Flann O'Brien


A critical biography

The Flann O'Brien Irish Pub

A related novel: Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew

Here is a series from O'Brien's column in the Irish Times:

A visit that I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting. I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.
'When I get settled down properly,' said the fool, 'I'll have to catch up on my reading.'
This is what set me thinking. Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

Let me explain exactly what I mean. The wares in a bookshop look completely unread. On the other hand, a school-boy's Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the boy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary. Similarly with our non-brow who wants his friends to infer from a glancing around his house that he is a high-brow. He buys an enormous book on the Russian ballet, written possibly in the language of that distant but beautiful land. Our problem is to alter the book in a reasonably short time so that anybody looking at it will conclude that its owner has practically lived, supped and slept with it for many months. You can, if you like, talk about designing a machine driven by a small but efficient petrol motor that would 'read' any book in five minutes, the equivalent of five years or ten years' 'reading' being obtained by merely turning a knob. This, how-ever, is the cheap soulless approach of the times we live in. No machine can do the same work as the soft human fingers. The trained and ex-perienced book-handler is the only real solution of this contemporary social problem. What does he do? How does he work? What would he charge? How many types of handling would there be?
These questions and many - I will answer the day after tomorrow.
* * *

Yes, this question of book-handling. The other day I had a word to say about the necessity for the professional book-handler, a person who will maul the books of illiterate, but wealthy, upstarts so that the books will look as if they have been read and re-read by their owners. How many uses of mauling would there be? Without giving the matter much thought, I should say four. Supposing an experienced handler is asked to quote for the handling of one shelf of books four feet in length. He would quote thus under four heads:--
'Popular Handling--Each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark. Say, £1 7s 6d. Five per cent discount for civil servants.'
'Premier Handling-Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight leaves in each to be dog-eared, a suitable passage in not less than 25 volumes to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French on the works of Victor Hugo to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each. Say, £2 17s 6d. Five per cent discount for literary university students, civil servants and lady social workers.'

The great thing about this graduated scale is that no person need appear ignorant or unlettered merely because he or she is poor. Not every vulgar person, remember, is wealthy, although I could name...
But no matter. Let us get on to the more expensive grades of handling. The next is well worth the extra money.
'De Luxe Handling--Each volume to be mauled savagely, the spines of the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impres-sion that they have been carried around in pockets, a passage in every volume to be underlined in red pencil with an exclamation or interrogation mark inserted in the margin opposite, an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten book-mark (3 per cent dis-count if old Abbey programmes are accepted), not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains, and not less than five volumes to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors. Five per cent discount for bank managers, county surveyors and the heads of business houses employing not less than 35 hands. Dog-ears extra and inserted according to instructions, twopence per half dozen per volume. Quotations for alternative old Paris theatre programmes on demand. This service available for a limited time only, nett, £7 18s 3d.'

The fourth class is the Handling Superb, although it is not called that--Le Traitement Superbe being the more usual title. It is so superb that I have no space for it today. It will appear here on Monday next, and, in honour of the occasion, the Irish Times on that day will be printed on hand-scutched antique interwoven demidevilled superfine Dutch paper, each copy to be signed by myself and to be accompanied by an exquisite picture in tri-colour lithograph of the Old House in College Green. The least you can do is to order your copy in advance.
And one more word. It is not sufficient just to order your copy. Order it in advance.
* * *

IT WILL BE remembered (how, in Heaven's name, could it be forgotten) that I was discoursing on Friday last on the subject of book-handling, my new service, which enables ignorant people who want to be suspected of reading books to have their books handled and mauled in a manner that will give the impression that their owner is very devoted to them. I des-cribed three grades of handling and promised to explain what you get under am Four--the Superb Handling, or the Traitement Superbe, as we lads who spent our honeymoon in Paris prefer to call it. It is the dearest of them all, of course, but far cheaper than dirt when you consider the amount of prestige you will gain in the eyes of your ridiculous friends. Here are the details.
'Le Traitement Superbe'. Every volume to be well and truly handled, first by a qualified handler and subsequently by a master-handler who shall have to his credit not less than 550 handling hours; suitable passages in not less than fifty per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz:
Yes, indeedl
How true, how true!
I don't agree at all.
Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151.
Well, well, well.
Quite, but Boussuet in his Discours sur l'histoire Universelle has already established the same point and given much more forceful explanations.
Nonsense, nonsense!
A point well taken!
But why in heaven's name?
I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me.

Need I say that a special quotation may be obtained at any time for the supply of Special and Exclusive Phrases? The extra charge is not very much, really.

