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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 46 / 50





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of O’Brien’s career, is shown to be misguided. O’Brien is an author more under Gide’s influence than Joyce’s.2 This connection is tenuous, however, as O’Brien uses Gide’s mise en abyme to such an extent that it is nearly unrecognizable. O’Brien has made this technique his own by demonstrating such control over it while using it with abandon. Layering Gide’s technique on top of itself so many times results in a work more complex and intertwined than Gide seems to have imagined. Gide discusses the mise en abyme’s effect on a text, but O’Brien’s text is the result of this technique, rather than an otherwise coherent text that includes it in specific instances. As discussed above, Dallenbach explains the technique’s "essential property" as bringing out the meaning and form of the surrounding work. Because it is At Swim-Two-Birds’ form, it must also be the novel’s meaning. One can consider At Swim-Two-Birds a grand mise en abyme in the body of literature. What Gide’s technique does for a single work, O’Brien’s novel does for contemporary fiction. At Swim-Two-Birds draws its readers’ attention to the conventions of fiction not only within its text but in all novels.

Leading from the insistence by critics on comparing O’Brien and Joyce is also the tendency, mentioned above, of some critics to search through O’Brien’s career for some underlying theme. This theme inevitably has something to do with Joyce. I suggest that thematic study is useful, provided one is not looking at O’Brien in comparison to Joyce. One could examine the relationship between fictional authors and their work completely outside At Swim- Two-Birds. Again, this is a line of study that Cohen and others touch upon in search of biographical sources for the novel’s contents. Examining the connections between Brian O’Nolan and his several literary personae could prove very interesting and further illuminate his ideas of fiction writing. To my knowledge, there is no thorough study of this subject. The seeds of this fascination with the real are found in Brian O’Nolan’s university career, in which he wrote under several pseudonyms, as discussed above and by many scholars. This information is often used to begin a discussion of the narrator in At Swim-Two-Birds, but one could perhaps backtrack through O’Nolan’s career to find the beginnings of a literary philosophy. As Cohen and several other critics have shown, O’Brien’s life in the real world enters At Swim-Two-Birds in several instances. This in itself is not impressive; however, when one remembers that Flann O’Brien is just one of Brian O’Nolan’s many pseudonyms, this fact draws more attention. Looking more closely, Brian O’Nolan can be considered a pseudonym in itself, as this is the anglicized version of his Irish name. This is an author who consistently sparks discussion just about the spelling of his name and the spelling of his pseudonyms. There is ample opportunity to study O’Nolan’s feelings on Irish nationalism and the place of the Irish language in contemporary Dublin, which may answer the questions regarding his several names.

Many questions arise as to the personalities behind these pen-names. These are not simply names used to avoid recognition of a private Dublin citizen or to separate Brian O’Nolan, respectable civil servant, from the world of letters. O’Nolan presented At Swim-Two-Birds’ drafts to many people, including superiors at work. Any notion that Brian O’Nolan would hide behind a fictional name is therefore countered. What is Flann O’Brien’s purpose? What are O’Nolan’s motivations for complicating not only At Swim-Two-Birds’ structure, but even his own relationship to the book? Perhaps, in keeping with the layered structure of At Swim-Two-Birds, in which the quality of the work decreases with every newly created author character, Brian O’Nolan leaves himself room for improvement. If the factual man behind the novel would write something, it would presumably have to be better fiction than any of his pseudonyms’ work.


No evidence could be found, however, to confirm that O’Brien had read Gide and actively incorporated his ideas.


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