Author: Coulouma, Flore
Date published: October 1, 2011
1. Introduction: a reply to Cruiskeen Lawn's detractors
Although Myles na gCopaleen's chronicles have acquired a cult status in Ireland, Cruiskeen Lawn has never been a favorite of literary critics, who generally favour O'Briens most famous novels, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. Not only are the chronicles rarely studied, they are also regularly credited with O'Brien's "failure" to become a literary master like his predecessor, Joyce, and his contemporary, Beckett. For most critics, O'Brien's flaw as a writer is to have squandered most of his energy on twenty-six years' worth of Cruiskeen Lawn columns. The chronicle ran several times weekly from 1940 until his death in 1966, with decreasing frequency towards the end of his life. Ironically, the chronicle is regularly mentioned along with Plann O'Briens notorious and devastating alcoholism as the other nail in his creative coffin: "Was it the drink was his ruin, or was it the column?" (Kenner 255). Following Anthony Cronin, O'Brien's ambiguously sympathetic biographer, Kenner brutally states that when O'Nolan started the column as Myles na gCopaleen, "a great future lay behind him" (257). For Cronin, "the Great Myles" could never free himself from the provincialism of Dublin life (Dead as Doornails 112). More recently, Declan Kiberd accused the Stage-Irishman side of Myles na Gopaleen (with the later spelling used by O'Brien, after Boucicault) of entrapping Flann O'Brien in the limitations of the colonial subject towards his metropolitan center: when Myles "succumbed to the temptation to placate his newspaper audience," Flann O'Brien took on the role of licensed jester, which led him to "exploit, rather than express, his material" (512), in the hope of reaching London audiences. The unavoidable subservience of the authorized funnyman thus wasted O'Brien's potential as a truly subversive writer. Joseph Brooker sums it up bluntly: "Plann O'Brien was a failure, and Myles na Gopaleen was to blame" (87). However, Brooker himself notes a changing attitude in the latest critics towards the chronicles, acknowledging them as an innovative piece of writing (88).
The aim of this article is to show that far from being detrimental to his writing, the chronicles are part and parcel of Flann O'Brien's literary imagination and cannot be separated from his so-called major work. My contention is that to criticize the chronicles as provincial and lacking in literary ambition is to fall into the same essentialist trap as the one denounced in the first place by post-colonial critics. Indeed, the colonial opposition between centre and periphery is at stake here; Cruiskeen Lawn does not conform to the traditional format of great works of literature, meaning, implicitly, the voluminous novels of the English canon, including, ambiguously enough, Joyce's. Four decades down the line, the very structure and themes of Cruiskeen Lawn cannot be ignored as they are integral to Flann O'Brien's satirical genius. My hypothesis is that they are also essential to understanding O'Brien's writing as a whole.
At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman are masterpieces of fragmented narratives. They have been commended as early post-modern works, and they share with Cruiskeen Lawn some defining features of post-modern writing: irony and a closeness to Menippean satire; the use of nonsense and self-referential language games; a critical stance on discourses of authority - be they scientific, academic or political; the fascination for relativity theories; and, finally, an ambiguous relation to both the Irish literary tradition and the English(-speaking) canon (Hopper; Booker). In At Swim, the first-person narrator's famous "theory of the novel" is comically echoed by Lament's ferocious rant about how a story should be told: "whether a yarn is tall or small I like to hear it well told ... I like to meet a man that can take in hand to tell a story and not make a balls of it while he's at it" (63). This no-nonsense Dublin character is clearly an early instance of the Plain People of Ireland. He highlights O'Brien's satire of "common sense," which is also a crucial theme in the chronicles. But Lamont's tirade also suggests that writing is really telling a story. This complex relation between orality and literacy finds a perfect setting in the chronicles, a hybrid genre between journalism and literature, reality and fiction.
