An Extract from an Extract from Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds

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Title of Book referred to: The Athenian Oracle, being an Entire COLLECTION of all the Valuable QUESTIONS and ANSWERS in the old Athenian Mercuries intermixed with many CASES in Divinity, Hiftory, Philofophy, Mathematicks, Love, Poetry, never before publifhed.

Extract from Book referred to:

1. Whether it be poffible for a woman fo carnally to know a Man in her fleep as to conceive, for I am fure that this and no way other was I got with Child.

2. Whether it be lawful to ufe Means to put a ftop to this growing mifchief, and kill it in the Embryo; this being the only way to avert the Thunderclap of my Father’s Indignation.

To the firft Question, Madam, we are very pofitive, that you are luckily miftaken, for the thing is abfolutely impoffible if you know nothing of it; indeed, we had an account of a Widow that made fuch a pretence, and fhe might have better credit than a maid, who can have no plea but dead drunk, or in fome fwooning fit, and our Phyficians will hardly allow a poffibility of the thing then. So that you may fet your heart at reft, and think no more of the matter, unlefs for your diverfion.

As for the fecond Queftion, fuch practices are murder, and thofe that are fo unhappy as to come under fuch Circumftances if they ufe the forementioned means, will certainly one day find the remedy worfe than the Difeafe. There are wifer methods to be taken in fuch Cafes, as a fmall journey and a Confident. And afterwards, fuch a pious and good life as may redreff fuch an heavy miffortune.

Questions, a Selection of Further: Almond, why fo bitter being taken in the mouth, and yet the Oyl fo very fweet? Apprentice, reduced to want, how may he relieve himself? Blood, is the eating of it lawful? Baptifm, adminiftered by a Mid-wife or Lay Hand, is it lawful? Devil, why called Lucifer; and elfewhere the Prince of Darknefs? Eftate, gotten by felling lewd Books, can it profper? Eyes, what Method muft I take with ‘em when weak? Horfe, with a round fundament, why does he emit a fquare Excrement? Happinefs, what is it? Lady, difturbed in her Bed, your thoughts of it? Light, is it a Body? Myftae or Cabalifts, what d’ye think of them? Marriage, is not the End of it, in a great Meafure, loft nowadays? Poem, by Mr. Tate? Virginity, is it a Vertue? Wind, what is it? Wife, is it lawful for a Man to beat her? Wife, if an ill one, may I pray that God wou’d take her to himfelf?

Conclusion of the foregoing.

From Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds.

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Flann O’Brien’s Novel At Swim-Two-Birds Is a Postmodernist Masterpiece of Comic Storytelling

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

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The vibrant force of storytelling in Flann O’Brien’s excellent first novel At Swim-Two-Birds threatens to overwhelm reader and narrator alike—and what a strange joy it is to be overwhelmed. This novel overflows with stories; its plot threads twist into each other, break out of each other, erupt into new ideas, characters, riffs, sketches. First published in 1939—the same year as James Joyce’s Finnegans WakeAt Swim-Two-Birds seems light years ahead of its time—indeed, this is a book that is still ahead of its time.

Summarizing At Swim-Two-Birds is difficult but worth attempting. We have an unnamed narrator, a student living with his uncle who doesn’t think much of how his nephew spends his time. Our narrator likes to imbibe large quantities of porter and wax philosophical with his friends about his literary projects. These projects, our narrator’s riffs and scribblings, begin to take on lives of their own: they intersect, overlap, intermarry, degenerate and regenerate.

The book’s opening paragraph announces the novel’s intention to disregard the classical unities of action, place, and time:

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.

First, we meet “Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class,” a hobgoblin of Irish folklore (he turns out to be a thoughtful and polite fellow). Then, there’s John Furriskey, who “was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it.” Furriskey is the literary creation of another of the narrator’s literary creations, one Dermot Trellis, a grumpy old man who writes Westerns; Trellis (an author, it’s worth reiterating) is the eventual antagonist of the novel, the target for all of the other characters’ vengeance. The third opening offers up Finn Mac Cool, “a legendary hero of old Ireland.”

Much of the early part of At Swim-Two-Birds features Finn Mac Cool holding forth on all matters Irish in wonderfully baroque and hyperbolic passages. Here’s a snippet (a long one!), featuring Finn on the ideal man:

When pursued by a host, he must stick a spear in the world and hide behind it and vanish in its narrow shelter or he is not taken for want of sorcery. Likewise he must hide beneath a twig, or behind a dried leaf, or under a red stone, or vanish at full speed into the seat of his hempen drawers without changing his course or abating his pace or angering the men of Erin. Two young fosterlings he must carry under the armpits to his jacket through the whole of Erin, and six arm-bearing warriors in his seat together. If he be delivered of a warrior or a blue spear, he is not taken. One hundred head of cattle he must accommodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men of Erin, or he is unknown to Finn. He must swiftly milk a fat cow and carry milk-pail and cow for twenty years in the seat of his drawers. When pursued in a chariot by the men of Erin he must dismount, place horse and chariot in the slack of his seat and hide behind his spear, the same being stuck upright in Erin. Unless he accomplishes these feats, he is not wanted of Finn. But if he do them all and be skillful, he is of Finn’s people.

It’s hard not to feel something of Joyce in the passage (I’m particularly reminded of the Cyclops episode of Ulysses), and O’Brien’s narrator name-checks Joyce (along with Aldous Huxley) in the first few pages of the book. The narrator’s comically mechanical and precise descriptions also recall Joyce. Joyce and O’Brien drew from the same well of mythology, but O’Brien more keenly attunes his focus on Irish legend and folklore in At Swim-Two-Birds, while Joyce’s project skews to archetypes. Similarities and divergences aside, there’s something strangely fitting about O’Brien’s Finn Mac Cool dreaming his way into other characters’ lives in At Swim-Two-Birds, as if this Finn is the psychic twin of Joyce’s Finn.

Indeed, such a reading would fit neatly into our young narrator’s ideas about the function of character in literature:

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. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

This decree strikes me as wonderfully post-postmodernist. That the “modern novel should be largely a work of reference” finds its suitable echo over half a century later in the note-card novels of David Markson (and other reality smugglers). The citation above serves as a metatextual description of At Swim-Two-Birds itself: O’Brien’s narrator framing the various tales that erupt in the novel, but also undoing the frames, allowing his characters to converge, to tell their own stories (and within those stories characters tell other stories…).

In its finest moments (of which there are many), At Swim-Two-Birds operates on an ad hoc logic that it creates and describes in motion, a kind of improvised dream response pattern. Most books, particularly postmodern books, teach the reader how to read them—that is, most novels provide keys, hints, and reading rules early enough in the text to allow perceptive readers to interpret (subjectively, of course) what the novel is doing. O’Brien’s novel in toto, with its discontinuities, gaps, eruptions, and juxtapositions, paradoxically is its own discrete, unified key.

But I seem to be getting bogged down in a bit of literary theory, which is not my intent at all.

Instead, let me draw attention to a wonderful extended jaunt in the middle of At Swim-Two-Birds where the Pooka MacPhellimey enters into an ersatz quest with the Good Fairy, two cowboyish thugs (or thuggish cowboys) named Slug and Shorty, the poet Jem Casey, and the mad King Sweeny. This ragtag band sets out to bequeath gifts to the forthcoming child of Miss Lamont (the creation of a creation of a creation). These episodes unfold in comic bravado, their slapstick rhythms recalling the manic but precise energy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and the linguistic brio of the Marx brothers. This miniature picaresque is tempered in sweet pathos for poor crazy Sweeny who must be plied forward with the promise of a feast. The poor man, broken, starving, and living solely on watercress, falls into despair. What eventually moves him? The force of language:

