Twentieth Century Irish Literature
Flann O'Brien (October 5, 1911-April 1, 1966) is considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. His English novels appeared under the name of Flann O'Brien, while his great Irish novel and his newspaper column (which appeared from 1940 to 1966) were signed Myles na gCopaleen or Myles na Gopaleen ' the second being a phonetic rendering of the first. One of twelve brothers and sisters, he was born in 1911 in Strabane, County Tyrone, into an Irish-speaking family. His father had learned Irish while a young man during the Gaelic revival the son was later to mock. O'Brien's childhood has been described as happy, though somewhat insular, as the language spoken at home was not that spoken by their neighbours. The Irish language had long been in decline, and Strabane was not in an Irish-speaking part of the country. The family moved frequently during O'Brien's childhood, finally settling in Dublin in 1925. Four years later O'Brien took up study in University College Dublin. Flann O'Brien novels have attracted a wide following for their bizarre humour and Modernist metafiction. The text I will analyse in the next pages, 'At Swim-Two-Birds' is considered to be the master piece of O'Brien and is a combination between elements of modernism and metafiction.
'Modernism' does not just refer to the literature of a certain period of time,
say 1890 or 1910'1940. The '-ism' suggests it was a distinctive doctrine, or at least a distinctive practice. Yet it is best not to attempt a strict definition of the typical modernist work. One of the characteristic of the modernism is self-reflectivness: 'Put a novelist intro the novel. He justifies aesthetic generalizations'He also justifies experiment. Specimens of his work may illustrate other possible ways of telling a story'.(Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point)
O'Brien's works are considered classics of the modernist genre of metafiction. 'Metafiction' explores the boundaries of the "real" world and the "narrated" world, usually in an ironic or satirical fashion. It also combines different subjects and styles of writing. Like cubism and other trends in modern art, metafiction leaves behind the belief in stable representation, in which language represents the object. Rather, the language itself becomes the focus of the art, much like brushstroke techniques become the emphasis in modern painting. O'Brien's fiction is as much about the act of storytelling as it is about the story itself. The first modern example of metafiction is 'At Swim-Two-Birds' . O'Brien's novel is a self-consciously comic delight in which an author writing just such a work begins by commenting on the task. Three different beginnins are submitted for the reader's choice: one involves the Pooka MacPhellimey, "a member of the devil class". Another one presents what would seem to be conventionally drawn realistic character, Mr. John Furriskey and the last one involves a mythic character, the giant Fin Mac Cool. Yet no sooner do these narratives get underway than they infiltrate and corrupt one another. The text generates a manuscript about a novelist named Dermot Trellis. Trellis is at work on a novel which will display the deleterious effects of sin. The running gag of O'Brien's book is that Trellis's characters take on a life of their own when Trellis is asleep, and eventually turn revengefully upon him. Levels of presumed reality and fictionality are elaborately intertwined. Trellis impregnates one of his characters, who bears him the son who begins to write a further novel in which he describes terrible violence done on his progenitor, employing the characters his literary father had invented. These include the Pooka ('a species of human Irish devil')17 and the Good Fairy ' who together account for a good deal of the book's shape-changing brio, its magical realism ' the giant Finn MacCool who, insistently and somewhat tediously (for characters and readers alike), chants from the saga legend of the mad king Sweeny, in extensive parodic interpolations into the text of high falutin' translationese, and a cast of Dubliners, with their cliche??-ridden demotic, who might have stepped in pastiche from Joyce's collection of that name to reveal a genius for inconsequential dialogue that is all their own. That is when they are not recalling cow-punching days in Ringsend in the style of cowboy pot boilers. Throw in Jem Casey, the working man's Bard of Booterstown, with his banal verses, and a tasty Irish fictional stew is set to simmer. As if this chinese-box plot structure (narrative contained within narrative) is not enough to challenge the very status story might be assumed to enjoy in Ireland, O'Brien also out-Becketts Beckett in giving his book a vertiginous textuality.
Chapter 1 begins with three separate openings (there is no chapter 2): the first: 'The Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class, sat in his hut in the middle of a firwood meditating on the nature of the numerals and segregating in his mind the odd ones from the even. He was seated at his diptych or ancient twoleaved hinged writing-table with inner sides waxed. His rough long-nailed fingers toyed with a snuff-box of perfect rotundity and through a gap in his teeth he whistled a civil cavatina. He was a courtly man and received honour by reason of the generous treatment he gave his wife, one of the Corrigans of Carlow.' The second opening:' There was nothing unusual in the appearance of Mr. John Furriskey but actually he had one distinction that is rarely encountered - he was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it. His teeth were well-formed but stained by tobacco, with two molars filled and a cavity threatened in the left canine. His knowledge of physics was moderate and extended to Boyle's Law and the Parallelogram of Forces.' The third opening:' Finn Mac Cool was a legendary hero of old Ireland. Though not mentally robust, he was a man of superb physique and development. Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse's belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.' If there is no chapter 2 in the story of the mutinous characters, it is because their tale is interrupted by an external occurrence beyond their control: Trellis is on the point of being sentenced to death in the trial that had been plotted for him, but the accidental burning of the pages on which his characters had been given virtual existence in his home entails their disappearance, their end, hence the end of the story they were inventing about
But also, the book finishes in the logical absurdity of two conclusions (antepenultimate and ultimate). The last chapter, entitled "Conclusion of the book, ultimate", professes in its contents its refusal to really conclude, to decide anything: this final boundary is thus in fact repudiated, so that, in spite of the formal leave-taking to the reader and the ultimate full stop, the last border remains open and leaves the reader to his own devices. The entire text is controlled by a singular authority, but not an authority in the complete meaning. When the author himself steps on the stage, he becomes one of his characters. The ultimate conclusion, which does not belong to any frame, which can be the author's as much as the narrator's. The text of 'At Swim-Two-Birds' refuses to be petrified in a final, definitive interpretation. The last conclusion offers an open field of possibilities, an elusive, potentially infinite multiplicity of interpretations which proclaims the hermeneutic indeterminacy of the whole book.
