Wednesday, September 11, 2013


What is wrong with Cryan and most people, said Byrne, is that they do not spend sufficient time in bed. When a man sleeps, he is steeped and lost in a limp toneless happiness: awake he is restless, tortured by his body and the illusion of existence. Why have men spent the centuries seeking to overcome the awakened body? Put it to sleep, that is a better way. Let it serve only to turn the sleeping soul over, to change the blood-stream and thus make possible a deeper and more refined sleep.
I agree, I said.
We must invert our conception of repose and activity, he continued. We should not sleep to recover the energy expended when awake but rather wake occasionally to defecate the unwanted energy that sleep engenders. This might be done quickly - a five-mile race at full tilt around the town and then back to bed and the kingdom of the shadows.
You're a terrible man for the blankets, said Kerrigan.

Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

At Swim-Two-Birds is about a young, frequently drunk, lazy student who lives with his uncle and spends much of his time in bed. He is writing a book about a character named Desmond Trellis, the publican of the Red Swan, who is also writing a book.

Personal reminiscence, part the first:   One thing my maternal grandmother strongly disapproved of was lying on the bed during the day. Once the bed was made, first thing, that was it, and any tell-tale creases could tell what people had been doing.

Trouble was, her daughter married into a family, part English, part Irish ( I claim Miss Hayes, from Ireland, who married my French convict great-great (and maybe another great) grandfather), for whom lying on the bed  was considered no great sin, and spawned daughters who elevated lying on the bed during the day reading books to an art form. And my mother wasn't averse to a bit of a lie-down during the day with a book either.

This makes my grandmother sound rather joyless, but she wasn't. Staying with her was a glorious time of making toast in front of a wood fire, eating heaps of home-made biscuits with cups of tea, and home-made ice-cream made with Sunshine full-cream powdered milk, sugar and gelatine.  She liked cats, and dogs, and girls, so that was lucky for me. She accepted me for the odd, bookish creature that I was. I would go to stay with her in her cottage in a little coastal town, and go walking on the beach and help her around the house.

She looked very like this; I can only ever remember her old with her long hair in a bun, small and round, forever doing what she called 'jobs' around the house, gardening, and boiling up clothes in her copper (even after her children bought her a washing machine).
Conclusion of the foregoing.

The major part of the narrative of At Swim-Two-Birds is comprised of the novel the unnamed narrator is writing, which is mostly comprised of the novel his character, Trellis, is in turn writing, and then later the novel Trellis's son (by one of his characters) is writing to get back at his father, which is in turn hijacked by the other characters to really give Trellis his comeuppance.

With me?

Anyway, it's hilarious, and many of the characters aren't even 'real', but creatures of Irish myth and legend. But what is real anyway? And remember that N, the narrator is also made up. So there's another book there, the one O'Brien is writing.

But do characters really feel so vindictive towards their authors (even fictional ones?) For these characters start taking over the narrative, drugging Trellis so they can do whatever they like.

Biographical reminiscence, part the second:  About a decade ago I got very ill and spend months of enforced bed-lying, which wasn't much fun. I can remember throwing The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene away in disgust, it was so depressing. Not a good choice when you're not on top of things.

And then when I was on my feet again, I put aside all the notes I'd been taking for a book while I was ill (it made me feel that I was still working), and while I was lying on the day-bed in the living-room with my notebooks around me, I came up with a completely new idea.

Two sisters who lie around on a bed reading books!

And so I came to write Secret Scribbled Notebooks. Whenever someone asked what I was writing I said, a book about two girls who lie about on beds reading Great Books. I knew it sounded uneventful (and was, in a way), but I had the most fun writing a book that I'd ever had.

But did those girls resent me? Did they get up to things while I was asleep that I never knew about? I'll never know.

 I do know this strange thing. By writing about them, I brought those two girls to life. It's a bit mad, I know, but I feel that they really exist.
Conclusion of the foregoing.

It's said that At Swim-Two-Birds was an enormously influential book, and I can see why. In fact, when I first started to read it, it finally clicked, that of course John Kennedy Toole had read the book. How could he not have? A brilliant, well-read young man with literary ambitions like him ...

Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces is a lazy, ex-college student who lies about on his bed scribbling into his Big Chief writing pads, and he has all kind of wild adventures. I'm not accusing Toole of stealing, or of not being original, because Confederacy is a brilliant, absolutely original piece of work.

But At Swim is there in the background, influencing away. And writers would be mad not to read as widely as possible, to gather in influences and use them in their own inimitable way. Because that is what writers do.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Laughed till I cried

Books don't often bring me to tearful laughter, but while I was reading Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman I found myself weeping with the hilarity of it.

I won't quote the passage; I think you need to read it in context, but it has to do with atom exchange and bicycles, and the solemn way the policeman pronounces on the connection.

I read the hilarious bit in bed just before I went to sleep. Waking at dawn the next morning I thought of it again, and this time bypassed the laughter. I sobbed silently, remembering it.

We all know how closely conflicting emotions are linked: love and hatred - who hasn't experienced this at one and the same time? But perhaps, after all, there is only one emotion, and we experience different aspects of it. (Reading The Third Policeman may lead to you speculating on matters like this, as it offers strange explanations of almost every science possible)

Indeed, De Selby, the writer often quoted in this book (and whose whacko theories are detailed at length in extensive footnotes) puts forward the proposition that east and west, and north and south, are not four directions but two, because, for example, if you go far enough east you'll come to the same point as if you went west. He extrapolates further to say that in fact there is only one direction, because from any given point you can get to anywhere else.

Fittingly, I have conflicting emotions about this book. At the beginning I loved it so much I wanted to read as slowly as possible to savour every bit of it. By the next afternoon (due largely to the effects of de Selby) I read wearily on through the greatest headache and dizzy feeling I've experienced for some time, due either to the effects of the mad illogical logic of The Third Policeman, or the onset of a flu. I had the slight feeling that I might be going mad.

(A sucker for punishment, the next book I read will be O'Brien's At-Swim-Two Birds, of which there is one copy in our local library system, at Byron Bay, and is available, no doubt winging (or swimming) its way towards my local library at Lismore as I write.)

But what I really like about O'Brien (not his real name) is the language. I've decided that what I value most in writing is surprise, which is another way of saying originality, I think.

Take this passage:

...  a house stood attended by three trees and surrounded by the happiness of a coterie of fowls, all of them picking and rooting and disputating loudly in the unrelenting manufacture of their eggs. The house was quiet in itself and silent but a canopy of lazy smoke had been erected over the chimney to indicate that people were within engaged on tasks. Ahead of us went the road, running swiftly across the flat land and pausing slightly to climb slowly up a hill that was waiting for it in a place where there was tall grass, grey boulders and rare stunted trees. The whole overhead was occupied by the sky, serene, impenetrable, ineffable and incomparable, with a fine island of clouds anchored in the calm two yards to the right of Mr Jarvis's outhouse.

The world of this book is not our world; it is both like and unlike it. It is, in effect, akin to madness, but it is a book that will make you both think, and see things differently.