That, of course, is not all. Listen to this:
Not less than six volumes to be inscribed with forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work, e.g.,
'To my old friend and fellow-writer, A.B., in affectionate remembrance, from George Moore.'
'In grateful recognition of your great kindness to me, dear A.B., I send you this copy of The Crock of Gold. Your old friend, James Stephens.'
'Well, A.B., both of us are getting on. I am supposed to be a good writer now, but I am not old enough to forget the infinite patience you displayed in the old days when guiding my young feet on the path of literature. Accept this further book, poor as it may be, and please believe that I remain, as ever, your friend and admirer, G. Bernard Shaw.'
'From your devoted friend and follower, K. Marx.'
'Dear A.B.,-Your invaluable suggestions and assistance, not to mention your kindness, in entirely re-writing chapter 3, entitles you, surely, to this first copy of "Tess". From your old friend T. Hardy.'
'Short of the great pleasure of seeing you personally, I can only send you, dear A.B., this copy of "The Nigger". I miss your company more than I can say... (signature undecipherable).'
Under the last inscription, the moron who owns the book will be asked to write (and shown how if necessary) the phrase 'Poor old Conrad was not the worst.'
All this has taken me longer to say than I thought. There is far more than this to be had for the paltry £32 7s 6d that the Superb Handling will cast you. In a day or two I hope to explain about the old letters which are inserted in some of the books by way of forgotten book-marks, every one of them an exquisite piece of forgery. Order your copy now!

* * *

I PROMISED to say a little more about the fourth, or Superb, grade of book handling.
The price I quoted includes the insertion in not less than ten volumes of certain old letters, apparently used at one time as bookmarks, and forgotten. Each letter will bear the purported signature of some well-known humbug who is associated with ballet, verse-mouthing, folk-dancing, wood-cutting, or some other such activity that is sufficiently free from rules to attract the non-brows in their swarms. Each of the letters will be a flawless forgery and will thank A.B., the owner of the book, for his 'very kind interest in our work', refer to his 'invaluable advice and guidance', his 'unrivalled knowledge' of the lep-as-lep-can game, his 'patient and skilful direction of the corps on Monday night', thank him for his very generous--too generous--subscription of two hundred guineas, 'which is appreciated more than I can say'. As an up-to-the-minute inducement, an extra letter will be included free of charge. It will be signed (or purport to be signed) by one or other of the noisier young non-nationals who are honouring our beautiful land with their presence. This will satisfy the half- ambition of the majority of respectable vulgarians to maintain a second establishment in that somewhat congested thoroughfare, Queer Street.
The gentleman who are associated with me in the Dublin WAAMA League have realised that this is the off-season for harvesting the cash of simple people through the medium of the art-infected begging letter, and have turned their attention to fresh fields and impostures new. The latest racket we have on hands is the Myles na gCopaleen Book Club. You join this and are spared the nerve-racking bother of choosing your own books. We do the choosing for you, and, when you get the book, it is ready--rubbed, ie, subjected free of charge to our expert handlers. You are spared the trouble of soiling and mauling it to give your friends the impression that you can read. An odd banned book will be slipped in for those who like conversation such as:--
'I say, did you read this, old man?'
'I'm not terribly certain that I did, really.'
'It's banned, you know, old boy.'
There is no nonsense about completing a form, asking for a brochure, or any other such irritation. You just send in your guinea and you imme-diately participate in this great cultural uprising of the Irish people.

Occasionally we print and circulate works written specially for the Club by members of the WAAMA League. Copies are sent out in advance to well-known critics, accompanied by whatever fee that is usually required to buy them. We sent one man ten bob with a new book and asked him to say that once one takes the book up one cannot leave it down. The self-opinionated gobdaw returned the parcel with an impudent note saying that his price was twelve and sixpence. Our reply was immediate. Back went the parcel with twelve and sixpence and a curt note saying that we were accepting the gentleman's terms. In due course we printed the favourable comment I have quoted.
But for once we took steps to see that our critic spoke the truth. The cover of the volume was treated with a special brand of invisible glue that acts only when subjected to the heat of the hands. When our friend had concluded his cursory glance through the work and was about to throw it away, it had become practically part of his physical personality. Not only did the covers stick to his fingers, but the whole volume began to dis-integrate into a viscous mess of treacly slime. Short of having his two arms amputated, putting the book down was an impossibility. He had to go round with the book for a week and submit to being fed like a baby by his maid. He got rid of the masterpiece only by taking a course of scalding hot baths that left him as weak as a kitten.
That's the sort of customers we of the WAAMA League are.
Letters have been pouring in in shoals (please notice that when it is a question of shoals of letters they always pour) regarding the book-handling service inaugurated by my Dublin WAAMA League. It has been a great success. Our trained handlers have been despatched to the homes of some of the wealthiest and most ignorant in the land to maul, bend, bash, and gnaw whole casefuls of virgin books. Our printing presses have been turning out fake Gate Theatre and Abbey programmes by the hundred thousand, not to mention pamphlets in French, holograph letters signed by George Moore, medieval playing cards, and the whole paraphernalia of humbug and pretence.
There will be black sheep in every fold, of course. Some of our handlers have been caught using their boots, and others have been found thrashing inoffensive volumes of poetry with horsewhips, flails, and wooden clubs. Books have been savagely attacked with knives, daggers, knuckle-dusters, hatchets, rubber-piping, razor-blade-potatoes, and every device of assault ever heard of in the underworld. Novice handlers, not realising that tooth-marks on the cover of a book are not accepted as evidence that its owner has read it, have been known to train terriers to worry a book as they would a rat. One man (he is no longer with us) was sent to a house in Kilmainham, and was later discovered in the Zoo handing in his employer's valuable books to Charlie the chimpanzee. A country-born handler 'read' his books beyond all recognition by spreading them out on his employer's lawn and using a horse and harrow on them, subsequently ploughing them in when he realised that he had gone a little bit too far. Moderation, we find, is an extremely difficult thing to get in this country.

