Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Best of Myles, by Flann O’Brien

Since you ask, yes, I am reading mainly funny books at the moment – I am badly in need of fun. Is it working? Yes, I think on balance it probably is. Re-reading Beachcomber recently, much as I love him, I was reminded that my true favourite is the even wilder Flann O’Brien, in his newspaperman guise Myles na Gopaleen. Myles and Beachcomber are often compared, and they do have some themes in common (mad inventors, chaotic courtrooms full of egotistical jurists) – but Myles is (even) funnier, more savage, more fantastical, and with, for this English reader, a wisp of the exotic in his Irishness.

Brian O’Nolan (1911-1966) was a civil servant in Dublin; his literary alter ego, Flann O’Brien, plagued the Irish Times with spoof letters, and in 1940 he was engaged to write a column for the paper under another layer of anonymity as Myles na Gopaleen (as civil servants were not allowed to write under their own name), with the title Cruiskeen Lawn (‘Little brimming jug’). Flann O’Brien is also known for a handful of novels, commercial flops in their day, but valued highly by many readers, after Graham Greene championed his first novel At Swim-Two-Birds. Initially he wrote the column in Irish, then alternately in English and Irish, then for the most part in English. He mercilessly mocked the seriousness of Dublin’s cultural life, cast doubt on the intelligence and taste of his fellow-citizens, and disparaged the ignorance of The Plain People of Ireland, all with the greatest of glee and a skill with words that is hard to match. The sharp satire is interspersed and disarmed by really great jokes – often disgraceful puns that are the pay off lines to egregious anecdotes of ‘Keats and Chapman’. The Plain and the Not-so Plain People of Ireland couldn’t get enough of this, and he continued to write the column until his death (long after being sacked from his civil service post for caricaturing too cleverly to be mistaken the Minister of his department). The Best of Myles is a collection from the first five years of the column, when he was at his most exuberant. Kevin O’Nolan in his introduction tells us that his mood became progressively darker as the years progressed.

So, with what can I tempt you? Book-handling? Your very own instant library, handled, mauled, dog-eared and annotated by trained readers. For a little extra, you can have your own forged inscription in your favourite work (‘From your devoted friend and follower, K Marx.’) Or else, to advance your cultural credentials even more, a voice-throwing escort to the Abbey Theatre, to provide both sides of your sparkling repartee. The ventriloquist escorts joke spins off into wilder and wilder tales of blackmail by unscrupulous escorts (‘Pay me 25s instantly or I’ll make a holy show of you …’)

These lunacies take up the first section of The Best of Myles, but he is only limbering up. I think Myles’s legendary creation is The Brother – a character who never appears, but whose Work of National Importance is retailed to Myles by The Brother’s brother as he and Myles wait for their respective buses.

Half the crowd above in the digs are off to Arklow for a week Tursda. On their holliers, you know.
I see. Is your relative travelling also?
The brother? Not at all man. Yerrah, not at all. Shure the brother can’t leave town.
Is that a fact? Why not?
The brother has to stop in town for the duration of the emergency. The Government do be callin the brother in for consultations. Of course that’s between you, me and Jack Mum. The brother gave a promise to a certain party not to leave town during the emergency. He has to stand by. Because if something happened that could only be fixed up by the brother, how could your men be chasin after him on the telephone down to Strand Street, Skerries, where he goes every year to the married sister’s?
Admittedly it would be awkward
Sure, you couldn’t have that, man. You can’t run a country that way.

As well as saving the country, the brother knows more about public health than any doctor, diagnosing the landlady’s ills, dashing her cup of tea from her hand before testing the drinking water, and banning white bread in the digs. And each time, Myles is saved by the words ‘Begob, here’s me bus’ (or ‘Begob shoh kooin mo bhus. Slawn lat anish!’)

Myles periodically harangues The Plain People of Ireland, who come in to interrupt his flights of fancy (‘Is this going to be long?’ ). He writes long, technically intricate (and I’m told accurate) pieces about steam locomotives and how they are driven. He catalogues Bores (The Man Who Can Pack, The Man Who Does His Own Carpentry (‘This man also makes all his own coffins. The bought ones aren’t a job, he avers’), The Man With The Watch.

Myles is enthralled by language and drunk on words. Some of them are in Irish, and I’m hoping that someone reading this might come along and tell me if the best jokes aren’t hidden in there. When writing in English about the Irish language, he’s fascinating – describing a nation rediscovering its language after centuries of suppression as a literary and civic medium. But in any language he has the highest standards for style and elegance. The best, or worst thing that Myles ever did for me is to invent the Catechism of Cliche. It’s terrifying – he has two techniques – one is to extract the hackneyed phrase by catechism:

What does it behove us to proclaim?
Our faith.
In what does it behove us to proclaim our faith?
Democracy.
From what vertiginous eyrie does it behove us to proclaim our faith in democracy?
From the house-tops.
At what time should we proclaim our faith in democracy from the house-tops?
Now, more than ever.
What action must be taken in relation to our energies?
They must be directed.
In what unique manner?
Wholeheartedly.
In what direction?
Towards the solution of the pressing post-war problems which the armistice will bring.
How will the armistice bring these problems?
In its train.
By what is the train hauled?
A 2-4-2 compound job with poppet valves and Pacific-style steam chest.

