euripides, o’brien and me on derivative literature

shakespeare relied heavily on holinshed etal.

O’Brien believes that all literature is referential, so describing his work as derivative is a bit too easy. In fact, he defends just that in At Swim‘s epigraph,

For all things change, making way for each other. Heracles, c.416BCE.

So what if there are Joycean elements in his novel? There’s a whole lot of O’Brien there too. Joyce’s work is ingenious but admittedly peripatetic, big pee and little pee. Aristotle’s work is derivative of Plato’s, Plato’s of Socrates’ and so on and so on, but they each add something significant. It’s nigh on impossible to be entirely original, but if it’s inevitably the same shit from another mother, strive to add to the rhetoric.

Embrace your references, but not in the entitled way McEwan does, do it with flare like Shakespeare. Make your shit potent and personal. And don’t forget to say thank you.

at snámh-dá-én

two-words: perspicacious piss-take

brian o'nolan a.k.a flann o'brien

Flann O’Brien is James Joyce meets Tex Avery, drenched in copious pints of plain.

As a lover of Ulysses, Looney Toons and the occasional drink, At Swim-Two-Birds, O’Brien’s irreverent satire of Irish Literature in general and Stephen Dedalus in particular, was destined to be a favourite and is the funniest book I’ve read in ages. It opens with the narrator positing the feasibility of a novel having three openings, successfully executes the gag making it a novel with four openings. It also has a triple-sweet ending with lashings of laughter in between, so there is plenty to love.

At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of a young nameless lazy drunken verminous student/author (O’Brien’s alter-ego) writing a story of another lazy author, Dermot Trellis (O’Brien’s alter-ego’s alter-ego, stay with me) whose characters come to life and revolt, with help of a pooka and a good fairy, against their poor workplace-conditions: Slug Willard, a trigger-happy cowpuncher, is sick of being recycled as a tram driver; Finn Mac Cool, a powerfully-built Fenian, protests getting his ass kicked by inferior specimen; Furriskey would rather not defile women; a talking cow would like to be milked more frequently etc. etc. Hi-jinx, twisted Celtic myth and running-kicks ensue, spliced with biting commentary on the writing process and gratuitous pandering to temperamental readers and critics alike,

It’s the sort of queer stuff  they look for in a story these days. p.170.

It is full of hilariously strange meta-fictitious characters, is acutely perceptive and self-deprecating, and has wild improbable anachronistic action, videlicet, it is the perfect combination of ridiculous conviviality and on-tap porter, making for laugh-out-loud rollicking humour.

irish acting powerhouse come out to swim

In fitting homage, an ambitious troupe of Irish actors, with In Bruges‘ Brendan Gleeson at its helm, is making an eponymous film set to be released in 2013. The budget now stands at $11M and I’m wondering just how much is dedicated to the portrayal of the layers in the action. Some scenes may be animated Tex Avery-style, or computer-generated, who knows, but this is the kind of book that can easily become your baby and you wouldn’t want to fuck up the adaptation. So the pressure is on, Gleeson!

If my brother gave At Swim-Two-Birds to me as a prank as Dylan Thomas suggests, I’d smother him in a thousand drunken grateful kisses. This novel is such a cracking funny piss-take, it goes straight to the pool room, snugly between James Joyce’s Ulysses and my 10 year old 21 year old bottle of Appleton.

my people-the presets
daddy cool-boney m
is my baby yours?-sarah blasko


my second-hand $8 copy

I keep At Swim-Two-Birds on tap as without it I’d be a sniveling shell of a reader crouched piteously in a dark corner waiting for a masked author to hack me to pieces. It is my lone promise of comedy for the next ten books or so, which includes the grim reaper himself, Cormac McCarthy with Blood Meridian, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Anthony Burgess’s  A Clockwork Orange.

Which, in turn, led Galactus and me to argue the prevalence of horrors and tragedies on The List. He thinks it’s because ‘critics’ are horrible tragics themselves and I’m loathe to agree. Reference first sentence in post.

A Clockwork Orange is next up because I’m still struggling with the soporific effect of An American Tragedy and I need another short book to remain on target.

I tried A Clockwork Orange many years ago and dismissed it as inaccessible after a few sentences. familialdiscontent urged otherwise and I’m grateful. While the violence is staggering, the tone is brilliant and I’m really enjoying the read. The few Slav words picked up from Galactus’s family, context and this nadsat lexicon solve the access problem.

Here are some juicy tit-bits on A Clockwork Orange:

  1. The title derives from an English adage, ‘to be as queer as a clockwork orange’, which is something appearing natural on the outside, but actually machine on the inside. It alludes to what Alex, the protagonist, will become after ‘corrective’ experimentation.
  2. U.S. publishers originally axed the dénouement to facilitate a ‘less Kennedyan/more Nixonian’ ambiguity. Burgess was not impressed, but caved for the dough. He later commented on his amputated novel, “Life is, of course, terrible,” Resucked, 1986. When I learned this I quickly flipped to the back of my copy to see if it had 20 or 21 chapters. It is, sadly, whole. A deformed novel would have been awesome.

    a clockwork orange film poster, 1971

  3. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation, lead by a very young Malcolm McDowell, is based on the U.S. text. It claims four Oscar nods and is highly recommended by Galactus. I’ve been warned to brace myself, but I’m very keen to see it. It looks the heighth of horrorshow.

    mcdowell as alex, 1971

I gather the novel makes the film seem tame.

another book within a book

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000) has to jump queue, even though I haven’t finished At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s due back at the library on Wednesday with no more renews.

