Keats and Chapman (among others) 
If there is one thing that an editor resents more than anything else it is having his own work edited. He knows that being the best editor in the world would not necessarily make him a good writer, but this knowledge does not lessen the resentment.
Back in December the editor of a Melbourne magazine wrote to me and said that Lee Harding had given him my name "as a person who would perhaps be interested in writing a review of Flann O'Brien's works". I was interested, certainly, but not sure of my competence to do something like this. He stressed that he wanted just a general article about the writer and his work, rather than a profound piece of criticism, and I was thankful for that at least, since there are seven books by "Flann O'Brien" in print and each one of them is worthy of the 2000 words the editor had in mind. I told him I would do it, but not before March. On the 1st of March he rang and asked how it was coming along, and rang me again each week thereafter until I posted off the article just before Easter.
I was not happy with what I had written. After half a dozen false starts I had managed to do about 2000 words roughly along the line he wanted, but I didn't enjoy rereading the article, not the way I enjoy rereading some of my fanzine writing. The best things about it seemed to be the personal touch here and there, a few jokes, and the Keats and Chapman anecdote that I had supplied with it.
The editor wasn't happy with it either. I rang him two days ago to make sure he had received it. It was written in Nation Review style, he said, too personal and self-indulgent. "That's the way I write," I said. "It's OK if the personality is interesting," he said. I was too dejected by this stage to bother saying anything rude to him; besides, I need the money. "The Keats and Chapman story will have to go," he said, "because you haven't explained what it's about." So, with that out, and all the personal and self-indulgent bits out, I reckon he is left with about a hundred words. I look forward, in a rather dismal way, to seeing what appears under my name in his magazine. Meanwhile, here is the article I wrote.
Flann, Brian and Myles
It's a bit hard, trying to write an article about Flann O'Brien, when you know next to nothing about the man and all you have by way of recommendation for the job is an endless capacity for delight in his work. But I'll have a bash at it. When I first started reading Flann O'Brien, at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable . . . No, that'll never do.
National Alf: What will never do?
Me: Plagiarizing the man before I'm barely started.
Scrub that. Start again, scholarly like.
According to Dr Brian Cleeve's Dictionary of Irish Writers (Mercier Press, Cork, 1967), Flann O'Brien was "widely revered as The Sage of Santry". Born in Strabane, County Tyrone, in 1912, O'Brien is well known for his novels At swim two birds and The Dalkey Archives. Hang on: I'm not sure I like this scholarship ("adventures of Yeats and Chapman": Yeats and Chapman? Good grief!). Hm, turning now to James Joyce, Dr Cleeve mentions his famous novel Finnegan's Wake . . . Whatever Dr Cleeve got his doctorate for, it wasn't proofreading. Anyone want a copy of Cleeve's Dictionary of Irish Writers, cheap? No? Thonk! (Sound of slim volume entering metallic receptacle.)
Flann O'Brien, or Brian O'Nolan (as we shall call him here), was born in Strabane, County Tyrone, in 1911. Briain Ó Nuállain (pronounced "Brian O'Nolan", roughly) wrote fiction as "Flann O'Brien", and his column in the Irish Times appeared under the name "Myles na Gopaleen" (or "gCopaleen"). Benedict Kiely called him "the three-headed man", and no wonder.
"After a brilliant career at University College, Dublin," says the blurb in the Penguin edition of At Swim-Two-Birds, "he did linguistic research in Germany and then joined the Irish civil service." The latter (wrote Bangsund, making it up as he went along, having run out of Facts) O'Nolan hated, as only one who is forced to dispense Irish civility all day and write immortal novels all night can hate it. But down at the Scotch House, a pub in Dublin much patronized by up-and-coming immortal Irish novelists, O'Nolan was making a name for himself -- and getting into trouble with the publican for it, mainly because he was making his name with a penknife on the bar. The night the publican threw him out and told him to stay out he had almost finished carving the name FLYNN O'BROGAN, and he just knew he was getting close. Picking himself up from the gutter, he stood for a moment in deep thought, up to his ankles; then, whipping a piece of chalk from his pocket, he wrote in large letters on the pavement -- FLANN O'BRIEN! Then he went home, whistling a jaunty cantarachd (filksong), and composed six short stories in impeccable Irish before supper.
