The Hard Life
|The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor|
|Publisher||MacGibbon & Kee (1st ed.)|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover & Paperback)|
|Pages||157 pp. (1st ed.)|
The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor is a comic novel by Flann O'Brien (pen name of Brian O'Nolan). Published in 1961, it was O'Brien's fourth novel and the third to be published. (He wrote The Third Policeman in 1939, but it was published only posthumously, in 1967). Set in turn-of-the-century Dublin, The Hard Life is a satirical Bildungsroman which deals the education and upbringing of the narrator, Finbarr, and his brother Manus. The novel offers a mocking critique of certain representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the development of Irish identity, and the function of formal education. The novel was initially very popular, with its first print selling out within forty-eight hours (p. 271), and has been republished several times in Ireland, the UK and USA, both as a stand-alone work and most recently in Flann O'Brien: The Complete Novels (Everyman's Library, 2007).
The story opens with Finbarr the narrator recalling the death of his mother in 1890, when he was around five years old. He and his brother Manus (often called simply "the brother" in the story) are raised in the home of their half-uncle, Mr Collopy. Collopy lives with his partner Mrs Crotty - it is unclear if they are married and the narrator can only speculate why she retained the name of her first husband - and Annie, Collopy's daughter from an earlier marriage. Finbarr describes Collopy's home as a squalid environment where the boys are served greasy meatballs for dinner and a household with a "dead atmosphere" with little opportunity for amusement. Collopy and the parish priest, a German Jesuit domiciled in Dublin and bearing the comical name of Father Fahrt, frequently indulge in long bouts of drinking and none of the adults exhibit much concern for the child's welfare.
Finbarr and his brother are sent to different schools, but both are run by the Catholic Christian Brothers, both boys detest their schools with equal passion, and O'Brien mocks both with equal contempt. Finbarr's first impression of his school is that it resembles a prison, he describes the horrors of corporal punishment by "the leather" in detail, and refers to "struggling through the wretched homework, cursing Wordsworth and Euclid and Christian Doctrine and similar scourges of youth". Finbarr attends Synge Street Christian Brothers School, the former school of O'Brien/O'Nolan himself, while Manus attends Westland Row Christian Brothers School.
Manus is both resourceful and deceitful, and while still at school comes up with a cunning idea to raise money. He offers distance-learning courses for a small fee on a wide variety of subjects about which he knows very little. He researches information on these subjects in the local library and re-hashes the prose of encyclopedias, writing in a pseudo-intellectual, abstruse style deliberately designed to look impressive but remain incomprehensible. This business proves extremely successful and eventually he leaves school and emigrates to London, where he offers a wider range of courses and also develops medicinal remedies to sell.
The novel shows that Mr Collopy is dedicating his time to the pursuit of a certain social or political cause, but never states the nature of this cause directly. Early in the novel, it appears that the issue holds considerable gravity: we know that it concerns women's rights and that Collopy is rallying the Dublin Corporation to implement some kind of change, and trying to persuade Father Fahrt for the support of the church. However, later in the novel it becomes clear that the issue in question is the establishment of public lavatories in Dublin, and while Collopy is campaigning for this, he is clearly just as prudish as the Dublin authorities he is fighting against, because he will only mention the issue through euphemisms or circumlocutions.
When Collopy falls ill, Manus sends Finbarr one of his potions "Gravid Water" to help him. However, Finbarr administers the wrong dosage of Gravid Water, which causes rapid weight gain and eventually leads to Collopy's death. Manus also devises a scheme to get Collopy and Father Fahrt an audience with Pope Pius X, so that he can garner his support for the lavatory campaign. However, Manus is aware that the Pope will have little time for Collopy and Fahrt, and enjoys the spectacle of their humiliation, as the angry Pope - in a mixture of Latin and Italian - quite literally "sends them to Hell". The novel closes with Finbarr vomiting out of a feeling of disgust for his brother's lack of morals and the squalid and hypocritical world in which he lives.
The novel opens in 1890 and the date on Collopy's gravestone is 1910, so, in theory, the events in the novel should span over a twenty-year period. However, this appears to be contradicted by the fact that the narrator, Finbarr, is still in school when Collopy dies, which is highly unlikely, as he would now be twenty-four years old. This presents us with a chronological problem.
The Hard Life is dominated by a spirit of squalor and despair. The Dublin that the boys inhabit is a decaying city, and they are brought up in a broken family. Much of the satirical humor of the book targets the Roman Catholic Church and its schools: the theological disputes between Father Fahrt and Collopy are ridiculed, and often even the boys correct their misunderstandings. However, as Clissmann points out, O'Brien remained a practising Catholic throughout his life and his attack can be read as one against particular individuals and practices rather than the institution as a whole.
The book also pokes fun at education and how gullible people can be deceived by flowery prose. Manus is easily able to deceive the public when he sells pamphlets on diverse subjects despite relying on repackaging information from library books. While Manus's scheme initially seems clever and attractive to the narrator, after Collopy's death he realizes its moral bankruptcy and rejects it.
Literary significance and reception
The first print run of The Hard Life sold out in Dublin in less than forty-eight hours, and initial review were very positive. Graham Greene, to whom the novel is dedicated, responded warmly to the dedication, and reviewers such as Maurice Edelman and Anthony Burgess complimented the novel by comparing it to the works of James Joyce. Other newspaper reviews praised the work for its "first rate dialogue", its "wild, hilarious, irreverent comedy" and its "glorious version of the English language.