'At Swim-Two-Birds' (1939), can seem so dependent as a ludic work of pastiche and parody on precursor texts as to lack any truly felt life of its own, as if meaning and authority are located elsewhere. O'Brien's key novels candidates for a post-modernist analysis, for readings in which they can be entered as a species of anti-novel. In this reading, anecdote, story, elaborate narrative (the staples of the Irish tradition and of O'Brien's entire oeuvre) and the genre of fiction itself can be seen as the objects of a fascinated inspection which, by revealing the techniques and protocols of fiction as they are enacted, robs them to a degree of expressive energy. When this post-modernist penchant for advertising what, in other forms of creativity, would be the taken-for-granted mechanics of an artefact is combined with a parasitic relish for parody and pastiche, then O'Brien's fiction can be seen to turn on itself in a sustained, deconstructive whimsy. The frame narrator of the novel is writing a novel, the
protagonist of which is a novelist, Dermot Trellis. Trellis is an author like another of woe. He lacks originality in any of its senses, particularly in its literary sense. He does
not hesitate to utilize the characters of other novelists (especially one William Tracy, progenitor of cowboy books) in his own novel. The novel contains a serial chain of inclusions, each leading to another as the narrator reports how Trellis's pencil, "mov[ing] slowly across the ruled paper, leaving words behind it of every size". The number of fictional frames embedded in this novel has been limited to what appears to be four: the story of the narrator, the narrator's novel (with Trellis as character), Trellis's novel (with Trellis as author dealing with his characters), and finally Trellis's characters' story (with Trellis as character).
The narrative position is hesitant and irresolute. Nor does one always know
who owns the narrative voice. For instance the reader cannot assign any narratorial origin to the voice that describes the morning sun shining over the forest where the Pooka awakens in the "extract from [the narrator's] manuscript".
There were a couple of scenes when I really laughed out loud. The scene between the devil Pooka and the Good Fairy and the Good Fairy is threatening that she will go inside Pooka's ears. Another scene is when Dermot is being tortured and he says to Pooka to turn him into a female so he can marry Pooka. He is turned into a rat instead.
Keith Hopper, a braver critic, has given the following one-sentence summary of the novel: 'At Swim-Two-Birds' is 'a book (by Flann O'Brien) about a man writing a book (a student narrator) about a man writing a book (Dermot Trellis).' Within this complicated structure, characters cross over from different narrative levels, mixing with their own authors, borrowed mythical characters, and stock figures from trashy literature and films. Not only does he have fine sensitivity to a particular kind of speech, he also has a wonderful affinity for a certain kind of 'second-rate' intellect, one which is inferior but not downright stupid. Consider this exchange on the nature of death:
'Death by fire, you know, by God it's no joke.
They tell me drowning is worse, Lamont said.
Do you know what it is, said Furriskey, you can drown me three times before you roast me. Yes, by God and six. Put your finger in a basin of water. What do you feel? Next to nothing. But put your finger in the fire!'
I think that this book is supposed to be a satire of the political conditions in Ireland during the time of its writing so there must be an explanation on those. This is one of those books that you're not sure whether you love or hate.Structurally, the whole thing is messy, and stylistically it's purposefully formalized and stiff, but humorously so, in a way. I can't on good conscience recommend this to anyone without a certain warped kind of taste, but just beholding it produces in me a certain kind of awe. It lacks a certain sense of direction, but that too is on purpose it seems, and in a way reflects on the character of the student, who constantly avoids doing any real schoolwork.
O'Brien gives more signposts in this work than many a modernist writer has given. One is duly warned besides: the narrator informs us on page one that he doesn't see why a book needs to have one beginning and one ending. Here are the work's opening words: 'Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.' One should note certain subtleties in the narrator's presentation of his theories. It is implied that novelistic characters who are provided with a good standard of living will provide good "service" in the novel being written. Also, it is said that "discerning authors" can choose their characters from existing literature. But what happens if the author in question does not provide a good standard of living to the characters he employs? In fact, Dermot Trellis does not. And what happens if the author is not exactly discerning in his choice of characters? Dermot Trellis hopes to write a didactic novel set in modern Dublin, but the characters he chooses are not exactly appropriate to his plan. Suffice it to say that these characters lead a life of their own from the start, and that they devise various means of slipping out from under their author's control (for one, they drug him) so that they need devote the least possible amount of time to fulfilling the plans of his plot, which they find to be either irrelevant or sordid.
To conclude, I think that 'At Swim-Two-Birds' remains very readable. You read on in a desire to find out what happened next. The book, in fact, has three endings, as might be expected from the three beginnings, but at the most basic level of narration, here is only one ending ' and a surprisingly touching one at that.
...(download the rest of the essay above)