It’s strange knowing more about a writer than you do about what he has written – stranger still to know more about at least a couple of the books he has published than a cursory reading of them might afford. This second statement needs to be qualified: in asserting that it’s possible to know more of book by reading about it than by actually reading it, it may seem that I’m trespassing into that odd area of enquiry occupied by none other than de Selby himself, the peculiar eminence grise – natural philosopher, psychologist, ballistician – whose enquiries into the nature of the world form the footnotes, and the queered epistemic backdrop to ‘The Third Policeman’.
So, let me explain: ‘The Third Policeman’, by Flann O’Brien, is my kind of a book: heedless of the supposed dictates of literary naturalism or realism, steeped in Joycean word-play, penned by a dipsomaniacal Irish civil servant in the late 1930s, and sentenced to oblivion during his lifetime, only to be resurrected after his death and become a sort of off-beat minor classic. I must have heard of ‘The Third Policeman’ when I was at university in the early 1980s – I certainly remember essaying O’Brien’s first novel, ‘At Swim Two Birds’ but giving up on it due to my jejune inability to cope with its modernist inflections. From then until now, being in the literary line of work myself, I must’ve heard numerous references to the book in conversation and writing, so many and so various that about a decade ago I read the Wikipedia entry on it, and the entry on its pseudonymous author. (O’Brien’s real name was Brian O’Nolan, his novels and the satirical newspaper columns he published in the Irish Times and elsewhere appeared under various noms de plume due to the strict apolitical character of the Irish civil service during this period.)
I must also, at some point or other, have read the beginning of the novel – say the first two or three chapters – all of which is by way of saying that I was under the distinct impression that I had read it all, until, that is, I was asked by the editor of the Jewish Quarterly to write about a book I hadn’t read, but which it might well be assumed I had, and ‘The Third Policeman’ popped straight into my head. All of this is in keeping with the world the book itself describes: a topsy-turvy realm at least superficially rooted in the realities of Irish rural life – turf cutting, stout-drinking, bicycle riding – yet possessed of a turbulent imaginative hypocaust from which mephitic imaginings come bubbling up. The plot, such as it is, is relatively straightforward: The unnamed narrator grows up on a farm, he goes away and studies the works of the aforementioned de Selby; his parents die, he returns to the farm and runs it – along with a small pub he has also inherited – with a hired man called John Divney. Divney conceives of a plot to kill a local man called Mathers who is rumoured to be wealthy, and the narrator joins him in the enterprise, his motivation being to obtain the necessary finance to publish his own scholarly work on de Selby.
The murder committed, Divney flees the scene with Mathers’s cashbox. For the next three years, once he has located Divney, the narrator sticks close to him in order to ascertain the whereabouts of the money. Eventually Divney instructs the narrator to go to Mathers’s house where the cashbox is concealed under the floorboards. The narrator does this, but as he puts his hand on the cashbox there is a peculiar – indeed ineffable – transformation: he sees the dead man sitting in the far corner of the room, and after a weird conversation with him he flees the house and goes in search of the policemen of the title. What then ensues is a complete bouleversement: the policemen turn out to be a wildly eccentric lot, chiefly concerned with bicycles, and their propensity to become mixed up – at the subatomic level – with the substance of their riders. Besides their bizarre barracks, where Policeman McCruiskeen spends his time fashioning evermore infinitesimal seaman’s chests, he and his superior, Sergeant Pluck, are also responsible for the overseeing of ‘eternity’, a subterranean realm where their ministrations control the release and distribution of ‘omnium’ the primary essence of all reality.
This is, of necessity, a rough précis of a text that shifts impulsively from the outright ludic and surreal to the considered and heartfelt within the space of a single clause. I have not the space to divagate on the significance of the narrator being one-legged, nor on all the twists and turns of the narrative; one which – without wanting to spoil the ending for those who really haven’t read it – bears strong affinities with Sunset Boulevard, and a film made by Alan Parker in the 1980s called Jacob’s Ladder. What I can say is that ‘The Third Policeman’ is such an idiosyncratic and remarkable novel it single-bookedly performs the same service for O’Brien as Kafka’s entire oeuvre did for Jorge-Luis Borges. Borges’s fragment, Kafka and his Precursors, advances the argument that when a writer of Kafka’s stature appears, his works, in all their singularity, retrospectively create a series of precursors, by establishing affinities between these other writers’ works that had not heretofore been noticed.
The applicability of Borges’s schema to the case of O’Brien becomes all the more obvious when one realises that one of his precursors – or at any rate contemporaries – is Borges himself: both writers share an interest in arcana, whether spurious or not, both writers are entranced by the notion of fragmentary as much as the formal in literary composition, and both are driven to excavate the psychological consequences of a belief in philosophical idealism, as exemplified by the works of Bishop Berkeley. Like Borges, O’Brien is obsessed by the Eleatic paradoxes – not just their formal and mathematical aspects, but their applicability to the subjective. It gets stranger still – because if Borges is drawn into O’Brien’s orbit by ‘The Third Policeman’, so is Kafka himself, for there are marked stylistic resemblances between the two writers, in particular the very unforced naturalism with which they describe the wilfully unnatural. I could locate other precursors as well – Henry Green’s ‘The Green Child’ also bears a strong resemblance, as do the micro-fiction of the Russian writer Daniil Kharms – but I think these will suffice to establish that, in my estimation, O’Brien was a writer of very great stature indeed.
Analysis of ‘The Third Policeman’ has, over the years, tended to focus on the vexed question of whether it is a Modernist text indebted to Joycean experimentation, or a postmodern one heralding the post-war innovations of the Oulipo group and Donald Barthelme. This is no surprise: critics, as a breed, having wasted their young lives in fusty libraries (or nowadays in front of glowing screens), are driven by the desire for professional closure to categorise rather than assay texts; for them no book is worth considering sui generis, it must always be seen as an outgrowth of the great canonical tree. Fortunately I am not constrained in this way, which is just as well, because apart from ‘creating’ its own precursors – an act of omnium-like power – ‘The Third Policeman’ stands alone in his heavy, squeaking boots. The real experimentation of O’Brien’s novel lies not in its copious footnotes, which describe the fatuous experiments and foolish theories of de Selby (among other crazy solecisms he believes that darkness is really a form of pollution, and that sleep, rather than being a continuous period of unconsciousness is in fact a succession of ephemeral ‘fits’), but in its language. O’Brien writes the most beautiful descriptive passages, often concerned with natural scenes – clouds, sky, wind, rain, fields &c. – or with the epiphanies nature can produce in the human psyche, yet all of it is rendered meticulously in prose that, word-for-word, is utterly unheimlich.
The German term for the uncanny seems right here, because the unnamed narrator of ‘The Third Policeman’ is at home nowhere – indeed, it is his orphaned condition of homelessness that provides the uneven existential bedrock of the novel, reminding its reader that – in the words of Oscar Wilde’s memorable epigram – ‘Life is a dream that keeps me from sleeping’. Did I enjoy ‘The Third Policeman’? Well, yes, in a way – although there was something a little bit chore-like in having to read a text which, as I think I’ve already explained, I was convinced I’d read already.
Will Self is the author of 16 works of fiction and six of non-fiction; his latest novel, “Shark” is published by Viking. He lives in South London.