I will examine how Lament's theory of storytelling applies to Cruiskeen Lawn, using a pragmatics approach based on the so-called theories of ordinary language. Starting with Austin's Speech Acts theory, pragmatic analysis focuses on implicit meaning, illocutionary effects, relevance, and cooperative communication, taking into account the context of utterance and the inter-subjective relation between speakers (Searle; Grice; Sperber & Wilson). Such an approach is equally relevant to textual analysis, and I will consider the chronicles as one long on-going conversation between Myles and his readers. Flann O'Brien largely devoted his writing to the representation of language through his depiction of the ordinary, native-speakers of Irish, English, and "Dublinese." In Cruiskeen Lawn, Myles, The Brothers brother, Keats and Chapman and The Plain People of Ireland all tell us stories directly and perform a representation of storytelling. This raises a number of questions concerning the narrative structure of Cruiskeen Lawn: its linguistic status of ironical stance, its ambiguous relation between orality and the written word, and the importance of dialogic and polyphonic discourse. Two structural themes will help us address these questions: the anecdote and the digression, which are woven together in the meandering narratives of Flann O'Brien's writing.
2. The ultimate dialogic genre
The pragmatic context of a newspaper chronicle points to its hybrid nature, between a direct address to a real audience, and a written text physically remote from its readers. As in oral interaction, newspapers adapt their content to daily events and the constantly evolving news. They offer a narrative whose very existence is based on temporality, and is therefore at odds with the traditional opposition between oral and written discourse: oral speech unfolds in time while written discourse spreads on the space of the printed page. Thus the constantly renewed Cruiskeen Lawn column made the presence of Myles na gCopaleen felt in many households on a near-daily basis, for over two decades. Despite the unavoidable hiatus between emission and reception that we find in the written word, a daily newspaper partially breaches such a discrepancy by printing reactions from its enthused or disgruntled readers. Brian O'Nolan, for one, knew it and used it to his advantage when he sent a string of controversial letters to the Irish Times, as a student; the hoax was exposed but it earned him his job (No Laughing Matter 110). The complex nature of the chronicle, pertaining to both oral and written genres, can thus be related to a form of epistolary interaction. From sending letters to responding to them in his column, Myles deftly manoeuvres the dialogic dimension of epistolary exchange, based on spontaneity (however fake, in his case) and reciprocity.
Let us turn to a concrete example, from The Best of Myles:
A few weeks ago I was interrupted when about to give the public my long-awaited description of my own face. Several anxious readers have written in asking when they might expect it. My answer is that they might expect it to-day. Let us take the features one by one and then stand back, as one stands back from a majestic Titian or Van Gogh, and view the whole magnificent
The Plain People of Ireland: Is this going to be long?
Myself: Not very.
The Plain People of Ireland: How long roughly?
Myself. Well, say ten lines for the vast Homeric brow, the kingly brow that is yet human wise and mild. Then the eyes, peerless winegreen opal of rare hue, brittle and ebullient against the whiteness of Himalayan snow -
The Plain People of Ireland: Another ten lines?
Myself: Say seven each. That's fourteen altogether.
The Plain People of Ireland: And how about the gob and the snot?
Myself: If you mean the finely-moulded masterful-
The Plain People of Ireland: Did you ever hear this one: As a beauty I am not a star. There are others more handsome by far -
Myself. I did, I did. Stop!
The Plain People of Ireland: But my face I don't mind it, For I am behind it, It's the people in front get the jar!
Myself. Lord save us!
The Plain People of Ireland: Could we not leave the whole thing over to another time?
Myself. Very well. But heaven knows whom we are disappointing in this matter. (81-82)
In this episode, Myles explicitly acknowledges the existence of his audience from the beginning ("the public," "several anxious readers"). Although it refers to the readers in the third person, the column posits itself as a reply in a previously started conversation ("my answer is . . ."). Myles then addresses us directly with the imperative "Let us take," and switches to a conversation in the direct style between himself and his Plain People audience. The column first reminds us of the physical distance between columnist and reader, and of the temporal hiatus in the exchange. Then, Myles stages the conversation itself, offering us a literal representation of oral interaction. The final words give a sense of interrupted conversation, thus creating expectation: we are waiting for a sequel.
Here, Myles displays his agonistic representation of conversation: each speaking turn is a struggle, with both parties intent on telling their jokes and anecdotes. In an agonistic dialogue, the aim is to silence one's opponent, which is partially the case here (Myles gives up). The irony pervading the scene also reminds us of its many narrative levels (as the columns audience, we are also the Plain People), as well as its meta-narrative dimension: Myles offers us a reflection on the column's pragmatic status as a conversation. The dialogic theme finally contributes to the very structure of the Cruiskeen Lawn narrative, since most chronicles feature a dialogue in the direct style - between Myles and The Brother or The Plain People of Ireland, or between Keats and Chapman- or directly address readers in the second person.
