5. Maebh Long, part 2: Technology and the voice of Flann O’Brien (26 May 2023)

In part 2 of this interview, Maebh and Toby talk about beginnings, originality, hustle and technology in Brian O’Nolan’s life and work. Sensationally, Maebh shares a newly unearthed recording of the voice of Brian O’Nolan – it’s only the second time we have been able to posthumously hear his voice.

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Continued from episode 4…

Maebh: He is a man who had to begin so many times. We’ve talked about him being prescient and we’ve talked about him both being of his time but also applicable to our contemporary. And I think in this period of quiet quitting and in this period of scepticism about the jobs that we do, O’Nolan was very prescient in that way. He’s always early and belated, this man. He’s always ahead of the curve and then slightly out of sync with the curve.

I think that when it comes to the continuity versus new beginnings of his work, I mean, obviously we can see a style that is relatively recognizable. There’s a certain turn of phrase, there’s a certain type of humour that runs through his work.

But if you read The Hard Life and At Swim-Two-Birds or particularly The Third Policeman / The Hard Life back to back, they could seem like a very different author. I mean, there is obviously the gap of years and the gap of health and alcoholism, but there’s a huge stylistic difference. So he is a man who wrote novels, wrote novels in English, wrote novels in Irish, sold, but didn’t sell enough, had to begin again. Then he turned to playwriting, had some successes, but not perhaps the successes he deserved. Meanwhile, he’s also doing the columns. Meanwhile, he’s also hustling for jobs in other newspapers. So he is a man of precarity in that sense. He is a man of a precarious period. And that precarity is forcing him to begin again and again and again. His sense of starting off with something that is again, if – we’re suspicious about the word parody – if not a parody of Joyce, then a spring-boarding from Joyce in At Swim-Two-Birds, and a very competent and I think, both parodic and respectful use of Irish texts, then to this text that is The Third Policeman, that is, I don’t know, murder and fantasy and a police procedural, but with also elements of either – fantasy is the wrong word – but definitely a sense of  the surreal and the supernatural. Then we have a novel in Irish that is a parody, but then also a playful homage to a text, An t-Oileánach.

So in a way, he actually reminds me of China Mieville because China Mieville once said that he basically wanted to write a book in every genre that there was. So he was going to write fantasy, he was going to write a police procedural and so on. And, I mean, Mieville’s style is very recognizable throughout. So the genres then become placeholders, I suppose, or conventions that he works with and undercuts. And that’s what I think O’Nolan does. Yes, there are genre differences in the work that he does. And from that perspective, we can see him as being very original and we can also see him as, like I said, beginning again with every work. But of course, there are continuities. So it’s like the apple and oranges thing. On the one hand, apple and oranges are very different, and on the other hand, they’re both fruit. You can see difference or you can see continuity, depending on the angle that you wish to take.

Toby: I think we were also edging around this topic of Flann O’Brien and popular culture. Maybe the route that he took, as opposed to – you might call it a more high modernist route – of appealing to a very niche audience with very experimental work, whereas, as you’ve mentioned, he is playing with genres like a police procedural that form the mainstay of a lot of popular reading and writing. Can you say a little bit about your take on his project and how it clashes with or how it appeals to popular mass culture?

Maebh: This is also something that we’ve been circling around because we’ve talked about the utopian idea of a collective versus the troubles that come in when you try to turn something into intellectual property and need to get paid from it, where originality is linked to a cash value and that somebody’s name has to be on the pay-cheque. And I think it’s the same in this instance with the desires for artistic play or the breaking down of boundaries or a very real questioning in the student narrator’s manifesto At Swim-Two-Birds’ sense of what is originality? How do we engage with a novel? What is borrowing? Does that matter? Versus the sense of wanting to sell books. So this is a circular way around about way of saying that I think he was really pulled between an aesthetic desire to break boundaries and an aesthetic desire to try new things and a very real need to make money.

