home until he died, in 1966. At his death O’Nolan was well known in Dublin as an Irish Times columnist under the pen name of Myles na Gopaleen, but unappreciated under his other nom de plume of Flann O’Brien as a novelist of genius.
Since then, however, Flann’s ghost has returned to claim his rightful place. His books appear on TV shows; pubs are named after him; undergraduates giggle over his works. And now, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, there are commemorative events in several places: Dublin, of course, but also in less likely venues, such as Singapore and Vienna. I missed Singapore, but had the good luck to be invited to the “100 Myles” conference in Vienna to read from my own Flann-induced novels, Killoyle and The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad.
Why Vienna, unvisited by O’Nolan? Why not? After all, Joyce never crossed the Atlantic, and America teems with Joyce seminars. The University of Vienna has a big, well-funded Irish Studies department. There are Celtic connections between Austria and Ireland, via medieval Irish monks. Vienna is a Catholic metropolis, a city of churches, and O’Nolan was nothing if not Catholic. Vienna is also, of course, the birthplace of psychoanalysis; the apartment of Dr. Freud, who allegedly observed that the Irish were one race of people “for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever,” is a couple of streets from the university. An irony well suited to Flann’s ironic oeuvre.
I was doubly motivated to go when I saw that among the keynote speakers was Anthony Cronin, one of Ireland’s most eminent men of letters and a friend of O’Nolan’s in the 1950s. Cronin is primarily a poet, but as a novelist he has long been on my A-list, thanks to his hilarious novel The Life of Riley, a pitch-perfect variation on the theme of postwar Dublin literary life. Riley makes me laugh out loud no matter how often I reread it, and I’ve done so a few times. Only one other novel has that kind of permanent effect on my funny bone: At Swim-Two-Birds. And neither would be worth spit if it weren’t for the melancholy truths underlying them. So, since my humble efforts as a comic novelist owe as much to Cronin as to his friend O’Nolan, and nearly everything to both, as soon as I arrived in Vienna I made sure to arrange an interview.
But first there were conference sessions to attend. Things got off to a galloping start with a performance of “The Brother,” a clever dramatic adaptation of Flann’s themes by Gerry Smyth, an Irish cultural historian, and David Llewellyn, who writes for the BBC. Smyth’s rendition of the now-famous “The Workman’s Friend,” O’Brien’s paean to a pint of beer (“A pint of plain is your only man”), was yearning and poignant. It reminded me of tenor solos in small pubs in the West of Ireland.
I was badly upstaged by the local brew and by a fellow novelist, who gave his reading while jumping up and down on a bench.
That was the fun part. The next day, the panel discussions got started at the university’s English and American Institute, part of a maternity ward in Habsburg days, with high, arched ceilings and double-paned windows. The Flanneurs, as the Flann O’Brien lit-crit crowd has been dubbed, looked like central casting for a British TV sitcom: long gray hair, floppy hats, tweeds, male ponytails tumbling from under Donegal caps, the odd ear- or nose-piercing. Dr. Margarete Rebik, head of English studies at the U of V, gave the introductory talk and welcomed us to Vienna. Then Dr. Keith Hopper, an Oxford academic, mused about rereading O’Brien, illuminating primarily his own profound love of the subject, and showed a short Flann-inspired film. Sundry other scholars, in sequences of three, gnawed at O’Brien’s politics, language, and use of bicycles, the latter being a leitmotif of The Third Policeman. There were a few laughs, but not many. Well, I thought, Freud notwithstanding, Flann has ended up on the couch after all. Hoping to lighten things up, I read from Killoyle that evening in a local Irish pub. Alas, I was badly upstaged by the local brew and by fellow-novelist Julian Gough, who gave his reading while jumping up and down on a bench.
With some relief, I met Anthony Cronin after lunch next day on the hotel’s outdoor terrace under drizzly Irish-like skies. He was accompanied by his charming wife, Anne Haverty, herself a prizewinning novelist and biographer. Now 83, Cronin uses a rolling walker to get around, but otherwise he seemed in fine fettle, lucid and witty, although at first giving an impression of wariness understandable in a figure of his eminence. (His position in modern Irish letters, after all, is roughly equivalent to Mark Twain’s in American literature in the early 1900s.) Apart from the novels—The Life of Riley and Identity Papers—he has written twelve books of poetry of a standard within hailing distance of Auden and MacNeice. He is a founding member of Aosdana, an Irish council of distinguished artists. He is author of the acclaimed biographies No Laughing Matter, of Flann, and The Last Modernist, of Samuel Beckett. His Dead As Doornails, which, by coincidence, I’d been rereading before the conference, is a memoir of the whole Dublin literary scene in the ’50s. Like Flann’s avatar Myles na Gopaleen, Cronin wrote a weekly column in The Irish Times for some years. He now contributes regularly to the Sunday Independent.
We fell easily into conversation about subjects ranging from Flann, Ireland, and Irish literature, to the city we found ourselves in. Cronin recalled his first visit to Vienna, in the late 1940s, when the city was under four-power occupation, as depicted in the film The Third Man. “They were in it together,” he said, referring to the occupying powers, “not like in Berlin. They all had to coordinate their activities. I remember the French in their blue uniforms, the British in khakis, the Americans in their drab brown, and the Russians in their peculiar greatcoats. And the city was dimly lit and full of ruins.” It made postwar Dublin, dreary enough, look inviting. It was certainly livelier, with the likes of O’Nolan, Brendan Behan, and J. P. Donleavy in the pubs.
I asked about O’Nolan, the reason for our presence in Vienna. In Dead As Doornails Cronin describes his friend, whom he knew as Myles, as “a small man whose appearance . . . combined elements of the priest, the baby-faced Chicago gangster, the petty bourgeois malt [whiskey] drinker, and the Dublin literary gent.” The man’s character sounded like an amalgam of these elements, too. He could be thoughtful and generous, and a hilarious storyteller, but in aggressive mood—“terrier-like,” Cronin says—he heaped abuse on those who attempted to compliment him, especially for At Swim-Two-Birds. Cronin described an incident in which O’Nolan bit off the head of an unsuspecting fan who’d made a compliment: “‘That book,’ said Myles dismissively, ‘is mere juvenilia.’” It made him sound like a nasty customer, I said, which Cronin hotly denied. He then made the perceptive remark, “No, it was just that Myles, like so many comic writers—Samuel Beckett was another—had an acute sense of propriety. If he genuinely didn’t believe in his work, he wasn’t going to pretend he did.” And how Catholic was Myles, I wondered? Very, said Cronin. Although a more accurate term might be Manichean, in which one wonders if perhaps Milton didn’t get it wrong, and Satan actually won the great struggle with God.
I asked Cronin if he was still writing fiction, expecting him to say no, that was all over. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I’ve just finished a novel set in 1925.” He described a setting reminiscent of that of Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry: the Irish civil war, opposing factions, the lingering shadow of Michael Collins. It sounds like a book as rich and various as Cronin’s life, into which I had many delightful insights over the course of the afternoon. That evening I dined with the Cronins at the Café Central, under life-size portraits of the Habsburgs. When we made our farewells, it was in the hope of meeting again.
The conference ended on Thursday, July 28. The 50-plus invitees and panel members gathered in one of Vienna’s classic heuriger taverns and toasted one another, the organizers, themselves—and Flann O’Brien, whose spirit lingered long after they were gone, enjoying his posthumous visit to Austria but musing on academics’ desperate need to analyze art. “Your talk,” he might have said, echoing the narrator of The Third Policeman, “is surely the handiwork of wisdom, because not one word of it do I understand.”