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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 15 / 50





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narrator expounds that it is

undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service. It would be incorrect to say that it would lead to chaos. Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before--usually said much better. (32-3)

The narrator and Brinsley at one point decide that "There are two ways to make big money, ... to write a book or to make a book" (32). While referring directly to betting on horses, the latter statement is a pun. This statement proves important in its distinction between two different methods of composition. In the world of scholarship, this is not so much a theory of composition as it is a truth. One can write an original work of literature or criticism, or one can compile other scholars’ work and claim the title of editor. The narrator, however, applies this method to the composition of fiction. Hutcheon suggests that the techniques of what she terms "littérature citationelle" can be viewed as "parodic and generative":

Quotations from one text, when inserted in the context of another, are the same and yet new and different, a microcosmic version of T.S. Eliot’s concept of ‘tradition’ in literature. The parodic creation of new fiction through the rewriting of old is itself the narcissistic subject of metafictional parody. (24-5)

One can see that the narrator’s idea of composition does not always mean writing; in many instances it means compiling.

John Barth’s entertaining essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion," sheds an interesting light on the idea of "compiling" a work of art from extant sources. Barth discusses the re-use of an artistic tradition for the same purposes that O’Brien’s narrator re-uses literature in order to create a new work of art. If

Beethoven’s Sixth were composed today, it would be an embarrassment; but clearly it wouldn’t be, necessarily, if done with ironic intent by a composer quite aware of where we’ve been and where we are. It would have then potentially, for better or worse, the kind of significance of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup ads, the difference being that in the former case a work of art is being produced instead of a work of non-art, and the ironic comment would therefore be more directly on the genre and history of the art than the state of the culture. (165-6)

Borrowed fiction adds a sort of textual authority to the narrator’s writing. He believes that previously created characters are more readily understood and probably written far better than any original character that he could invent. The narrator, however, is not hoping to help his readership through the re-use of familiar characters, but rather make his work more exclusive while at the same time taking credit for writing far better than he is capable of producing:


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