And getting around the invalid in a jabbering ring, they rubbed him and cajoled and coaxed, and plied him with honey-talk and long sweet-lilted sentences full of fine words, and promised him metheglin and mugs of viscous tarblack mead thickened with white yeast and the spoils from hives of mountain-bees, and corn-coarse nourishing farls of wheaten bread dipped in musk-scented liquors and sodden with Belgian sherry, an orchard and a swarm of furry honey-glutted bees and a bin of sun-bronzed grain from the granaries of the Orient in every drop as it dripped at the lifting of the hand to the mouth, and inky quids of strong-smoked tabacca with cherrywood pipes, hubble-bubbles, duidins, meerschaums, clays, hickory hookahs and steel-stemmed pipes with enamel bowls, the lot of them laid side by side in a cradle of lustrous blue plush, a huge pipe-case and pipe-rack ingeniously combined and circumscribed with a durable quality of black imitation leather over a framework of stout cedarwood dovetailed and intricately worked and made to last, the whole being handsomely finished and untouched by hand and packed in good-quality transparent cellophane, a present calculated to warm the cockles of the heart of any smoker. They also did not hesitate to promise him sides of hairy bacon, the mainstay and the staff of life of the country classes, and lamb-chops still succulent with young blood, autumn-heavy yarns from venerable stooping trees, bracelets and garlands of browned sausages and two baskets of peerless eggs fresh-collected, a waiting hand under the hen’s bottom. They beguiled him with the mention of salads and crome custards and the grainy disorder of pulpy boiled rhubarb, matchless as a physic for the bowels, olives and acorns and rabbit-pie, and venison roasted on a smoky spit, and mulatto thick-tipped delphy cups of black-strong tea. They foreshadowed the felicity of billowy beds of swansdown carefully laid crosswise on springy rushes and sequestered with a canopy of bearskins and generous goatspelts, a couch for a king with fleshly delectations and fifteen hundred olive-mellow concubines in constant attendance against the hour of desire. Chariots they talked about and duncrusted pies exuberant with a sweat of crimson juice, and tall crocks full of eddying foam-washed stout, and wailing prisoners in chains on their knees for mercy, humbled enemies crouching in sackcloth with their upturned eye-whites suppliant. They mentioned the leap of a fire on a cold night, long sleeps in the shadows and leaden-eyed forgetfulness hour on hour – princely oblivion. And as they talked, they threaded through the twilight and the sudden sun-pools of the wild country.

I’ve perhaps overshared here, let our characters babble on too long—but the verbal dexterity of the passage above illustrates O’Brien’s rhetorical force, the force he lends his characters in order that they should move their insane and desperate friend forward. There’s a sublime alchemy at work here, where imagination turns into words and words turn into food and drink.

I also fear these big chunks of text I’ve pulled from At Swim-Two-Birds don’t highlight O’Brien’s extraordinary talent at rendering speech. The dialogue in this novel is hilarious but nuanced, its ironies rarely if ever remarked upon by intrusive attributions. That O’Brien’s narrator’s characters (and their characters…) speak through the layers of texts adds to the book’s juxtapositions.

These juxtapositions will perhaps confuse or even alienate many readers. At Swim-Two-Birds can be read as an attack on the classical unities of action, place, and time. O’Brien’s novel is a send-up of stability, order, and tradition. Some of the novel’s best moments are its strangest indulgences, as when O’Brien (or his narrator) gives the novel over to citations from imaginary antique texts, or allows his characters to indulge in a seemingly endless recitation of obscure facts, or satirizes the moral dangers of tea-tasting. These moments seem to erupt from nowhere, bizarre, wonderful, joyous.

At Swim-Two-Birds lacks the cohesion of theme and voice that characterizes O’Brien’s other masterpiece, The Third Policeman, but this is hardly a deficiency. At Swim-Two-Birds is one of those rare books that actually deserves to be called dazzling, a critic’s crutch-word that mars too many blurbs. Its dazzle derives from its rhetorical force, its humor, and its openness to experiment with not just the novelistic form, but the form of storytelling itself. And it’s here that O’Brien’s novel is most real—he captures the strangeness of storytelling, its mutability, its crazy rhythms. Ultimately, this is a novel unconcerned with providing pat answers and clear solutions. I loved this book, loved reading it—and then immediately rereading it. I’ll let O’Brien get the last word:

Answers do not matter so much as questions, said the Good Fairy. A good question is very hard to answer. The better the question the harder the answer. There is no answer at all to a very good question.

“Moral Effects of Tea-Tasting” (From Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds)

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Moral Effects of Tea-Tasting.

