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.


  1. A story within a story within a story - and characters who influence and mess with the characters without the story... oh yes please I should like to read this one.

    In bed, most likely. I'm a terrible girl for the doona, said Kate.

    1. ...'for the doona': why, of course you are, Kate, as anyone would be whose surname begins with an o and an apostrophe. Do read this book: the language is wonderful, and the copy I have has an endorsement by Dylan Thomas:"Just the book for your sister if she is a loud, dirty, boozy girl." I know you are not like this, but nor it is the book particularly dirty or boozy - just mad!