Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3186
O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain, also Known as Brian O'Nolan) 1911–1966
O'Brien was an Irish novelist and a popular columnist. His particular combination of exuberance and subtlety, along with Gaelic erudition, are effectively displayed in his novel At-Swim-Two-Birds. (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
One's first impression of At-Swim-Two-Birds (the title is a supposed translation of an Irish place-name) is that of uproariousness and complexity, wheels within wheels. The narrator, a degree candidate in Dublin with a paternalistic uncle, is writing a novel about a writer named Trellis, who in turn is writing a novel extolling virtue and condemning sin. Trellis houses his characters in the Red Swan Hotel, of which he is of course the proprietor, his ostensible purpose being to prevent their boozing. His governing purpose, however, is to keep control of them, to make sure they remain his characters. But he cannot control them while he is asleep, which is for about twenty of each twenty-four hours.
His characters try to keep him asleep, so that they may assert their autonomous identities and claim a life of their own. They complain because Trellis has misused them, worked them long hours at low pay, and forced them to function in his novels in ways which they find foreign to their natures. Eventually they rebel against him. His son Orlick, who has been "writing" Trellis asleep, now "writes" him on trial before a jury of his characters. (Orlick, it should be pointed out, is the product of Trellis' mating with one of his own characters, whom, directly after creating, he assaults.)
This fantastic plot unfolds in a mélange of parodied Irish myth, involving the presence of none other than Finn MacCool, the legendary folk hero, and such other improbabilities as a wandering Irish bard and the shoot-em-up antics of some anachronistic Dublin cowpunchers. The style itself includes many elements, such as catechistic techniques, a listing of sub-topics, a series of short-hand descriptions, and an occasional synopsis, all of which combine with straight narrative and a realist tone which is functionally at odds with the incredible subject matter.
Although this novel has many things to say about Ireland, some of them droll, others biting, at its core it seems to be primarily about the imaginative process, the image-making faculty, using as analogue the process by which fictional characters are created.
Of considerable significance is a "digression" in the novel in which the narrator offers an "explanation" of his own work. To begin with, a qualitative distinction is made between the novel and the play, which favors the play. The inferiority of the novel derives from its privacy, in which the reader is frequently "outwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern for the fortunes of illusory characters." The novel is described as being "self-administered" and as a creation which "in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic." It is a "self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity." Then comes the following passage, with particular reference to character: …
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...
(The entire section contains 3186 words.)
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