This first full-length biography of Irish civil servant Brian O'Nolan, a.k.a. Harm O'Brien (the 1939 novel At Swim-Two-Birds), attempts, like Judith Thurman's Isak Dinesen, to expose a cult classic author to a wider audience--yet it lacks Thurman's narrative flair and mesmerizing subject. Irish man-of-letters Cronin argues that O'Brien's five novels (four in English, one in Irish) are landmarks of the ""anti-novel"" pioneered by Joyce and Beckett, a genre notable for humor, virtuoso wordplay, and lack of a conventional plot. (O'Brien's place as ""one of the funniest writers to use the English language in this century"" was also enhanced by his satirical Irish Times column, written for over 25 years under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen to sidestep laws against civil servants' participation in politics.) Yet, despite praise from Graham Greene, Dylan Thomas, and even Joyce himself, At Swim-Two-Birds was a commercial fiasco that scared publishers away from its 28-year-old author's second novel, The Third Policeman. Dismissed as Joyce's ""literary foster child"" by the Dublin literary establishment, O'Brien eventually had a comeback in the 1960's but by then was mired in alcoholism and bad health. His life vividly illustrates the ebb tides of literary reputations, and one would think few are better qualified to tell it than Cronin, a friend of the humorist. Yet Cronin writes too prosaically to raise O'Brien's story from quiet desperation to high drama, and he would have been better off including more samples of his subject's witty, dazzling work to justify the strong claims made for it. A well-meaning yet ineffective biography that one hopes is only the author/zed, not the definitive, life of O'Brien.
Pub Date: July 1, 1990
Page Count: -
Publisher: Grafton--dist. by Tralfalgar Square/David & Charles