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Flann O'Brien: At Swim-Two-Birds

In a letter to an agent Irish modernist Flann O'Brien characterized his novel At Swim-Two-Birds as a "very queer affair, unbearably queer perhaps." There was little need for such hedging.  At Swim-Two-Birds is O'Brien's masterpiece; readers now lament he couldn't maintain this high pitch of "queerness" throughout his career.  The novel is "unbearable" only in the sense of ticklish or hair-raising or improbable.  It is zany in ways both breathtaking and deadpan.  O'Brien's zaniness is a world unto itself.

I'm still awaiting the biography I've ordered from Amazon (Anthony Cronin's Life and Times of Flann O'Brien).  I suspect I’ll learn something there of the origins of the O’Brien’s style.  The life of a writer, his life as reading and his social life, go quite a ways toward explaining his particular struggle with words, his response to the words that came before him and his modulation of the words spoken round him. It seems clear that at least part of O'Brien's zaniness arises from a high pedantry unhinged by the atmosphere of Dublin pubs. The man who wrote At Swim-Two-Birds obviously frequented a society where the order of the day was learned conversation: show, debate, witty disagreement. The novel is almost a reference work of the varieties of such conversation: it couldn't have been written had the writer not shared many a pint with the best and the not-so-best of Dublin society.

Ingenious and perverse as the novel is, only inattentive readers are liable to get lost.  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.

This paragraph is followed by three different openings to the work being written by the narrator.

The narrator himself, as we gather soon enough, is a highly sophisticated but suspiciously idle university student who lives with his moralizing uncle. He spends his time drinking port with friends, skipping classes, perusing his manuscript, and recovering from hangovers. The novel he's writing deals with an eccentric recluse named Dermott Trellis who is himself writing a didactic novel meant to illustrate the corrupting power of vice. But Trellis' labors as a novelist are subject to the literary notions of the writer who created him, namely our friend the narrator. These notions are expounded as follows:

[A] satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service. It would be incorrect to say that it would lead to chaos. Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet.

Here we have two of the three theoretical bases from which the shenanigans of this book spring forth. First, one notices the bizarre implication that characters are in some respect employees of the writer, that they are alive as other citizens are alive and that they thus should be treated according to certain democratic principles. Second, one has the prescriptive assertion that writers should draw their characters from existing literature, not creating new characters unless it is necessary. Thus, for example, a writer shouldn't write a modern novel with a protagonist similar to Cervantes' Don Quixote, but rather should simply "employ" the real Don Quixote in his book, thus providing gainful employment for the character created by Cervantes and avoiding the creation of a new being who will only compete weakly with the Don for available posts. The Don, after all, is waiting out there in "limbo," and is willing to work for his bread, if only he were hired.

These two principles of novelistic creation are to be linked with a third notion, one which answers the question: What actually happens when a writer creates a new character? What is the precise nature of that creation? The answer is to be found in the narrator's theory of aestho-autogamy. Will I define aestho-autogamy here? I will not.

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, Dermott Trellis does not. And what happens if the author is not exactly discerning in his choice of characters? Dermott 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 sum up, for those who might have gotten lost: The narrator is a young man writing a novel about a feeble-headed and reclusive would-be author named Trellis whose characters (a hilarious and motley bunch) rebel against their own author. This rebellion is only possible on the basis of the narrator's own literary theories.

Such a plot may not sound promising to some. It may sound like something the French would be likely to force upon the world. But the goal here is not avant-garde frisson, but rather comic delight. O'Brien's mastery of different generic modes and of the lingo of different classes and types makes for some of the most hilarious pages of dialogue I've read: gems of crackbrained juxtaposition. As I've hinted, the crucial problem with Trellis as author is that he's taken his characters from widely different genres of writing, and is intending to get them to work together toward his own novelistic ends. So we have Slug and Shorty, two characters from American Western fiction now forced to make it as cowpunchers in Dublin. Steer must be brought in to oblige, ranches must be set up, and cattle rustlers must appear as well. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the Dublin cowboy section:

One day Tracy sent for me and gave me orders and said it was one of his own cowboy books. Two days later I was cow-punching down by the river in Ringsend with Shorty Andrews and Slug Willard, the toughest pair of boyos you'd meet in a day's walk. Rounding up steers, you know, and branding, and breaking in colts in the corral with lassoes on our saddle-horns and pistols at our hips. (O the real thing. Was there any drink to be had?) There certainly was. At night we would gather in the bunkhouse with our porter and all our orders, cigarettes and plenty there on the chiffonier to be taken and no questions asked, school-marms and saloon-girls and little black maids skivvying there in the galley. (That was the place to be, now.) After a while be damned but in would walk a musicianer with a fiddle or a pipes in the hollow of his arm and there he would sit and play Ave Maria to bring the tears to your eyes. Then the boys would take up an old come-all-ye, the real old stuff, you know, Phil the Fluter's Ball or the Darling Girl from Clare, a bloody lovely thing.

Aside from the cowboys, Trellis makes use of a Good Fairy, and a devil high up in the ranks of evil spirits, and a legendary Irish hero named Finn MacCool. The mad King Sweeney from Irish lore becomes an important figure in the book's thematic construction, though it is not Trellis who brings him in, but rather old Finn. Along with these characters there is a more banal cast, namely Antony and Sheila Lamont, Paul Shanahan, John Furriskey, and Peggy. These more banal characters continue their plodding and plotting next to the others, the zigzag movement of the work leading up to what will eventually become the spectral (or is it?) trial of Dermott Trellis, certainly an almost benchmark study in flawed legal proceedings.

At Swim-Two-Birds is not without its theological-numerological meditations, not without its parodic translations of ancient Irish poetry, not without its lengthy quotations from contemporary Jesuitical encyclopedic works. One can learn from it the chemical names of cream of tartar and plaster of Paris, one can learn the correct way to wind a gramophone or read a gas meter, one can learn the cause of the Trojan war. There are not a few writers who've learned from O'Brien some of the structural and stylistic principles of their own works, among them Gilbert Sorrentino being noteworthy. But nowhere have I come across a style so serious and so funny at the same time. It reminds one of Tristram Shandy, but not quite. It reminds one of Raymond Queneau, but it is stronger. I myself feel I've less of a readerly future to look forward to because, alas, I've already read At Swim-Two-Birds. This is to say that the novel is good enough to make me somewhat envious of those who haven't yet gotten to it. Yes, it is that good.

Eric Mader-Lin,
October, 2000

 

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