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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 20 / 50





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literary theory; he feels that only books with green covers are safe to read because

All colours except green he regarded as symbols of evil ... Although a man of wide learning and culture, this arbitrary rule caused serious chasms in his erudition. The Bible, for instance, was unknown to him and much of the knowledge of the great mysteries of religion and the origin of man was acquired from servants and public-house acquaintances and was on that account imperfect and in some respects ludicrously garbled. It is for this reason that his well-known work, Evidences of Christian Religion, contains the seeds of serious heresy. (139-40)

Trellis considers himself a well-read scholar, but his strange theory regarding books has an obvious and very serious flaw; the shadow of O’Brien’s satire of the narrator is unmistakable here. Both the narrator and Trellis believe that they are more knowledgeable than they are. Trellis’ belief is a perfect example within At Swim-Two-Birds of wordplay becoming an event: Trellis actually judges books by their covers. The narrator is undoubtedly proud of his literary skill here. The narrator himself points out to his fellow drinkers at Byrne’s pub that this is an important point in the his novel; he makes this silly belief a metaphorical parallel to the world outside his manuscript. The narrator is pointing his satire at the Gaelic League, and similar organizations, who attempt to purify Irish culture in the hopes of saving it from destruction by outside influences. These pro-Irish groups praise any patriotic work, regardless of its literary merit; a work’s subject matter is more important than the quality of its composition.

What is truly interesting about the narrator’s comment on these groups of Irish patriots is that they exist in the world outside his novel. O’Brien has confused his novel’s structure by allowing his fictional narrator to satirize the same targets that he enjoys attacking. The Gaelic League exists in the world that O’Brien lives in, two narrative planes above Dermot Trellis. The narrator brings satirical references into his work that exist in the real world. The narrator includes parodic parallels between Trellis’ fictional world and his own, just as O’Brien uses the narrator’s fictional Dublin to satirize his own society.

The similarities between the second narrative level and the frame narrative invite the question as to whether the narrator is actually engaging in the same sort of self-satire that O’Brien uses the narrator for. O’Brien aims a critical glance at his own writing by comparing it to his narrator’s in an attempt to pre-empt any criticisms from his readership; one wonders if the narrator is attempting the same with Trellis. This aspect of At Swim-Two-Birds is special because it involves O’Brien satirizing the same targets as his fictional characters. O’Brien’s control over the novel is apparent here for these similar targets, and also for the fact that most of these satiric attacks are aimed in multiple directions. When the narrator satirizes something, there is usually an aspect of his criticism that reflects on himself without his knowledge. Trellis’ strange addiction to green is a parallel to the narrator’s standard of education for the literary world. Trellis is not as well read as his creator, and one can see the structural parallel to the way O’Brien makes his narrator a less competent author than himself. The narrator’s separation from Trellis through this satire is comparable to the distance that O’Brien creates between himself and his narrator.

Michael Byrne, being an adviser on all things literary, is intensely interested in the narrator’s manuscript because of its "several planes and dimensions" (142). The narrator praises himself while O’Brien acknowledges the interest that his work will excite among the literati of his time. The standard of education required of any potential reader of contemporary literature by the narrator’s theory is brought to the reader’s mind with this publican’s literary interests.


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