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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 14 / 50





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examination of literature, dropping "the names of great Russian masters ... with fastidious intonation" (32), and using "Witticisms ... depending for their utility on a knowledge of the French language as it was spoken in the medieval times" (32). "Psychoanalysis was mentioned-- with, however, a somewhat light touch" (32), presumably because this is an area of weakness in their otherwise fine educations. The narrator "tender[s] an explanation spontaneous and unsolicited concerning [his] own work" (32), beginning a long dissertation which states

that while the novel and the play were both pleasing intellectual exercises, the novel was inferior to the play inasmuch as it lacked the outward accidents of illusion, frequently inducing the reader to be outwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern for the fortunes of illusory characters. The play was consumed in wholesome fashion by large masses of public resort; the novel was self-administered in private. The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic. (32)

The novel should admit that it is a "self-evident sham." The narrator believes that a "good" novel will be as transparent as drama. An audience is forced to view drama in obviously artificial circumstances: in chairs set aside from the world and people of the play. This arrangement must stand, even in avant garde drama in which the barriers between the audience and the actors are broken down. While this creates tension for the audience, the tension is created solely because of the vague barrier between the real world and the fictional world of the play. A dramatic parallel in line with the narrator’s idea occurs in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Before any words are spoken, the lone character peels a banana, dropping the peel to the stage: "He treads on skin, slips, nearly falls, recovers himself, stoops and peers at skin and finally pushes it, still stooping, with his foot over the edge of the stage into pit" (Beckett 11). Krapp is aware of the stage; he uses its edge to dispose of his trash, but he does not transgress this boundary. O’Brien’s narrator’s characters will be like Beckett’s old man; the audience is made aware of the fictional universe that the characters belong to, but this knowledge can never bridge the gap between reader and content. O’Brien’s narrator is determined to expose this barrier between the "real" world and the fictional world of his manuscript, but one must remember that the narrator is just as fictitious as any other character in the novel.

The narrator continues his exposition, explaining that "a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity" (33). Robert Alter directly opposes the narrator on this point. Alter points out that while this at first sounds like an appealing definition for reflexive narrative,

the reader regulating his credulity at will is to reverse the whole process of the self- conscious novel, where it is the writer who tries to regulate the reader’s credulity, challenging him to active participation in pondering the status of fictional things, forcing him as he reads on to examine again and again the validity of his ordinary discriminations between art and life and how they interact. (224)

It would appear that the narrator’s theory is not as thorough as he believes; Alter has punched a significant hole in it before the narrator is half-way through his lecture on the novel. While the narrator’s theory is very much in line with this study’s sources in many ways, the theory is inconsistent. O’Brien’s narrator has not worked out the flaws of his new theory; this problem of ill-planning is found in his manuscript as well, as discussed in my later chapters.

Besides the fraud involved in presenting an audience with cathartic characters, the


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