An Irish civil servant who wrote under a pen name to keep his work out of sight of his employers, Flann O'Brien -- born Brian O’Nolan -- is now seen as one of the key figures in postmodern literature. But during his lifetime, his books were overlooked, despite finding fans like Graham Greene, who said of "At Swim-Two-Birds," O'Brien's first novel, "I read it with continual excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage."
The Economist's More Intelligent Life writes:
Despite the pseudonym, everyone in Dublin’s incestuous literary circles knew him. When he started openly mocking the civil service and expressing political opinions — a serious transgression for an employee of the state — he was invited to retire at age 42, in 1953. His pension, together with the slender income from his writing, might have let him succeed as a novelist. But O’Nolan was better at self-sabotage than self-promotion, and he died at 54 of cancer and alcoholism. He still left behind five novels, three of uneven quality and two, “At Swim-Two-Birds” and “The Third Policeman,” that are among the greatest accomplishments in English-language fiction.
"The man was ingenious and learned like Jim Joyce and like Sam Beckett gave the reader a sweet dose of hopelessness but unlike either of these worthies did not arrive at what we might call artistic resolution. His novels begin with a swoop and a song but end in an uncomfortable murk and with an air of impatience," John Updike wrote in the New Yorker in 2008, looking back on O'Brien's ouevre.
O'Brien may find more fans if a planned movie adaptation of "At Swim-Two-Birds" comes to fruition. Actor Brendan Gleeson has secured funding to make a film version of the metafiction -- in it, a student's fictional characters rebel and take over part of his story. Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Gabriel Byrne have all been said to be connected to the picture.
Flann O'Brien's books are all available in the U.S. through the Dalkey Archive Press, which takes its name from the author's fifth novel, originally published in 1964.
-- Carolyn Kellogg