Dalkey Archive

The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien


By Adam Rivett.

Flann O’Brien didn’t have much respect for the traditional novel as we’ve come to know and scarcely tolerate it. At-Swim-Two-Birds, his first, can barely get started before it’s wandering down the winding track of digression and self-conscious hyperbole, all tongue-in-cheek mythology and undergraduate linguistic bluster. His second (and arguably greatest) novel, The Third Policeman, trades in the virtuoso style of the debut for a plainer prose, but, indisputably, a bleaker world view. Play becomes despair, and youthful drunken rhetorical games grow surreal and morbid. There was, from the outset of O’Brien’s work, a fundamental impatience with received forms. The ‘ideal’ novel that is so often rewarded these days – realist, tightly plotted, tastefully ‘well written,’ and above all consistent – is not O’Brien’s. Yet Birds is one of the 20th Century’s great debuts. Its voice – sardonic, harshly original, comfortable in numerous registers – seems formed and confident from the start. Reading the small amount of pre-Birds material in the new collection The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien, then, gives us, among other things, the only clue we have as to how the man otherwise known as Brian O’Nolan got it so right so fast.

Best European Fiction 2014


By Jonathan Gibbs.

This is the fifth year of Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction and already it’s possible to see how the cultural ground has shifted under it even in that short time. In his introduction to the original, 2010, collection, editor Aleksandar Hemon felt the need to deny that a book of (mostly) translated (mostly) short stories was a “doubly lost cause”. You can’t imagine him saying that today – not with regards to the short story, at any rate: not with the increasingly high-profile prizes, the prestigious wins for Munro (the Nobel) and Davis (Man Booker International), and the beginnings of a real digital presence for the form.

The relationship of the English-reading world to the European scene, however, is more uncertain. Indeed, Salt’s yearly anthologies of British, and Faber’s regular ones of Irish short stories might be helping to shore the form up on these islands, but they are necessarily inward- rather than outward-looking. And the globalisation – or, more realistically, transatlantic shift – of the Man Booker, and the appearance of the Folio Prize, run the risk of turning us further from our continental neighbours, and the culture we share across our different languages.