Archive for ‘Flann O’Brien’

March 9, 2012

Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection

Written for last weekend’s Left of Cool column.The Manual of Detection was an absolute joy to read – clever, and playful, and beautifully written. I have just discovered (though lurking at his twitter profile) that the author is a fan of Flann O’Brien, and this makes a lot of sense to me – there’s a similarity in that they both have this exuberant, comical voice. And bicycles, obviously.




Books about books are probably the most self-indulgent form of literature there is, and it is probably the duty of all persons with consciences to condemn them for this. It’s not a new idea (and hasn’t been since at least Don Quixote), yet some of us continue to love these books anyway.

Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection is a detective story about detective stories. But it’s many other things as well.

There’s a city (and though no name is mentioned, it’s seems appropriate for the genre to assume that it is New York) that is all seedy bars, thugs, nameless crimes and beautiful, inscrutable women. This is the world of Travis Siwart, a detective who made his reputation with such cases as The Oldest Murdered Man and The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker.

There’s another city, though; the one that is inhabited by Mr Charles Unwin. For twenty years Unwin has been a clerk in an office; he rides a bicycle to work, carries an umbrella, and is entirely preoccupied by routine.

These two men, who have never met, are connected by the huge investigative organisation known as The Agency. The Agency employs Siwart for his skills as a detective, and Unwin to record his cases for posterity. If Siwart’s cases are considered classics of the genre (and they are incredibly intriguing – in one, a villain manages to steal an entire day in November) this is at least in part due to Unwin’s accounts of them. But Siwart goes missing, appearing in Unwin’s dreams to ask his help. An unwilling Unwin is promoted to Siwart’s position and he takes as his first case Siwart’s disappearance, hoping to thus win back his old job and return things to normal. Down the mean streets of Siwart’s New York this unlikely detective must go, then, armed only with his umbrella and a copy of that useful handbook for detectives, The Manual of Detection.

To have a book within a book and to give both books the same title is an act of cruelty to the hapless reviewer, who is forced to explain at every point to which book she refers. But Berry’s real world novel The Manual of Detection (MoD 1) bases a good deal of its structure on the fictional Manual of Detection (MoD 2) – it bears the same number of chapters with the same titles, and each chapter opens with a quote from the same section of the book’s meta-text. Some editions of the book even look physically identical to the manual described.

Yet the novel’s worth does not stem only from this central conceit. It is incredibly funny, for one thing, with much of the humour derived from the complete mismatch between Unwin and the classic noir thriller world he is forced to enter. In one brilliant scene he follows a lead to a bar named The Forty Winks where he must order a drink (he can think of nothing but a root beer) and play a game of poker (he does not know the rules) for information. Yet for all his seeming unfitness for his new position the reader never quite forgets that Unwin has made Siwart – he is the faithful recorder, the Watson to Siwart’s Holmes.

Unwin is seemingly surrounded by people who fall asleep at the drop of a hat – his new assistant, Emily, is among them. The city is full of somnambulists, and the novel slips easily between waking life and dream, and from dreams to dreams within dreams, allowing Berry to indulge in all manner of surreal play.

Books within books, crimes within crimes, dreams within dreams. It’s tempting to see The Manual of Detection as an earlier (2010), cleverer Inception. Yet the high comic tone is what really stuck with me. For all its wild, glorious imagery of carnivals and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, Berry’s book really works because even the image of Mr Unwin on a bicycle clutching his umbrella is elevated into something special.


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.



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.


From what sort of time does a custom date?

Time immemorial.

To what serious things does an epidemic sometimes attain?


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.


* Which is why I decided to do the same in the title of this piece.
September 24, 2011

I am completely half afraid to think.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that I read or reread much of Flann O’Brien’s work this year – as is obvious I’ve been hopelessly behind when it comes to actually writing about what I’ve read. But the first thing I reread was also the first book by him I’d ever read: The Third Policeman.

The story- at the beginning of the book our nameless narrator gets into a creepy, hostile, co-dependent relationship with a man named John Diveney. He allows Diveney to convince him to conspire to kill a rich man and steal his wealth. But only much later does Diveney to reveal (or so the narrator thinks) the location of the loot- in the house of the man they’d killed. When our narrator goes to collect it, strange things begin to happen. He encounters the ghost of his victim, develops a conscience (called “Joe” for convenience) and is led in mysterious ways to a police station where everyone is obsessed with bicycles. A series of strange events follows.

The narrator is also a scholar of the works of the (fictional) scientist/philosopher de Selby. The book is full of references and footnotes about de Selby’s crackpot theories – for example that nighttime is the result of accumulated black air from volcanic pollution, or that sleep does not exist – instead we go through a series of fits caused by said black air. Other theories of de Selby concern his conviction that by reflecting oneself in a series of mirrors it is possible to see one’s own childhood self, and his insistence that he had mastered time travel.

This benign property of his prose is not, one hopes, to be attributed to the reason noticed by the eccentric du Garbandier, who said ‘the beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest’.

The de Selby sections are the best, the most absurd, and the funniest in the book. And though de Selby has no real relevance to the plot (in this book nothing does, so it hardly matters) his interpretations of science and philosophy work well within the logic of the world the narrator enters. This is, after all, a world in which a policeman spends his time making a series of otherwise identical boxes that fit into each other, even now that the more recent boxes are so small as to be invisible. A world in which the movement of atoms means that people who ride their bicycles too frequently become, in time, part-bicycle themselves.

The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.

This leads to all sorts of complications. When such a man dies, do you bury his human form or his bicycle? What degree of perversion is inherent in riding someone else’s bicycle (or fooling them into riding your own)? And since shunning the bicycle and walking means turning to clay, what is the safest method of transport?

All these very serious issues are discussed in some of the most elaborate, high-flown dialogue you could hope to encounter. It’s glorious – particularly when (this made my second encounter with the book even more joyous than the first) you’re hearing it all in Irish accents.

The end of The Third Policeman explains away the silly science logic of the previous pages with an equivalent of an “it was all a dream!” ending that has ruined so many other books. It doesn’t spoil this (though I remember being disappointed by it when I read it some years ago). I’m not sure why this is, but I think it may be because a book can’t betray its own internal logic when it has none. Or something. Or maybe the rest of it is so incredible that nothing could spoil it? Either way it’s magnificent.

August 2, 2011

A Flann O’Brien project

This year is also Flann O’Brien’s birth centenary (he was born 5 October, 1911). I’ve read only a couple of O’Brien’s major works and I loved them. So to celebrate him and to educate myself I’m now planning to work my way through everything by him I can get my hands on. I’d originally planned a novel a week throughout August – I’m not sure that’s likely to happen, but I’ll be starting my reread of The Third Policeman tomorrow. Please do feel free to join in – he’s a brilliant writer and should be read more.