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.

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