THE FUNNIEST BOOK IN THE WORLD

The next post will be on or before Wednesday July 12th

THE FUNNIEST BOOK IN THE WORLD

The touchingly understated narrator of the 1961 comic masterpiece The Hard Life by Flann O’ Brien, is called Finbarr, and he is one of 2 orphaned Dublin brothers. Born in 1885 he recalls aged 5 seeing a haunting photograph of the impressive Dad he never knew. There are seemingly poignant echoes of Dickens’s David Copperfield here but the tone from the start is po-faced anticlimactic.

‘I had never met my father at all but in due time I was to see and study a brown faded photograph – a stern upright figure wearing great moustaches and attired in a uniform with a large peaked cap. I could never make out what the uniform stood for. He might have been a field-marshal or an admiral, or just an orderly officer in the fire brigade; indeed, he might have been a postman.’

Finbarr refers to his older brother Manus as ‘the brother’ throughout, a cordial Dublin shorthand that is found again in the writings of Myles na Gopaleen which appeared for years as a column in the Irish Times. Both Flann O’ Brien and Gopaleen were pseudonyms of Briain O’ Nolan (1910-1966), a brilliant scholar of Irish  and Old Irish who made full use of his linguistic dexterity in both At Swim Two Birds (1939) with its send up of the Old Irish Epics featuring Finn MacCool the mythical hero with his Ireland-sized backside, and in the 1941 novel written in Irish An Beal Bochd (‘The Poor Mouth’) a zestful satire on all things rural Gaelic i.e. that which is poverty stricken and where the only things to eat are potatoes, where the pig that lives in the house is mistaken by an Irish scholar as a brilliant Gaelic speaker, and where it is drier at the bottom of  the sea than it is above on the ever drenched land.

The brother in Myles Na Gopaleen is an adult and he is the sage and opinionated, meaning knowall gobshite, of the family. By contrast the brother in The Hard Life once he turns teenager is the budding entrepreneur schoolboy who has the ingenious idea of lifting chunks of information from encyclopaedias, conspectuses etc and then offering them to the public as instruction manuals. By this means he posts out at a price, primers on among other things Tightrope Walking and Elementary Philosophy. The former manual is written supposedly by one Professor Latimer Dodds, and here is the beginning of his pithy disquisition on the secrets of the high wire art:

‘It were folly to asseverate that periastral peripatesis on the aes ductile or wire is destitute of profound peril not only to sundry membra or limbs, but to the back and veriest life itself. Wherefore is the reader most graciously implored to abstain from le risqué majeur by first submitting himself to the most perspicacious scrutiny by highly qualified physician or surgeon…’

It is not long before gullible novices inspired by Prof Dodds are plunging into the River Liffey and the Dublin policeman comes knocking at the door where the brother resides. The orphans have been taken in by a relative called Mr Collopy, a kind of irascible and opinionated uncle figure very similar to the uncle in At Swim Two Birds. Collopy is married to a sadly invalided Mrs Crotty meaning that she maintains in her husband’s mind and mouth at least her maiden name. The old couple have a docile and squashed daughter called Annie who nominally cares for the orphans and whose response to all queries or statements about anything, is the economical single word, ‘seemingly’. The twin and parallel themes that structure the novel are the ever more reckless entrepreneurial ingenuity of the brother and the sacred quest that Collopy embarks upon, namely the provision of public toilets for women which at the end of the 19th century in England-ruled Dublin were shockingly few, and when even the broaching of as a topic of discussion was regarded as impious and disgraceful. Collopy is assisted in his quest by his friend and drinking partner, a German Jesuit who rejoices in the exquisite name of Father Fahrt SJ. Their table discussions where Collopy lambasts the hypocritical insincerity of the Catholic church and even worse the Jesuits, produce a comic vehemence of the highest order.

‘Father Fahrt, said Mr Collopy earnestly, you don’t like the Reformation. Maybe I’m not too fond of it either. But it was our own crowd, those ruffians in Spain and all who provoked it. They called decent men heretics and the remedy was to put a match to them. To say nothing of a lot of crooked Popes with their armies and their papal states, putting duchesses and nuns up the pole and having all Italy littered with their bastards, and up to nothing but backstairs work and corruption at the courts of God knows how many decent foreign kings. Isn’t that a fact?’