I can't keep this up. No, I mean, I could keep it up, but I'm supposed to be writing a sober, scholarly article of a factual and preferably uplifting nature, and I'd better get back to it. If I keep on running short of Facts, well, after all, what are Facts but lies agreed upon? (One free copy Cleeve's dictionary to the first reader to spot the misquotation.)
In 1939 O'Nolan's first novel was published, and in 1940 he started writing his "Cruiskeen Lawn" column for the Irish Times. The novel was At Swim-Two-Birds, one of the funniest books ever written, perhaps the most brilliant first novel ever published. The critics, most of them, were ecstatic about it. "I wouldn't say I was exactly ecstatic about it" said one, whose name means nothing to us today; "A book in a thousand" said Graham Greene; "The literary debut of the century" said the Spectator; "That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit" said James Joyce; "Just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl" said Dylan Thomas; "Irish pornography at its impenetrable worst," said the Grong Grong Chronicle, "and not even illustrated."
I confessed once to A.D. Hope that the novel I would most like to have written was At Swim-Two-Birds. "Ah," he said, "the throwaway Irish novel." I have never been game to ask him exactly what he meant by that, but I suspect the worst. Alec is a lovely bloke, but he's an academic too, and At Swim-Two-Birds is not an academic's novel, not by an extended calcinated writing-instrument.
National Alf: By a what?
Me: A long chalk. Sorry.
At Swim-Two-Birds is not an easy novel to get into, and even when you're in it, not an easy novel to grasp. I have read it five or six times, and each time it has amazed and delighted me, opened up new vistas of imagination, thought and language, and generally made me feel like a writer's bootlace. You probably know the feeling. At Swim-Two-Birds gives me inexhaustible joy because it so brilliantly combines a delightful story (however digressive), an introduction to Irish mythology (however oblique) and an insight, never more profoundly or hilariously presented, into the Irish sense of humor (than which only the Russian could conceivably be more human). It's the kind of book Gogol might have written if he'd been born a century later in Ireland. It's the kind of book Spike Milligan might have written if he'd had James Joyce's intellect. In fact, Spike Milligan did write a book something like this: his Puckoon (a very funny book) is a kind of At Swim-Two-Birds for beginners.
During 1940-41 O'Nolan wrote at least two novels, one of them The Third Policeman (published 1967), another An Béal Bocht (written in Gaelic, and first published in English in 1973, as The Poor Mouth). No matter how you look at it, The Poor Mouth is a vastly depressing novel. Sure, there are great helpings of humor, wit and side-splitting hilarity, but the overwhelming impression is of rain and spuds and futility, the Irishman's lot. Exaggerated, perhaps, especially to the Australian mind (despite the fact that this is precisely how many of our forebears felt about the country they had come from), but true, up to a point. There is fantasy here, too, as fantastic as anything ever imagined by the science-fiction writers, but this is true of all O'Nolan's novels.
Until a biography of Brian O'Nolan is published (or until I read it: for all I know, there may be such a book right now) I will have no idea when his novels were written. It surprises me that The Third Policeman was written so long ago, and this makes me wonder about the others. But from here on I'll go by publication dates.
In 1961 The Hard Life was published, and it is, I think, a novel only for the confirmed Flann O'Brien addict. It is good, of course, the kind of novel that would immediately secure for any Australian writer something of a reputation, but it is not up to the standard O'Nolan set elsewhere. The story has to do with one Collopy, who has dedicated himself to the noble objective of providing Dublin with rest-rooms for ladies. If for no other reason, you should read this book for the scene where Collopy meets the Pope, who finds himself being asked to exert his influence on the Corporation of Dublin for this purpose. But there are other reasons for reading it, as you will discover when you get round to it. My only strong recommendation about this book is that you should read O'Nolan's other novels before it, except The Poor Mouth, which you should read last of all.
The Dalkey Archive was published in 1964. The main characters in this story are James Joyce (a devout writer of religious tracts, who is furious about the bastard who has published those obscene novels under his name), St Augustine (yes, the Bishop of Hippo, long believed dead), a mad scientist named de Selby, and a policeman obsessed by bicycles. In many important respects, some so profound that I haven't noticed them yet, the novel harks back to or foreshadows The Third Policeman, in which de Selby and the policeman make their first or next appearance.
De Selby (to quote another great Irish writer, Walt Willis) is a kind of humorless Charles Fort, who believes that time is an illusion caused by the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere. On the theological side, de Selby believes that God lost his primeval battle with Lucifer, and he proposes to remedy the present deplorable state of affairs by annihilating time, and with it the world that Lucifer mischievously created. The book deals mainly with the efforts of the hero to prevent this catastrophe. In this he is aided by Sergeant Fottrell of the Dublin Police. The good sergeant has a bicycle, but he never rides it, for the sufficient reason provided by what he calls the Mollycule Theory. And what is that? Well, when a hammer repeatedly strikes on an anvil, you know, mollycules from the anvil will enter the hammer, and vice versa. And when human beings ride bicycles, especially on the bumpy roads of Ireland, the same process will occur. At this very moment, the sergeant assures us, many unfortunate people in Ireland have become more than half bicycle. If you can't imagine what might conceivably happen to a man who is half bicycle, or a bicycle that is half man, you must read this book. But the bikes and the mollycules are merely the beginning of the fun in this absurdly funny book.
The Third Policeman, I am given to understand by learned young friends of mine who had barely learnt to read when it was published, is O'Nolan's magnum opus. And yes, it probably is, if you don't know about Myles, and if your concept of The Novel doesn't include such sports as At Swim-Two-Birds -- and if that's the case, you probably don't like Lavengro or Tristram Shandy either. But The Third Policeman, I must admit, is the one book by Flann O'Brien that you must read, whether or not you read any of the others. Since you probably have read it, and since otherwise I'm not sure why I'm writing this, I will say nothing about the book at all.
Flann O'Brien's Stories and Plays appeared in 1973. They include an unfinished novel, Slattery's Sago Saga (which is just so good that you could cry at the injustice of O'Nolan's dying so young), a handful of little stories and plays, all delightful, and an essay on James Joyce, an essay as unlike your conventional essay, and as fine an exposition of what Joyce was about, as you're ever likely to encounter.
If Brian O'Nolan had written nothing else but his five novels (five and a half, if you count Slattery's Sago Saga), in fact, if he had never written anything but At Swim-Two-Birds or The Third Policeman, he would rightly be regarded as one of the finest writers of our time. But he wrote so much else!
From 1940 O'Nolan kept up his "Cruiskeen Lawn" column for the Irish Times until his untimely death in 1966.I can't attempt to describe Myles' column. (Since people like James Thurber, S.J. Perelman and Claud Cockburn have tried and failed, despite their admiration for it, I don't feel too bad about that.) O'Nolan put into it everything he was interested in, and that was rather more than most newspaper columnists have ever heard of. In 1968 MacGibbon & Kee published a book called The Best of Myles, a selection of the best stuff O'Nolan wrote for his column during the period 1940-45, and it's fabulous. I've never read a funnier book. Look at those dates again: 1940-45. How much wartime humor have you read that, with the best will in the world, you can even stomach -- let alone fall over yourself laughing at? Not much, if you're anything like me. There are those who say that Myles' column went off a bit after the war, that the last twenty-odd years of it wasn't quite up to the standard we see in this book. I'm afraid I can't comment on that, not having read more of the column than is in this book, but I know I would like to read more.
Anyway, I gather that The Best of Myles has recently been reprinted in a Picador paperback. Do yourself a favor: buy it. If you don't die laughing, you're too good for this world.
I have come to the end of the published works of Brian O'Nolan. But O'Nolan lives, believe me, he lives. Up-and-coming immortal Irish authors swear by him, so I'm told, and to this day the Irish Times goes on reprinting his column. Not only that. Quite apart from anything else he ever wrote or inspired, O'Nolan is directly responsible for a rash of spurious anecdotes of Keats and Chapman. One of mine appears on this page.
Now may the Good Lord and his Policemen smile upon thee and me, and help each and every one of us to write as well as O'Nolan did.
Keats and Chapman were discussing poetry.
"I have often wondered", said Keats, "what exactly is meant by the expression 'poetic justice'."