I’ve read the blurb, and am a bit annoyed it’s another nested narrative. That’s three in six from Lacayo and Grossman; they seem really taken with the technique. Personally, I’m exhausted from the mental gymnastics required to read another book like this. I need some literary M&Ms and nacho chips right now, not another dégustation.

Anyway, it sounds like quite an intriguing novel, and I’m very excited about reading it.

another smelly genius

I hadn’t heard of At Swim-Two-Birds (1938) or Flann O’Brien/Brian O’Nolan before the TIME critics’ list. But since then I’ve read that  O’Brien’s work is derivative of Joyce’s, which he tacitly defends in his epigraph from Heracles (Euripides),

For all things change, making way for each other,

gleeson and cast of at swim-two-birds

and  that Brendan Gleeson is making his directorial debut with a film adaptation due to be released in 2011. The cast includes Michael Fassbender, Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell, Johnathan Rhys Meyers and Garbriel Byrne. Clearly, Mad Eye knows some people.

I’ve had a peep at the first few pages and At Swim-Two-Birds is wickedly funny. Joyce is all over it, but not in the way I expected. O’Brien has turned up the volume on Joyce and is taking the piss. McCool’s ‘eye hair’ and ‘eye cloth’ had me mentally rolling on the floor. It’s a real crack up.

And of-course, the protagonist is a committed lush and doesn’t wash. Is this a requirement of Irish genius?


Though still a work in progress, here are the novels that I’ll be reading in 2011.

Struck through titles have been completed.
Bold titles are presently being read.
* indicates reread.

  1. 1984-1948-George Orwell
  2. The Adventures of Augie March-1953-Saul Bellow
  3. All The King’s Men-1946-Robert Penn Warren
  4. American Pastoral-1997-Philip Roth
  5. An American Tragedy-1925-Theodore Dreiser
  6. Animal Farm-1946-George Orwell*
  7. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret-1970-Judy Blume
  8. At Swim-Two-Birds-1938-Flann O’Brien
  9. Atonement-2002-Ian McEwan
  10. Beloved-1987-Toni Morrison*
  11. The Big Sleep-1939-Raymond Chandler
  12. The Blind Assassin-2000-Margaret Atwood
  13. Blood Meridian-1986-Cormac McCarthy
  14. Catch-22-1961-Joseph Heller
  15. The Catcher in the Rye-1951-J.D. Salinger*
  16. A Clockwork Orange-1963-Anthony Burgess
  17. The Corrections-2001-Jonathan Franzen
  18. The Death of the Heart-1958-Elizabeth Bowen
  19. The French Lieutenant’s Woman-1969-John Fowles
  20. Go Tell it on the Mountain-1953-James Baldwin
  21. The Grapes of Wrath-1939-John Steinbeck
  22. The Great Gatsby-1925-F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. A Handful of Dust-1934-Evelyn Waugh
  24. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter-1940-Carson McCullers
  25. The Heart of the Matter-1948-Graham Greene
  26. Herzog-1964-Saul Bellow
  27. Housekeeping-1981-Marilynne Robinson
  28. I, Claudius-1934-Robert Graves
  29. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-1950-C. S. Lewis
  30. Lolita-1955-Vladimir Nabokov*
  31. Lord of the Flies-1955-William Golding
  32. Lucky Jim-1954-Kingsley Amis
  33. The Man Who Loved Children-1940-Christina Stead
  34. Midnight’s Children-1981-Salman Rushdie
  35. Mrs. Dalloway-1925-Virginia Woolf
  36. Naked Lunch-1959-William Burroughs
  37. Never Let Me Go-2005-Kazuo Ishiguro
  38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-1962-Ken Kesey
  39. The Painted Bird-1965-Jerzy Kosinski
  40. A Passage to India-1924-E. M. Forster
  41. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-1961-Muriel Sparks
  42. Snow Crash-1992-Neal Stephenson
  43. The Sound and the Fury-1929-William Faulkner
  44. The Sun Also Rises-1926-Ernest Hemingway
  45. Super Sad True Love Story-2010-Gary Shteyngart
  46. Things Fall Apart-1959-Chinua Achebe*
  47. To the Lighthouse-1927-Virginia Woolf
  48. Ubik-1969-Phillip Dick
  49. Ulysses-1922-James Joyce
  50. Under The Net-1954-Iris Murdoch
  51. Under The Volcano-1947-Malcolm Lowry
  52. Watchmen-1986-Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons*
  53. White Teeth-2000-Zadie Smith*
  54. Wide Sargasso Sea-1966-Jean Rhys*