Erika Mihálycsa
Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania | Published: 17 March, 2024
ISSUE 19 | Pages: 140-153 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2024 by Erika Mihálycsa | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Starting from Myles’ playful advertisement of book-handling services, the paper explores O’Brien’s/Myles’ systematic recycling, rewriting and inscribing of modernist texts and narrative devices, imbricated with the featuring of second-hand and repurposed objects. I argue for a provocative self-positioning of Flann’s/Myles’ texts and their recasting of modernist authorship and the authority of the author in the context of the increasing relevance, and ever faster obsolescence, of commodity culture in the first half of the twentieth century. The collage/assemblage of texts belonging to different genres, ages, languages and aesthetics is situated at the interface between Handlung with its corollary, the ethos of productivity, and handling, reuse and repurposing, at an ironic angle to the modernist slogan, “make it new”.

Empezando por el ingenioso anuncio de Myles sobre el manejo de los libros, el artículo explora el reciclaje, reescritura y uso sistemático de recursos narrativos modernistas en la representación que O’Brien/Myles hace de objetos de segunda mano y reutilizados. Este provocativo posicionamiento defiende la recategorización de los textos de Flann/Myles como modernistas, en un contexto de creciente relevancia, y más precoz obsolescencia, de la cultura material de primera mitad del siglo XX. Su collage/ensamblaje de textos pertenecientes a diferentes géneros, épocas, lenguas y estéticas se sitúa en la interrelación entre el Handlung, con el ethos de la productividad como su mejor expresión, y la reutilización y readaptación, con una perspectiva irónica sobre el reconocido lema modernista, “hazlo nuevo”.

Flann O’Brien; modernismo tardío; nuevo materialismo; stuff theory; reescritura

At the end of Flann O’Brien’s exuberant 1939 anti-novel At Swim-Two-Birds, when the student-narrator is gifted a second-hand wristwatch as an award for taking his exams, his uncle’s friend Mr Corcoran good-humouredly assures him that “The stuff was there – it was there all the time” (O’Brien 2007: 213). The phrase – meaning, this chap is all right – reads in more than one way. Long recognized as a novel that introduces postmodern textual games avant la lettre (Imhof 1986: Hopper 1995) and displays virtually all the frame-breaking strategies that characterize metafiction (Waugh 1993: 21-22, 30), At Swim consists mostly of textual found objects including pulp, journalese and non-literary writing often scribbled on scrap paper, text fragments repurposed from a multiplicity of sources. This procedure has been described as assembly-line aesthetics (Taaffe 2008: 35) and framed both as anti-authoritarian writing (Hughes 2010: 128) and as ambiguous parodying-cum-mimicking of the culture industry that promotes inauratic mass (re)production on the twin foundations laid down by Fordism and eugenics (McFeaters 2014: 45-46). Most of the objects appearing in the novel also share this condition, of second-hand items or castoffs which linger on in an asynchronous, interstitial time and complicate the novel’s textual economy and aesthetics. Moreover, the treatment of books and textual material in the novel parallels the treatment of physical objects. The procedure followed through At Swim and playfully proffered in the student-narrator’s manifesto of “democratic fiction”, of plundering existing literature wholesale for material, is also a model of “utilitarian bricolage” (Gillespie 2022: 39) that reuses the texts of others. In this, O’Brien parodically enacts an aesthetics of décroissance or degrowth, of reducing the authorial footprint by a circular economy of textual repurposing. In the following, I would like to argue that the featuring of hand-me-downs and objectified textual material in At Swim-Two-Birds acts out his all-round parody of received modes of writing at its most corrosive, busting any source of (aesthetic, intellectual, political, scientific, religious) authority by amalgamating long outdated, Victorian models with modernist narrative devices and techniques, and attacking the aura of authorship as indelibly bound to a vestigial romantic notion of originality.

In line with the student’s manifesto, “making a book” by cobbling together received material is offered as a model of literary composition by the novel’s various author-figures. These include the imported cowboys who, from audience, evolve into co-authors of the counter-novel penned by Orlick, the half-fictional son begotten by the writer Trellis with one of his literary characters whom he abuses, as though performing Benjamin’s tenet that, in the age of mechanical reproduction, “the distinction between author and public […] becomes merely functional” (1968: 232) and raising the question, who has the right to arbitrate culture. The procedure suggests, on the one hand, a radical (anti-)aesthetics that disregards all authority, specifically that of authorship, perceived as unmolested in high modernism, and which approximates dada’s corrosive attack on aesthetic pretension.[1] On the other hand, At Swim displays a poetics of writing as “book-handling”, writing across and countersigning existing literature, as presented in Myles’s spoof “Buchhandlung”, a business scheme for offering the semblance of erudition by mauling the clients’ unread books and, for extra fee, inscribing them with marginalia such as, “‘I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me’” (O’Brien 1978: 21). The interlingual pun obviates the co-belonging of the overwriting, handling of text and commerce – with, in this case, used goods; the core idea will be lucratively put into practice by the plagiarist-conman character, Manus in The Hard Life. Inhabiting both these positions is a key ingredient of O’Brien’s late modernist/proto-post-modernist aesthetic, the texts sitting impossibly on both sides of the slash; its mode is accurately described by Neil Murphy, for whom one crucial distinction between O’Brien’s and modernist metaleptic devices is the first’s note of anarchic “frivolity” (2022: 102).

