The Short Fiction of Flann O'Brien, released earlier this year, brings together 200 pages of the Irish modernist's best short works. The editors of the book, Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper, picked 10 books that owe their existence to O'Brien.
Flann O’Brien was the author of five novels, including two undoubted masterpieces: At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) and The Third Policeman (completed 1940; published 1967). According to Jerome Klinkowitz, O’Brien’s influence has been directly acknowledged by a host of American writers such as Donald Barthelme, Steve Katz, Clarence Major, Susan Quist, Ishmael Reed, Gilbert Sorrentino, Ronald Sukenick, and Kurt Vonnegut (with the exception of Quist, it’s a decidedly male list, which says something about O’Brien and his postmodern apostles).
Other critics, such as Rüdiger Imhof, have extended this notional ecstasy of influence to include Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing (1971), B.S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973), Francis Stuart’s A Hole in the Head (1977), Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers (1980), John Fowles’s Mantissa (1981), David Benedictus’s Floating Down to Camelot (1985), and Robert Coover’s Gerald’s Party (1986). We might also include Spike Milligan’s Puckoon (1963), Alf MacLochlainn’s Out of Focus (1977), Robert Anton Wilson’s The Widow’s Son (1985), Paul Auster’s Oracle Night (2003), and Bernard Share’s Transit (2009), not to mention Jamie O’Neill’s delightfully punsome title, At Swim, Two Boys (2001).
Of course, ascertaining influence is a difficult thing to prove, especially with such a tricky operator as O’Brien. For the author who wrote, via the nameless narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds, that the modern novel “should be largely a work of reference” – and who gleefully incorporated Dante, Rabelais, Diderot, Goethe, Huysmans, Joyce, Pirandello, Gide, Huxley, and an avalanche of others – influence is a most intricate and ineffable affair. In O’Brien’s fictional universe everything is interconnected through acts of tribute, parody, irony, and mimicry, and his own novels are a series of playful palimpsests as endlessly complex as Borges’s Library of Babel.
Although influence remains a slippery concept, the indelible fingerprints of O’Brien’s writings can still be found on dozens of works of fiction; here are just a few of the more compelling examples.
1. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges – Borges reviewed At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939, claiming that it was a more complex “verbal labyrinth” than Don Quixote and The Thousand and One Nights. This was five years before his own Ficciones was published (although “The Garden of Forking Paths” first appeared in 1941). Borges’s stories feature labyrinthine narratives that echo the multi-layered nature of being, or as he observed in his review of At Swim, citing Schopenhauer, “dreaming and wakefulness are the pages of a single book, and that to read them in order is to live, and to leaf through them at random, to dream. Paintings within paintings and books that branch into other books help us to sense this oneness.” O’Brien was clearly hovering in his imagination as Borges’s own great labyrinths began to take flight.
2. Travelling People by B.S. Johnson – In his 2005 biography of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe notes how Johnson was so enamoured with At Swim-Two-Birds that he composed one chapter of his debut novel, Travelling People (1963), “in close imitation of its style.” This O’Brienesque homage was eventually deleted at the suggestion of Johnson’s agent (though it was later included in Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? in 1973). Nonetheless, Travelling People still bears the traces of O’Brien’s dazzling metafiction. Compare, for instance, the opening lines of Johnson’s book –“Seated comfortably in a wood and wickerwork chair of eighteenth-century Chinese manufacture, I began seriously to meditate upon the form of my allegedly full-time literary sublimations” – to the opening lines of At Swim: “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and… reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities.”
3. Birchwood by John Banville – Banville’s early metafiction, Birchwood (1973), plugs directly into the tradition of fictional (and anachronistic) history, self-conscious framebreaking, and extensive intertextual borrowings (e.g. Granny Godkin dies by instantaneous combustion, à la Dickens’s Krook from Bleak House). However, the travelling circus winding its way through a nightmarish Ireland owes much to The Third Policeman, with its bizarre cast of characters, irregular spatiality, and constant threat of violence. A potent mix of history and mad fable, Birchwood was a starting point from which Banville quickly progressed; even so, this early novel remains pivotal to his subsequent career.
4. Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino – in Mulligan Stew (1979), Antony Lamont – a minor character in At Swim – is reborn as “Antony Lamont,” a would-be writer who is trying to write a “Sur-Neofictional” murder mystery. However, as in At Swim, the characters in Lamont’s novel resist the authority of their author-god and refuse to conform. Sorrentino’s stew of multiple textual fragments is composed of a complex medley of source material, but the guiding fictive hand is clearly O’Brien’s.
5. If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino – Calvino almost certainly modelled his fictional author Silas Flannery on Flann O’Brien (Calvino actually worked for O’Brien’s Italian translator). If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979) is a fitting tribute to the master of self-conscious borrowings, and there is something wonderfully apt about reimagining O’Brien as a character-author in a Chinese-box novel. Both If on a winter’s night and At Swim feature lively writer-narrators, although Calvino admits the role of the reader more significantly than his predecessor. Appropriately enough, Calvino himself becomes a fictional character-author within his own novel, mirroring the fictionalisation of authorship in O’Brien.
6. Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray – The epilogue to Lanark (1981) includes a series of footnotes where the implied author acknowledges some of his metafictional debts: the “confrontation of fictional character by fictional author from Flann O’Brien; a hero, ignorant of his past, in a subfuse modern Hell, also from Flann O’Brien; and, from T.S. Eliot, Nabokov and Flann O’Brien, a parade of irrelevant erudition through grotesquely inflated footnotes.” Within this “Index of Plagiarisms,” the sinister Parish of The Third Policeman is undoubtedly one of templates for the nightmarish city of Unthank: “Modern afterworlds are always infernos, never paradisos,” muses Gray, “presumably because the modern secular imagination is more capable of debasement than exaltation.”
7. City by Alessandro Baricco – City (1999) is a classic Italian variant of the postmodern novel. Like At Swim, it is laced with narrative digressions, embedded tales, worlds-within-worlds, freakish characters, lists, and all kinds of self-conscious games. However, in its fascination with the odd possibilities of scientific method, City more closely resembles The Third Policeman. At its centre lies a child prodigy-scientist; there are continual disruptions of time and space; it features a Professor Kilroy who has an “oddly Irish face” but isn’t Irish; and a Professor Martens who has a passion for bicycles and a wildly unorthodox scientific vision. Echoes of de Selby are everywhere.
8. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski – In The Third Policeman an unreliable narrator murders an old man in order to get the money to publish a book about an eccentric philosopher (who may or may not exist). In Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves (2000), an unreliable narrator discovers a manuscript by a deceased old man about a mysterious documentary film (which may or may not exist). The putative film describes a strange and uncanny house whose interior dimensions begin to expand towards infinity, all of which leads to madness and death. House of Leaves has been compared to Borges and The Blair Witch Project, but its core structural and thematic conceit surely owes more to the monstrous architecture of O’Brien’s absurdist masterpiece.
9. Jude: Level 1 by Julian Gough – While American writers have been queuing up to emulate O’Brien, Irish authors have been slower to follow suit. With a few exceptions – Michael Mullen’s Kelly (1981) or Patrick McGinley’s The Devil’s Diary (1988), for instance – the contemporary Irish novel has tended towards lyrical realism as its dominant mode. More recently, though, Irish writers such as Mike McCormack, Kevin Barry, and Julian Gough have begun to explore the possibilities of the O’Brien legacy. Unlike most writerly Flanneurs, who tend to privilege At Swim and The Third Policeman, Gough’s wildly comic picaresque, Jude: Level 1 (2007), draws on the entire O’Brien oeuvre. Almost fifty years after O’Brien’s death, the Irish novel might yet be redeemed from the drab tyranny of realism.
10. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne – Perhaps the greatest of all compliments is that Flann O’Brien contributed to the making of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67). Quite simply, O’Brien’s shaping of what we now term postmodern fiction helped to ensure that the direct link between Sterne and the contemporary novel would gain greater public traction. When Samuel Johnson famously dismissed Tristram Shandy as being too “odd” to last, he didn’t allow for the enduring oddness of Flann O’Brien. O’Brien’s extreme self-consciousness, his embracing of digression as a legitimate literary mode, his use of the posthumous narrator (a near relative of Sterne’s narrator of a prenatal life), and his parodic use of footnotes, all prepared a twentieth-century audience for an eighteenth-century oddity.