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Week one wrap up – At Swim-Two-Birds

Week 1 is now finished. Discussion is welcomed to begin below. The last two weeks are as follows:

Week 2 (March 26- April 1) read through to page 213 (“Minutiae: No. of cigarettes smoked…”)
Week 3 (April 2- April 8) read through to end (page 315*).

(*161, 239 in some editions)

4 thoughts on “Week one wrap up – At Swim-Two-Birds

  1. OK! I really hope people chime in.

    A few things I wanted to note:

    I found this passage on pages 32–3 really key:

    “[…] a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity.”

    This view, proposed by the unnamed narrator and his friend Brinsley, makes an apt description of AT SWIM itself. …And it reminds me of the Sebald anecdote John Wood relates in HOW FICTION WORKS; see:

    Of course I prefer O’Brien’s solution to Wood’s.

    …Although I must note that any potential seriousness behind this is undercut somewhat by the argument immediately following, which (humorously) proposes treating characters as though they’re real people:

    “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.” (33)

    This is an absurdly logical conclusion of the argument advanced by fellows like John Gardner and John Wood, who argue for illusionist, psychologically plausible characters. Once a book’s characters are truly realistic, they’re likely to come alive and demand fair treatment from their authors…

    (We see more of this type of humor on pages 53–60.)

    That’s immediately followed by another cleverly inane argument:
    “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 montebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.” (33)

    One contemporary author who’s followed O’Brien in this absurdist take on the novel is Gilbert Sorrentino. For instance, he borrows Lolita as a character in his 1971 novel IMAGINATIVE QUALITIES OF ACTUAL THINGS, which like AT SWIM is a metatextual examination of the realist conventions of the novel.

    You can see a lot of Sorrentino’s novel at Google Books:

    Much of the humor in AT SWIM comes from the collision of borrowed styles. The argument later on between Finn and Shanahan and Lamont and Furriskey, is some of the funniest writing I know:

    “You can’t beat it, of course, said Shanahan with a reddening of the features, the real old stuff of the native land, you know, stuff that brought scholars to our shore whenyour men on the other side were on the flat of their bellies before the calf of gold with a sheepskin around their man. It’s the stuff that put our country where she stands to-day, Mr. Furriskey, and I’d have my tongue out of my head by the bloody roots before I’d be heard saying a word against it. But the man in the street, where does he come in? By God he doesn’t come in at all as far as I can see.” (105–6)

    Finn Mac Cool and Sweeny and the Pooka are characters all “borrowed” from other sources, but there’s an easily-overlooked cameo on page 40 by Frank Sullivan’s letter-answering “cliche expert” Mr. Abuthnot, visiting from the pages of the New Yorker.

    Sullivan was a big influence on Donald Barthelme, who himself borrowed the man’s Q&A structure for several of his stories. See:

    And Barthelme was a tremendous fan of O’Brien: on at least one occasion he named THE THIRD POLICEMEN as his favorite novel. So I like to think of him particularly enjoying this slight shout-out from Flann O’Brien to Frank Sullivan.

    On page 44, the narrator requests five shillings from his uncle for a copy of “Die Harzreise” by [Heinrich] Heine. This is THE HARZ JOURNEY (1824), which according to the ever-reliable answers.com is

    “a whimsical account of a journey in the Harz mountains by H. Heine, based on a walking tour made in 1824, and published in Vol. 1 (1826) of Reisebilder. It is partly idyllic and partly satirical, and the principal objects of its satire are Göttingen University and the self-satisfied German citizen. It contains eight poems of folk-song character; the best known are the cycle of three poems beginning ‘Auf dem Berge steht die Hütte’, ‘Tannenbaum mit grünen Fingern’, and ‘Still versteckt der Mond sich draußen’, and the separate poem ‘Ich bin die Prinzessin Ilse’.””


    You can find an English translation at Google Books:

    The payoff for the narrator’s borrowing the five shillings comes on page 60.

    Brian McHale’s writing is particularly useful regarding stories that consist of texts-within-texts, and the conflicts that arise from that. See his POSTMODERNIST FICTION (1987), in particular chapter 7, “Chinese-box worlds,” which includes the relevant sections “Strange loops, or metalepsis,” and “Characters in search of an author.” (McHale also writes about AT SWIM elsewhere in that book.)

