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Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Third Policeman (1966) by Flann O'Brien

Flann O'Brien was the third member of the holy trinity of  early to mid20th century experimental Irish literature alongside Joyce and Beckett.
Book Review
The Third Policeman (1966)
 by Flann O'Brien

  The Third Policeman was written by Brian O'Nolan (AKA Flann O'Brien) between 1939 and 1940 but went unpublished until 1966, when his widow got it published after he died.  He told everyone that the manuscript had been lost, at least partially to avoid the shame of not being able to find a publisher, but it turns out it sat on a shelf in his dining room, in plain sight, for some 30 years until he died.

  The significance of The Third Policeman is that you can make a strong case that it was the first fully post-modern novel, leapfrogging the steps that his countryman Samuel Beckett was taking early in his career.  Of course, Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, three years after O'Nolan's widow got The Third Policeman published for the first time, so one can fairly observed that O'Nolan/O'Brien was a generation (20 years) ahead of his time at least.

  O'Brien deploys the full panoply of techniques that became synonymous with post-modern literature.  Most notably, he creates an imaginary "scientist" named De Selby.  The narrator is a De Selby "scholar" and includes multiple page long footnotes about De Selby and his bizarre experiments to prove the "non existence" of night and sleep.  The text plays with conventions of time and space.  For example, the fact that the narrator is dead and living a kind of repetitive hellish existence is not revealed until the end of the book.  Even so the publishers take the added step of adding a letter O'Nolan wrote to William Saroyan when he was trying to get it published in the 1940s.

  For me the pleasure was in the post-modern stylistic flourishes than the main plot of a hell bound repetition of events bound to a guilty conscience.  The plot itself anticipates the deconstruction of Beckett's trilogy- written after The Third Policeman.  When O'Nolan was writing The Third Policeman, Beckett was publishing Murphy.  Murphy is a highly conventional novel that is the "before" in Beckett's evolution to Nobel Prize for Literature winning status.

  Taking all this into account, and like many of Beckett's canonical works, The Third Policeman is not a very fun read, with the notable exception of the "De Selby footnotes."   Because one doesn't learn of the death of the narrator until the end of the book, you can reasonably expect to be confused about what, if anything, is actually happening.  Readers with a background in Joyce and later Beckett will at least have the context in mind, but O'Nolan was really out there.

   It gives me pause to think that this book was not published in the author's lifetime.  O'Nolan wrote this amazing book, and couldn't find a single person to publish it, and gave up.  What is the lesson there? That you can write a canonical work and utterly fail to find an audience.  You can be world class, and still languish in obscurity.  What was even the point?  The author never got to enjoy anything as the result of his efforts.  What is the value of art if it does not benefit the artist?



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