For all his insistence on the oral dimension of linguistic exchange, Myles's working material is the written word: thriving on the hybrid status of his newspaper chronicle, he plays up the complex relation between orality and literacy at work in his stories, for his readers' viewing (or is it listening?) pleasure. Representing orality can be deemed a thankless task since the written word is only a poor substitute for the voices and accents of native Dubliners, but Myles steps up precisely where the written word falls short. His task is not about transcribing the sounds of oral speech so much as showing how entangled they are with written discourse, in a fictional context and in ordinary language. The example quoted above playfully highlights our common assumption that written and oral discourses correspond to language registers: pompous Myles describes his own face in a very formal, convoluted - understand "written"- style, while the Plain People's speech is, of courses/am, and fraught with slang ("how about the gob and the snot?"). The written word adds up on the page, allowing a syntactic complexity that is harder to follow when spoken. In speech, words chronologically replace each other, which makes it crucial, in O'Briens agonistic conversations, to have the last word; what remains of the spoken word is the punch line. Here, the conversation is about Myles's face, which is strikingly relevant: saving face is at stake in the dialogue, hence the Plain People's insistence against Myles's refusal ("Stop!But my face I don't mind it, For I am behind it . . .").
Much like the typographical digressions in At Swim and the footnotes in The Third Policeman, Cruiskeen Lawn exploits the visual dimension of the printed text. Its many pictures and punctuation marks ironically point to their own artificiality as substitutes for oral speech and its context of utterance. Even the Plain People are not immune to such ambiguity; the limerick they recite here has the fixed quality of a written poem, as attested by the ironic use of capital letters after commas: "But my face I don't mind it, For I am behind it, It's the people in front get the jar!" They too have fallen victim to the artifices of the written word, and they love it.
3. Anecdotes and the master storyteller
In light of Myless games with orality and literacy, let us turn to the etymological sense of "anecdote" provided by the Oxford English Dictionary (a Flann O'Brien favourite):
From Greek, things unpublished.
1. pi. Secret, private, or hitherto unpublished narratives or details of history.
2. The narrative of a detached incident, or of a single event, told as being in itself interesting or striking. (At first, an item of gossip.)
The first meaning is that of an unpublished (i.e. not public) story, which brings us back to the written story versus the story told. The potentially infinite reproduction of the printing press makes stories public with no limit in time and place, or as to audience. On the other hand, a private story told orally is necessarily limited to its unique speaker and context of utterance: however gifted of gab Myles and his fictional co-speakers are, each version of the same story changes with its context and narrator and becomes a single, distinctive story in its own right.
As always, Myles na gCopaleen thrives in the in-between. As a satirical chronicle, Cruiskeen Lawn publicly comments on the "great story" of Irish politics and public events. As Myless inimitable collection of stories, it recounts the trivial (fictional) anecdotes of the Dublin common man. In both cases, its readership can be considered large- twenty-six years' worth of Irish Times readership - or relatively private - the column was only intended for its contemporary Irish Times readership, not for the international audience it gained after Cruiskeen Lawn was re-published in book form. Myles also blurs the distinction between history - the story worth publishing- and its "details," targeting the authority traditionally imparted to the written word. Myles's self-conscious anecdotes from the colonial periphery seem all the more irreverently relevant since they are defined as marginal by the OED, a linguistic symbol of the colonial centre.
What makes anecdotes worth writing? Let us examine another example:
I'll tell you a good wan.
I'll give you a laugh.
How very welcome.
The brother's studyin' the French. The brother has the whole digs in a right state and the nerves of half of the crowd up there is broke down.
How truly characteristic of your relative.
The brother comes down to breakfast there about a fortnight back, ten minutes late. And I'll tell you a good wan. What be all the powers had the brother up here at the neck.
I do not know.
A bow tie begob.
