‘For once I admire your mise en Seine,’ Keats said.

What better return from a holiday than Flann O’Brien. These are from The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, a selection of stories from his Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times. The Keats and Chapman tales are all more or less elaborate setups to more or less terrible puns.

Chapman once went theatre-mad and started a small fit-up company with which he toured France playing Molière. Keats disapproved of this affectation but went along to take in the money. One night the company was scheduled to perform in a small village a few miles upriver from Paris, where Chapman’s small stock of execrable scenery had to be conveyed by barge. There was a frightful accident at the landing stage, all the stuff falling into the water. Chapman burst into tears.

‘For once I admire your mise en Seine,’ Keats said.

Keats was once presented with an Irish terrier, which he humorously named Byrne. One day the beast strayed from the house and failed to return at night Everybody was distressed, save Keats himself. He reached reflectively for his violin, a fairly passable timber of the Stradivarius feciture, and was soon at work with wrist and jaw.

Chapman, looking in for an after-supper pipe, was astonished at the poet’s composure, and did not hesitate to say so. Keats smiled (in a way that was rather lovely).

‘And why should I not fiddle,’ he asked, ‘While Byrne roams?’

Keats and Chapman were conversing one day on the street, and what they were conversing about I could not tell you. But anyway there passed a certain character who was renowned far and wide for his piety, and who was reputed to have already made his own coffin, erected it on trestles, and slept in it every night,

‘Did you see our friend?’ Keats said,

‘Yes,’ said Chapman, wondering what was coming.

‘A terrible man for his bier,’ the poet said.

Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf?

From The Best of Myles, a selection of Flann O’Brien / Myles Na Gopaleen / Brian O’Nolan’s column Cruiskeen Lawn 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, however, 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 experienced 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 more 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:—

[omitting the first three heads]

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 described three grades of handling and promised to explain what you get under Class 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, indeed!
How true, how true!
I don’t agree at all.
Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151.
Well, well, well.
Quite, but Bossuet 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.

Unrelated but I do actually know people who have made use of a books-by-the-foot service for filling out homes. My wife has long suggested I offer a rival service of custom selecting based on claimed interests – basically compiling physically manifested bibliographies and required reading lists. Which I did once do for a friend, though with a cocktail bar rather than a library.

Strictly speaking, this story should not be written or told at all

From Flann O’Brien’s John Duffy’s Brother

Strictly speaking, this story should not be written or told at all. To write it or to tell it is to spoil it. This is because the man who had the strange experience we are going to talk about never mentioned it to anybody, and the fact that he kept his secret and sealed it up completely in his memory is the whole point of the story. Thus we must admit that handicap at the beginning—that it is absurd for us to tell the story, absurd for anybody to listen to it, and unthinkable that anybody should believe it.

Oh! Thank heaven to be away from it all!

From Flann O’Brien’s (as Lir O’Connor) I’m Telling You No Lie! – collected in The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien

Or perhaps it is because—and here, I believe, we are getting nearer to the truth—the colours of the creature have awakened in me a feeling that I had thought was long since dead. For, whenever I hear a few bars from an old Irish song or have a few glasses of an old Irish whiskey my thoughts go out across oceans and continents to the land where I was born. Through the swirling mists I can picture a little thatched, whitewashed crubeen on the side of a hill. Leaning over the half-door, a leather-faced bonnav-dealer puffs away at his blackened old cruiskeen lawn as he gazes down thoughtfully into the valley. Through the smoky twilight within I see his aged help-meet, or colleen bawn, crouching over the turf fire stirring away at her three-legged poteen of carrageen, pausing now and then to gather an odd sad air from her harpeen. With a heart too full for words I reflect that this is my country, and that these people are my own kith and kin, and something like a prayer escapes me as I sob: “Oh! Thank heaven to be away from it all!”