Flann O’Brien and Secured Reputations

flann

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.”

 

El Cuaderno Perdido

Thanks in large part to the efforts of its tireless publisher, Palido Fuego, links to numerous reviews and essays for El Cuaderno Perdido have been added to the Resources page. We’ve adopted a stylistically inconsistent variation of MLA to display the information, which will need to be cleaned up over time.  But, for now, our simple aim is to collect and compile these links under one roof.

Readers may also notice that a number of blurbed reviews of The Lost Scrapbook are not listed here, due largely to the fact that many of them appeared in publications—from the Los Angeles Reader to Oculus Magazine—which have ceased operations at some point over the past 15 years.  If you have digital or print copies of any lost review, please contact us through the standard method.

Resources and Miscellany

While the launch of the site on Sunday was somewhat inadvertent (we prematurely plugged into Twitter without realizing what happens when you hit the Publish button), work continues behind the scenes.  One of the first orders of business was to stake out an area to collect and compile links to books, articles, and sites that discuss Dara’s work.  You can click on the Resources tab to monitor the progress on this front.

Two quick notes:

  1. We aren’t purposely neglecting El Cuaderno Perdido, and will be adding relevant reviews over time.
  2. If you have additional suggestions for the list, please send them in.

 

Something Always Going On

Something always going on—

It has been over three-and-a-half years since Evan Dara published his third novel, Flee, which confirmed something that a small but steadfast circle of committed readers already understood: that Dara is as good as any living American novelist.  In a career that spans roughly 22 years, he has only launched three titles, but each of them serve as high points of the decade in which they were released.

His debut, The Lost Scrapbook, came out in November 1995 under the daring shingle of FC2, just two months before David Foster Wallace gave us Infinite Jest.  And it has dwelled in a tiny zipcode of IJ’s numinous shadow ever since.  Indeed, the relationship between the two books has been cordial and symbiotic, with sources close to Wallace claiming that he often recommended TLS, which had already garnered blurbs from the likes of Richard Powers after winning the 12th annual FC2/Illinois State University National Fiction Competition, judged by William T. Vollmann. Other Wallace fans have frequently suggested The Lost Scrapbook to those who conquer Infinite Jest and find themselves seeking a comparable blend of inventive prose with a human center.

But while these two novels occupy the same rarefied air, representing the very best fiction produced in the 1990s, the subsequent paths of its authors bear little resemblance to each other.  Wallace went on to become the voice of his generation while Dara stayed in the shadows, living under what seems to be a pseudonym while never granting an interview. Those who saw The End of the Tour, the movie adaptation of David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, saw a depiction of Wallace struggling to maintain a modicum of normalcy and bind his splintering sense of self during the promotional hurricane provoked by Infinite Jest. It’s an examination of the problem that obscure writers might wish for, to see if they can survive and tame the daunting wave pool of adulation and attention generated by a genuine work of art.

There is no evidence to suggest that similar offers were made to Evan Dara, or that agents seeking to capture lightning in a bottle ever came knocking.  Like many other great novels, it received a brief burst of critical attention before being shunted aside by the next quarter’s arrival of important works.  Yet, unlike most of those books, its author didn’t pack his car with books, pens, and clean underwear and motor towards the literary oases of the hinterlands, to read his words in a library in Louisville or a bookstore in Dubuque. Instead, he chose silence, exile, and cunning, for reasons that are both understandable and fascinating, forcing his work to speak for itself.

As someone who has read and re-read his novels over the past twenty years, I decided to establish the Evan Dara Affinity as a place to shine or re-direct a bit of light towards these three books (four if you count the recent Spanish translation of The Lost Scrapbook, El Cuaderno Perdido).  We will see where this takes us.