Or else he takes a passage, generally journalism, and brackets every cliche, leaving scarcely a word unbracketed. I may do that to this post – I know I will find it salutary. In fact, writing about Flann O’Brien is somewhat intimidating – how many brackets would HE place around the words I’ve used? For instance, early on in the piece I initially wrote ‘a faint whiff of the exotic‘, saw those brackets in my mind’s eye and changed (‘faint whiff’) to ‘wisp‘. There, I’ve confessed. Now I’m worried he’d put brackets round (mind’s eye) …..

It’s possible to detect an influence of Myles na Gopaleen on Beachcomber, and vice versa, but each has a unique gift of language. Another connoisseur of the absurd, Spike Milligan, is certainly in debt to Flann O’Brien. (I think we might have the influence of F O’B to thank for ‘All you need is a shovel’ – it’s just his style.) Myles stands out for me through the sheer exhilaration of his use of words, his fierce courage in saying exactly what he meant, and for his effortless switching between voices – his own, the Dublin ‘culturati’ and the Plain People of Ireland. He is a genius, and oh so very, VERY funny.

Flann O’Brien (as Myles na Gopaleen): The Best of Myles. Harper Perennial, 2007. 400pp
ISBN13: 9780007247189

15 comments on “The Best of Myles, by Flann O’Brien

  1. RosyB
    April 6, 2011

    I have not read this, to my shame. And I would like to. I still remember a brilliant production of At-Swim-Two-Birds adapted by Alex Johnston in Dublin. Been meaning to read it ever since. This has spurred me on. Or maybe I should read Myles first.

  2. kirstyjane
    April 6, 2011

    Comrade H, I never cease to be surprised at the humourists we have in common… Thank you for this wonderful piece about a wonderful author!

  3. Moira
    April 6, 2011

    Chalk him up as one of mine, too. My copy of At-Swim-Two-Birds is one of my treasured possessions … A lovely piece about a class act …

  4. Pingback: The Best of Myles, by Flann O’Brien (via Vulpes Libris) | The Calculable

  5. Nikki
    April 7, 2011

    I have never heard of this author before and I’m clearly missing out hugely. Will hunt him out next time I’m at the library. Thanks for the discovery, Hilary.

  6. Chris
    April 9, 2011

    Gosh it’s years since I came across Flann O’Brien… another book to add to the list.

  7. Hilary
    October 5, 2011

    It’s Flann O’Brien’s Centenary today – 5th October 2011. I salute him! I found out today that there is a film version in production of At Swim-Two-Birds, due in 2013. Lots of well-loved Irish actors involved, headed by Brendan Gleeson. Something to look forward to!

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/05/flann-obrien-loveable-literary-genius?newsfeed=true

  8. Pingback: Vodka in the jar « Vulpes Libris

  9. Q
    October 31, 2012

    YOU WROTE : “Some of them are in Irish, and I’m hoping that someone reading this might come along and tell me if the best jokes aren’t hidden in there”

    No, not this go-round, rest assured. The “or ‘Begob shoh kooin…'” sequence is simply a repetition of the “Here’s me bus” excuse in Gaelic with the addition of a “Good-bye now” as “Slawn lat anish!”, but all spelled in English phonetics (thus causing it to resemble Manx more than anything else !). Otherwise, you’re safe here, because “Tursda” is just “Thursday” in dialect.The Flann Man was certainly fluent in the Gaelic, for he could, at will, use it in earnest or abuse it for larks. There are plenty of impedimenta Gadelica amongst his works, yes, but in any event, if you encounter that one delicious insult word of his, to wit, thooleramawn, a variant form of looderamaun, keep in mind it means “galoot, t’ick eejit, bloody great ox”.

    Cheers for a Happy Hallowe’en,
    ~Q~

    The monk then chained Old Clootie down, despite his yells and cries,
    And from that day—the Bonnsmen say—in thraldom thus he lies,
    Because, from dread of direr dool, he dares not try to rise.

    http://manganpaper.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/the-devil-and-the-wind/

    Otherwise, you’re away in hack, because “Tursda” is just “Thurday” in dialect.

  10. Q
    October 31, 2012

    My apologies, in that that last line in my commentary above is extraneous and erroneous, so remove it if you like. ~Q~

  11. Cairngorm
    December 28, 2012

    I just came across “The Cliche Expert” by Frank Sullivan, collected in the Everyman book “Modern Humour” in 1940. It’s a long piece in exactly Myles’s style.

  12. Sean Russell
    August 25, 2013

    This chap seems to have been inspired by him

    http://essaydensushing.blogspot.co.uk/

  13. Indeed a nice piece on a fantastic book, a yellowing copy of which (with Ralph Steadman drawing on cover) sits at the head of me bed and has inspired many feeble attempts to get anywhere near the astounding mix of brilliance and insanity thereincontained — One brief example, not even a particularly good one but The Plain People do manage an intrusion: http://proverbialbejesus.blogspot.com/2011/05/added-value.html

  14. Buddha
    April 18, 2014

    I love The Best of Myles, as well as O’Brien’s novels.

  15. Pingback: Why I Didn't Need Journalism School - Pyragraph

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This entry was posted on April 6, 2011 by in Entries by Hilary, Happy Reads, Non-fiction: Humour and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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