Anarchic hand-me-downs

Flann’s 1934 spoof or short story “Scenes in a Novel” prefigures the concerns of At Swim in many respects. Its dictatorial author, Brother Barnabas, who is to be killed by his literary offspring, evanesces by proxy already at the story’s beginning at the moment when, instead of cherishing it as a literary relic, the ungrateful nation burns his “dappled dressing-gown of red fustian” for reasons of hygiene into ash of “a sickly wheaten colour” (O’Brien 2013: 49-50). The hue is the exact hair colour of a rebellious character, Carruthers McDaid, who seems both an emanation of the author’s garb and, as Maebh Long saliently points out, also a function of the “two faulty characters” of the author’s idiosyncratic home-made typewriter and thus, a derailment and mechanical reproduction of inauratic recirculated signs, and product of a human-machine assemblage (2020: 10). While we never learn if this attribute of the author was new or a hand-me-down, the image aligning Brother Barnabas with philistinism is also evocative of an iconic literary dressing-gown: of the master of narrative omniscience, Honoré de Balzac, portrayed in his dressing-gown even in one of the watershed artworks at the origin of modernism, Auguste Rodin’s 1898 public monument to Balzac. Similarly, the author-character Trellis in At Swim bears the features of a traditional, if inefficient author-god, while the novel itself appears like a realist novel about writing an experimental novel (Joseph Devlin cited in Donohue 2002: 23). The story consistently links “brand-new”, alluring commodities with originality, the authenticity of characters, and the plenitude of authorial control and aesthetic mastery: thus a new shaving brush and “a blue swagger outfit, brand new” are offered by the author to bribe his characters into submission. One obedient character accepts his pre-programmed fictional death in exchange for a stylish dust-jacket, ironically pleading with the author, “If the thing was garish or cheap I’d die of shame” (O’Brien 2013: 52). The unsubmissive characters, however, show a marked preference for recirculated objects whose trajectory falls outside that preordained by their eugenic creator. Not only do they mingle with second-hand crossover characters from other narratives and use second-hand objects in acts of framebreaking, but they also share their mode of being with these hand-me-downs – Carruthers being consubstantial with the author’s garb. Thus the characters’ “democracy” is staged as a revolt against purposeful, original creation, the underlying principles of industrial capitalism, and their corollary, aesthetic mastery and the authority of authorship. Flying in the face of the hypnopaedic slogan from Brave New World, “Ending is better than mending” (Huxley 1975: 49), the subaltern literary creatures use a second-hand knife to kill off their creator before migrating into another text and literary contract of their choice.[2]

In At Swim though, the correlation between “democratic” fiction and the anarchic recirculation of second-hand objects and characters gets significantly complicated. There is a powerful inscription of hand-me-downs with compromise in all its guises – social, aesthetic, intellectual, political: most importantly, in the gift of the “antiquarisch” (O’Brien 2007: 214), behind-time wristwatch, which signals the student-narrator’s eventual adoption of the uncle’s late Victorian mindset and petit-bourgeois values, as a disenchanted rewriting of the tradition of patricidal anti-colonial emancipatory revolt set by Joyce and Synge’s modernism (Long 2014: 23-24; Mihálycsa 2020: 214-15). Most of the objects and cultural artefacts of the uncle’s household, metamorphically resurfacing on the different ontological levels of the novel surrounding Trellis or even the Pooka, are recycled second-hand goods; even the students’ debate society at the university is described as a collection of old swivel and castoffs, a “receptacle […] for foul and discordant speeches […] and many objects of a worthless nature – for example, spent cigarette ends, old shoes, the hats of friends, parcels of damp horse dung, wads of soiled sacking and discarded articles of ladies’ clothing, not infrequently the worse for wear” (O’Brien 2007: 45). The writer-characters share a vintage look: Trellis’ clothing is unglamorously pre-War, and one of the charges brought against him by his characters is precisely that of dressing them in his own embarrassingly outmoded garments (O’Brien 2007: 39). Likewise, the Pooka, who is timeless and hops freely among ontological levels, wears a coat made of pre-War fabric to which he seems more attached than to his wife and, when leaving his home, fastens the door with a piece of “old rope” (O’Brien 2007: 111). All the book’s descriptive passages smack of back-dated knick-knack – once denounced by writers like Woolf, Willa Cather and Wyndham Lewis as the clutter of Victorianism that the modernist novel has to clear away (Plock 2012: 557; Kosters 2019: 36), Lewis excoriating Joyce’s Ulysses for its perceived failure to be thoroughly modern, evidenced primarily in the novel’s “suffocating, moeotic expanse of objects […] the sewage of a Past twenty years old” (1927: 108). The objects populating the pages of At Swim, and the scarce objects of The Third Policeman or The Hard Life, are pointedly back-dated and shabby genteel; many have new uses devised for them, assuring their lingering on: for instance, the washstand serving as bookshelf in the student’s room, or the Pooka’s cup holding coins (O’Brien 2007:103), a distant relative of the Blooms’ “chipped eggcup containing pepper” evoked in “Ithaca” (Joyce 1986: 552). In this respect too, O’Brien shows an affinity with Benjamin’s fascination for, and salvaging of, the obsolete bibelots of the arcades, imbued with quickly outmoded textual devices and styles, as detailed in the Passagen-Werk and spurred by the awareness of the indelible link between modernity and obsolescence.