And, I mean, I don’t think that’s restricted to him. I think every author has the right to be paid for the work that they do. And in a way, the sad thing, actually, is that these days it seems less and less possible for people to actually make a living by only being an author, whereas it was a little bit more possible, particularly in the 19th century and moving into the early 20th. We have many letters where he talks about the cash value of his texts and many letters where he says that he’s not interested in literature, he just wants to make money. Those discussions increase as he ages and increases, obviously, as his situation is more precarious. So once he loses a job in the Civil Service, these texts do, in a sense, have to make money. And that line of: ‘I’m just going to write books that are ostensibly chequebooks’ is something that he repeats over and over again, actually. It’s a bad joke, but a joke that he clearly feels quite deeply because it’s something that is so often repeated, so often something that he falls back on. I suppose from a scholar’s perspective, obviously I would prefer the experimental. And I can make no secret of the fact that while we can appreciate the great play and see much brilliance in the shaggy dog stories of Keats and Chapman and so on, that the texts that appeal to me are the more complicated, more experimental texts. I’m not a big fan of the later texts like The Hard Life, even though he thought of them as better, and even though later in life he was incredibly dismissive of A Swim-Two-Birds. He repeatedly says in the letters that he simply cannot understand the appeal. He dismisses it as juvenile. He dismisses it as just the slightly deranged rants of a university student. But, I mean, this is a classic example of, I think, an author misinterpreting their own work. He was wrong, I think.

Toby: There is a brief moment and – like much of the letters, it’s hard to restore the full context and understand how much of a joke this is – where he refers to the experience of reading At Swim-Two-Birds in French translation and he says this reinvigorates his interest in his own work, reading it in a new language.

Maebh: Yeah, it’s a good point. Yeah, because he is usually, in the later letters, really quite dismissive of the text. But you’re right: reading it in translation did make it seem fresh and new to him. So, I mean, maybe that’s simply it, that he’d lived with that book in proximity or in distance for so many decades that he’d just gotten fed up of it. And I think there was also that – again – he had committed to a relatively different style for The Hard Life and to an extent for The Dalkey Archive. And I think it just made sense to him to be committed to the new version of himself rather than somehow – I’m going to say first, and then I’ll qualify it – rather than recreate an old version of himself. Of course, that’s exactly what he went on to do in The Dalkey Archive, because he recreates an old version of himself by plundering material from the unpublished Third Policeman and turning it into The Dalkey Archive. But he does so in a way that really aligns the text more to The Hard Life than to the work of the  the late thirties and forties.

Toby: So at that point he’s happened upon a style which he’s happier with.

Maebh: Yeah. And that he actually believes in. And again, to bring us back to this conversation about money, thinks will make money for him, thinks will sell books.

Toby: Yes, absolutely. My favourite money-making scheme, or project, I think completely unrealized, was his plan to write a book called Glorious Ireland Then And Now and sell it to an American publisher, demanding – I think there is a letter to an American publisher where he says – I need a $5,000 advance to begin work on this.

Maebh: Again, this is the hustle. We talk so much about the contemporary hustle, but he was having to hustle, and I suppose particularly perhaps for an Irish and British audience, where we’re still a little uncomfortable talking about money and we still have this sense of the sacrality of the work and the debasement of cash, I think sometimes reading letters where he’s hustling is a bit painful, but I think perhaps that’s an easy bias that you can have when you’re not the one desperately trying to bring money into the house.

Toby: I think it’s just important to understand, and it’s an intersection that exists in even the most esoteric and seemingly protected work. There’s plenty of research that’s now been done into the institutional structures and markets that enabled James Joyce and the high modernists to build a market around their work and how interested they were in financial structures that could support them. It’s just part of it.

Maebh: Yes, that’s a really good point because it also brings me back to a question you asked about the selection and the annotation of the letters. And so one thing I wanted to do with the Letters project was to make as many letters accessible to scholars and readers as I possibly could, and not be too bound by the things that I find fascinating. So, for example, there are a series of letters about banking – and not an intellectual reflection on the nature of banking, they are banking letters. They’re letters to his banker. And I don’t find those particularly interesting, but I have friends who get exceedingly excited about Joyce and banking, and so I wanted to make sure that whatever direction future research went in, that scholars wouldn’t have to turn to the letters and go, oh, look, there’s a gap there. Now we have to once again fly to Boston or fly to Carbondale to find these. And that also matched the commitment about the annotation. So there’s really no standard best practice as to the way you present letters or what scaffolding you have with them. I’ve checked so many letters projects, and they all do slightly different things. So you can either decide to have a completely bare page, really, with no apparatus around it and just present the letter, or you can have varying degrees of annotation, which you can have as a footnote, you can have after the letter, you can have at the back of the book. There’s numerous ways of doing that. But in the course of tracking down and assembling and ordering the letters in, finding out who they’re from and when they were written, because those things are not always clear, you do end up with a huge amount of research and a huge amount of knowledge about the positions of the letters that can get lost, even to you. Because as an academic, as you know, we’re doing so many things at the same time. So we’re not just researchers, we’re also teachers, we’re not just lecturing. We’re also administrating and so on. So what I wanted to make sure was that that knowledge wouldn’t be lost. And it seemed like the most accessible place to put it was in the footnotes. And so when I found out information about the Sexton Blake speculation, when there was information about tension between Montgomery and O’Nolan around potential plagiarism later on at life, when there’s more information that I have about the letters controversy in the seemed only fair and right to make that accessible to scholars. And the most sensible place to do that was in the notes.

