The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien

Second paragraph of third story (“Eachta an Fhir Ólta: CEOL!,” translated by Jack Fennell as “The Tale of the Drunkard: MUSIC!”; sadly the original Irish-language text is not available):

“What is the meaning of this? What’s wrong with you!” I said. “It’d be more in your line to be in bed, instead of staggering around drunk all over the city like this. You’d be better off if you turned your back on the drink, and your face to the fireplace—an intelligent, mild-mannered man such as yourself—and took up another hobby, like fretwork, or listening to the gramophone. . . .”

I got this in preparation for the Flann O’Brien panel at the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, but I confess that I only skimmed it then. It’s a short collection of short pieces by the great man. The most interesting stuff is at the beginning, where he pokes fun at Irish language enthusiasts in a couple of pieces originally written in Irish (and heavily footnoted to explain the humour). Most of the middle section is material being tried out for deployment elsewhere (the story about the young man who was born for Ireland gets used twice).

At the end, Jack Fennell presents a story which he is certain is by a 21-year-old Flann O’Brien, and published in 1932 in, of all places, Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories – “Naval Control”, as by “John Shamus O’Donnell”. He has argued the case further in a recent Journey Planet, and I for one am convinced. How glorious, that Gernsback may have published the future author of The Third Policeman!

To be honest, I think this is really a book for Flann O’Brien completists, but there are a lot of us about, and it comes with a good foreword and scholarly apparatus. I don’t think any of the stories even clears the first step of the Bechdel test. But you can get it here.

This was my top book acquired in 2019 which is not by H.G. Wells. Next on that pile is The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless.

Keats and Chapman Wryed Again, by Steven A. Jent

Third joke in full, with footnote:

Chapman had been in Harrod’s recently when a salesperson asked him to try a cologne just introduced by Armani. The advertisements made much of the fact that this new fragrance, simply named Amore, combined the most striking elements of other famous Armani scents: a trace of Code, a hint of Mania, overtones of Acqua di Gio, and plenty of Attitude. Chapman thought it quite manly, but to Keats it sounded like nothing but a mélange of incompatible odors. “So”, he sniffed dismissively, “what they’re telling us is Love is Armani’s blended thing.”3

3 Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing
Title of a 1955 movie, and the theme song by Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain

A fannish tribute to Flann O’Brien’s Keats and Chapman stories, though I am not super convinced that it was worth the effort. You can get it here. The shortest unread book on my shelves that I had acquired in 2017; next on that pile is Letters from Klara, by Tove Jansson.

The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman: Including the Brother, by Flann O’Brien

Second paragraph of third joke:

‘I like to sit with my back to the engine,’ he explained.

I had read this as a teenager, which I went through my Flann O’Brien phase, and approached re-reading it with some trepidation; would the Suck Fairy have visited this collection of excruciating puns based around a totally fictional friendship between John Keats (1795-1821) and George Chapman (1559-1634)?

I’m afraid so. I am sure that over the table in a bar, Flann O’Brien would have told these with gusto, his face barely twitching as he reached the end and his friends collapsed with hilarity. But culture has moved on since his time, especially in Ireland, and a lot of the stories are laboured journeys to an uninspiring punchline. Here is one of the less aged ones:

One winter’s evening Keats looked up to find Chapman regarding him closely. He naturally enquired the reason for this scrutiny.

‘I was thinking about those warts on your face,’ Chapman said. ‘

What about them?’ the poet said testily. ‘

Oh, nothing,’ Chapman said. ‘It just occurred to me that you might like to have them removed.’

‘They are there for years,’ Keats said, ‘and I don’t see any particular reason for getting worried about them now.’

‘But they are rather a blemish,’ Chapman persisted. ‘I wouldn’t mind one – but four fairly close together, that’s rather—’

‘Four?’ Keats cried. ‘There were only three there this morning!’

‘There are four there now,’ Chapman said.

‘That’s a new one on me,’ Keats said.

You see what I mean?

The book also includes the script of Eamon Morrissey’s one-man show based on O’Brien’s work, “The Brother”, where the punchline is that although many claim to have died for Ireland, the barman was born for Ireland (in that his mother distracted a hostile British soldier at just the right moment to save the narrator). It’s a cringeworthy set-up, but it also sparks the interesting thought that there has been very little writing about gender-based violence during the Irish conflicts of the early 1920s. Can there really have been none at all?

This is minor stuff compared with The Third Policeman or At Swim-Two-Birds. But you can get it here.

This was the non-genre book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves (I don’t think the stories are very sfnal, even if Keats and Chapman lived two centuries apart in real life, and most of the stories are set long after Keats’ time, never mind Chapman’s). Next on that pile is a rather different matter, Letters from Klara, by Tove Jansson.