Archive for October 30th, 2011

October 30, 2011

Flann O’Brien, The Best of Myles

I am continuing (slowly and delightedly) with my Flann O’Brien read/reread and used the opportunity to talk about this collection of Cruiskeen Lawn columns in last week’s Left of Cool. I utterly failed to explain why The Plain People of Ireland bits are hilarious and finally gave up trying; despite this I hope some will be intrigued enough to seek O’Brien out.

 

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This month marks the birth centenary of the Irish writer Brian O’Nolan, who is best known for the brilliant, absurd novels he wrote under the name Flann O’Brien. At Swin-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman are well-known and justifiably so. But some of O’ Nolan’s best writing is to be found in the “Cruiskeen Lawn” column he wrote for The Irish Times for more than twenty-five years under the name of Myles na gCopaleen.

My collection (from Harper Perennial, 2007) of the best of these columns confuses the naming issue further by attributing The Best of Myles to “Flann O’Brien”*. This is presumably done for the benefit of people who are likely to be familiar with the name from the novels. This edition also sorts the various columns into categories, rather than arranging them chronologically. Myles had various themes to which he often returned – his own status as an inventor and entrepreneur; conversations with the sibling of “the Brother”, apparently a man of suspiciously great ability; his adventures with the WAAMA (Writers, Actors, Artists, Musicians Association). There are fantastic shaggy dog stories featuring the unlikely comic duo of Keats and Chapman, each leading up to an awful (or glorious) pun. So Keats, tracking down his runaway chestnut gelding is “dogging a fled horse”, and the schoolboy Chapman, glued in unusual circumstances to his headmaster is “a man who sticks to his principals”.

The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché sections are less innocent. In these columns the author exposes the number of clichés in daily use through a sort of question and answer format.

Is a man ever hurt in a motor crash?

No. He sustains an injury.

Does such a man ever die of his injuries?

No. He succumbs to them.

Or

From what sort of time does a custom date?

Time immemorial.

To what serious things does an epidemic sometimes attain?

Proportions.

A number of these clichés are to be found in newspapers and magazines even today, and I wonder how Myles’  fellow Irish Times columnists and reporters felt about being thus exposed.

Besides the Keats and Chapman stories, Cruiskeen Lawn is perhaps best known for its Plain People of Ireland (also something of a cliché) sections, which parody the supposed common people of the country.

My favourite columns involved Myles’  involvement with WAAMA, particularly a subplot in which the author has hit on a clever new enterprise. He offers insecure consumers of culture the hire of a ventriloquist for the evening. This ventriloquist will be attractive and well-dressed, will attend an event (a play or the opera, for example) with you, and will cover both sides of the conversation, making you look sophisticated and culturally aware. The scheme falls apart when rogue ventriloquists infiltrate the theatres, blackmailing the customers and threatening to make them say all manner of terrible things.

The useful division of these columns by subject does make them easier to read – and considering that we’re reading newspaper columns (about as topical a form of writing as can exist) decades after they were written, we need all the context we can get. The division isn’t complete – Myles will occasionally touch on more than one of his broader subjects within the same column. Yet having my reading made this easy has made me wonder how it must have been to have read this column on a regular basis through the years of its publication. The Best of Myles, extensive though it is, doesn’t even contain all of the columns. And it leaves out (understandably) the many Irish language columns. To follow these columns for twenty-six years, in two languages (and Myles was not averse to throwing in some Latin or German when it seemed like a good idea) and not in a conveniently arranged order seems to me rather daunting, yet it seems not to have appeared so to the Irish Times readers who followed Cruiskeen Lawn for that incredible length of time. I can only assume that this was because O’Nolan was a genius, and somehow (despite the multiple languages and the intimidatingly clever books) an accessible genius.

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* Which is why I decided to do the same in the title of this piece.
October 30, 2011

The Booker and ‘readability’ and similar imbecilities

I really, really meant to ignore the Man Booker prize this year. But then people said stupid things, and other people said stupid things, and I was this guy and it was unavoidable. I ended up writing a short piece on the particular stupid things around this year’s award for last week’s Sunday Guardian.