Toby: And I can attest to the usefulness of your choices and that apparatus. In recent years I’ve written a PhD on Flann O’Brien, multiple articles, and the Letters is always the book on my desk next to me when I work and if I go to work somewhere else, it’s always the book I take with me, not the Collected Novels, so if I go to the British Library or something, I’m working on an article about Flann, that’s what I would want. So it really is that reference point.

Maebh: That’s wonderful to hear, I’m delighted.

Toby: So a success in that sense! I wanted to ask a bit more about technology and Brian O’Nolan / Flann O’Brien. Specifically, typewriters: so not only is he a writer of the typewriter rather than a written manuscript, a handwritten manuscript, he also took an active interest in typewriters and how they were manufactured, how good they were, and in typefaces as well. Can you talk a bit more about what you think the impact of the typewriter as a technology is on Flann O’Brien and his body of work?

Maebh: So without sending us too much away from O’Nolan to talk about theories of typewriters – but they’re there, and they’re fascinating should anyone wish to pursue them. Friedrich Kittler, who’s the – I don’t know –the grandfather of theory around typewriters, writes about what he calls media determinism. And it’s basically the idea that the mode of inscription or that the mode of creating the text has an influence on the text itself.

And it’s hard for me to describe this to you when there’s just audio because it’s easier when I can show people. But his argument was that if you think about the way in which you write, when you’re holding a pen or a pencil: it is attached to your hand, and you look at the page where your hand and your pen are. So you’re almost curled around the page. If you think of the way you’d sit and the way you would hold your pen, it’s almost brought into – presumably you’re sitting at a table – but nonetheless your legs are underneath it, your body’s over it, you’re encompassing it, and your eyes are on the text.

But if you think about the way your body is when you type, depending on your aptitude as a typist: if you’re a bad typist, you’re looking at your fingers, which means that you’re not looking at the text, or if you’re a good typist, you’re looking at the piece of paper, but it means you’re not looking at your fingers. So either way, you’re disconnected from the mode of creation. You’re not actually as physically…. There’s not the same physical flow through between you and the words. Furthermore, and this is also something that really appeals to me, because I’ve had a longstanding interest in fragmentation, when you think about the way you type, if you look at the keyboard that may or may not be in front of you right now. Basically, what you have is a device that has given you the alphabet and all of the other scaffolding that you need in terms of numbers and symbols. And you assemble your words through a typing in order of particular letters. So what the typewriter or computer keyboard does is turn the act of inscription into an act of codifying or assembling letters from individual buttons and assembling them into a word which basically means that when we’re typing, we’re moving already and intimately – though that word is problematic itself – we’re deeply embedded in a space of assemblage, but also anagrams. In other words, the fact that you’re choosing from a series of letters means that you are admitting the fact that you could choose differently, that the letters can be assembled differently. And you’re also in a space where you can introduce an error that doesn’t stem from education or lack of knowledge. Like if you’re handwriting, there’s no typos in handwriting. You either know how to spell the word or you don’t. And if you don’t know how to spell it, you look it up, but you can’t really accidentally misspell it, whereas you can accidentally misspell things on a typewriter. So it gives us a very different relationship with the text, with what we produce, with the nature of words themselves.

Kittler’s argument is that it moves us from a sense of words as wholes, words as present to themselves that have identity and meaning imbued in them, to a slightly more post-structuralist sense of words as lacking presence, as words that can be at any point assembled and reassembled differently as always distant to themselves and distant to the person creating them. And that, to me, I think, gives us some really interesting insights to the arguments that O’Nolan makes in At Swim-Two-Birds. And I’ve written a piece on this. My argument is: if you look at the different authors in the text, they actually use different implements. So the student narrator types, Trellis, as this liminal figure, both types and uses a pencil. And then Orlick, his creation, only uses a pen. And as we move from typewriters to this liminal in between space to pens, we’re actually moving from a type of authorship that is invested in a lack of originality, in the sense of borrowing, in assembling, in bringing pieces whenever you find them useful, to when we get to Orlick, who basically wants to torture and kill his father by writing about it. But the point is that because he’s embodied or imbued with this sense of presence, his act of writing through this continuity of the self and the pen is not writing a novel, but actually writing the real-life torture of his father.

