restricted access Flann O'Brien's Creative Betrayal of Joyce
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Flann O'Brien's Creative Betrayal of Joyce

Brian O'Nolan, who published four novels under the pen name Flann O'Brien, might be considered one of his century's quintessential traitors.1 This is true in part because O'Brien produced a body of work that, in the estimation of Kelly Anspaugh, "is full of betrayals."2 But the very notion of betrayal has gradually been divested of its definitively treacherous connotations by the past five decades of anti-foundationalism. In fact, when Anspaugh dubs the author "the Joking Judas of Dublin" in 1992, he does so explicitly in conjunction with O'Brien's then-emergent status as "postmodernist extraordinaire."3 After all, how we view betrayal relies wholly on the status of commitment; in recent years, commitment has been viewed with at best increasing skepticism and at worst, unbridled animosity. Writing in the years immediately following the author's death, Bernard Benstock would cite the jester's disloyalty as evidence of [End Page 90] inferiority: "It is the serious lack of commitment in any direction that limits Brian O'Nolan and ensnares him within the second rank, below Joyce and Yeats and Seán O'Casey."4 Yet, by the early 1970s, J.C.C. Mays would lament the passing of the very "balance" that produces the ambivalence Benstock finds so unacceptable: "In Brian O'Nolan's later writing the fine balance is upset; his impetuous and somewhat intimidating commitment to ordinary virtues usurps the achievement of the earlier books and makes it of a different sort altogether."5

Ever since the 1939 publication of At Swim-Two-Birds, two things have remained fairly constant. One is that no reprinting, and very few reviews, of the book have appeared without including the blurb from Joyce: "That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit. A really funny book."6 Another is that literary critics, when turning their eyes to the satiric O'Brien, have almost inevitably made at least cursory mention of the towering Master of Irish Modernism. As Anthony Cronin cryptically describes the situation, "The figure of Joyce hung over his life like a sort of cloud from which the apocalyptic vision could come or had come."7 Certainly, one could apply Sean O'Faolain's review of the first novel—that it had "a general odour of spilt Joyce all over it"—to the entire career.8 O'Brien's fictional works have been frequently considered, to varying degrees, as derivative Joycean imitations, and the multitude of Joyce references made both in letters and in his journalistic outlet, the Irish Times "Cruiskeen Lawn" column, have been mined for their significance.9 [End Page 91]

There is more at work in this relationship than a simple Bloomian "anxiety of influence." The function of betrayal in this relationship can be better understood when considered against the background of Jacques Derrida's theorizing of the archive. O'Brien's lifelong response to his predecessor culminates in The Dalkey Archive (1964), where he has Joyce living on into the 1940s in Skerries, on the outskirts of Dublin, tending bar and longing to become a Jesuit. O'Brien's Joyce denies having written his two final masterpieces; instead, he claims that his literary output has amounted to merely a few pamphlets for the Catholic Truth Society. However, if we choose to consider betrayal in light of its revelatory role, this element of The Dalkey Archive takes on a provocative slant.

The truth is, Joyce scholars can sometimes suffer from the obsession for order that Derrida describes in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995): a constant need to delineate what falls within the boundaries of Joycean thought, of the Joyce archive. This results in a static view of the author's work, one wholly relegated to the historical past. The imposition of such an archival obsession is an attitude of purported fidelity to the author, which can foreclose the possibility of innovation in future readings. O'Brien's traitorous treatment of Joyce can be seen as undermining any sense of closure critics might impose on the master's work, opening a breach in what can often be a hermetically...