The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, by Flann O’Brien

Review published on April 7, 2012.Reviewed by Stephen Joyce

There are eighty-five sketches each about a page long that feature the same two characters: Chapman, an energetic entrepreneur and scientist, and Keats, a laidback poet. Generally, Chapman’s inventiveness drags the two into a peculiar situation and Keats finishes the story by making a dreadful pun. The first few sketches will make you groan. Then the awful puns form a running joke and you find yourself laughing, before they become tiresome again and you look around for something else to read.

The pieces are all culled from the writings of Flann O’Brien, aka Myles na Gopaleen, in his humorous articles for The Irish Times from 1939-1966. The publication of these pieces in one book coincides with a concerted push to shift O’Brien’s status from cult writer to major Irish author, the equal of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. O’Brien (real name Brian O’Nolan) shares with them a fertile imagination, immense erudition, and a multilingual playfulness with words. What he lacks is a collection of undoubted masterpieces and The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman showcases many of the attractive and frustrating qualities of his writing.

The first thing one notices is that most of the puns are terrible. Getting a taxi, Keats notices that the upholstery is stained with milk and asks if it is a ‘cabri-au-lait’. O’Brien likes double entendres, switching between languages to change meaning, and transposing letters to alter well-known clichés. Chasing down a missing steed becomes “dogging a fled horse.” A circus performer browsing a newspaper in a cage with the big cats is “reading between the lions.” Some of the punchlines in other languages are practically incomprehensible. It would take a rather erudite reader to find the humour in Keats’ response to Chapman’s memories of the Arcadia Ballroom: “Et ego in Arcadia vixi.”

The attraction comes when you realise that O’Brien invented the puns first and constructed the story to build up to them. These stories are charming, with Keats and Chapman forming an entertaining duo, and one wishes that O’Brien had dispensed with the pun and carried on with the humorous narrative. There’s no doubt that the author has great comic talent, but he seems unable to resist ending a good tale with a bad joke. Perhaps the real difference between O’Brien and the likes of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett emerges here. They were professional writers who honed their works to perfection before publication; O’Brien worked for the civil service and wrote articles in his spare time to be published weekly. He couldn’t devote the same care to his work and while he always shows flashes of brilliant imagination, he rarely produced any sustained work along the lines of Waiting for Godot or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The collection also includes the one-man play The Brother, which is essentially a collection of humorous anecdotes adapted by Eamon Morrissey from O’Brien’s articles in The Irish Times. The individual sections are fun but don’t connect together to form a larger whole, which makes it entertaining but somewhat unsatisfying.

Overall, this is primarily a book for fans of Flann O’Brien who have read his other collections already in print. Those who are new to his work may prefer to begin with his most acclaimed novel, At-Swim-Two-Birds, which best showcases his comic invention and playful imagination.


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  1. Oh, come on. These stories were never intended to be read as a book, at one sitting. I don’t know how often the column appeared, but I for one would have looked forward to it – simply for the pun!

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