The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien, Maebh Long, ed. Dalkey Archive Press, 2018. $26.00
“To be interesting a letter has to be offensive and it takes long practice and skill to put it in such a way that it will appear.” –Flann O’Brien
Flann O’Brien was one of the pseudonyms used by Irish author Brian O’Nolan for numerous correspondences, novels, and other scribblings from the 1930s until his death in 1966. Of this, editor Maebh Long notes that The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien is “haunted by a more scholarly, more accurate, more unwieldy title, one whose briefest form would be Collected Letters: Brian O’Nolan, Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, but which could extend to include every known and suspected name under which O’Nolan corresponded.” This is to say that Long’s project is not collecting the letters of a single persona but to put into context a group of letters as wide ranging in their content as they are in the identities suggested by their signed authors. She seeks to make understandable how all these pseudonyms relate and define each other, as well as provide texture to the real man who utilized them on a constant basis. In collecting these personalities under the one roof that is Flann O’Brien, the reader is—thanks to Long’s extremely detailed notes—able to make sense of the claptrap and noise that O’Brien seemed intent on using to obscure the man behind the personae.
Very little seems more appropriate than for the collection to open as it does: not on a letter to or from O’Brien but one from his friend Niall Sheridan to his other friend Niall Montgomery. It is in this three-sentence scribble where we get our first sideways glimpse of O’Brien. Sheridan describes him as “almost swimming through the air in his inarticulate disgust.” It is then that the collection begins with two examples of what are most common among O’Brien’s letters: an appeal to a publisher and a letter to the Irish Times. The proceeding 523 pages of correspondence and notes run a wild gambit that shows a man who seems to grow more bitter and more determined while his body deteriorates. If one thing is made clear by the later years of the collection, it is that while his drinking was causing his body to shut down O’Brien was still doggedly pursuing his work with a tenacity that few could match. These final sections of the collection drag with the weight of O’Brien’s own anger, including a particularly depressing 1964 letter to his longtime friend Niall Montgomery in which he accuses the man of “the painful, labored, unblushing copying of another man’s work” and notes that “I have been connected with the [Irish Times] for over 25 years and there may be people who think it is funny that I should have my own ghost at my elbow in 1964.”
If the end of the man’s life darkens, the beginning of the collection is a delight. In the 30’s and 40’s O’Brien is at his best in the newspapers. Cajoling writers such as Sean O’Faoláin and Frank O’Connor, O’Brien politely asks the Irish Times if the “petulant bickering, which is going on in your columns, between Mr O Faoláin and Mr. O’Connor is a private affair or whether any puling high-brow gentleman of refined tastes may take part.” Long’s choice to leave all of O’Brien’s correspondence in chronological order, regardless of the pseudonym used, creates a balance for the readers so they are not overwhelmed by any of his journalistic antics. Multiple letters to the Irish Times, under multiple names and sometimes arguing with himself, are balanced by the O’Nolan correspondence with friends, agents, publishers, or even government officials (of which he was one in the early days). It is difficult for the reader of these early sections not to find themselves rooting for the success of O’Brien every time he mentions that he is beginning to work on a new novel, especially after the lackluster commercial response to his first novel At Swim-Two-Birds.
These letters stand as evidence of the skill that O’Brien possessed. To see a writer shift from caustic letters to the editor or joking with friends to professional government correspondence is staggering. Long’s efforts give necessary context to the work. She thoroughly annotates the content of received letters, abbreviations, O’Brien’s allusions, lies, and exaggerations. And she provides additional information as needed for the reader to wade through the man’s papers. The reader is treated not only to O’Brien’s personae but also to the many voices that he could employ inside each of those performances. O’Brien angry can be as entertaining and impressive as when he is at play, “whipping up a controversy in the papers…under a thousand aliases,” and it is thanks to Long that the reader can follow these nuances and make heads or tails of the multiple personae working to construct Flann O’Brien.