E a r t h G o a t

"Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man." -- Heidegger

6.24.2010

At Swim, Two Birds

Has anyone ever read this?  I have to confess, I'd never even heard of it.  Brian O'Nolan, writing under the pseudonym Flann O'Brien... I found a copy in my parents' house, picked it up, was blown away by the first dozen pages but then had to go to sleep.  The enthusiastic cover blurbs by James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene, and John Updike, given the comic nature of the writing, I assumed were fake, in that Irish literary hoax kind of way.  But no... they are real.  How could I have never heard of this book, and even more puzzling:  what was it doing on my parents' bookshelves?

11 Comments:

At 6:29 AM, June 24, 2010, Blogger Vampiro said...

Heard about it as an undergrad in the late nineties. Often came up as beloved in various PoMo classes, and while it's always been on my check-it-out list, it's never gotten high enough for me to read it.

Perhaps you can push it over. Please report back on your experience with it.

 
At 6:35 AM, June 24, 2010, Blogger kclou said...

I read it, as well as THE THIRD POLICEMAN and THE POOR MOUTH (originally published in Gaelic, I think). I got into O'Brien in high school somehow and kept reading him in college and then more or less forgot about him. Early postmodern, meta stuff. Worth checking out, though I don't count him among my favorites.

 
At 6:57 AM, June 24, 2010, Blogger Grendel said...

Parents report they have no idea how the book came to be in the house. So I have to assume it simply materialized and waited patiently for me to pick it up. I'll let you know how it goes.

 
At 10:58 AM, June 24, 2010, Blogger dunkeys said...

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts, too -- O'Brien's been on my radar but I haven't read him yet, either.

Quick shift: this might sound dumb, but I'd never read Mary Robison until recently (her stories). Whoops! She's fantastic.

 
At 3:59 PM, June 24, 2010, Blogger Grendel said...

It's kind of like ... James Joyce was asked to write A Confederacy of Dunces. A sample:

It is a great pity, observed my uncle, that you don't apply yourself more to your studies. The dear knows your father worked hard enough for the money he is laying out for your education. Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all?

I surveyed my uncle in a sullen manner. He speared a portion of cooked rasher against a crust on the prongs of his fork and poised the whole at the opening of his mouth in a token of continued interrogation.

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 Guinnes clerkship the third class.

I do, I replied.

He put the point of his fork into the interior of his mouth and withdrew it again, chewing in a coarse manner.

Quality of rasher in use in the household: Inferior, one and two the pound.

Well faith, he said, I never see you at it. I never see you at your studies at all.

I work in my bedroom, I answered.

Whether in or out, I always kept the door of my bedroom locked. This made my movements a matter of some secrecy and enabled me to spend an inclement day in bed without disturbing my uncle's assumption that I had gone to the College to attend to my studies. A contemplative life has always been suitable to my disposition. I was accustomed to stretch myself for many hours upon my bed, thinking and smoking there...

 
At 5:03 PM, June 24, 2010, Blogger Grendel said...

Then he's writing several stories, one of which is about Finn MacCool:

...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 lake-top...

 
At 8:33 PM, July 01, 2010, Blogger Grendel said...

I finished the book. I mostly liked the book. It's a book more for the head than for the heart, and it's a book more about the how than the what -- more concerned with language than story. Yet the ending surprised me by finally releasing its grip on cleverness and acknowledging sincere emotion. I always looked forward to picking up the book. I never got bored or lost or impatient.

I anticipated trouble both in following and caring about the characters and their convoluted, hair-brained reality, but actually had no trouble. The narrator is a selfish, smart-alecky student who is writing this novel about a writer character who is writing about other characters, who rebel against this other writer. Oh, and this other author also fathers another writer character, who takes us most of the way home. Interspersed are scenes from the narrator's home life with his uncle and friends. His friends are also -- like you -- readers of his stuff, and their comments on it are pretty funny (like when they point out the similarities of three characters who are, in fact, quite similar -- the writer-character then dashes off a bunch of highly distinguishing but irrelevant details). O'Brien pulls all that off somehow, with admirable skill and style.

The writing itself is magnificent and hilarious. The characters, both his and his author-character's characters, are lively and funny and rewarding to follow. However, with po-mo stuff, the danger is that it becomes too abstract, clever, self-indulgent, experimental for the sake of being experimental, etc. I don't think this book fell into that trap, though it did stick a toe in now and then.

I plan to read it again someday, and maybe his other books. Way funnier than Virginia Woolf, and more grounded and humble than Joyce. It was more like Beckett. Yes, it was Beckettish, like when the characters onstage are clearly characters in a play, and even they seem to know it, yet somehow they retain one's interest and can even still manage now and then to tug your heart-strings.

Through most of it my connection to the narrator and characters was more intellectual than emotional. I looked forward more to how whatever was going to happen would be described than whatever was actually going to happen. That's pretty rare for me to stay with for 310 pages.

He really stuck the ending. After the last page I closed the book with a sigh of satisfaction and replaced it carefully, with a thoughtful expression I'm sure, on my shelf. And began looking for something else...

 
At 8:49 PM, July 01, 2010, Blogger Grendel said...

I forgot the negative aspect, which is I don't really know what it all added up to. Besides many chuckles and general enjoyment, and the inside-baseball take on character... the narrator did learn something in the end, did expand his horizons and take a steph toward humanity. A small thing, I guess. And the whole book is kind of a small thing. Unlike Joyce, he didn't try to bite off the whole world (okay, Dublin) and chew it. It was ambitious and not ambitious at the same itme. Not nearly as serious as Joyce, which came as a relief, really. I started out trying to be critical, and here I am again...

 
At 7:33 PM, July 02, 2010, Blogger dunkeys said...

Awesome description. I will read that book soon.

Anyone feels like reading Time's Arrow, I think I'm taking it on the next few days. I've never read an Amis.

I just read Tom Grimes's memoir (Mentor) that's mostly about his relationship with Frank Conroy. It's a curious book.

 
At 10:08 AM, July 07, 2010, Blogger Dexter said...

FYI...there is a film version in production with Colin Farrell, Gabriel Byrne and most of Ireland I assume.

 
At 9:37 AM, July 08, 2010, Blogger Grendel said...

Cool, Dexter. Here's some info on it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/mar/21/solomons-trailer-trash-brendan-gleeson

 

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