Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

An Atomy of the Novel: Finn O'Brien's 'At Swim-Two-Birds.'

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

An Atomy of the Novel: Finn O'Brien's 'At Swim-Two-Birds.'

Article excerpt

Flann O'Brien began At Swim-Two-Birds in 1934, while finishing a master's thesis, in Irish, on Irish nature poetry, writing and publishing his own humor magazine, Blather, and, after 1 August 1935, working five and a half days a week as an Administrative officer for the Irish Civil Service. The death of O'Brien's father in 1937 placed upon him the added burden of supporting his mother and most of his eleven brothers and sisters. I offer this information not as justification for the disruptive and fragmentary quality of his first novel, but to suggest that O'Brien did not disappear into a Daedalean workshop for the four years he spent writing it. Rather than retreating from life to flesh out in calm reflection a predetermined, structured work, O'Brien made an interactive process of writing or "compiling" his novel, integrating it into his daily life and giving over the details of his own experiences to his narrator.

The method of indeterminacy employed here has in recent years come to be seen as definitive of postmodern writing, as have many of the techniques of At Swim-Two-Birds, including its questioning of narrative authority and its critique of the "hostility to mass culture" that Andreas Huyssen finds central to the modernist aesthetic. O'Brien's novel is an aggressively anti-modernist work that is simultaneously modernist in the sense that it does not, in its reductio ad absurdum of modernism, advocate a return to more traditional forms of fiction, but rather calls into question the enterprise of artistic creation itself.

Two typescript drafts of At Swim-Two-Birds exist, both in the collections of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin. A few pages of notebook paper at the

front of the first typescript, containing the title, several doodles, and a list of the novel's "Personnel," point to a possible earlier notebook manuscript. It is not known what draft of the novel is represented by the first typescript. Niall Sheridan claims to have edited the "final draft of the book," which he says contained over eight-hundred pages of typescript:

I told him it was too long. He had got such fun out of sending up

the Fenian cycle that he over-indulged himself and the weight of

this material seriously unbalanced the latter half of the book....

|I am sick of the sight of it,' he told me. |What about cutting

it yourself.?'

I took out about one-fifth of the text. (47) The first Austin typescript, however, does not contain much of the excess Finn material that Sheridan claims to have removed. It may be the draft that O'Brien had professionally typed before sending it to his literary agents, A. M. Heath & Co., in London. This typescript shows the novel much as it appears in print. Many of the smaller changes made by O'Brien in this draft are purely technical. For example, three copper coins in a white cup in the Pooka MacPhellimey's house have been changed to four in accordance with the Pooka's dictum that truth is an odd number and evil even. The most heavily worked-over passages are O'Brien's original translations from the Irish Buile Suibhne (The Madness of Sweeney). Overall, however, there seem to be remarkably few changes in word choice or sentence structure. Most of the revisions performed on this typescript, or between the early and late typescripts, are on the larger, structural level. Entire scenes have been added in longhand. Extant scenes, particularly some of the "Biographical reminiscences," have been relocated in the text. A few sections have been cut, many of which duplicate stylistic devices found elsewhere in the published text.

The second typescript is a carbon copy of the final draft of the text as it appears in published form.(1) O'Brien sent the final typescript to A. M. Heath on 3 October 1938 along with a letter outlining the changes he had made in response to the publisher's suggestions. …

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