I see... (Best ofMyles 68)
Here, the main story (The Brother learning French) is embedded in the framing scene, where the storyteller inflicts his insignificant anecdote on the listener (Myles/reader). Narrator Myles then depicts the scene as an anecdotic, marginal event of everyday life: meeting a loquacious acquaintance at the bus stop. What makes these stories interesting is their ironic mise-enabyme: Myles's ironical stance disconnects them from their original context of utterance, the better to show their comic absurdity. We laugh at the storyteller's self-importance and at his irrepressible love for talk. The storyteller's fatuous pronouncements also mirror Myles's pedantic attitudes: he too loves the sound of his own voice. The multiple narrative frames makes telling the anecdote an event in its own right, no less worthy of telling, and so on and so forth.
Framing the anecdote into another narrative enables us to examine its nature, function, and effects. Myles's ironic distance thus fulfills his comic goal and offers us a reflection on anecdotes as speech acts. At a literal level, the information provided by the anecdote is neither complete nor relevant to the listener, whose calculated reserve facetiously highlights the speaker's incontinent verbosity. From a Gricean point of view, then, the speaker does not follow the rules of cooperative conversation, which are to provide clear, true, complete, and relevant information to one's co-speaker (41-58). He fulfills the pragmatic condition of sincerity, however, despite Myles's disingenuous account of the whole scene. The encounter is much more important than Myles's mocking irony would falsely suggest: as a speech act, it performs what Jakobson call Uiephatic function of language; it establishes and maintains linguistic communication by drawing and keeping the co-speaker's attention (217). (In our example, almost a third of the entire column is taken up by phatic expressions such as "I'll tell you a good wan" and the co-speaker's ironic replies "How very welcome," "I see"). Myles's obsession with such expressions is in keeping with his depiction of ordinary language and his interest for the pleasure of utterance as distinct from meaningful content.
Anecdotes provide a broad range of stories, from utter fiction and nonsensical jokes to straightforward comments on the political Irish news. With Myles na gCopaleen, everything becomes anecdote material: limericks, overheard conversations, but also the great political story of the nation. This has a double consequence: on the one hand, insignificant, irrelevant stories acquire an essential pragmatic and social importance which is only enhanced by their comic effect. Making fun of anecdotes and their tellers (the Brother's brother, The Plain People of Ireland) also results in a celebration of the footnotes of Dublin life. On the other hand, since the constant use of anecdotes presents the column itself as harmless banter, it brings down the serious, political news to the level of anecdotic (and often comically absurd) fun. Myles debunks the solemnity- and indeed, the very notion- of a national linear story represented by its great characters, such as in the following example:
Certainly Costello was not lacking in courage when, the other day, he introduced in Parliament his Arts Bill: this I take to be a thinly veiled plan to give Paddy Kavanagh a pension for life. I object, of course. Taking the papal Bull by the horns, I assert it is contrary to Catholic teaching. Number two, I was not consulted. (Further Cuttings 130)
Fragmenting the "great" story brings it down to the level of the anecdote, and makes it material for linguistic fun. Myles subverts the authority of political discourse in the same way as Flann O'Brien does in the novels, blurring the boundaries and hierarchy between narratives as a satirical device against linguistic and literary oppression.
Last but not least, anecdotes respond to a pleasure principle and illustrate the erotic dimension of language: Myles, the Plain People of Ireland and the talkative characters of the novels all share an insatiable love for proffering utterances sententious or poetical, simply to bask in the music of the human voice: "there's a lilt in that," says Lamont about the "Pint of Plain" poem, in At Swim (77). With the added ambivalence of Myles's ironical point of view, both melodious voice and printed text point to the physicality and opacity of language, and to its inaccessible, nonsensical dimension. In this respect, the "Keats and Chapman" stories perfectly illustrate the purely reflexive function of puns (e.g. "He's reading between the lions" in The Various Lives, 58).
In all of Flann O'Brien's writing, and particularly in Cruiskeen Lawn, anecdotes embody the fragmented narratives of everyday life, as much as they contribute to questioning the notion of monologic discourse. Myles's stories always involve a number of dissenting voices, both explicitly depicted in conversation scenes, or implicitly present through his many levels of narrative irony. This dialogic and polyphonic dimension is also expressed by the digressive nature of the anecdotes themselves. We now need to examine digression more closely, in relation with the notions of non-cooperative conversation and diglossia.
4. Digression and subversion
At Swim and The Third Policeman are famous for their highly digressive narrative structures, and the theme of digression itself is essential to their stories. The novels present digression as a discursive phenomenon but also in its moral and spatial senses: characters and narrators go astray, literally on their wandering bicycles, and morally, leaving the straight and narrow to take paths that go round and round and make them "lose the plot." Digression also plays an essential part in the chronicles, and, again, needs to be acknowledged within Flann O'Brien's representation of language as a whole.