The manuscript itself, “an article composed of two boards of stout cardboard connected by a steel spine containing a patent spring mechanism” (O’Brien 2007: 46), is a richly textured assemblage comprising such items as soaked bits of newspaper and a sports tissue with a horse racing tip, a by-product of printing, together with numerous marginalia or book-handling features, of the Traitement Superbe denomination. The continuity between repurposed objects and recycled texts is also evinced by the circumstance that the name of Trellis coincides with the word for latticework, of which O’Brien had a writing desk fashioned, used at the time of the writing of At Swim (O’Neill 2022: 5). In 1962, while working on The Dalkey Archive – itself a rewrite of sorts of the earlier, unpublished The Third Policeman and recycling its atomic theory – he writes to Niall Montgomery, “I have a back room here, full of books and rubbish, and aim to turn it into [a] room exclusively for littery [sic] work. Made fine trestle table to this end many months ago” (O’Brien 2018: 310). The association of books and waste, reinforced by the pun on literature, underscores the treatment of text as used-up, potentially recyclable matter.

These Flannesque objects of reuse and refuse can be adequately framed with Maurizia Boscagli’s theory of “stuff”: an amorphous aggregation of objects divorced from function and from their erstwhile commodity appeal, and which are hybrid, heterogeneous, of a complex materiality imbricated with human presence. Stuff, as Boscagli argues in Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism, does not coincide with the creative “vibrant matter” envisioned by Jane Bennett’s vitalist materialism, nor is it to be understood in terms of Bill Brown’s thing theory, where the object no longer in use radiates a thinginess, a quidditas experienced as radical alterity. Instead, it stands for a more malleable form of objecthood and materiality, at the limit between the human and nonhuman and partaking in the condition of quasi-subject quasi-object framed by Bruno Latour, imbued with a vicarious human presence and its history of use and reuse (Boscagli 2014: 11). Divorced from the language of consumption, stuff “promises to detonate the unrealized future contained in the past, to expose in the objects themselves the realization of the utopias of generations past” (2014: 11). As Boscagli insists, drawing on Catherine Malabou, stuff is never “naked” but always materiality “with style”, whose mode of existence is inherently aesthetic and technological – techno-aesthetic: “imbricated in the body aesthetically, through lines of affect that redefine subjectivity away from the detached, autonomous rationality of the spectator” (2014: 12). Importantly, stuff for Boscagli is to be thought away from the reconceptualizing work of Object-Oriented Ontology which, in articulating the object’s absolute autonomy, risks reiterating the selfsame “fetish-logic of consumer capitalism” (2014: 24) – something that Benjamin had already reacted against. Similarly, Boscagli insists on the political ambiguity of stuff, thus holding it back from Jane Bennett’s vitalist, joyous framing: “the materialities of stuff are not automatically and joyously productive, but may also be produced, corralled into a specific state, reterritorialized into submission” – hence, disturbingly, stuff’s dynamic role may be “either emancipatory or oppressive” (2014: 14).

