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. 

A Sublime Sleight of Hand (or Why I Love The Comforters)

UNKNOWN WRITER: It is almost sixty years since the publication of Muriel Spark’s debut novel The Comforters (1957) and for me, it remains one of the finest metafictional novels of all time – all because of one simple, almost casual, feat of literary genius.

SCEPTICAL READER (yawning): Not the G-word again.

UW: Yes, the G-word again. Have you read the book?

SR: Maybe.

UW: Well, just in case, The Comforters tells the story of Caroline who has the apparent delusion that she is hearing her thoughts and actions being typed on an unseen typewriter by an entity she comes to call the Typing Ghost. After some resistance Caroline accepts her status as a fictional character but calls into question the competence of her author. She decides to take control of her own destiny by making notes of the narrative she overhears in order to write her story herself.

SR: So what? I’ve seen that conceit lots of times: an author’s intention to write a novel that is obviously fictional because the art of telling a story that they seek is exactly that – to tell a story and to be seen to be telling a story. End of.

UW: True, but look what Spark does (and barely breaks sweat as she does so): she… hang on, I’m going to have to shout… SPOILER ALERT – I’M GOING TO MENTION THE END OF THE NOVEL. I RECOMMEND YOU READ IT YOURSELF AND THEN REJOIN THIS POST.

SR: That was loud.

UW: Sorry. Anyway, what Spark does is this: she takes her fictional protagonist, Caroline, out of the novel and makes her the author of the book that we, the readers, hold in our hands.

SR: What do you mean?

UW: You have to bear in mind that The Comforters is written in the past tense, so all that happens has happened, even though it is an unfolding story for the characters.

SR: This is going to get complicated, isn’t it?

UW: Yes. So, as I said, Caroline can hear the words of the omniscient narrator. Her boyfriend, Laurence Manders, discovers the notes she’s been taking and writes to her saying that he resents the prospect of being a character in her novel.

SR: I don’t blame him.

UW: Me neither, but you see, we, the readers, see the words he writes but he destroys his letter before Caroline can see it.

SR: Right…

UW: And the novels ends (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN): “and he did not then foresee his later wonder, with a curious rejoicing, how the letter had got into the book” (The Comforters 188).

SR: I see…

UW: One sentence of sublime genius. A fabulous literary sleight of hand.

SR: I don’t get it.

UW: The implication is that Manders later reads a book that Caroline has written in which his letter appears even though he destroyed it before she could read it. That book is The Comforters. Caroline is a paradox. She is both a character in, and the author of, the unfolding events in The Comforters. She is the Typing Ghost that she can hear, and she is the author of the narrative that we are reading.

SR: Uhhh…

UW: To quote: “She was aware that the book in which she was involved was still in progress … and now she was impatient for the story to come to an end, knowing that the narrative could never become coherent to her until she was at last outside it, and at the same time consummately inside it” (The Comforters 165-166). How good is that? That’s why I love The Comforters.

SR: Ah.