"I always imagined it to be a singularly appropriate punishment meted out to some wrongdoer," said Chapman. "And such a thing, with respect, seems to happen more frequently in poetic creations than in real life. On the other hand, it may have its origin in some historical occurrence."
"Such as?" said Keats.
"I am thinking," said Chapman, "if you will forgive me, of some possible connexion between the bard and the barred, the court and the caught, the, ah . . ."
"I am finding it difficult to forgive you," said Keats.
"So sorry," said Chapman. "But you can perhaps imagine some learned judge, in some far-off time, handing down his decisions in verse . . ."
"I cannot," said Keats.
". . . and becoming known far and wide as the Poetic Justice," Chapman continued. "I can just see him, addressing some quivering miscreant thus:
'I find the accused a veritable worm!
Sweet Thames, run softly, till you end your term.'"
"Lord preserve us," moaned Keats.
"Or: 'Bid daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
For thou art in the jug for fifteen years.'"
"Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour!" sobbed Keats.
"Or: 'The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
But winding slowly o'er the rack's for thee!'"
"Enough! Enough!" cried Keats.
"Really?" said Chapman. "Do you accept my hypothesis?"
"Oh, certainly," said Keats, in a rare outburst of sarcasm. "I don't know how to thank you for this brilliant conjecture!"
"All retributions gracefully conceived," Chapman murmured modestly.
Stunned Mullet 7, June 1977
Keats and Chapman (among others)
Keats and Chapman once got tired of standing around waiting for cheap air fares and stowed away on a tramp steamer, which, it turned out, wasn't going where they wanted to go anyway. Two days out they were discovered and offered the choice of working their passage or leaving the ship instantly. Some days later, while they were scrubbing the decks, Keats (who was in a foul mood) snarled at Chapman, "Where's the bloody soap?" Chapman said, quite cheerfully, "By jove, it does, doesn't it!" Keats said a rude nautical word and threw his bucket at him.
Benedict Kiely, in his introduction to The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, and The Brother (Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1976), sums up the whole Keats and Chapman business in his first sentence: "It is a game." The fun of it, he says, after you've read Myles' stories and studied his method, "is in trying to do it yourself, in drawing out the tale, accumulating the fantasy to the point of sadism, then in crashing home with the flat desolating pun".
I have been writing apocryphal anecdotes of Keats and Chapman for eight or nine years now -- I started not long after I recovered from my first reading of The Best of Myles -- but until I found a copy of The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman and read Kiely's piece I had no idea just how many other people could be silly enough to drive themselves to distraction trying to imitate the inimitable Myles' Keats and Chapman stories. Kiely quotes a couple of them, and they're awful. They are not more awful than mine, and they are not more awful than a lot of Myles', but no-one seems yet to have matched the best work of the inventor of this odd genre.
I knew that some other people had tried to write Keats and Chapman stories. When I published my little piece about Brian O'Nolan/Flann O'Brien/Myles na Gopaleen in Scythrop 22 (April 1971), I urged readers to do just that, and I have since published stories by Robert Bloch, Archie Mercer, John Julian, Jack Wodhams, George Turner, Elisabeth Le Guin and others -- but they were responding to my stories, not to Myles'.
Kiely says that generally the Keats and Chapman story starts with a pun rather than a story, "but then that's a matter of accident, inspiration, individual style". That is my experience too. I make lots of puns -- perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a lot of puns happen to me -- but I don't write many Keats and Chapman stories. Usually the story comes when I have a pun that I can imagine Keats and Chapman being party to. More often than not the pun that occurs to me doesn't suit them at all, and I have to save it up for one of my impromptu displays of wit in conversation (or if it's too awful even for that, sell it to Phillip Adams).
I have my own mental picture of Keats and Chapman, and I think the two men in my head are rather different from O'Nolan's. Mine are somehow gentler, less worldly-wise, than his. His Keats and Chapman quite often are little better than con men, mixed up in all sorts of shady business, and he treats them accordingly, with little respect and occasionally something approaching cruelty. I tried in the story that heads this ramble to write a more Mylesian piece, but you can see that I failed. Stowing away on a tramp steamer is the most criminal thing my Keats and Chapman have ever done, and I tried to bring out a blacker side of Keats, but the whole attempt collapsed the moment Chapman spoke. Any old pun at all seems to have been good enough for O'Nolan's Keats and Chapman to perpetrate, but mine are quite finicky. Recently, you may recall, they advised me that they would have no part in a proposed story about the faking of statistics by a prominent evangelist who had visited Prague and other middle-European cities, on the ground that it would involve them in the fraudulent conversion of Czechs. Myles, I think, wouldn't have hesitated: his Keats and Chapman would have been right there masquerading as evangelists from the first sentence. To what unfortunate character trait should I attribute my refusal to accept Keats and Chapman for what they are? I grieve for my lost youth and retained innocence.