While stuff is a phenomenon that accompanies industrial overproduction and overconsumption in cultures of abundance, its critical featuring in literary and art works – including, as I argue, in Flann O’Brien’s fiction – breaks down the fetish value of objects, enacting the ephemerality of matter and of received notions of taste. In this, O’Brien’s use of texts amalgamated with second-hand objects and discards resembles the practice of 1960s arte povera reacting against the political complacency of the Italian economic boom, in such works as Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags (1967), where a plaster copy of a canonic statue of Venus contemplates a heap of throwaway clothes (see Boscagli 2014: 15). The display of stuff in artworks is bound up with successive Foucauldian epistemic breaks and the resulting awareness of the finitude and unsustainability of the capitalist dream of relentless economic growth and geopolitical expansion – the realization that there were no more blanks on the map to colonize, followed by that of capitalism’s limitations in providing ever higher levels of comfort and finally, in the late twentieth century, of the finitude of the Earth’s resources and the reality of the Anthropocene. While these moments of awareness can be considered the political unconscious of modernism and late modernism and a key trigger of their disjointed forms made strange – which also manifests in the centrality of the gesture isolated from affect, as Enda Duffy argues – starting from the second half of the nineteenth century they also engender an unprecedented preoccupation with objects and texts of reuse and refuse, their circulation and the ways in which they underpin the working of culture.[3] In this sense, Benjamin frames one of the symptoms of the condition of modernity through the consistent engagement of Baudelaire, his chosen painter of modern life, with discarded ephemera, journalistic clichés, and with a fellow outcast and tropological relative: the figure of the Paris chiffonier or rag-picker, this semblable of the poet, portrayed in key poems such as “The Rag-pickers’ Wine” as a philosopher of sorts but also resembling literary plagiarists (2006: 52-57), and anticipates Zygmunt Bauman’s account of modernity as wasting, and wasted. In Benjamin’s wake, in Les Chiffoniers de Paris, Antoine Compagnon shows how many industries, especially printing and publishing, depended on the chiffonier’s work, which included ripping off posters for pulp paper. Central to both Compagnon’s and Benjamin’s framing of the chiffonier is that these scavengers reused the vestiges of a quickly outmoded past; this activity is poetically reworked by Baudelaire’s poems and essays, where castoffs, citations and waste matter are transformed into transfigured beauty:

Here is a man whose task it is to collect the debris of the capital. Everything the great city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has disdained, everything it has broken, he catalogues and collects. He consults the archives of debauchery and the clutter of refuse. He makes a selection, an intelligent choice. Like a miser gathering up treasure trove, he gathers garbage for the good of Industry to chew over and transform into objects of use or pleasure […] He stumbles over the paving stones, like young poets who spend their days wandering in search of rhymes. (Baudelaire, “Wine and Hashish” cited in Lloyd 2008: 90-91)

Baudelaire would certainly sit awkwardly in a constellation of continental modern artists whose writings Flann engages with;[4] the only potential, sly reference to him is the Good Fairy’s effusion to the proletarian poet Jem Casey, “Was your pome on the subject of flowers? […] Love of flowers, it is a great sign of virtue” (O’Brien 2007: 117-18). Nevertheless, he plays a key role in literary modernity’s engagement with obsolescing material culture, styles and forms of language, and he was among the first to articulate the fragility of the status of the author in modern bourgeois society, where the fiction of the autonomy of art is doubled by the awkward fact that the artist and his/her self-image is also a market commodity (Benjamin 2006: 40-41). Baudelaire’s preoccupation with ephemera, including hackneyed language, amounted to a poetic turn where prose poems become permeable to received diction and ready-made phrases; this aligns him with authors like Flaubert and in this lineage, Joyce and O’Brien, who are conscious of language’s reiterative working and for whom textuality is ultimately “an echo chamber affording ceaseless encounters with things ‘already read’” (Baron 2020: 8).[5]

It is this quality that I would like to stress in the stuff nature of recycled, repurposed objects in O’Brien’s fiction and argue that, in their participation in all-round subversion, these textual objects complicate and sabotage the ethos of industrial productivity and its corollary, the understanding of authorship as productive of originality. The lingering on of obsolete, second-hand objects also points in the direction of an aesthetics of décroissance or degrowth: a bracketing of productivity and with it, of authorship in favour of lengthening the life cycle of things, textual devices, text fragments, tropes, styles. Thus we see a new lease on life given to used-up and even single-use texts included or excerpted in the manuscript – for example, the tedious passage describing instruments of navigation by the obscure eighteenth-century poet William Falconer (O’Brien 2007: 209-211), passages from the Conspectus, or (potentially bogus) letters to the editor, or chance words and witticisms picked up from others. All this material undergoes thorough book-handling performed in the manuscript, since the student-narrator’s writing method is indistinguishable from the salvaging and manipulating of arcana shorn of context and historicity, in a manner that is never conducive to an archive: “I took a volume from the mantelpiece and perused many of the footnotes and passages to be found therein, reading in a slow and penetrating manner” (O’Brien 2007: 207). O’Brien’s version of disenchanted critical late modernism / proto post-modernism also offers a model of a circular literary economy, where textual objects are potentially endlessly rewritten, reinscribed in complex operations of bookhandling, the “antiquarisch” repurposed in unexpected combinations and overlays – even for financial gain, as playfully proposed in Myles’s best-known money-making scheme, the book-handling services.

