Sunday, July 02, 2006

Back to Business

Kate O'Brien

So below I rambled semi-coherently about Flann O'Brien, Kate O'Brien, and Irish censorship. Let me get my thoughts in order, or in an approximation of such.

Ahem. Two of the masterpieces of 20th century Irish fiction are Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman and Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices. Nobody really disagrees with this assertion, by the way. Sure, critics nowadays have problems with this and that in either book, or have this or that for or against either author. But nobody would dispute that these are two of the most important and fascinating books to come out of Ireland in the 1940s. Neither can be dismissed by the serious literary historian, to put it more negatively, much as the serious literary historian might like it to be otherwise. (Flann and Kate were not related, BTW, if you were wondering; "Flann O'Brien" is a pseudonym for Brian O'Nolan.)

All right. That said, well... Readers of my blog are pretty damn smart, they read voraciously and intelligently, and are careful consumers of culture. They're not Irish literary historians, though, and I'd venture to guess that until I started raving bizarrely about Kate O'Brien, they had not heard of her. Or had heard of her, but had not realized how important a figure she is, or that she is as brilliant -- and even, in her own slyly patrician manner, as funny -- as he is.

Why? Well, part of it is that K O'B did not engage in obvious formal experimentation. She is very much a realist, in the BBC Very Special Miniseries Presentation sense; if you like George Eliot, you'd like K O'B. F O'B, with his ostentatious formal pyrotechnics, his metafictive fun, gets more recognition because his stuff works with a broad narrative of international modernism. Fair enough. He does look like the Joyce heir apparent; a good candidate, actually.

But you can only push that so far. You have to realize that in their day, K O'B was much better known than F O'B. Her books, uh, sold. So did her plays. She was unabashedly Irish, in subject matter as well as outlook; she was taken seriously as an artist (her novel Without My Cloak was a runner-up for the Hawthornden Prize.

So what's up with the fact that F 'OB gets the rep and K O'B doesn't? Well, a lot of things. But sexism is a part of it. And what's really amazing here is that it is Flann, the formal rebel -- who in the end comes across as far more timid than Kate.

Kate O'Brien in her quiet way was the most severe and cutting critic of the deadly hypocrisies of Irish Catholic sexual orthodoxy currently going in the 1940s. Why doesn't she get her due...?

Hmmm. Look at her picture up there. Bet you can't guess what new perspective she brought to Irish literature about sexuality and gender roles. Bet you can't. Neener.

More to come...

Theri, you make me feel so ashamed that I dropped out of college... I would have loved to have delved into a branch of literature I loved in such depth.

Oh, I don't know anything about Kate, but she looks dom to me (fueled, of course, by a heavy dose of Catholic indoctrination). She has that "disobey me at your peril" look about her that a good butch dom has. Possibly bi or lesbian, too. And if those were her inner demons that she called upon for writing, well...

Am I close?
The best O' writer was Flannery O'Connor. U S A ! U S A !
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