Flann O’Brien

By: James Parker
October 5, 2009

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The myth of FLANN O’BRIEN (Brian O’Nolan, 1911-66) is that he squandered himself in the smalltime, wrote too much for the newspapers and not enough for the ages, gassed off his libido in puffs of wit or washed it away under black smotherings of drink. But his art, like his life, was an experiment in dead ends: a paradigmatically dull career and a production-line writing schedule provided ideal circumstances for his strange, back-of-the-classroom creativity. The man who would be private secretary to three successive Ministers for Local Government wrote a novel about monstrous policemen who talk in surreal pedantries and are obsessed with bicycle maintenance. A five-times-a-week newspaper column, often typed on Civil Service stationery, became the occasion for flights of comic avant-gardism. But the wildest of his fancies retained a quality of being improvised against tedium, even against despair. “Tiny periods of release from intolerable suffering is the most that any individual has the right to expect,” he wrote in a 1958 column. The question that remains, then, is one he posed himself in his column: “How can you always write so interestingly?… Seldom, I mean, have… so many things been written for so many people… by so few a man.”

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HUMORISTS at HILOBROW: Michael O’Donoghue | Jemaine Clement | Andy Kaufman | Danny Kaye | George Ade | Jimmy Durante | Jack Benny | Aziz Ansari | Don Rickles | Godfrey Cambridge | Eric Idle | David Cross | Stewart Lee | Samuel Beckett | Jerry Lewis | Joanna Lumley | Jerome K. Jerome | Phil Silvers | Edward Lear | Tony Hancock | George Carlin | Stephen Colbert | Tina Fey | Keith Allen | Russell Brand | Michael Cera | Stan Laurel | Ricky Gervais | Gilda Radner | Larry David | Chris Pontius | Dave Chappelle | Jimmy Finlayson | Paul Reubens | Peter Sellers | Buster Keaton | Flann O’Brien | Lenny Bruce | Sacha Baron Cohen | Steve Coogan | PG Wodehouse | A.J. Liebling | Curly Howard | Fran Lebowitz | Charlie Kaufman | Stephen Merchant | Richard Pryor | James Thurber | Bill Hicks | ALSO: Comedy and the Death of God

MORE FANTASY ON HILOBROW: CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM series | 65 Fantasy Adventures | Mervyn Peake | Lord Dunsany | H.P. Lovecraft | Edgar Rice Burroughs | Ursula K. LeGuin | Michael Moorcock | Gary Gygax | Clark Ashton Smith | Frank Frazetta | George MacDonald | John Bellairs | T.H. White | Wilkie Collins | M.R. James | Edgar Allan Poe | Lewis Carroll | Mikhail Bulgakov | Guy Endore | Alasdair Gray | Maurice Sendak | Tove Jansson | L. Frank Baum | Roald Dahl | Abraham Merritt | August Derleth | William Hope Hodgson | Madeleine L’Engle

READ MORE about the Partisans Generation (1904-13).

Categories

Fantasy, Haw-Haw, HiLo Heroes

What do you think?

  1. Is it Brian’s birthday today then? One of the pivotal events of my life was when I was… fourteen? and found a copy of The Third Policeman lying in the hallway of a random building. I’ve had that mocking voice–“for convenience I called him Joe”–in my head ever since.

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