“Without decay”: the stuff authors are made of

Throughout At Swim, writer-characters are persistently characterized through a dense, granular world of objects and materialities. This conjunction sardonically evokes the dominant practice of literary realism, of using material conditions and objects for psychosocially determining fictional characters and thus, assuming a continuity between the physical, social and the inner, psychic worlds. Moreover, the descriptions in overdrive mimic key nineteenth-century devices denounced by the modernists – memorably, by Woolf, for whom the Edwardian “materialist” writers “have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there” (1924: 18). Accordingly, the student-narrator’s bedroom is cluttered with an incongruous collection of modernist and back-dated books, mingled with objects of daily use, that should amount to his psycho-social portrayal:

My bedroom was small and indifferently lighted but it contained most of the things I deemed essential for existence – my bed, a chair which was rarely used, a table and a washstand. The washstand had a ledge upon which I had arranged a number of books. Each of them was generally recognized as indispensable to all who aspire to an appreciation of the nature of contemporary literature and my small collection contained works ranging from those of Mr. Joyce to the widely-read books of Mr. A. Huxley, the eminent English writer. In my bedroom also were certain porcelain articles related more to utility than ornament. The mirror at which I shaved every second day was of the type supplied gratis by Messrs. Watkins, Jameson and Pim and bore brief letterpress in reference to a proprietary brand of ale between the words of which I had acquired considerable skill in inserting the reflection of my countenance. The mantelpiece contained forty buckskin volumes comprising a Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences. They were published in 1854 by a reputable Bath house for a guinea the volume. They bore their years bravely and retained in their interior the kindly seed of knowledge intact and without decay. (O’Brien 2007: 7)

The room displays two sets of books: pride of place is given to the Conspectus, whose date of publication, 1854, coincides with the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by pope Pius IX, the same who also decreed papal infallibility.[6] This ornamental series is pitted against the seditious modernist works, underscoring the wildly heterogeneous sources integrated into At Swim but also, the intellectual and political eclecticism of post-Independence Ireland. Joyce’s and Huxley’s books on the washstand interfere with the latter’s function – possibly a jibe at the fabled filth of modernist literature. Several objects and their disposition are imbricated with Joycean allusions: most obviously the engraved mirror, telescoping the Ormond bar’s mirror in “Sirens” and the “cracked looking-glass of a servant” in which Stephen is forced to take a look at himself. The fragmented reflection is a powerful emblem of the assemblage aesthetic of O’Brien’s novel; the mirror is an advertising side-product and presumably a second-hand bargain, further stressing the derivative mode and language of the student’s post-Joycean self-representation, succulently parodied by O’Brien.

The two categories of books are rhetorically linked by unnamed “porcelain articles”, likely a euphemism for chamberpot. Given the pervasive allusions to Ulysses and the proximity to books, another transvalued Joycean object and image can be guessed here, a memorable thumb-nosing at realism: in “Calypso”, Molly’s smutty book, Ruby, Pride of the Ring is discovered “fallen, sprawled against the bulge of the orangekeyed chamberpot” (Joyce 1986: 52). Such persistent association of (bodily) waste and literary hackwork also transforms the words of the student’s library, as well as the words penned or typed by him, into undifferentiated matter and a do-it-yourself cum curiosity shop of used commodities, giving equal weight and (in)dignity to textual material of any provenance.

The same porcelain article is recirculated within At Swim, where it crosses levels of fictionality to become the marker of the authority of authorship. In the excerpt where Furriskey, Trellis’s designed arch-villain, takes “his first steps in life” (O’Brien 2007: 45), he has a vision of his master’s voice addressing him from a cloud which morphs into an atmospheric chamberpot:

He commenced to conduct an examination of the walls of the room he was in with a view to discovering which of them contained a door or other feasible means of egress. He had completed the examination of two of the walls when he experienced an unpleasant sensation embracing blindness, hysteria and a desire to vomit – the last a circumstance very complex and difficult of explanation, for in the course of his life he had never eaten. That this visitation was miraculous was soon evidenced by the appearance of a supernatural cloud or aura resembling steam in the vicinity of the fire-place. He dropped on one knee in his weakness and gazed at the long gauze-like wisps of vapour as they intermixed and thickened about the ceiling, his eyes smarting and his pores opening as a result of the dampness. He saw faces forming faintly and resolving again without perceptible delay. He heard the measured beat of a good-quality time-piece coming from the centre of the cloud and then the form of a chamberpot was evidenced to his gaze, hanging without support and invested with a pallid and indeed ghostly aspect; it was slowly transformed as he watched it until it appeared to be the castor of a bed-leg, magnified to roughly 118 diameters. A voice came from the interior of the cloud. Are you there, Furriskey? it asked. (O’Brien 2007: 46)