As the brother’s business flourishes so he takes to staying out at nights and drinking, and on his rare appearances at home, arguing drunkenly with Collopy. Eventually he decides to move to London where he opens the London University Academy which offers everything by postal tuition from Boxing to Elocution to Hypnotism, Oil Prospecting, Treatment of Baldness, Sausage Manufacture in the Home, and more perplexingly Panpendarism and the Cultivation of Sours. Simultaneously lazy and bibulous old Collopy becomes stricken by severe arthritis for which of course the encyclopaedically prepared brother has a miracle cure. He has within his armoury of specialisms a highly potent medicine called Gravid Water which he posts to Finbarr with strict instructions re the dosage. However, he is not astute enough to spell out teaspoonful, so Finbarr interprets tsp-ful as tablespoonful and although Collopy claims he feels better thanks to Gravid Water, his weight commences to rocket to a phenomenal degree, until he is so obese that he can hardly stand.

Meanwhile thanks to Father Fahrt’s good offices, Collopy is granted an interview with the Pope himself in Rome, where he can spell out the urgency of providing Dublin women with public lavatories . By now the brother with his London Academy is a walking moneybags and he arranges the boat journey for himself, Collopy and Fahrt, and all the logistical transport to Rome, including gangs of 4 hefty well-paid men to hoist elephantine Collopy up onto the boat deck and subsequently down from it. Then with intermediary Fahrt and the brother in attendance he ends up talking to the Pope, but sadly there has been a catastrophic misunderstanding, and the Pontiff is as disgusted by the nature of Collopy’s petition as everyone was back in Dublin.

As the brother writes to Finbarr:

‘As a matter of fact, the Pope told us all to go to hell. He threatened to silence Father Fahrt’

And later, translating from the outraged Papal Italian. ‘We are deeply troubled by such a strange supplication for our intervention on such a question. It is improper that such a matter should be mentioned within these walls. This is a sacred place.’

Much depressed by his abysmal failure to impress the highest spiritual if not temporal authority, by way of distraction Collopy is taken out by Fahrt and his nephew to a violin recital in Rome. However, half way up the steps his outlandish weight causes the floor to shatter and thanks to Gravid Water he goes plummeting through the woodwork, and soon after dies of internal haemorrhaging. Later his handsome epitaph on his Roman grave paid for by the spendthrift brother reads:

COLLOPY of Dublin, 1848-1910, Here lies one whose name is writ in water. RIP

The brother’s Gravid Water that was, of course.

Briefly then Flann O’Brien as in At Swim Two Birds, once again lampoons the scholarly mode or rather the spurious scholarly mode in the form of smug pedantry or sciolism as it is also known. The obverse of that is the guileful chancer’s approach, that of the brother who lifts scholarship of various integrities from antique reference works and then turns them into naked profit. As variations on this were the elaborate and barmy footnotes in O’ Brien’s brilliant but apocalyptically chilling The Third Policeman (written 1939, published posthumously 1967). Here a deranged scholar called de Selby is quoted to the effect that the phenomenon of ‘night’ (as opposed to ‘day’) may be explicable as ‘accretions of black air’, the same de Selby that is who promoted the notion of ‘roofless houses’ odd little rectangular structures with suspended tarpaulins above them. Or were they in fact, as the supra narrator argues, just meaningless de Selbyan doodles on the margins, subsequently misinterpreted by other so-called scholars?

All this zestful send up of the pedantic, I believe goes back to the daddy of them all when it comes to derisive mocking of the arid scholastic mode, Francois Rabelais (1494-1553) author of Gargantua and Pantagruel. (1532-1564). I have no solid proof that O’Brien ever read Rabelais but my guess is he could hardly have employed the hilarious and very specific satirical means he uses if he hadn’t. Besides which he was so formidably well read in so many languages, and so fascinated by the rude and the outrageous and the appalling, it is inconceivable he did not dip into the works of the jobbing doctor and persecuted heretic who spent much of his writer’s life fearing for his life in general.

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