That, however, is by the way. A lot of the letters we receive are from well-off people who have no books. Nevertheless, they want to be thought educated. Can we help them, they ask?
Of course. Let nobody think that only book-owners can be smart. The Myles na gCopaleen Escort Service is the answer.
Why be a dumb dud? Do your friends shun you? Do people cross the street when they see you approaching? Do they run up the steps of strange houses, pretend they live there and force their way into the hall while you are passing by? If this is the sort of a person you are, you must avail yourself today of this new service. Otherwise, you might as well be dead.

Here is how it happened. The WAAMA League has had on its hands for some time past a horde of unemployed ventriloquists who have been beseeching us to get them work. These gentlemen have now been carefully trained and formed in a corps to operate this new escort service.
Supposing you are a lady and so completely dumb that the dogs in the street do not think you are worth growling at. You ring up the WAAMA League and explain your trouble. You are pleased by the patient and sympathetic hearing you get. You are instructed to be in attendance at the foyer of the Gate Theatre that evening, and to look out for a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman of military bearing attired in immaculate evening dress. You go. You meet him. He advances towards you smiling, ignoring all the other handsome baggages that litter the place. In an instant his moustaches are brushing your lips.
'I trust I have not kept you waiting, Lady Charlotte,' he says pleasantly. What a delightfully low, manly voice!
'Not at all, Count,' you answer, your voice being the tinkle of silver bells. 'And what a night it is for Ibsen. One is in the mood, somehow. Yet a translation can never be quite the same. Do you remember that night. . .inStockholm. . . long ago?'

The fact of the matter is, of course, that you have taken good care to say nothing. Your only worry throughout the evening is to shut up and keep shut up completely. The trained escort answers his own manly ques-tions in a voice far pleasanter than your own unfeminine quack, and gives answers that will astonish the people behind for their brilliance and sparkle.
There are escorts and escorts according to the number of potatoes you are prepared to pay. Would you like to score off your escort in a literary argument during an interlude? Look out for further information on this absorbing new service.
'Well, well, Godfrey, how awfully wizard being at the theatre with you!'
'Yes, it is fun.'
'What have you been doing with yourself?'
'Been trying to catch up with my reading, actually.'
'Ow, good show, keep in touch and all that.'
'Yes, I've been studying a lot of books on Bali. You know?'
'Ballet is terribly bewitching, isn't it? D'you like Petipa?'
'I'm not terribly sure that I do, but they seem to have developed a complete art of their own, you know. Their sense of décor and their general feeling for the plastic is quite marvellous.'
'Yes, old Dérain did some frightfully good work for them; for the Spectre, I think it was, actually. Sort of grisaille, you know.'
'But their feeling for matiére is so profound and... almost brooding. One thinks of Courbet.'
'Yes, or Ingres.'
'Or Delacroix, don't you think?'
'Definitely. Have you read Karsavina?'
'Of course.'
'Of course, how stupid of me. I saw her, you know.'
'Ow, I hadn't realised that she herself was a Balinese.'
'Balinese? What are you driving at?'

This ridiculous conversation took place recently in an Irish theatre. The stuff was spoken in loud voices so that everybody could hear. It was only one of the many fine things that have been done by the Dublin WAAMA League's Escort Service. The League's horde of trained ventrilo-quists can now be heard carrying out their single-handed conversations all over the city and in the drawing-rooms of people who are very import-ant and equally ignorant. You know the system? If you are very dumb, you hire one of our ventriloquists to accompany you in public places, and he does absolutely all the talking. The smart replies which you appear to make will astonish yourself as much as the people around you.
The conversation I have quoted is one of the most expensive on the menu. You will note that it contains a serious misunderstanding. This makes the thing appear extraordinarily genuine. Imagine my shrewdness in making the ventriloquist misunderstand what he is saying himself! Conceive my guile, my duplicate duplicity, my play on ignorance and gullibility! Is it any wonder that I have gone into the banking business?

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