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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 21 / 50





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Michael Byrne is shown to be an amateur scholar at best; his influence on the students who patronize his pub comes more from name-dropping and free cigarettes than from statements about literature. It is strange that the narrator respects the opinion of a man who, according to the narrator’s literary theory, should not have an understanding of contemporary literature.

Even though the narrator attempts to satirize himself in the same manner that O’Brien does, a light acknowledgment of his imperfections as an author in the hopes of beating his readership "to the punch," the narrator is simply too confident in his abilities for this to be effective. The audience already knows his opinions before he begins displaying examples of his manuscript, and his attempts at harmless self-deprecation seem superficial; the reader gets the impression that he only points out Trellis’ flaws in order to make his own writing more impressive. The reader’s extra knowledge given by O’Brien in the frame narrative makes these attempts by the narrator futile.

Dermot Trellis’ sloth reminds one of the narrator, but there is also a separation between the two that is necessary for the narrator’s manuscript. This brings to mind the careful distance that O’Brien places between himself and his narrator. Dermot Trellis is not a savoury character; he is the physical representation of the despotic author mentioned in the narrator’s literary theory. While this tyrannical authorship will be addressed in my third chapter, it is important to this discussion of the narrator’s distance from Trellis to show the parallel between Trellis and the narrator’s uncle. The uncle is the focus of the narrator’s contempt throughout the frame narrative, and the narrator attempts a sort of revenge that would be highly effective if the frame narrative was governed by the same rules as his manuscript. A few narrative planes lower, as I will discuss in chapter four, the narrator’s manuscript includes a literary revenge against Trellis that produces physical harm by simply describing horrible punishments on a page.

After an excruciating conversation between Brinsley, the narrator and his uncle, Brinsley chides the narrator: "I hope, said Brinsley, that Trellis is not a replica of the uncle" (40). Brinsley’s query is quite astute; he is teasing the narrator slightly, and cautioning him to be lenient towards the uncle. Brinsley realizes the negative sentiment felt for the uncle by the narrator, and also knows from his experience with the manuscript that the narrator includes real- life occurrences in his characters’ actions. The narrator

did not answer but reached a hand to the mantelpiece and took down the twenty-first volume of my Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences. Opening it, I read a passage which I subsequently embodied in my manuscript as being suitable for my purpose. The passage had in fact reference to Doctor Beatty (now with God) but boldly I took it for my own. (40)

The narrator displays his rather free-wheeling use of outside sources in this quotation. His choice of description appears to be an immediate and unplanned response to Brinsley’s exposure of the source for his despicable protagonist. The passage is not added to his manuscript until after this conversation with Brinsley, which seems a rash and unconventional decision.

What is perplexing about the narrator’s use of this plagiarized source is that it helps very little in describing Dermot Trellis. What the narrator heads as an "Extract from ‘A Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences,’ being a further description of Trellis’ person, and with a reference to a failing" (40) is only a physical description of Doctor Beatty. The one nugget that the narrator finds in this biography is that its subject is noted as having "towards the end of life ... indulged to excess in the use of wine" (41). Unfortunately, the glee induced in the narrator by attaching insinuations of alcoholism to a character obviously connected to his uncle must be lost


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