Chapter One Introduction
Flann O'Brien has always been recognized as a major Irish writer, and his work has attracted much commentary. A student of novels such as At Swim-Two-Birds or The Third Policeman, however, will find that a disproportionate amount of the critical writing devoted to O'Brien deals more with James Joyce than with O'Brien himself.1 After perfunctory observations concerning the author's life and times -- he was born Brian O'Nolan, and became well-known under the journalistic pseudonym of Myles na gCopaleen -- the typical critic launches upon a comparison of some aspect or other of O'Brien's work to an illustrious precedent in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, or some other Joycean piece.
Such comparisons range from the incisive and illuminating to the dismissive and demeaning. Joseph Browne, for example, concludes "Flann O’Brien: Post Joyce or Propter Joyce" by reducing O’Brien’s career to an "attack, trying to fly beyond his imagined, ineluctable Joycean nets [with] his heart going like mad saying yes I said yes I will yes" (157). O’Brien is one of Joyce’s characters, a combination of Stephen Dedalus and Molly Bloom. Articles that appear focused on O’Brien alone, such as John Wain’s "To Write for my own Race," refer to Joyce. Wain names Joyce O’Brien’s "ultimate master" (85) in conclusion to a survey of O’Brien’s work. Joseph C. Voelker decides in his "Doublends Jined: The Fiction of Flann O’Brien," a study of the twinning of contrasts throughout O’Brien’s work, that "O’Brien must have thought of Joyce as his inescapable brother" (94). One is forced to sift through such pronouncements in most O’Brien criticism.
Joyce’s prominence in the world of Irish literature is one reason behind the combined study of O’Brien and Joyce. Niall Sheridan, O’Brien’s friend and classmate, explains that at university Joyce "was in the very air we breathed" (quoted in Browne 151). O’Brien’s comic perspective on similar scenes and locales as Joyce’s Ulysses creates an inviting target for scholars eager to hold up Joyce against another of his nation’s authors. O’Brien’s protagonist is an easy character to discuss in line with Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. Both are university students in Dublin within thirty five years of each other. Joyce’s novel is set on June 16, 1904 and O’Brien’s contemporary narrative occurs over the course of an undated academic year, but published in 1939. Del Ivan Janik’s "Flann O’Brien: The Novelist as Critic" is an excellent analysis of the connections between O’Brien’s work and Joyce’s. His treatment of O’Brien is respectful; Janik is careful to remind his readers that O’Brien is more than just a critic of Joyce. Kelly Anspaugh studies betrayal in O’Brien’s work in "Flann O’Brien: Postmodern Judas," suggesting that O’Brien’s work be seen as an act of revenge on Joyce for the constant critical comparison of their early work. Gilbert Sorrentino’s "Fictional Infinities" discusses infinity in O’Brien’s first two novels in connection to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. However illuminating these comparisons are, there is a gap in O’Brien criticism focused solely on At Swim-Two-Birds’ narrative structure. By the most conservative estimate, there are as many differences between O’Brien’s work and Joyce’s as similarities. O’Brien’s work has been considered worthy of study for those similarities, and it deserves attention in areas where it differs.
1 Anspaugh, Asbee, Browne, Clissman, Cohen, Conte, Cronin, Donovan, Esty, Gallagher, Henry, Janik, Jones, Lee, Mackenzie, Mays, O’Grady, Orvell, Peterson, Petro, Shea, Sorrentino, and Voelker cannot discuss O’Brien without Joyce. apRoberts, Del Rio Alvaro, Lanters, O’Hara, and Pratt are the only critics in the below bibliography to resist the comparison.