“In one of his last columns, published in March 1966, Flann O’Brien looked back on his catechism, compiled more than twenty years earlier, and described it as ‘an exegetic survey of the English language in its extremity of logo-daedalate poliomyelitis, anaemic prostration and the paralysis of incoherence.’ One month after writing that, he was dead, and yet within a year a remarkable renaissance was taking place, with the long-delayed publication of his great comic fantasy The Third Policeman and, soon afterwards, the first of many anthologies of the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ columns, this one entitled The Best of Myles.” (Related: our own Mark O’Connell on the humor in O’Brien’s work.)
I began my literary life as a fanboy of Dave Barry, so in some ways it makes sense, I suppose, that around my 25th birthday I picked up The Best of Myles. The book collects the Irish Times columns of the novelist Flann O’Brien, who depicts the absurd minutiae of mid-century life in Dublin. Included amongst its nuclear riffs are dialogues with the Plain People of Ireland, who plainly (and reliably) disapprove; a report on a gang of rogue ventriloquists who terrorize people at operas; and a breathless description of a purplish liquid, “the opposite of drink,” that gives the imbiber a “hangunder.” Ever since the beginning of the holidays, I’ve been sad that last one is fiction.
In part because O’Brien’s work is nothing if not irreverent, it’s funny that it led me to pick up John Banville’s novel The Sea. The novel, which won the Man Booker prize in 2005, orbits around the depression of an elderly widower named Max. Unsure of what to do in the wake of his wife’s death from cancer, Max decamps for a little chateau on the coast near his childhood home. At the chateau, he remembers the Graces, a family who stayed there when he was young. He recounts in unflinching detail his shock at their confidence and verve. To a child like Max, the Graces, who appear more hale than any family should appear, inevitably call up comparisons to the gods of Greek mythology. His memories conjure up awful parallels between his wife and the young Chloe Grace. As always when I read Banville, I couldn’t believe his deftness — how easily, for example, he rolls off a pun; how well he understands the nuance of Latinate terminology; how aptly, above all, that he paints fate as a wolf at the door. When I got to the ending, I thought it was easily the sharpest I’d read in years. My views haven’t changed.
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