The apparition of the disembodied author as a playful variation on an Old Testament creator-god summoning his creature is markedly scatological. If the student-narrator’s spare-time literary activities and Trellis’ aestho-autogamy are an elaborate joke on productive and all-male, thus sanctioned literary masturbation, as Maebh Long brilliantly demonstrates (2014: 33-37), here creation ex nihilo is inscribed with the author’s base bodily discharge, placing the character in a digestive tract of eternal textual recirculation. Furriskey’s impossible nausea might signal nausea at the text in which he is trapped and made to perform – and a possible prefiguration of Finbar’s vomit in the closure of The Hard Life, also a figure, as Neil Murphy argues, of the nausea over itself of a radically nihilist text reflecting on the hackneyed nature of language (2011: 157). The passage also turns the impossible time of the character’s experience, which must fall outside the fiction in which he features, but which nevertheless produced his unaccounted-for memory, into digestive matter, in an impish variation on word made flesh. The author’s spirit appears chimerically to his creature as a material and atmospheric assemblage of the second-hand articles associated with him. First of these is the timepiece – probably a recirculation of the “quiet, servile and emasculated” alarm-clock stripped of its twin alarm bells, that adorns Trellis’ bedroom (O’Brien 2007: 28). A sneer at the “Time is Money” ethos of (literary) Fordism, the image also connotes the Bergsonian distinction between temps and durée, and the modernist setting off of the fluid time of consciousness from mechanical, linear clock-time[7] – thus the traditionalist Trellis seems to be aligned with impatiently ticking clock-time, into which he is trying to bully his fictional offspring. The bed, the site of literary activity as virtuous productive masturbation, also evokes Trellis’s ornate vintage bed, “an early excursion of the genius of the great Stradivari” (O’Brien 2007: 28), and possibly hides another impish allusion to the second-hand bed of the Blooms, this most famous of literary beds and in its turn a parodic replica of the conjugal bed in the Odyssey, hand-hewn by the epic hero. Finally, the transvalued chamberpot materializes with another Joycean signature: “faces forming faintly” evokes the iconic ending of “The Dead”, “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. The finality and cosmic indifference of the Joycean image – which transforms a stock journalistic phrase, “snow is general”, in an act of “translational intertextuality” (Slote 2019: 117) – is parodically transferred to the omnipresent disembodied, yet scatological author depositing his (received) words as liquid discharge on his creature entrapped in his world. This hopscotch assemblage is ravaged when Trellis is subjected to torture at the hands of his characters and, as one torment after another is inflicted on him in slapstick vignettes where the mock-scientific mingles with pulp fiction, his body and consciousness fall apart in a foul-smelling vortex of objects of daily use:

Chamber-pots flew about in the aimless parabolae normally frequented by blue-bottles and heavy articles of furniture – a wardrobe would be a typical example – could be discerned stationary in the air without visible means of support. A clock could be heard incessantly reciting the hours, a token that the free flight of time had also been interfered with; while the mumbling of the Pooka at his hell-prayers and the screaming of the sufferer, these were other noises perceptible to the practised ear. The obscure atmosphere was at the same time pervaded by a stench of incommunicable gravity. (O’Brien 2007: 175)

The assemblage of the author as (literally) household furniture is also a masterful display of techniques of cinematic montage deconstructing, on the one hand, the utopian montage of a Dziga Vertov, of assembling the perfected new man from choice parts and, on the other hand, the technological dystopias of anthropoid robots. The author’s transcendental, disembodied voice, as Paul Fagan argues, relies on the cinematic uncoupling of image and sound, the voiceover and voice-off accompanying O’Brien’s tropes of embodied virtuality and being a marker of suspect authority, “taking on attributes of omniscience and omnipotence” (2022: 223).

The image of authorship as atmospheric chamberpot evokes another Joycean passage: the scene where Bloom reads a prize tidbit in the paper while defecating at the outdoor jakes, and wipes himself with the newspaper that he finished reading while contemplating his chances of becoming a successful commercial author. That famously scandalous passage enacts the production, consumption and recirculation of clichéd forms and genres of representation. We might say that O’Brien’s author-chamberpot rewrites and reverses the Joycean economy: here authorship itself is the excremental fume, emanation of serially recycled, consumed, wasted hack phrases. Characters may be born of the author’s bi-immaculate solo sexual activity without fecundation or conception; in their turn, authors and their foul-smelling auras aggregate from the relentless digestion of received phrases.

