Entry 48: Coda– Our heroes should remain distant: beyond the realm of the living, preferably. A fringe-dweller forever, I have been in little danger of tripping over any of the living legends that I have revered over the years, some of whom have been memorialised in these entries. Samuel Beckett, himself, of course, a legend to many and a genuine hero in that he put his life on the line for the French Resistance during the Second World War, came a cropper when he met with one of his heroes in Dublin.
I read somewhere that he was not too impressed upon meeting with that chameleon, Flann O’Brien, a.k.a. Myles Na gColapeen a.k.a Brian O’Nolan who has given the world such masterpieces in fiction as At Swim-Two Birds and The Third Policeman. Writing as Myles Na gColapeen, he wrote a column in The Irish Times entitled Cruiskeen Lawn from 1940 until his death in 1966 in which he regularly bit the hand that fed him, excoriating the Irish managerial class.
And he did pay the price, being forced to resign from the Irish Civil Service in 1953 at the age of 42. Unlike James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, he did not flee the stultifying Ireland of the 40s and 50s but chose to remain, being, indeed, the mainstay of his family of 11 brothers and sisters after the death of his father in 1937. But at what price? This game is played on websites across the world and at many a convention and conference where his oeuvre is endlessly discussed.
He could have, some say, escaped the confines of the repressive milieu that blighted life for so many for so long- driving our hero, among legions of thirsty, like-minded escapees, into myriad pubs in cities, towns, villages and hamlets across the length and breadth of the Emerald Isle. He may not have become an alcoholic and consequently have been liberated to write many more masterpieces.
So the argument goes- and who knows… and who will ever know because there is no way of resetting that life or any other. Another- and better- game that is played is based on a popular occasional component of his column Cruiskeen Lawn, The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman. This is taken from The Spectator of 12 October 1990, but you can easily find current iterations of the game online- Flann O’Brien invented this game, which features the two characters above- mentioned. The idea is to involve them both in a long-drawn-out, po-faced but unlikely story, which is finally crowned (or sunk) by an excruciating pun on the part of Keats. Here is a very short example: “The poet and Chapman once visited a circus. Chapman was very impressed by an act in which lions were used. A trainer entered a cage in which were two ferocious-looking specimens, sat down unconcernedly, took out a paper, and began to read. `He’s reading between the lions,’ Keats said.”
Yes, you either love it or loathe it: if it’s amor then the pun is mightier than the sword. Too much? But this is light stuff, and you should read At Swim-Two Birds, published in 1939 when the author was 28, to appreciate his astonishing demolition of the conventional novel form. Why have one opening when you can have three? Where characters can conspire among themselves to drug their fictional creator in order to avoid the melodrama of his plots and have a normal existence? Where separate plot-lines can merge and tangle? Where natural and supernatural characters coexist and where language, exuberant and playful, dances on the page.
Unfortunately, even the imprimatur of Graham Greene was no match for a German bomb which destroyed warehoused copies of his novel in 1940. But this did not stop me mimeographing excerpts from this magic tome for my students at Warrawong High School in the 1970s. I loved this stuff and I wanted my students to know the liberation that language could make possible and I still hope that some of those I taught will get in touch to tell me that either, I was just a windbag, or someone who gave them the means of escape.
But I revere The Third Policeman. Written within a year or two of his first novel, it found no favour among the readers of contemporary publishers. Disheartened, he put this masterpiece on the mantelpiece and told people that it had been lost. Turns out, in was in sight there for the rest of his life but was not published until after his death. The Third Policeman, in my opinion, is among the most profound novels in modern literature. I know that I have felt like the protagonist of the novel: what am I doing? How did I come to be here? What are they saying to me? When will I understand what is going on?
As it turns out, the protagonist is in Hell, having been blown up by the man to whom he has given over the running of the farm. A bit like Prospero giving to his brother the mundane chore of administrating the Dukedom…