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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) by Flann O'Brien

Flann O'Brien/Brian O'Nolan, modernist Author.

Book Review
At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
 by Flann O'Brien

   Flann O'Brien was the pseudonym of Irish author Brian O'Nolan. Decades before "Metafiction" or "Post-Modernism,"  At Swim-Two-Birds was both, and how.  The 1001 Books descriptive essay says, "This is a novel about a novelist writing a novel about the writing of [a] novel."  At Swim-Two-Birds was plainly ahead of its time, and it didn't help that it was published on the eve of World War II.  It was essentially out of print before Pantheon Books republished it in New York in 1950. Although many important English literati were hip, it's very easy to see the potential for At Swim-Two-Birds to find an audience among English departments in the mid to late 20th century, and beyond.

    In addition to the stridently recursive plot within a plot within a plot, O'Brien/O'Nolan layers At Swim-Two-Birds with multiple references and allusions to Irish folklore. Of course James Joyces' shadow looms large over O'Brien, but the influence doesn't overwhelm the proceedings.  It is possible to read At Swim-Two-Birds casually because of the peppering of folklore, found language and esoteric knowledge inside the novel within a novel within a novel.   Personally, I was able to understand that it was a "novel about a novelist writing a novel" but the part about the novel itself being about the writing of a novel was lost on me.

   When I read a book like At Swim-Two-Birds, an experimental classic that waited something like 25 years before finding a substantial audience, I think about what it must have been like to be Flann O'Brien.  Did he even think what he had written was great, or did he accept the lack of wider audience attention as an indication that he failed or that his work was not good.  Importantly, At Swim-Two-Birds did impress his peer group- Graham Greene, working as a reader for his publisher, was instrumental in securing the initial publication, and Joyce read it and was impressed (and died immediately after reading it as it turned out.)

   I'm fascinated by that aspect of the experience of being an Artist- when someone creates an epic, enduring work of art and it fails to reach a general Audience. This experience was really only fully possible after the development of both a general audience for art AND the development of an avant garde sub culture. By 1939 that avant-garde sub culture fully existed, but hadn't broken out into the consciousness of a general audience.   Events like the Ulysses/Joyce obscenity trial contributed towards this break through, but it wasn't until the 1960s that avant garde art reached anything approaching a general audience.

  The larger question is in what sense is it even worth it for an Author to create a work that is brilliant but only recognized as such long after it can no longer play any role in adjusting his or her material circumstances?  "Art for Art's sake" is a romantic notion, and many artists are romantic no doubt, but I would hardly call experimental modernist novelists romantic.  The idea of an experimental modernist novelist dying unknown in a garret is itself perhaps romantic, but I doubt the novelist would consider it so.

  There are parallels to what musicians are experiencing these days- what is the point of art that doesn't benefit the artist?  Why would one even create at all if there is no possible benefit?  Perhaps O'Brien/O'Nolan did consider such things in the 1930s, but certainly a contemporary reader contemplating the delay between publication and the generation of a significant audience for a work might well ask that question.

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