Joyce’s provocative montage of Bloom’s excretion and the story enacts the participation of journalese and commercial writing in a recirculation of waste and wastable matter – the newspaper as packaging material and finally, ersatz toilet paper. Clichéd language, the styles and literary devices of yesteryear are literally consumed and discharged in the act of reading for entertainment. The scene contributed much to the reputation of Ulysses as obscene, the scatological featuring much more frequently in critical attacks against Joyce’s novel than the sexual (Potter 2013: 96-99). Sinning against received taste by harnessing the scandalous and obscene, as Sam Slote demonstrates in Joyce’s Nietzschean Ethics, is an integral part of the Joycean poetics and ethics of transvaluing received mindsets and morals, and has a corollary in freely mixing “high” and “low” styles and linguistic elements. Or, as Rachel Potter writes, “the mingling of images of excremental processes and speech or story-telling inform the more general linguistic promiscuity of words”, most evident in the linguistic splicing and later, in the Wakean portmanteaux (2013: 105). The invisible chamberpot, present by allusion in O’Brien’s novel, applies the same irreverent treatment to Joyce’s revolutionary modernism as his predecessor applied to his earlier sources – implying that, by 1939, the high modernist models of Ulysses or Huxley have become a derivative and pretentious mode of writing, alongside Victorian science, theology, journalese, or literary realism. On a more disenchanted note, the novel sardonically traces the writerly/intellectual trajectory of the student from post-Joycean experiment to participation in post-Independence Ireland’s stultifying Catholic conservativism.

The beginning of At Swim is an elaborate thumb-nosing at the incipit of Chapter V in Joyce’s A Portrait, a chapter which virtually consists of Stephen’s aesthetic theorizing and ends with his resolution to go into exile with only a luggage – packed by his mother – containing “new secondhand clothes” (1992: 275). The passage from A Portrait contrasts sharply with the exalted epiphany style of the seaside vision that ends the previous chapter, the crude naturalism creating a stylistic dialectics of sorts and underscoring the secondariness of all discourse. Obviously unknown to Flann at the time, it already reworks a scene from the posthumously published early novel Stephen Hero, where Stephen is munching bread when he admits to his mother that he doesn’t believe and refuses to go to confession before Easter: “Stephen began to plaster butter over a crusty heel of the loaf while his features settled into definite hostility” (Joyce 1955: 132). Thus, in the Joycean palimpsest masticating the non-transubstantiated, material bread is permeated with the stylistics of revolt. This gesture and partly, style of revolt, together with the Joycean citational technique – wryly thematized as inventory of pawned objects – is re-orchestrated in the playful metafictional opening of At Swim:

He drained his third cup of watery tea to the dregs and set to chewing the crusts of fried bread that were scattered near him, staring into the dark pool of the jar. The yellow dripping had been scooped out like a boghole, and the pool under it brought back to his memory the dark turfcoloured water of the bath in Clongowes. The box of pawn tickets at his elbow had just been rifled and he took up idly one after another in his greasy fingers the blue and white dockets, scrawled and sanded and creased and bearing the name of the pledger as Daly or MacEvoy.

1 pair Buskins.

1 D. Coat.

3 Articles and White.

1 Man’s Pants.

Then he put them aside and gazed thoughtfully at the lid of the box, speckled with louse marks, and asked vaguely:

— How much is the clock fast now? (Joyce 1992: 188)

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings. (O’Brien 2007: 5)

Dirk Van Hulle has persuasively argued that O’Brien’s text inscribes the working of extended consciousness; if in A Portrait and, more characteristically, Ulysses the mind’s multiprismatic refractions and multidirectional connections are performed in engagements with the object world, as exemplified here by remembrance triggered by the colour of gravy, Flann’s text “pokes fun at the internalist model of the mind” (2014: 118) by driving its tropes ad absurdum. The opening reads rather like a sabotaging both of the Cartesian conceptualization of the (inner) mind and body as two watertight compartments, and of the modernist method inspired by Bergson’s theories of duration. The body is literally rendered a clockwork, chewing metronome-fashion – with the implied jibe that the quantity of bread cannot be objectively ascertained, this depending on such variables as the pace of chewing, number and integrity of chewer’s teeth, or the texture of bread. The second facetious pronouncement postulates withdrawal from sensory perception (or at least, absent-minded rumination) while miraculously retaining the capacity to see oneself from outside, as though in a mirror – telescoping two mutually exclusive perspectives: a caricature of modernist perspectivism with its fluid free indirect discourse but also, of the strictly exterior, spatial narration advocated by Wyndham Lewis in Time and Western Man. In exposing the artificiality of a modernist mode of narrating that plunges readers, as it were, unmediatedly inside a mobile consciousness, O’Brien’s novel announces from the start its incredulity toward the use of the mind as an aestheticizing instrument and structure of meaning. As Patricia Waugh writes, “questioning not only the notion of the novelist as God, through the flaunting of the author’s godlike role, but also the authority of consciousness, of the mind, metafiction establishes the categorization of the world through the arbitrary system of language” (1993: 24).