    O’Brien knows that all of his texts-within-texts are potentially confusing (and will only get more confusing later on, when characters start crossing from one text to another), so he occasionally stops to recap what’s happening. A fine overview for Trellis’s novel-within-the-novel comes on pages 47–8:

    – – – – –
    [Mr. Trellis] has bought a ream of ruled foolscap and is starting on his story. He is compelling all his characters to live with him at the Red Swan Hotel so that he can keep an eye on them and see that there is no boozing.
    I see, said Brinsley.
    Most of them are characters used in other books, chiefly the works of another great writer called Tracy. There is a cowboy in Room 13 and Mr. McCool, a hero of old Ireland, is on the floor above. The cellar is full of leprechauns.
    What are they going to all do? asked Brinsley.
    Nature of his tone: Without intent, tired, formal.
    Trellis, I answered steadily, is writing a book on sin and the wages attaching thereto. He is a philosopher and a moralist. He is appalled by the spate of sexual and other crimes recorded in recent times in the newspapers—particularly those published on Saturday night.
    Nobody will read the like of that, said Brinsley.
    Yes they will, I answered. Trellis wants this salutory book to be read by all. He realizes that purely a moralizing tract would not reach the public. Therefore he is putting plenty of smut into his book. There will be no less than seven indecent assaults on young girls and any amount of bad language. There will be whisky and porter for further order.
    I thought there was to be no boozing, Brinsley said.
    No unauthorized boozing, I answered. Trellis has absolute control over his minions but this control is abandoned when he falls asleep. Consequently he must make sure that they are all in bed before he locks up and goes to bed himself.
    – – – – –

    And then a bit later on: “His book is so bad that there will be no hero, nothing but villains. The central villain will be a man of unexampled depravity, so bad that he must be created ab ovo et initio. A small dark man named Furriskey.” (48)

    Trellis proceeds to instruct Furriskey in wickedness on pages 67 and 71.

    There’s also, on page 81, a “Synopsis, being a summary of what has gone before, FOR THE BENEFIT OF NEW READERS.”

  2. Re: 1.
    I, too, marked off passages from this page (19 in my edition), and I think he undercuts the entire argument before the first bit you quoted, as well. He states: “There are two ways to make big money, he said, to write a book or to make a book.” And this was the remark that “provoked” them to have a “discussion on the subject of Literature—great authors living and dead, the character of modern poetry, the predilections of publishers and the importance of being at all times occupied with literary activities of a spare time or recreative character.” Love that capital “L” there! This whole passage with the bits about how the room “rang with the iron of fine words,” how the “names of great Russian masters were articulated with fastidious intonation,” and how psychoanalysis “was mentioned—with, however, a somewhat light touch,” is hilarious.

    And I think this statement: “Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another,” is critical too since it explains all the overlapping and juxtapositions of characters and settings throughout the course of the novel.

    I should mention here that one of the things I like about the novel are all of these expository asides set off by a colon. (It’s something I play around with in my fiction, and an attribute of Gary Lutz’s work.):

    Description of my uncle: Red-faced, bead-eyed, ball-bellied. Fleshy about the shoulders with long swinging arms giving ape-like effect to gait. Large moustache. Holder of Guinness clerkship the third class (2).

    The narrator has no shortage of succinct encapsulations of personality traits and physical attributes. And any time the narrator remarks about the uncle, look out!

    Description of my friend: Thin, dark-haired, hesitant; an intellectual Meath-man; given to close-knit epigrammatic talk; weak-chested, pale (17).

    There are concise, droll descriptions of vibe and atmosphere.

    Nature of chuckles: Quiet, private, averted (18).

    And other hilarious asides:

    Nature of mime and ejaculation: Removal of sweat from brow; holy God (25).

    Purpose of walk: Discovery and embracing of virgins (45).
    Oh, I didn’t know this but a “thimblerigger” is an operator of a thimblerig, a variation of the swindling sleight-of-hand shell game.

    I agree with you that “[m]uch of the humor in AT SWIM comes from the collision of borrowed styles.” I’d extend that to say that this collision is also a mark of its formal inventiveness. It is seamless collage.

    I really enjoyed the tall-tale grandiosity of the Finn Mac Cool passages, like this one with its insane inventory:

    I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen móna, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sléibhe, 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 crúiskeen 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 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 not 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 chessman—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 the snow (7).

    Luscious lyricism, and O’Brien’s expressive use of the hyphen is effusive without sounding garbled.

    Re: 2.
    You know, the first time I met a Pooka was in Harvey, the Jimmy Stewart vehicle.

    While there’s a glint of menace in that character, here, in At Swim, the Pooka, “a member of the devil class,” is much more dangerous.

    Re: 4.
    Having read your multiple references to Brian McHale’s writing, Postmodernist Fiction is on my reading list.
    And, yes, one of the joys of At Swim-Two-Birds is getting tangled in, and disentangling from, the various threads, following all the characters in and out of their nested boxes.

    Another thought:
    The narrator is preoccupied by so many concerns, and he talks about “retir[ing] to the privacy of [his] mind” (1), and “into the kingdom of [his] mind” (6). And, after his “witticism was unperceived,” he “quietly replaced it in the treasury of [his] mind” (15); and later, he talks about how a “sense of tedium is so deeply seated in the texture of [his] mind” (58). There might be other causes to his mind trouble: “The mind may be impaired by alcohol, I mused, but withal it may be pleasantly impaired” (16). And in Trellis’s letter to Mr. Arbuthnot, he says, “With the present pressure on my mind, I should not be able to sleep if I did not use wine as an opiate; it is less hurtful than laudanum but not so effectual” (26).

    I’m really enjoying this conversation, and I hope other people will check in with their thoughts and responses.

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