However, many recent critical studies of the novel suggest that it is the weakest of O'Brien's novels. Keith Donohue (2007) writes that "in terms of sheer artistry, the novel is far more conservative" than O'Brien's early work and considers O'Brien's choice of themes "oddly oblique", arguing the prudish Catholicism that O'Brien was targeting was waning by the early 1960s anyway. Sue Asbee (1991) comments "it is unlikely that the work would remain in print today" if it were not for the strength of O'Brien's other novels. Anne Clissmann (1975) suggests the "lavatory humour" of the novel quickly loses its appeal and concludes "The Hard Life is ultimately unsatisfying to read because it lacks coherence and is too one-sided a vision of squalid reality."
References to other works
The Bildungsroman genre typically deals with a protagonist coming-of-age and experiencing the joys and sorrows of growing up: education, finding a job, finding a partner. Typical examples of the Bildungsroman genre in the Irish tradition include George Moore's Confessions of a Young Man (1888) and Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-5); the prototype of the genre is Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795–96). The Hard Life clearly mocks this tradition: Finbarr and Manus grow up in a squalid society which has little to offer them. Manus makes money and wins friends by deceiving them, and although the novel's conclusion shows Finbarr rejecting this path, it is uncertain how his future will develop.
The Hard Life is often compared to the prose of James Joyce, particularly his collection of short stories Dubliners. While Sue Asbee suggests that such a comparison is "almost insulting" to Joyce, she admits that there are similarities: both deal with the squalor of turn-of-the-century Dublin, alcoholism, the power of the Catholic Church. She notes that The Hard Life, like most of the stories in the Dubliners, end with a moment of enlightenment for the protagonist but without resolution of the problems. It is also noteworthy that the narrator falls in love with a girl called Penelope and compares her with the character of this name in Greek Mythology - obviously recalling Joyce's Ulysses.
Clissmann points out that the device of using language pedantically as a source of humour has much in common with O'Brien's other novels, especially The Dalkey Archive, although she suggests that The Hard Life is less successful because it "gives the impression of trying to be too funny, too pedantic.". Donoghue suggests that The Hard Life has more in common with O'Brien's journalism (written under the name Myles na gCopaleen) than his other novels.
References to actual history and geography
The novel is set amid the rise of Irish nationalism, the Gaelic revival and increased calls for Home Rule and Irish independence. Nationalist feeling does not feature prominently in the novel, but Collopy does comment on the rise of the Home Rule movement and remarked with pleasure that he sees young men playing "native games" rather than "this new golf" which "for pity's sake isn't a game at all". By placing these words in the mouth of one of his limited comic characters, Collopy, O'Brien is lightly mocking Irish identity by showing how it is based on anti-British sentiment as much as a positive affirmation of Irishness.
A number of real Dublin locations are mentioned in the novel: Collopy lives at Warrington Place, an extension of Herbert Place. As noted above, the two schools alluded to in the novel are real: Synge Street Christian Brothers Schools and Westland Row Christian Brothers School. The Dublin Corporation, which rejects Collopy's plans for the installation of women's lavatories, was a historical body of city government which has now been renamed Dublin City Council.
The closing chapters describe real locations in Rome and the Vatican. Manus buries Collopy in Rome at the Campo Verano cemetery and claims that the inscription he places on the headstone is an ironic joke on Keats' headstone. According to the novel, Keats' headstone reads "Here lies one whose name was writ on water" and Collopy's "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." (p. 602) The joke here refers to Collopy's devotion to lavatories: Collopy wished to his name written on the walls of the lavatories. However, either Manus or O'Brien himself is mistaken: Keats' headstone itself reads "Here lies one whose name was writ in water", a self-lacerating reference to the negative reviews that his poetry received.
Details of the first edition: 1961, Dublin, Ireland: MacGibbon and Kee. ISBN 0-261-61637-4, Pub. date 1 December 1961, Hardback.
The first American edition was published in 1962 by Pantheon Books.
There have been numerous editions by publishers based in the UK, Ireland and the USA since 1962. Most recently, The Hard Life has been included in a volume of collected works: Flann O'Brien: The Complete Novels, New York, Toronto and London: Everyman's Library, 2007. ISBN 0-307-26749-8. Hardback.
Interestingly, at least one critic has posited that O'Brien was hoping The Hard Life would be banned under the Censorship of Publications Act because this would arouse curiosity about the book and could often lead to increased publicity and sales. Censorship would also give him the opportunity to enter into a legal battle against the government, with the possibility of further publicity.
- O'Brien, Flann. The Complete Novels, with an Introduction by Keith Donohue. Everyman: London, 2007. Page numbers refer to this edition.
- O'Brien 2007, p. 517
- Clissmann, Anne. Flann O'Brien: A Critical Introduction to his Writings Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1975. p. 269
- Clissmann, p. 279
- Clissmann, p. 288
- Reviews cited at http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-Hard-Life/Flann-OBrien/e/9781564781413, visited November 23, 2008.
- Donohue, K. Introduction to The Complete Novels, pp. xvi.
- Asbee, Sue. Flann O'Brien. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 2001. p. 95.
- Clissmann, p. 290
- Asbee, p. 91
- Clissmann, p. 272
- Donohue, p. xvi
- Clissmann, p. 273
- See a photographic image of Keats' gravestone at http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/John_Keats_Tombstone_in_Rome_01.jpg
- Clissmann, p. 292