Narrative digression partially defines a newspaper chronicle, since the columnist follows the accidents of daily life and news, and, in the case of Myles na gCopaleen, his unpredictable and facetious imagination. When the chronicles were collected for their publication as books, they were arranged under the titled sections we know them by: "The District Court," the "Catechism of Cliché," "Bores," and so on. However, there were no such titles in the original layout, as Kevin O'Nolan notes in his preface to Further Cuttings From Cruiskeen Lawn: "Through half its history the column appeared under the name 'Cruiskeen Lawn' . . . without further clue as to what readers were actually having on any particular day" (11). Thus the column consists of the many digressions from- and cyclical returns to- its narrative threads:
This is part II of my series, the Roasting of Architects. In part I we saw that most cities have become dangerous and uninhabitable, and that architects wish to be permitted to remedy these conditions, which have been created by architects . . . (Further Cuttings 109)
The constant back and forth movement between different storylines removes all sense of a single, linear thread throughout the entire column, which echoes the subversion of narrative conventions in At Swim. On the other hand, punchlines make each episode a self-contained unit. Myles's multi-faceted persona and his use of characters as narrators of their own stories increase the number of digressions in the column. This leads to a highly polyphonic, often chaotic and nonsensical effect on the delighted reader.
Let us now examine how digression is used within narratives:
In the Dublin Court yesterday, an elderly man who gave his name as Myles na gCopaleen was charged with begging, disorderly conduct, using bad language and with being in illegal possession of an armchair . . .
Defendant: Quid immerentes hospites vexas canis ignavus adversum lupos?1
Detective Sergeant: This man had no difficulty in speaking English when he was lying on the street. This sort ofthing makes a farce of the language movement . . .
Justice: Are you married?
Defendant: Are you?
Justice: Impertinence won't help you.
Defendant: It wont help anybody. The question you put is apparently equally offensive to both of us. I am a victim of circumstances. Maioribus praesithis et copiis oppugnatur res publica quam defenditur propterea quod audaces homines et perditi nutu impelluntur et ipsi etiam sponte sua contra rem publicam incitantur.2
Detective Sergeant: This is a very hardened character, Your Honour. He was convicted for loitering at Swansea in 1933.
Justice: I must convict. There is far too much of this sort ofthing in Dublin and I am determined to put it down.
Defendant: What sort of thing?
Justice: The larceny of armchairs.
Defendant: It wasn't an armchair. There were no arms on it ... (Best ofMyles 148-9)
The trial scene- a recurring feature in O'Brien's writing - hails the traditions of Menippean satire and Victorian Nonsense, and abounds in pointless questions and irrelevant answers. This questioning session represents an extreme version of the agonistic dialogue. For the defendant, flouting the rules of cooperation is key; Old Myles uses irrelevant digressions as strategic devices in this aggressive language-game. The judge attempts to bring him back to the main point of order ("behave yourself"), but Myles turns the discourse of authority against him. Fittingly enough, the master-digresser is also a "loiterer" whose wandering activities must be "put down."
The Latin quotes add to the comic effect, being both seemingly incongruous and perfectly relevant to mock the rigid, monologic discourse of oppressive law. The first quote directly insults the police officer; the second quote is a thinly veiled attack against the "enemies of the Republic," with the Irish subtext lending Myles's tirades more piquancy. Myles's hilarious defence is also a case for free-flowing digression and fragmented, polyphonic narratives. It puts down linear, unambiguous, monologic discourse as oppressive and unnatural. Finally, the Latin quotes remind us that Flann O'Briens digressions are also about subverting not simply discourse, but language itself. Foreign words hinder the flow of English speech and contradict its given authority over the absent native tongue. Here, Latin outshines English as a symbol of academic, social, and religious authority, while Myles's conviction for "bad language" comically hints at the status of Irish under English rule.
