Flann O’Brien’s first and most important novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was published the year that William Butler Yeats died. The coincidence is notable because the novel was a parodistic melange of styles spawned by the Irish Literary Revival championed by Yeats and because all of O’Brien’s important novels critique literary fabrications akin to those of the revival. The Irish Literary Revival was based on the rediscovery of the special identity of Ireland, especially as this was apparent in the literature of the Celtic legends. In popularizing these legends, the participants in the revival, many of whom—unlike O’Brien—had no fluency in the Gaelic language, were prone to literary extravagance and inflated notions of Celtic nobility. The literature of the revival was instrumental in arousing political energies that led to the creation of the Irish Free State, but after this goal of political independence had been realized, many of the revival’s own literary excesses became apparent. Modern problems such as economic recession, entanglements of church and state, and the entrenched conservatism of an emerging middle class made the essential artifice of the inspiring revival literature especially visible for the first time.
O’Brien wrote none of the important fiction about the Irish Republic of his own day; instead, his major works look back to the earlier mythologizing of Celtic identity and modern Irish culture. At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, and The Poor Mouth all ridicule the pretensions of literature by emphasizing its artificiality. O’Brien’s work is satiric in effect because it implicitly corrects notions of literary authority, cultural privilege, and innate national aristocracy. Its primary mode is parody, adoption, and exaggeration of a variety of recognizable literary styles to demonstrate their essential mendacity.
The salient quality of O’Brien’s career is ambiguity concerning his name and identity. He took the pen name Flann O’Brien from Gerald Griffin’s 1829 novel The Collegians, while the name Myles na Gopaleen came from Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn (1860), based on Griffin’s novel. Both of these pseudonyms recall stage Irishmen, a stereotype of nineteenth century English fiction. In the revival, a new domestic stereotype of the Irish prevailed, one as falsely noble as the earlier English one was debased. Thus, these names attached to O’Brien’s novels challenged the new literary identity of Ireland as a sheer fabrication.
O’Brien’s first three novels are relentless in their scrutiny of fabricated literary identities; his later two novels are less successful because that scrutiny is limited, and because some assumptions about identity are allowed to stand unchallenged. Ultimately, his finest works have affinities with that strain of modern literature that asserts the reality of a metaphysical void, a senseless core of anonymity beneath the guises, literary and otherwise, protectively adopted to give life a semblance of meaning. This is especially true of The Third Policeman, which is freer of provincial references than O’Brien’s other novels. The relish for parodying things Irish, most apparent in At Swim-Two-Birds and The Poor Mouth, however, suggests that the primary frame of reference for O’Brien’s novels will always be the cultural history of early twentieth century Ireland.
At Swim-Two-Birds, which takes its name from the literal translation of a Gaelic place-name, is the most complete critique in novel form of the excesses of the Irish Literary Revival. O’Brien was fluent in Gaelic and a talented parodist, and in this novel he exploits the essential artifice of revival literature by placing its various literary styles in collision with one another. Here Finn MacCool, evoked in all his epic splendor, meets the hack writer Dermot Trellis; the mad bard Sweeny, whose verses are included in hilarious literal translations into English, meets Jem Casey, poet of porter; the Good Fairy, taken from the most sentimental of Irish tourist literature, sits down to cards with urban characters taken from the bleak world of Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). The product is a novel about the unreality of various kinds of fictions, an exercise in style whose only subject is the extravagance of the styles it exploits by parody.
At Swim-Two-Birds is a collection of brief fragments organized only by the desire to express the multiple contrasts of their incompatible styles. The thread that links these fragments is situational rather than narrative: A university student is attempting to write a novel whose three possible openings and four possible conclusions frame At Swim-Two-Birds; among the characters in his novel is Dermot Trellis, himself a novelist with a work in progress; the characters in Trellis’s novel are dissatisfied with their treatment and so wreak revenge by writing their own novel about Trellis, whose authorial control lapses when he sleeps. This conceit allows O’Brien to include in his novel a plethora of styles from imaginary authors, especially rich in ironies for readers knowledgeable about Irish literature from the Celtic legends to modern writers such as Yeats.
As many of its commentators have pointed out, At Swim-Two-Birds has far more appeal and significance than most metafictional novels about a novel in progress. It is, above all else, exuberantly comic rather than pretentious.
The Third Policeman
Although it was not published until after O’Brien’s death, The Third Policeman was written immediately after At Swim-Two-Birds, and it should be considered beside that novel, despite its publication date. Like At Swim-Two-Birds, it is a very modernist exercise in the novel as a self-contained and self-generating literary text. In this case, however, O’Brien is less concerned with the identifiable styles of the Irish revival than with the ways any style creates...
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