So he’s not representing torture, he is torturing. And that moves us basically from a sense of the modernity of the narrator to the realism of – and I use that in the sense of the realist novel – but a sense of a relationship with a text where we ostensibly kill literature. And that literature is not literature, it is actually real-life effect – we’re reading through it. But, of course, at the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, Orlick and everyone else are destroyed when the pages on which they’re written are burned. And so the novel then ends, really with a return to the typewriter, a return to this sense of assemblage. And, I mean – if we had more time, there’s nuance I would put on that – but basically, to me, that’s the movement and that’s the point of interest between the typewriter and the pen.

Toby: Absolutely. I don’t even want to sully your fantastic analysis by attempting to layer on too much of my own opinion and view onto it. But suffice to say that I think your work and the work of others is showing us just how useful Flann O’Brien’s work is to read the role of technology in thinking and how those things evolve together and off each other, which is surely one of the most important contemporary themes we have to contend with in the world today.

Maebh: Absolutely. And I mean, by the time O’Nolan was writing, the typewriter was no longer new tech like, shockingly new technology. So we can think of maybe Dracula, if we’re thinking of another Irish / Anglo-Irish writer: Jennifer Wicke has written about Dracula as a deeply modern novel in its early engagement with the effect of typewriters. But by the thirties, typewriters were relatively normalized. But what’s interesting, I think, is then not just that he was embracing something new, but that he was embracing, something that had become normalized within society and thinking through the implications of it.

There’s some great columns where he talks about the individual called Remington who due to various health conditions has replaced most of his insides with typewriters. And so he is then not only the embodiment of a typewriter, but there is also a fully functional typewriter inside him and that, sometimes sporadically, this typewriter would just spew out racing tips. So we have this sense of the machine-made man and the man-made machine and they’re in this weird symbiotic relationship where Remington is both controlling the typewriter and controlled by the typewriter. In this – really again, we’re talking about prescience – this really fascinatingly posthuman way because there’s this constantly the sense of well, who then is in control: Remington or the typewriter? And where is the line where Remington ends and the typewriters begins? Which is of course what The Third Policeman is about: when are we bicycles? How do we possibly navigate the line between the sense of self and the sense of mechanical intervention?

Toby: So at this point, we’ve not much time left. We will keep on a technology theme and I want to find out if you are able to play us a small segment of a recording that you have, which was a lost and now found interview with Flann O’Brien. And for context, this is an author who is very difficult to listen to. There’s very little audio recording despite an extensive participation in radio during his lifetime. So are we still on to do that, Maebh?

Maebh: Yes, I think so. This interview, which is about twelve minutes long, is as of yet unspecifically dated. I have an approximate date for it, but I do not know the name of the interviewer and I don’t know if it was aired or – if it was aired – where it was aired. We do have access to listings on the BBC and listings on RTÉ on Radio Éireann, but I can’t find any listing that corresponds to the mentions made in the actual interview that dated. There’s a clue given to us by the interviewer who says at one point a headline in a recent article says ‘I must be shouting at my enemies’. So the article that the interviewer is referring to is an interview with Flann O’Brien conducted by Michael Whale, and that was published in Town magazine in September 1965. Recent can be used in any number of ways, but that basically means that the earliest this interview could have been is late September 1965, probably October, November. So we’re talking about the last six months of O’Nolan’s life.

Of course there’s no guarantee that it was aired directly after it was actually recorded and there’s no guarantee it was aired at all. The reason I have this recording is that in the process of doing the Letters, this was sent to me, and it was sent to me in one of those casual ways where somebody says, oh, look, here, I have this thing. I think you should really hear it, but don’t pass it around. And so I didn’t.

But about five or six years later we have this situation where people are beginning to work on Radio Myles, as this podcast is named, beginning to work on the importance of the sound of an author’s voice and how his radio presence or TV presence might be examined and analyzed. And people kept commenting on the fact that the only audio recording that we have is one in which O’Nolan is unfortunately very inebriated. And the trouble with that resource is that there is, I think, a flattening that takes place when someone’s drunk. In other words, a lot of drunk people just sound like drunk people as opposed to themselves. So it basically means that we then have access to a recording of O’Nolan where he is not O’Nolan. And I mean, I know that unfortunately, by this time in his life, his alcoholism was such that he was probably slightly drunk more than he was sober. John Garvin says it both nicely and tragically when he says that there was nothing romantic about Brian’s drinking. So we are dealing with somebody for whom this is a very serious and ongoing problem. But nonetheless, I still think it is right for us to have access to O’Nolan at his best rather than O’Nolan at his worst. And I think it’s only fair to the texts that he has written and then the genius of the individual for us to have some way of hearing him when he is more himself than he was when he was so horribly drunk in that interview with Tim Pat Coogan. In an ideal situation, I would have got back to the individual who sent me this file and asked them if I could disseminate it, because we’d now reached a point in scholarship where people were really strongly feeling the absence. And I think it was that I would think it was for the best for scholarship.