Digressions now take on a political dimension. More than being merely post-modern devices for disrupting linear narratives and canonical stories, anecdotes and digressions naturally follow from O'Brien's diglossie view on language and his satiric charge against linguistic oppression. The term diglossia refers to the complementary use of two languages or dialects within one speech community, based on the opposition between official and vernacular languages (Ferguson 214-34). Diglossia is not bilingualism: not all speakers can use both languages at will. This leads to complex attitudes of social evaluation and linguistic self-consciousness. O'Brien's novels and chronicles illustrate the full panel of speakers' attitudes to their own language: some speak a Dublin, working-class variety of Irish-English (Cruiskeen Lawn, At Swim); some only speak Irish (An Béai Bocht); some, such as Myles na gCopaleen, master all languages and registers. O'Brien/Myles constantly denounced the linguistic hypocrisy of his time and the difficulty of the man in the street to position himself as a native speaker in a newly independent Ireland. Writing Cruiskeen Lawn mostly in English was not a decision by his inner stage-Irishman, nor was he shirking his duties as an Irish-speaking author. My contention is that the chronicles truly represent the linguistic complexity of O'Brien's Ireland, with all its contradictions and ambiguities.
Ireland's primary diglossie opposition is of course English versus Irish, the colonial language versus the native tongue, as depicted in An Béai Bocht. Yet Myles's Dubliners are in fact native English speakers. They have lost their original linguistic identity, and their dialect of English is still dominated by the "standard," dictionary variety regularly caricatured in the chronicles. On the other hand, they must face a paradoxical situation where Irish has become the new official language, and English the everyday life vernacular. Myles, who was truly bilingual, was keenly aware of the damages caused both by linguistic colonialism and by compulsory linguistic revival. True to his satirist's nature, he always denounced hypocrisy but never took a stance one way or the other. His regular use of languages other than English and Irish makes a point: in the example above, Old Myles's mischievous use of Latin shows how absurd, fickle, and ultimately damaging the notion of superiority of a language can be.
In Cruiskeen Lawn, the "language question" indifferently refers to English or Irish, ironically highlighting the disingenuous interest of politicians for the native tongue:
The language problem again - I am sorry but we must, you know. First, pronunciation; this is very important. Carelessness in the formation of vowels and consonants, when it is accompanied by improper breathing, bad phrasing and the forcing of the voice, leads inevitably to slovenly speech . . . You cannot give too much attention to this matter - with it is bound up the whole question of national prestige . . . If the language is permitted to die the consequences will be terrible. (Further Cuttings 95)
Here, Myles refers to English, not Irish. He goes on: "one thinks immediately of the words: 'Cow,' 'Man' . . . You know how they come out: 'Kehaouw,' 'Mhaaanh' . . ." His conclusion turns the table on the "language movement": "any given nation should have . . . some language. If we fail to make the most of what little English as we now remember it may bode ill for us" (96).
Myles indiscriminately attacks snobs, whatever their allegiance. His linguistic satire translates into his storytelling, a free-flowing form concerned with representing the digressive and fragmented nature of language itself, its difficulties and its epiphanies. Just as there is no such thing as a superior form of language, Myles refuses allegiance to canonical and conventional forms of writing. Thus, subverting monologic discourse enables him to show how contradictions and conflicts are the very substance of language and stories: anecdotes and the "great" narrative of history, digressions and storyline, cooperative and agonistic dialogue.
We can now answer Myles na gCopaleen's accusation of provincialism. The chronicles, as a constantly changing, always subversive collection of stories, find their inspiration in the absurdity of daily life and in Flann O'Briens tireless exploration of the recesses of ordinary language. That he always kept Dublin as his main material, and the chronicles as his primary form of storytelling attests not to his provincialism but to the relevance of his representation of language. Cruiskeen Lawn is not an insignificant part of O'Brien's work but its defining core: a true genre mineur for a littérature mineure.
1 This is a quote from Horace, Epode VI: "Why pester harmless passers-by, you cringing cur? Are you afraid of wolves?" (trans. D. West 10).
2 Quoted from Cicero, Pro Sestio, 47: "The Republic is attacked with more force and means than it is defended, because there only needs one sign to raise perverts and impudents; They even do not need to be prompted, they raise themselves against the Republic" (my translation).
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FLORE COULOUMA is an associate professor in English linguistics at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the representation of language in the works of Flann O'Brien. Her research interests are pragmatics and linguistics applied to literary analysis, Irish and post-colonial authors, bilingual authors, and diglossia.