The long-continued use of tea has a distinct effect upon the character. This has been too often noticed and remarked to be questioned. There are tea-sots in every great charitable institution – particularly those for the maintenance of the aged. Their symptoms are generally mental irritability, muscular tremors, and sleeplessness. The following is an account of one of the cases observed. The immediate effects upon him are as follows: In about ten minutes the face becomes flushed, the whole body feels warm and heated and a sort of intellectual intoxication comes on, much the same in character, it would seem, as that which occurs in the rarefied air of a mountain. He feels elated, exhilarated, troubles and cares vanish, everything seems bright and cheerful, his body feels light and elastic, his mind clear, his ideas abundant, vivid, and flowing fluently into words. At the end of an hour’s tasting a slight reaction begins to set in; some headache comes on, the face feels wrinkled and shrivelled, particularly about the eyes, which also get dark under the lids. At the end of two hours this reaction becomes firmly established, the flushed warm feeling has passed off, the hands and feet are cold, a nervous tremor comes on, accompanied with great mental depression. And he is now so excitable that every noise startles him; he is in a state of complete unrest; he can neither walk nor sit down, owing to his mental condition, and he settles into complete gloom. Copious and frequent urinations are always present, as also certain dyspeptic symptoms, such as eructations of wind, sour taste, and others. His mental condition is peculiar. He lives in a state of dread that some accident may happen to him; in the omnibus fears a collision; crossing the street, fears that he will be crushed by passing teams; walking on the sidewalks, fears that a sign may fall, or watches the eaves of houses, thinking that a brick may fall down and kill him; under the apprehension that every dog he meets is going to bite the calves of his legs, he carries an umbrella in all weathers as a defence against such an attack.

Conclusion of the foregoing.

From Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds.

 

“The modern novel should be largely a work of reference” (Flann O’Brien)

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In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that 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. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion of explanation.

—From Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939).

 

Finn Mac Cool Relates Those Musics He Has Found the Sweetest — A Passage from O’Brien’s Novel At-Swim-Two-Birds

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Extract, from my typescript descriptive of Finn Mac Cool and his people, being humorous or quasi-humorous incursion into ancient mythology: Of the musics you have ever got, asked Conan, which have you found the sweetest?

I will relate, said Finn. When the seven companies of my warriors are gathered together on the one plain and the truant clean-cold loud-voiced wind goes through them, too sweet to me is that. Echo-blow of a goblet-base against the tables of the palace, sweet to me is that. I like gull-cries and the twittering together of fine cranes. I like the surf-roar at Tralee, the songs of the three sons of Meadhra and the whistle of Mac Lughaidh. These also please me, man-shouts at a parting, cuckoo-call in May. I incline to like pig-grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whinging of fauns in Derrynish. The low warble of water-owls in Loch Barra also, sweeter than life that. I am fond of wing-beating in dark belfries, cow-cries in pregnancy, trout-spurt in a laketop. Also the whining of small otters in nettle-beds at evening, the croaking of small-jays behind a wall, these are heart-pleasing. I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen mona, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sleibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough-gull, the long-eared bush-owl, the Wicklow small-fowl, the bevil-beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common Corby, the fish-tailed mud-piper, the cruiskeen lawn, the carrion sea-cock, the green-lidded parakeet, the brown bog-martin, the maritime wren, the dove-tailed wheatcrake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill-bantam and the pilibeen cathrach. A satisfying ululation is the contending of a river with the sea. Good to hear is the chirping of little red-breasted men in bare winter and distant hounds giving tongue in the secrecy of fog. The lamenting of a wounded otter in a black hole, sweeter than harpstrings that. There is no torture so narrow as to be bound and beset in a dark cavern without food or music, without the bestowing of gold on bards. To be chained by night in a dark pit without company of chessmen – evil destiny! Soothing to my ear is the shout of a hidden blackbird, the squeal of a troubled mare, the complaining of wild-hogs caught in snow.

Relate further for us, said Conan.

It is true that I will not, said Finn.

A lovely early passage from Flann O’Brien’s first novel At Swim-Two-Birds.