Tuesday, June 19, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds, or Anything you can do, I can do meta

(First edition of At Swim-Two-Birds,
London, Longman's Green & Co., 1939)
The only thing that makes me blush about reading meta-fiction is that phrases like "modes of fictional discourse" spring unbidden to my lips.

The first third or so of Flann O'Brien's 1939 novel At Swim-Two-Birds (that's how far into the book I am) reads at time like solemn myth; at times like boastful, parodic epic; at times like naturalistic narrative; and at times like just plain fun. One of my favorite examples of the latter:
"`I'm thirsty,' he said. `I have sevenpence. Therefore I buy a pint.'

"I immediately recognized this as an intimation that I should pay for my own porter.

"`The conclusion of your syllogism,' I said lightly, `is fallacious, being based on licensed premises.'"
But what I really like are the bits that call amusing attention to their own modes of fic— to their own amusing ways of saying stuff:
"My talk had been forced, couched in the accent of the lower or working classes."
This can wake the reader up and make him notice, with a smile, even the most routine acts:
"In a moment he was gone, this time without return. Brinsley, a shadow by the window, performed perfunctorily the movements of a mime, making at the same time a pious ejaculation.

"Nature of mime and ejaculation: Removal of sweat from brow; holy God."
If you don't think self-reference can be funny and lovely at the same time, try the following:
"Purpose of walk: Discovery and embracing of virgins.

"We attained nothing on our walk that was relevant to the purpose thereof but we filled up the loneliness of our souls with the music of our two voices, dog-racing, betting and offences against chastity being the several subjects of our discourse. We walked many miles together on other nights on similar missions-following matrons, accosting strangers, representing to married ladies that we were their friends, and gratuitously molesting members of the public. One night we were followed in our turn by a member of the police force attired in civilian clothing. On the advice of Kelly we hid ourselves in the interior of a church until he had gone. I found that the walking was beneficial to my health."
Now, I'll go resume my reading. You should do the same.
***
Declan Burke offers more recent evidence that meta-fiction can be fun. His novel Absolute Zero Cool was a deserving winner of the Goldsboro Last Laugh Award for comic crime fiction at Crimefest 2012 in Bristol last month. "Author and character together and individually ponder and confront the very biggest moral and ethical questions in ways occasionally touching and always hugely entertaining," I wrote about the book.

That still seems about right,

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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18 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well I'm not a man to jump on someone else's credit but I believe that I was the first to note the Flann OBrien connection in my review of AZC way back when...

Burke and Flann are both v funny, although you have to patience with the latter and our MTV dazzled jump cut age lacks patience.


Another v interesting Irish novel with FOB overtones is the lovely At Swim Two Boys, a gay coming of age novel written while the author Jamie ONeill was the night porter in a mental hospital

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You did indeed invoke Flann O’Brien when discussing Absolute Zero Cool. Furthermore, while verifying this, I found a certain similarity between this post of yours and this recent post of mine. Embarrassed by such evidence of thievery, however unintentional, I will therefore stop writing about Irish crime fiction and start giving Scandinavian crime writers the attention they deserve.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

Uh oh. I give both of you a lot of credit always, but I have to say that there are still many random moments when I miss Marco.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder what ever became of him, especially now that Giorgio Scerbanenco is bring translated into English again.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

I know he went through an injury and a couple of other traumatic events all at once, and got busier, but I don't totally understand the complete withdrawal. Still, it's not like people don't frequently drop out of the blogosphere. It's attraction is that you aren't really obliged to continue.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I hope's he's all right. He'll be welcome back if he ever decides to rejoin our corner of this simulated world.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

Of course.

Well, not if he's become dictator of Italy or something.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or a spy.

June 19, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I love TRISTRAM SHANDY, but this title turns me off to a degree that I don't want to know anything else about the book.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., from numerous online articles about the book:

The novel’s title derives from Snámh dá Én (Middle Ir.: lit. “Swim-Two-Birds” but really means “The river current of the two birds”.

Assuming that's correct, the title is O'Brien using one of his languages to poke fun at the odd syntax of the other. That's an admirable project, I'd say, even if the results are displeasing to some ears.

June 19, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I don't buy that. We communicate with others, not ourselves.

And the translation of the literal translation doesn't help. Obfuscation isn't a good thing inside a book. How much worse when it's the title. This is a bit reminiscent of stuff in Finnegan's Wake.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For a long time I thought the title was just some random assemblage of words, and I pronounced it (inwardly, for I've never spoken the title aloud) with four monotonous, equally stressed syllables. Then I saw the hyphens, and the whole rhythm of the title changed.

I'm not trying to persuade you of anything. I'm just saying that the title works for me, if I understand it correctly -- that O'Brien communicates with me, you might say.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

Funny-I never had any trouble with that title. There are all kinds of places with names like that. Not that I can think of one when I need it.

I haven't read this, but I've read a couple of O'Brien's and enjoyed them. The Third Policeman is great.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My problem is that without the hyphens, I didn't realize it was a place name, so was clueless about stress and meaning. Once the punctuation clued me in, it was almost like being back in Bird-in-Hand, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

I guess the 'at' was a clue for me, rather than a hindrance.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're better with prepositions than I am, I guess.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

No, it's just a difference in interpreting information. Reminds me a little of the whole garden path style sentence that I have just recently learned about.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or of that neurological faculty than enables us to organize and make sense of information we have perceived.

June 19, 2012  

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