But unfortunately, because they have passed away, I can’t ask them for permission. It’s then a difficult decision. What do you do when somebody sends you something? They say themselves that they don’t know where it’s from, they can’t really remember who sent it to them, but they just casually say, the way we often do, don’t pass it on. So it’s hard to know how serious was that request and why they made it, because there’s nothing in the content of the interview that needs withholding. There’s nothing defamatory, there’s nothing surprising about his personal life. It’s the very standard publicity interview, though he does say fascinating things for us, but there’s nothing that would need withholding because of content.

And so I’ve made the difficult decision, and I very much hope this doesn’t dissuade anyone from ever sending me work, but I made the difficult decision to disseminate it, knowing that the individual who sent it to me can’t get into any trouble. It’s a tricky balance, but the value to the scholarly community, I felt, outweighed the possible repercussions to this individual because they have passed away. There can’t really be any. So, yeah, that’s it. So we then have twelve minutes of Brian O’Nolan, Flann O’Brien’s actual voice. And if anybody listens to this and recognizes the voice of the interviewer, I would be so delighted if they could contact me because it would be really good if we could track this down. I should note that when it was sent to me, the quality was also really terrible. And I am hugely grateful to one of the IT guys at my university, Oliver Stewart, for working on improving the sound. There’s still a little bit of fuzz at the start and end, but compared to the original, compared to what I was sent, this is just fabulous work. So I’m just going to play a short part from near the beginning of the interview, so you’ll hear both the interviewer’s voice and then O’Nolan’s reply. So, again, if anyone knows who this interviewer is, please do contact me.

[Plays the extract]

Interviewer: Well, on the attitudes of Brian O’Nolan, Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen: are they the same person?

O’Nolan: No, they have dissimilar outlooks. And there are some other characters you haven’t named which I don’t think should be named […] to other sort of work. Other sorts of work. I think it’s important to keep these personalities in their own places, own compartments. There’s another personality, an Irish writer, who’s been fairly silent for a long time now.

Toby: Wow.

Maebh: To me, what’s so fascinating about that is the slight mournfulness, I think that comes through at the end when he says there’s another personality of the Irish writer, but he’s been silent for a long time. I mean, that really cuts yeah.

Toby: I need to once again fight through how much my brain is melting since this is the first time that I’ve been able to listen to this recording. And I agree that there’s something very fascinating about the tone and the poise that we capture O’Nolan in at this point in his career. And something that – for me is gold-dust in some ways – that bespeaks a sincerity to his project, that’s easy to lose.

Maebh: Yeah, exactly. Because so the only recording that we have is one in which he is in that bombastic drunken phase and so in it – and it’s freely available on YouTube, both fortunately and unfortunately – but he says that he’s read all the books and he speaks all the languages, but the only people, the reason people don’t like him is because he’s a gutty. And then, I mean, interesting, he’s like, I’m one of the plain people of Ireland. And like I said, it loses any specificity of character, really, because it’s just at that drunken, ‘I’m the king of the world’ phase. And so if that’s all we have, then the only version of O’Nolan that is available to us with the immediacy of voice and image is a particular version of a man who was a complex series of identities, a series of parts. And so, sure, there are very bombastic moments to the man, and he played with that very successfully with Myles na gCopaleen in the columns, but I don’t think that was the core of who he was. And I think this piece, with the slightly slower tone, with the sense of a slightly more sombre delivery and a little bit of mournfulness about what he might have lost, I think gives us a much better insight into the individual and I think also has the effect of meaning that our scholarship has to take on board the serious side of O’Nolan sometimes – and it’s perfectly all right, and it’s perfectly understandable that we sometimes get a little bit lost in the play of O’Nolan – but I think that should never occlude the seriousness of his intellectual endeavours.

Toby: Absolutely. And as the impact of being able to listen to his voice in that way, saying those words, slowly reverberates through cyberspace. I just want to take this opportunity to thank you so much, Maebh, for being on the podcast and sharing the material you have. I believe it makes it a somewhat historic occasion, at least in a small way.

Maebh: Yes, absolutely!

Toby: So I’m very grateful all thank you so much for being with me on this podcast.

Maebh: Not at all. It was a real pleasure. Toby. I really very much enjoyed speaking about O’Nolan, from technology to cash.

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