Yet, Joyce’s non-transubstantiated bread recirculates in Flann also with a further mischievous subversion: a seemingly reified treatment of self-reflexive literature and the problems of writing is implicitly decreed a product of the digestive authorial body, rendering ideas and aesthetics another form of recirculating matter. In this light, the three minutes also suggest a tongue-in-cheek correlation between the quantity of bread ruminated and the quantity (and quality) of literary ideas and aesthetic theories churned out. Textually, the paltry inventory of pawned (possibly second-hand) clothing and personal items in A Portrait, a quilt of intertexts and borrowed literary models, corresponds in At Swim to the literary models of both traditional mimeticist and modernist writing. The pervasive recirculation of usable (textual) waste as writerly practice thematized and enacted in the novel subverts productiveness and places the creation of texts for literary consumption playfully not as much on the assembly belt as in the pawnshop. Dumped in haphazard order and shorn of the capacity to produce epiphanic conjunctions and illuminate the past and present that allusions and quotations retained in modernist works, those items of textual material and used goods generate surprising and irreverent new contexts and frameworks of interpretation in At Swim-Two-Birds. The clock that Stephen looks at is ahead, as befits a modernist Bildungsroman; as it transpires at the end of At Swim, the gift watch received will push the student behind time.


[1] According to Benjamin, dada carried out “a relentless destruction of the aura of their creations, which they branded as reproductions with the very means of production” (1968: 237-38); their bricolages of objects of daily use also confront audience and author alike with their mutual participation in production.

[2] McDaid, whose profile “coolly negativises 50 years of eugenics” (O’Brien 2013: 50), even makes his living from selling kittens to credulous burghesses – thus, on uncontrollably proliferating creaturely life with no utilitarian commodity value, that frustrates eugenic control.

[3] At the same time, as Paul Saint-Amour saliently demonstrates (2003), the changed legislation and monetizing of copyright in the second half of the nineteenth century paradoxically fuelled a fashion of writing as deliberate text reuse, which fed into a nascent modernist poetics of treating texts and language as intrinsically secondary. While O’Brien’s/Myles’s whole output is a radical provocation of whatever residual ideas of originality, including his engagement in joint authorship in writing the column Cruiskeen Lawn and sustaining the persona of Myles, Maebh Long (2014) traces how in later life he became protective of his “signature” when he saw his long-time fellow (ghost) writer Niall Montgomery start a column in the Mylesian style, threatening the persona/brand he came to perform.

[4] Apart from the usual culprits, O’Brien scholarship has traced Flann’s creative response to key modernist “intertextualists” like Pirandello (Murphy 2022), Brecht (Higgins Wendt 2022), Jarry (Adams 2011; Pilný 2014); Karl Kraus (Harris 2016), to name but a few.

[5] Baudelaire’s preoccupation with the literary reuse of waste and of clichéd phrases is not confined to tropes of decomposing carcasses and transvaluing the abject. Starting with Paris Spleen, his writing goes through a proto-modernist “second poetic revolution”, where the “suggestively prosaic” diction of prose poetry (Lloyd 2008: 162) becomes permeable to ready-made phrases and pastiche, shattering the established genre hierarchies and mingling the style of Racine with that of contemporary journalism (cf. Grøtta 2015: 25). In his 1864 book Belgium Stripped Bare, Baudelaire uses a form of provocative, incendiary French humour (termed “une gauloisserie” by Benjamin) in a citational form where it becomes impossible to ascertain if a given statement corresponds to the poet’s personal point of view, or if it is sarcastically quoted by him. In the Introduction to his new translation of Belgium Stripped Bare (Baudelaire 2019), Rainer J. Hanshe compellingly argues that the book’s genre hinges on the eighteenth-century grotesque, a form of excessive laughter, harnessed by Baudelaire’s shock tactics in an overarching critique of bourgeois modernity, where Belgium stands as a simulacrum for France and even Poe’s America. The book operates with invisible quotation marks, a sampling of clichés of speech and thought exemplifying bigotry and xenophobia (XVII-XXXII). Thus extensive passages of Belgium Stripped Bare, as Hanshe argues, are a form of unmarked quotation or intertextual imbrication, which reminds of the sampling of commonplaces in Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues, or Joyce’s citational technique – thus by extension, of the intertextual writing of O’Brien.

[6] For a more detailed analysis of this passage see Mihálycsa 2020: 204-05.

[7] As I have argued elsewhere (2020), O’Brien may have used Wyndham Lewis’s vitriolic attack against Joyce and Bloomsbury in Time & Western Man, where Lewis excoriates the modernist focus on interior, psychological time, in his parody of Joyce (Lewis 1927: 200-06).

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| Received: 09-10-2023 | Last Version: 21-02-2024 | Articles, Issue 19