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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

8 - Post-modernists: Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien



The English writer E. M. Forster admitted of the novel as a form: ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ It is difficult to imagine many Irish novelists so regretting story as the basis of their craft. Indeed, the novelist and playwright Thomas Kilroy has perceptively observed that that chromosome of story, the anecdote, is in the DNA of the Irish fictional tradition from at least the end of the eighteenth century. He advises, with reference to Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800):

The distinctive characteristic of our ‘first’ novel, that which makes it what it is, is not so much its idea, revolutionary as that may be, as its imitation of the speaking voice engaged in the telling of a tale. The model will be exemplary for the reader who has read widely in Irish fiction: it is a voice heard over and over again, whatever its accent, a voice with a supreme confidence in its own histrionics, one that shares with its audience a shared ownership of the told tale and all that it implies: a taste for anecdote, an unshakeable belief in the value of human action, a belief that life may be adequately encapsulated into stories that require no reference, no qualifications beyond their own selves.

This is certainly a voice the reader can hear loud and clear in the novels of Samuel Beckett (1906–89), though subjected there to the kind of satiric deconstruction that the weight of so settled a tradition might require.

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Forster, E. M., Aspects of the Novel (1924; London: Edward Arnold, 1974), p. 17
Beckett, S., Murphy (1938; London: Pan Books, 1973)
Beckett, S., Watt (1953; New York: Grove; London: Evergreen, 1959), p. 247
Hill, L., Beckett's Fiction: In Different Worlds (Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 40–58
Graver, L. and Federman, R. (eds.), ‘An Interview with Beckett: 1956’, in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 148
Knowlson, J., Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996)
Beckett, S., Dramatic Works and Dialogues (London: John Calder, 1999), p. 26
Beckett, S., Three Novels (New York: Grove Press, 1965), p. 28
Pattie, D., The Complete Critical Guide to Samuel Beckett (London and New York: Routledge, 2000)
Lloyd, D., Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993), p. 54
O'Brien, Flann, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939; London: Four Square Books, 1962), p. 55
Clissmann, A., Flann O'Brien: A Critical Introduction to His Writings (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1975), p. 173
O'Brien, Flann, The Third Policeman (1967; London: Picador, 1974), p. 172
Foster, J. W., Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival: A Changeling Art (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987), pp. 94–113