Dermot Trellis has the kind of writing problems that even an extended stay at The Iowa Writer’s Workshop or Yaddo won’t solve.
Trellis, you see, is a novelist, as well as a character in Flann O’Brien’s highly-influential, curiously-titled novel At Swim-Two-Birds. The reader follows Trellis as he creates various fictional characters who eventually come to resent the way Trellis pushes them around, controlling their destinies, as novelists are wont to do. Eventually, Trellis’ characters revolt, prompting Trellis to create additional characters designed to seek vengeance on his initial, rebellious creations. Trellis, however, ends up seduced by one of his own characters, a tryst which produces a son who only complicates things further.
It should be noted that Trellis himself is the fictional creation of a bored (fictional) unnamed student of Irish literature, who himself is the creation of the writer best known as Flann O’Brien.
At Swim-Two-Birds (the title is an Irish Gaelic translation referring to a section of the River Shannon) seems a perfect book for our post- post-modern literary times, our Charlie Kaufman-era in which we pay lots and lots of attention to the powerful author behind the curtain. Fittingly, acclaimed Irish actor Brendan Gleeson has undertaken the unenviable task of bringing At Swim-Two-Birds to the big screen, though the project has proven so daunting that Gleeson admits the film may never get made.
It seems that O’Brien’s ornery characters continue to rebel, well into the 21st Century.
For all of its metafictional trappings, it remains astonishing that O’Brien conceived of At Swim-Two-Birds in the 1930s, taking his cue from the linguistic and structural innovations of Joyce and Pirandello.
In order to provide a more detailed look into Flann O’Brien’s evolution, The Dalkey Archive Press (fittingly named after a later O’Brien novel) has recently released The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien, featuring over a dozen stories as well as an unfinished novel entitled Slattery’s Sago Saga.
O’Brien’s early stories – some originally published in Irish, others in English — explore the themes and ideas he would later probe more fully in At Swim-Two-Birds as well as his surreal, absurdist masterpiece (featured for an infamous moment on the appropriately byzantine TV show “Lost”) The Third Policeman.
“My carefully thought-out plot is turned inside out and goodness knows where this individualist flummery is going to end,” laments the narrator of “Scenes in a Novel,” from 1934, which features an unnamed narrator struggling with a “character ratting on his creator and exchanging the pre-destined hangman’s rope for a halo.”
Meanwhile, the opening lines of “John Duffy’s Brother” from 1940 serve as a manifesto of sorts not only for O’Brien but any writer anxious to challenge the conventions of storytelling so as to draw the reader more deeply into the mysterious parallel universe the author is creating.
Strictly speaking, this story should not be written or told at all. To write it or to tell it is to spoil it. This is because the man who had the strange experience we are going to talk about never mentioned it to anybody, and the fact that he kept his secret and sealed it up completely in his memory is the whole point of the story. Thus we must admit that handicap at the beginning – that it is absurd for us to tell the story, absurd for anybody to listen to it, and unthinkable that anybody should believe it.
As Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper note in their Introduction: “For O’Brien as much as Roland Barthes, the death of the author is the birth of the reader.” Murphy and Hopper add that O’Brien’s short fiction “could be considered as useful companion pieces to O’Brien’s novels, but with their shape-shifting themes and absurdist techniques they also stand out as important examples of early postmodern fiction in their own right.”
What the editors of this volume do not explore in any depth is the broader Irish proclivity for bending and breaking literary and linguistic forms, stretching all the way back to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Tipperary-born Laurence Sterne in the middle 18th Century. Joyce’s radical early 20th Century work (Ulysses was published in 1922, when O’Brien was 11 years old) paved the way for O’Brien (whom Joyce called “a real writer, with true comic spirit”) as well as Beckett. This inventive, tragi-comic tradition lives on in playful 21st Century Irish masters such as John Banville.
Flann O’Brien’s short stories most certainly point readers to at least one key reason why the Irish instinctively railed against the conventions of storytelling: their contested relationship with the English language, the bitter byproduct of centuries of British colonial rule. Nearly half of the O’Brien stories collected in this volume were initially published in Irish (with titles like “Revenge on the English in the Year 2032!”), itself a contested language with many variations, as O’Brien’s translator Jack Fennell acknowledges, adding that Irish “can be a tricksy, slippery language, an ideal medium for a tricksy, slippery man like O Nuallain / O’Nolan / O’Brien.”
Indeed, befitting a writer who toyed relentlessly with identity, O’Brien was actually born Brian O’Nolan (or Brian O Nuallain) and his pen names included not only Flann O’Brien but also Myles na gCopaleen, Lir O’Connor and Brother Barnabas, just to name a few. (Keith Donohue, in the Introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of O’Brien’s Complete Novels refers to the author as a “serial pseudonymist.”)
As for the unfinished novel Slattery’s Sago Saga, it is an offbeat, at times hilarious but very much incomplete tale about a Scottish-American woman who disrupts everyday life at “Poguemahon Hall” with a plan to “protect the United States from the Irish menace.” Her plan? To end Irish nutritional reliance on the potato (which resulted in the Famine and mass Irish immigration to America) and replace it with the titular starch product cultivated from tropical palm stems. Yeah, it’s that weird. But O’Brien still makes it quite fun (from the Gaelic, “Poguemahon” roughly translates to “kiss my ass”), even in its incomplete form. This collection, finally, includes an early (edited, with O’Brien’s own comments and annotations) draft of the story “The Martyr’s Crown” as well as a 1932 science fiction story by one John Shamus O’Donnell, who the editors (quite convincingly) argue was, in fact, Flann O’Brien.
Either way, there is plenty of certifiable, provocative work in The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien for old as well as new devotees of…well, whatever it is you want to call him.