I was slightly delayed by a question that came across my bows, a question posed by American writer, Warren Adler – a question he appears to pose at regular intervals as I have found references to it dating back ten years. The question is this: What makes a literary novel a literary novel? You can find his discussion at the Huffington Post by doing the usual searches. All I will say is that I disagree with his answer. It is not about the use of fancy or poetical constructions. It is more fundamental than that. In my opinion, what makes a literary novel is the fact that we are aware of a narrator behind the narration – behind any narrator who appears to be narrating. What makes a novel literary is that there is the sense of the play of a mind behind the telling of the story. This is why Stephen King is not literary – although he is very good at what he does – because his writing is highly efficiently enslaved to the action and the emotional effects he wants to create in the reader.
With Flann O’Brien that sense of play is very much in the forefront of all his books – and in fact it is what redeems The Dalkey Archive, which is funny but is not ‘great’ in any sense. But with The Third Policeman we are dealing with a very different beast.
In truth, and this is the answer to the question posed a few blogs back, this is not a particularly ‘funny’ book (The Dalkey Archive is funnier – we are more likely to smile or laugh while reading it (as good a definition of funny as any!)). But The Third Policeman is infinitely greater as a literary construction. Although it has its cultic following, I think even among them it is misrepresented simply as an odd, funny book. I think this is a misreading. For me The Third Policeman is Flann O’Brien’s great work (certainly greater than ‘At Swim Two Birds’). And the only writer with whom we can compare him is Beckett.
There is a very strong parallel with Beckett at the beginning. We have a nameless narrator narrating endless details without giving us the sense of a context or a situation. For me, if I dive into any of Beckett’s works, Watt or Malone Dies for example, I luxuriate in the flow of his sentences for about three pages and then my mind revolts and I cannot read any more. In the Third Policeman we nearly get there but, crucially, not quite. There is here more of a narrative flow, a sense of movement, that carries us along. The Third Policeman is a brooding surreal work, mesmerisingly playful but not dizzyingly so – it is not trying to impress us with its virtuosity as At Swim Two Birds so clearly is. But there is a strong sense of friction at the level of the sentence so we cannot read it as easily as The Dalkey Archive but we know that we will do ourselves a great disservice if we don’t persevere.
And when we read the history of these two books a tragedy is revealed. At Swim Two Birds was published to some acclaim, but presumably sales were not great and so there was no automatic publication of a second novel. The Third Policeman was refused publication. Turned down flat. And so it lay in the bottom drawer as so many novels do (I’ve got three!). Why did he not persevere? He must have taken a long look in the mirror and decided that he did not wish to be an impoverished literary genius. Perhaps he preferred to be a clown, to entertain, for that is what he did for the next twenty years where he had a decent job and a weekly newspaper column on the side – and it has to be admitted his humour as it manifested itself in the column does not travel well. But then, now retired, he decides to salvage something of the earlier novel (the good bit) and wrap it up in a slighter work, which now that he is well known gets published. Celebrity beats quality any day of the week when it get to being published (he said sourly!). And then three years later he died. And then The Third Policeman was discovered and published to great acclaim.
But what if it had been published twenty years earlier and its genius recognised then? Ah what then? Might we not have had more great works of genius? The lost works of Flann O’Brien…that is what we have to mourn.
I have written too much right now. But tomorrow I’ll look at some of the truly extraordinary elements of The Third Policeman.