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New Hibernia Review 8.2 (2004) 54-63

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Flann O'Brien, James Joyce, and The Dalkey Archive

Salisbury University

Having published in 1962 his third novel, The Hard Life, as a "perfect corrective to the lachrymose pomposities that infect our times," Brian O'Nolan—who wrote under the pseudonyms Flann O'Brien in his novels and Myles na Gopaleen in his newspaper columns—appealed to the editor of London's Spectator, complaining of the Irish Times's low pay, editorial ignorance, censorship, and "mutilation" of his columns.1 Oppression was something O'Nolan understood, most often facing it down with his own brand of fierce creative provocation. He was certain, for example, that the anticlerical elements in The Hard Life—its character's evocative name Kurt Fahrt, S.J., for example—meant the Censorship Board would ban the book's sale in Ireland. O'Nolan gathered his likely defense and envisioned a test case to rival the litigation over Joyce's Ulysses. The anticipated ban did not materialize, and O'Brien's novel sold out in Dublin in two days.

From its scrappy start, Flann O'Brien's literary reputation had grown into establishment status equal to any post-Joyce Irish novelist. Yet Flann O'Brien spent his entire literary career in Joyce's shadow. Critical comparison with Joyce has been frequent, as have analytical comparisons of their fiction, but less often has an awareness of this link to Joyce been seen as central and persistent in Brian O'Nolan's formation of his own work. This link with James Joyce was one O'Nolan embraced, at times begrudgingly or unwillingly, but always out of some inner artistic and psychic necessity. On matters of literary censorship, as with other aspects of his career, Brian O'Nolan measured himself against the figure of James Joyce. Writing The Dalkey Archive became the explicit outlet, and a full-scale purgation of this obsession, for Brian O'Nolan's own understanding of Joyce's influence on his own literary life.

As early as September, 1962, O'Nolan's talents had turned to a new project. Completed in February, 1964, it was to be his last finished novel. The Times Literary Supplement reviewer's buffet that The Hard Life was "not wild enough" [End Page 54] helped to widen this new novel's scope. Bringing together ancient and contemporary worlds, teleological and gustatory speculations, hallucinatory timelessness and the reality of Dublin's current environs, The Dalkey Archive was to be a "farrago of Geophysics, Einsteinian energy, theology, hagiography and booze,"2 a book inhabited simultaneously by Saint Augustine and James Joyce:

Ignorant reviewers have messed me up with another man, to my intense embarrassment and disgust, and he will be another character. I mean James Joyce. I'm going to get my own back on that bugger. (I suppose you know that, like Hitler, Joyce isn't dead at all. He is living in retirement and a sort of disguise at Skerries, a small wateringplace 21 miles N. of Dublin. He has been trying to screw up enough courage to join the Jesuits.)3

In 1939, as Flann O'Brien published his first novel At Swim-Two-Birds, O'Brien argued that Joyce had been inconsiderate enough to publish Finnegans Wake. O'Nolan's account of the praise his first novel won from this established exile included a telling distrust of international fame. His friend Niall Sheridan, while on his honeymoon, claims to have brought a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds to Joyce, who had already read it:

Being now nearly blind, [Joyce] said it took him a week with a magnifying glass and that he had not read a book of any kind for five years, so this may be taken to be a compliment from the fuehrer. He was delighted with it—although he complained that I did not give the reader much of a chance, "Finnegan's [sic] Wake" in his hand as he spoke—and has promised to push it quietly in his own international...


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