Intertextual Re-Creation in Jamie O'Neill's "At Swim, Two Boys"

Article excerpt

Abstract: As the title of the book indicates, Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys, published in 2001, refers back to Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). Through the use of such a parodic title, O'Neill places himself within a postmodern literary tradition, involving the influence of famous Irish parodists such as O'Brien or Joyce, who overshadow his novel. This title alludes to a famous text, gives it a new meaning, a new story and re-locates it in a different context, namely a gay universe which calls to mind another famous literary predecessor, Oscar Wilde, a writer also referred to repeatedly, whether explicitly or implicitly, throughout the novel. This paper focuses on the intertextual articulations of the novel in connection with the theories advanced by Neil Corcoran, Augustine Martin and Harold Bloom, whose essays take a real interest in the literary phenomenon of intertextuality.

Key-words: influence, tradition, intertextuality, Irishness, writer, postmodernism.

In 2001, Jamie O'Neill, a young Irish writer, published a novel entitled At Swim, Two Boys. Set in Dublin and its near surroundings, the plot follows the years 1915 and 1916, the time of Ireland's uprising against British rule. It tells about the love between two boys, Jim, a naive scholar and the younger son of a shopkeeper, Mr Mack, and Doyler, the rough son of Mr Mack's old army pal. Out at the Forty Foot, the great rock where gentlemen bathe, the two boys meet every day. There they agree that Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year's time, at Easter 1916, they will jump from the Forty Foot and swim from the bay to the distant Muglins rock so as to claim that island for their country, and for themselves. The title of the book parodically refers to At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), the famous novel by Flann O'Brien. This title highlights the gap between the text it refers to and the one it announces, thereby establishing a connection between the two. By choosing At Swim, Two Boys as the title of his novel, O'Neill anchors himself in O'Brien's filiation, as is confirmed by a text strewn with literary allusions and references. Through the use of such a parodic title, O'Neill places himself in an age-old literary tradition, in the lineage of famous Irish parodists such as O'Brien himself or Joyce, who overshadow his novel. The title rests both on resemblance with and distortion of O'Brien's text, since 'birds', the last word of O'Brien's title, is changed here into 'boys', two words that nevertheless echo each other given that they share the same number of syllables and the first and last letters. This intertextual title mentions a famous text, gives it a new meaning, a new story and re-locates it in a different context, namely a gay universe which calls to mind another famous literary predecessor, Oscar Wilde, who is also referred to repeatedly throughout the novel. Besides, O'Neill's literary interest in the past, and in Easter 1916 particularly, so characteristic of Irish writers, obviously recalls Yeats's famous nationalist poem, among other texts. I propose to focus here on the intertextual articulations of At Swim, Two Boys. As Julia Kristeva put it in the late 1960s, a literary text is not an isolated phenomenon but is made up of a mosaic of quotations (1969:37). Intertextuality denotes the transposition, the transformation, the absorption of another text. This absorption takes on multiple forms since it ranges from the precise quotation or the ordinary reference to the allusion, with parodic purposes or not. These intertextual ramifications can be picked up all along the novel and will be studied in connection with the theories advanced by Neil Corcoran, Augustine Martin and Harold Bloom, whose essays display a real interest in the literary phenomenon of intertextuality. The study of intertextuality in O'Neill's novel is interesting because it lays emphasis on the simultaneous presence of different voices. Indeed, the narrative combines the low voices of fictive ordinary citizens, with their malapropisms, their mistakes and their Irish brogue, and the firm voices of some famous Irish writers who preceded O'Neill. …