(On rereading I do feel I was harsher on Sense of an Ending than I really feel: I enjoyed it, if I thought less of it than some of his previous work.)

 

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This is one of those great and obvious universal truths: the Man Booker prize never satisfies everyone.

The point at which it all began to go downhill this year was at the announcing of the shortlist. This was not because the books selected were shockingly inferior – at this point very few had read all of those chosen anyway – but for external reasons. One was widespread surprise that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child had been left out. Hollinghurst is a previous Booker winner,and was among the favourites for this year. But there are always surprising omissions from the shortlist (I was deeply annoyed last year when Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies failed to make it) and needn’t have been any reflection on the judges or the books that did get shortlisted. Julian Barnes, who had been been shortlisted thrice before, was the only ‘expected’ name to make it onto the list. Barnes’ Sense Of An Ending would be the eventual winner.

Unfortunately, the judges chose to come out and explain their criteria for selecting the books. Dame Stella Rimington, the head of the panel, claimed that she wanted people to “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them”– implying that this (being bought and not read) was the usual fate of Booker-shortlisted books. Her fellow judge Chris Mullin claimed that a major factor for him was that the book should “zip along”.

The furore around these comments shifted the debate entirely. It is obvious that the ability to “zip along” is not the primary factor for which the Booker judges should be looking– or if it is, perhaps we should see about getting our Mr Bhagat a nomination next year*. Literariness is an intangible quality, and one that is hard to defend against the more easily counted factors of sales and popularity, but the very existence of literary prizes rests upon the assumption that some books are better written than others. The question of “readability” is a strange one. Even ignoring the silliness of the term – most books can be read – the Booker hardly has a history of promoting difficult experimental fiction.

In all of this discussion, the books themselves seemed to be forgotten. There were plenty of mutterings about the quality of the shortlist, but very little about the actual books on it. The author Philip Hensher described the list as “disappointing” and the result of a deliberate shift towards the more popular, but did not elaborate on which books were unworthy, or why. Soon after the shortlist had been released a new literary award (The Literature Prize) was announced, backed by John Banville and David Mitchell among others. The launch statement hit out directly at the older prize, claiming that there was a place for this new award since the Booker “now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement”.

What emerged from all this was a vague sense that this year’s list of shortlisted books was subpar, the result of populist judges; yet apart from some discontent over AD Miller’s Snowdrops (and there is always at least one book on a shortlist that most people feel doesn’t belong there) there was a near complete lack of criticism that called out specific books and asserted that they did not deserve to be there. It can’t have been much fun for the authors – any winner other than Barnes would be dogged by the assumption that this year’s prize had been all wrong anyway.

Oddly enough, of the shortlisted books I read (there were two in which I had no particular interest) Barnes’ was the one that seemed to “zip along” the most. It took much more time and effort to read Patrick DeWitt’s deceptively simple The Sisters Brothers, which was my own choice for the award. It contains elements of the Western (straying close to genre fiction and the sort of horrifying populism critics of this year’s shortlist are so upset by). But it’s also a fantastically clever piece of absurdist fiction (the Western as written by Samuel Beckett?) and in many ways veers closer to the sort of high-brow experimental fiction in which the Booker rarely displays an interest.

The Man Booker prize is often considered the literary award of a genre too easily stereotyped as middle-aged men navel gazing. It’s an unfair categorisation on the whole, and it’s only slightly ironic that Barnes book is about a middle-aged man reflecting upon his past. Having provided such an unusual shortlist this year’s judges could have treated this as a way of opening up the award. Instead, they chose to paint themselves into a corner. Barnes is a great writer, even if this is one of his lesser works. It’s a pity that in the year in which he finally won the award things should have gone this way.

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 *Though is he readable? Many people seem to find him so, at least.