Flann O’Brien’s “The Various Lives Of Keats And Chapman (Including ‘The Brother’)”

ImageThe relationship between Flann O’Brien (also Brian O’Nolan, also Myles na Gopaleen) to the other canonical Irish writers of the twentieth century: Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, is a tricky one. For the average reader, that is the reader who was or is not currently an English major, O’Brien is the most accessible of these Great Writers. The comedy of his writing, “the true comic spirit” Joyce once lauded, is able to address the reader regardless of generational gaps. “At Swim-Two-Birds,” O’Brien’s masterpiece and a novel that I have been desperate to re-read ever since I finished it the first time, gives us O’Brien as something of a scamp and a reactionary: a young student searching for a new way of self-expression amidst the drudgery of inviolable family and intolerable school.

Keats and Chapman, on the other hand, show O’Brien in a light that reads much more naturally and for good reason; the Keats and Chapman vignettes were a series of columns the writer put out when he turned to journalism, post WW2 years. They are the stuff of pub chat: short, easily quotable, and quite stupid when it comes right down to it. O’Brien’s great feat for Keats and Chapman is the pun, which closes each one of the columns with a reliable anticlimax. Jamie O’Neill in the book’s introduction attributes this characteristic to the trend of Irish writers who have “a child’s delight in vocabulary”, arising out of a tradition to see English as “a loaned vocabulary on an older Gaelic syntax.”

It’s certainly possible that O’Brien is abstrusely poking fun at this borrowed language to highlight its absurdities. What seems more likely is that O’Brien isn’t poking fun so much at language as he is at the structure of the narrative itself.

The Keats and Chapman stories operate under an immediate tension; because the columns are so small (a page or two at most) the reader immediately regards every detail as crucial, and she begins at once to examine the opening details for signs of how they will lead to the narrative’s resolution. “Keats and Chapman once lived near a church,” is the opening line to the entry “Carnival”. Setting has been established, and with it a course of direction that will end with the climax of the pun. The reader foresees this and attempts to preempt it by either guessing or solving the pun (jokes are, after all, just another form of the riddle) or skipping to the end of the anecdote to read it. This is a grave mistake. The Keats and Chapman vignettes are not about the joke or its cleverness; they are the about the immediate sense of decompression the reader feels once the pun is revealed; the ‘I’ve been had’ feeling that causes us to smirk and smile and deflate despite ourselves.

“If there is any philosophy here at all,” Jamie O’Neill writes, “it is that we are all much of a muchness and nowhere is much better than anywhere else.”

It is a convoluted quote but an accurate one to demonstrate the post-pun reading that, perhaps, we should have just saved ourselves the time and not have read the little story in the first place. But with an attitude like this, the reader is also being surreptitiously introduced to the big picture—that nothing is worth reading for its content when all climaxes of every story end in the same sense of delayed or partial gratification. And once we’ve realized this, we’ve succeeded in realizing that we haven’t been reading for the sake of the pun and the climax: we’ve read for the style and the convolution: the path that spider-webs towards a promise of satisfaction that falls flat.

Close reading unfortunately invites the risk of driving Keats and Chapman from the simplicity of the pun into the torpor of literary metaphysics. You can read this way, if you wish, but I recommend avoiding it. Too much talk and too much thought will drain the humor out of most any joke.

A similar bit of advice can be said for one’s reading of “The Brother”, O’Brien’s two-act, two-man play which by all appearances, is a very simple thing filled with lots of talk and lots of drink (“A Pint Of Plain Is Your Only Man”, the Brother’s rollicking drinking anthem, may very well make good on its promise as a “pome that’ll be heard wherever the Irish race is wont to gather”). Take a step back however and you’ll see that in a very small amount of space, with no clear sense of direction and no onstage action of which to speak, O’Brien has really created a very tight piece with a theme of social identity as well as philosophical and postmodern motifs hidden beneath a layer of bawdry comedy.

ImageHere is the Brother on philosophy:

“Is it life? I would rather be without it, for there is quare small utility in it. You cannot eat it or drink it or smoke it in your pipe, it does not keep the rain out and it is a poor armful in the dark if you strip it and take it to bed with you after a night’s porter when you are shivering with the red passion. It is a great mistake and a thing better done without, like bed jars and foreign bacon…it is a quare contraption, very dangerous, a certain death-trap.”

It is easy to admire the utilitarianism of the metaphor for life and to chuckle over the skewed logic, but notice too how well the metaphor characterizes the Brother; the concern with survival and danger and death, with sex and drink, and even a degree of jingoism (“foreign bacon” to be avoided). He’s cautious, but he’s also realistic: life is painful and difficult, and who could disagree that we would be much easier off without it?

Reading “The Brother” and you might be tempted to see the character as a representation for Ireland as a whole, or of a composite Irish history. “Well-known, alas, is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three and who made each aspect of his life a thing of triads,” the Brother concludes. “He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea, had three lumps of sugar in each, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” Do we read this as a parable for the history of the Catholic Church (hence the emphasis on three: the holy trinity), which could be said to have destroyed the men who attempted to serve their country, historically, since the invasion of Cromwell and on through the fall of Parnell? Is the Brother merely a voice echoing a popular sentiment?

Possibly. Yet one must bear in mind that the Brother is only a voice in a pub, disembodied, with nary a sign of a true identity according to the criminal processing functions of the state: “If I have no name at all, and my personality is invisible to the law, then how could I be hanged for a murder I did not commit?” Neither avatar nor echo, and certainly not a nation, what is the Brother then, but an idea: the idea of an eventual realization of a consciousness; of a name, personality, and a state? The conclusion is yours for the taking.

Or you could just stick to the comedy.

O’Brien, Flann. The Various Lives Of Keats And Chapman. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2005. Print. 

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