Notes on The III International Flann O’Brien Conference

Last week I spent four days in the company of Flanneurs, Mylesians, academics, authors, onlookers and whiskey-drinkers. All drawn together by a fascination with the works of… well, it depends. For some he’s Brother Barnabas of Comhthrom Féinne fame; to the Cruiskeen Lawn aficionados he’s Myles na gCopaleen; a few refer to him as George Knowall or John Doe; the strictly accurate call him by his real name, Brian O’Nolan (or even more accurately, Brian Ó Nualláin); but to me, he is and will always be, Flann O’Brien, the author of a perfect novel.

James Ellis
The plausible impossible

We had gathered together in Prague, at Charles University, for ‘Metamorphoses: The III International Flann O’Brien Conference’. I was there to present my paper titled: Parallel Explorations of the Boundaries between Fiction and Real-Life.

I felt on the boundary myself. At least two of the authors I was citing were also at the conference and the range of papers being presented was so wide it genuinely made my head spin (although there is some speculation that the Kozel beer was a greater cause of my giddiness). There were over 40 papers to be read, and the panels within which they were framed had themes as diverse as modernist poetics, politics, philosophy, humour, sport, metafiction, translation, transliteration, alcohol and alchemy.

What would the great man have made of it all? Why, he would have loved it, of course: the debates, the detailed academic analysis, the occasional tenuous leaps of interpretation, the frankly wild flights of fancy, the social side – oh yes, especially the social side. This was a conference that looked after its attendees. Take a look at this programme of social events:

James Ellis
Meeting Charles Sheehan
  • a reception hosted by Charles Sheehan, Ambassador of Ireland to the Czech republic;

    Val O'Donnell
    Val O’Donnell
  • a lunchtime performance by Val O’Donnell from his Flann’s Yer Only Man & Other Mylesiana;
  • Kevin Barry, author of City of Bohane in conversation with Maebh Long;
  • a walking tour of literary Prague;
  • a theatre performance of Will the Real Flann O’Brien…? A Life in Five Scenes by Gerry Smyth & Co.;
  • a whiskey tasting with Fionnan O’Connor, author of A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey; and of course
  • a final, farewell dinner.

It was no coincidence that the theme of the conference was metamorphosis and the venue was Prague – Kafka’s neck of the woods. Nor was it a coincidence that so many of the speakers felt that through books such as An Béal Bocht, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman they could point to their own process of transformation. Certainly my attitude to bicycle saddles underwent a profound change after reading The Third Policeman.

Next year, on April the 1st, it will be fifty years to the day since Flann O’Brien died. He was only 54. It doesn’t matter how you know him – Myles, Flann, Brian – it’s his work that matters. It matters to me and it matters to all the people at the conference who made it such an enjoyable, informative and inclusive experience.

And it should matter to you because he was a genuinely great writer, and such creatures are few and far between.

Thanks to the conference organisers: Ondřej Pilný, Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan; to the Centre for Irish Studies at Charles University; and to the International Flann O’Brien Society. Also to Val O’Donnell, John Wyse Jackson and Rachel Darling – hope to see you all again soon. 

Metamorphosis: Bean Bags, Flann O’Brien & Getting It Out There

A year has passed since I submitted the first 25,000 words of my novel as part of a creative writing MSt. Since then I have written, re-written, abandoned, restructured and despaired of, the remaining 60,000 words. Writing a novel takes time. Writing a novel is like grappling with a 100-foot long bean bag.

But I’m almost there and like many unknown writers who sense the final full-stop, I’ve started to think about how I’m going to ‘get it out there’.

Despite blogging in praise of literary agents I’ve found myself toying with the phrase ‘self-publishing’, and peering with an almost guilty fascination at the success of Nick Spalding, Hugh Howie, Amanda Hocking et al. Self-publishing seems to be so empowering; so liberating; and, I believe, sometimes so necessary.

Take Flann O’Brien, for instance.

This great writer has been on my mind a lot lately. Not least because there is an International Flann O’Brien Society and I’m presenting a paper at their annual conference in Prague, and his debut novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), is one of my primary sources. It’s a wonderful story: clever, satirical, exuberant, metafictional and very, very funny. Graham Greene liked it, so did Dylan Thomas and so did James Joyce.

I like his second novel, The Third Policeman, even more. In fact, I think it’s perfect. But when he submitted it to his publisher in 1940 it was rejected. O’Brien took this badly and told everyone he had lost the manuscript. But the story goes that really he placed it on his sideboard and then ignored it every day for the next 26 years. It was published posthumously and so he never saw it reviewed and lauded as a masterpiece.

I wonder how much impact that rejection had on his later writing, and whether as a result, other masterpieces were never written. That furrows my brow so much that I’ve taken to imagining Flann O’Brien receiving the rejection and logging on to the internet shouting, ‘It’s time for the Plain People of Writing to stand up for themselves’. I’ve started to imagine him self-publishing The Third Policeman on a 1940’s equivalent of a Kindle.

(In my defence, my paper for the conference is titled Parallel Explorations of the Boundaries Between Fiction & Real-Life. So perhaps I’m a bit out of kilter.)

Anyway, when I return from Prague it will be time to get back to my 100-foot long bean bag which I think is arranged as neatly as it can be – or at least as neatly as I can arrange it.  And now that all the writing, re-writing, abandoning, restructuring and despairing is nearly done, it will be time for other people to grapple with all those words I’ve written. All I have to do is to find a way to make that happen.

In fact, all I have to do is take it off the sideboard and get it out there.

For more information on the International Flann O’Brien Society, follow this link: