Last week, Mark O’Connell shared a quote attributed to Anthony Burgess about the Irish shapeshifter, Flann O’Brien, which O’Connell opined was the “greatest blurb of all time”:
“If we don’t cherish the work of Flann O’Brien we are stupid fools who don’t deserve to have great men. Flann O’Brien is a very great man.”
It calls to mind Steve Earle’s notorious summation of the Texas songwriter, Townes Van Zandt:
“Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan‘s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
It was one of those gloriously heretical quotes which dogged Earle for years, but it served a deeper purpose:
“I was asked for a blurb [for a Townes album], and that’s what I said,” he explains. “It was literally a sticker. Do I believe that he was a better writer than Bob Dylan? No. Do I believe he deserves to be talked about in the same breath as Bob Dylan? Yes. And I think Bob Dylan does, too. I was opening for Dylan in 1988, and the first night I was on the tour Bob played ‘Pancho and Lefty.’”
Game recognizes game. And while I can’t determine the exact provenance of the Burgess quote, he never stopped banging the drum on behalf of O’Brien, even long after the author of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman was no longer here to make (or undercut) the case himself. Re-reading one of these appraisals this week, where Burgess placed O’Brien on the same pedestal as Joyce, I was reminded of the stage we’re at with Evan Dara right now, which is primarily getting his name (back?) into the conversation:
“When a major author’s reputation is settled, his readership secure, his works comfortably in print, then a critic may legitimately set about the task of diminishing him. O’Brien is unquestionably a major author, but he awaits still, after the publication of his first major work, in 1939, a following devoted enough to make him a profitable commodity to the commercial publisher….It must be the purpose, then, of at least this critic to propagandize rather than objectively assess. Let more readers discover Flann O’Brien; let his fire keep in; then the time for spitting on it will come.”
Scouring the web for articles about Dara’s work, it seems that the number of papers tackling his books dropped off considerably during the first half of this decade, punctuated by the publication of Flee in 2013, which received a grand total of one non-Goodreads review. It certainly deserved more notice, but even the faithful understand that we’re not exactly operating in a meritocracy here, and that it will take a more concerted effort to raise Dara’s profile.
One of the most promising developments has been the response to the Spanish translation of The Lost Scrapbook, which Palido Fuego published as El Cuaderno Perdido in 2015. The Resources page contains links to most of the reviews they’ve collected since it was released, which demonstrates the beneficial power of a committed publisher, especially one with an established a reputation for pushing quality fiction. They are currently translating The Easy Chain and Flee, so we will get a chance to see if they make the commercial and critical headway that eluded the self-published originals.
Both Earle and Burgess were validated over time. Townes Van Zandt is revered by nearly everyone who knows anything about songwriting, and it’s never been easier to find his albums (with Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas remaining the best place to start). Meanwhile, much of Flann O’Brien’s work is currently in print, thanks in part to the good folks at the Dalkey Archive and members of the International Flann O’Brien Society, which is holding its 4th conference in Salzburg this summer (#Flann2017).
Securing the reputation of Evan Dara has its own challenges, but, to quote Burgess, it’s an endeavor not without enjoyment:
“The pleasure available in these books should require no advocacy from me, but we are all so desperately unfanciful, inarticulate, pseudo-tough these days that it may require as much effort to get into Flann O’Brien’s work as into heaven—which it much resembles when it does not resemble hell.”