There are 85 Keats and Chapman stories in The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, and if you read them all in one go you'll make yourself sick. I don't know how you can avoid this, unless you have the four Myles collections and a great deal of will-power. Then you could try limiting yourself to three or four pages from each volume each day, preferably at random, and this might give you something like the feeling of having read a brilliant newspaper column -- but frankly, I haven't got that sort of self-discipline. Kevin O'Nolan, Benedict Kiely and the publishers would be doing us a great favor if they took the 800-odd pages of Myles from the four books and rearranged the material to form one gigantic column. They are unlikely to do this.
The four books: The Best of Myles, published in 1968 by MacGibbon & Kee, since reissued as a Picador paperback. 400 pages. This is the collection to have if you can't afford the lot. There are forty-odd Keats and Chapman stories, but they account for little more than one-twentieth of the book. If I have given you the wrong impression of Myles by going on about Keats and Chapman, consider the following. There has been a plague of ventriloquists at the theatre. Originally hired as escorts for stupid playgoers who wish to make intelligent conversation during interval but don't know how, they have turned to petty blackmail, handing their clients threatening cards like this: "Slip me a pound or I will see that you ask the gentleman beside you where he got the money to pay for his seat. Beware! Do not attempt to call for help! Signed, The Grey Spider."
I was standing smoking when a small gentleman said to me: "Excuse me for addressing a stranger, but I cannot help assuring you that it is only with the greatest difficulty that I restrain myself from letting you have a pile-driver in your grilled steak and chips, me bucko!" Instantly he produced a card and handed it to me:The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, and The Brother was published in 1976 by Hart-Davis, MacGibbon. (I sometimes wonder what happened to Mr Kee.) As well as the 85 stories there is The Brother, a monologue adapted by Eamon Morrissey from Myles' writings about that fabulous character, first staged at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, in 1974. I would love to see this performed.
Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn also appeared in 1976 from Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, drawn from the period 1947-57. The first among my favorite pieces in the book is in the section headed "Politics". Like Perelman, O'Nolan was a master of the humorous article that starts with a simple juxtaposition of apparently unrelated ideas and progresses quite naturally to the hilarious extremes of absurdity. It looks so easy when you read it, but it's a technique that eludes me. Part of the trick is knowing when to stop, and part is being a comic genius, neither of which I am good at.
"Yehudi Menuhin will be in Dublin next Saturday," Myles writes, and after a few remarks on violin-playing says that Menuhin has been reported as advocating "a world government". Two can play at this game, says Myles: if musicians can make political speeches, well then -- and we are plunged into a debate in the Dáil. A dull speech by Mr de Valera provokes some interjections, including a remark by Mr Lehane that Mr MacEntee is "a notorious Bartok merchant". There are calls for order. Mr MacEntee denies any interest in Bartok or "any other atonal practitioner". Prokofiev and Hindemith are mentioned. Mr de Valera says he has a document . . .
Mr de Valera: I have here an affidavit which I will lay before the House in due course. It states that at a meeting in Skerries Golf Club in 1935, the Minister put his name to a document asserting that consecutive fifths were admissible in serious music.And so on. From Yehudi Menuhin appealing for a world government to Éamon de Valera saying that he had made his attitude to "the Haydn quartettes" clear twenty-five years ago seems a perfectly logical progression.
The Hair of the Dogma was published by Hart-Davis, MacGibbon in 1977, and it's a similar lot, also from 1947-57. You could do a lot worse than buy all four of these books. You could steal them, for example, and develop a conscience you couldn't live with. Whatever you do, read them. And if you don't die laughing, you are -- what are you? You're an enemy of the people. Right. Something like that.
The Times Bicycle Pump Supplement, February 1979