At Swim-Two-Birds, Guinness, and Finn McCool’s Arse

Giant's Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway
–Carved out by Finn McCool

In the mid-nineties, the Guinness company ran a contest that entailed writing an advertisement within a certain number of words.  First prize for the winning ad was a pub in Ireland, and you could see the pubs themselves on-line. (Winning this prize is the impetus of the plot of the novel The Night Swimmer)

Anyway, I remember my entry and remember loving its major image…150 orphans playing handball against the wide girth of Finn McCool’s arse.

Obviously I didn’t win. (I arrogantly told myself that I didn’t win the contest because it was run by American advertisers who didn’t pick up on the allusion!)

ATSWIMTWOBIRDS And I remembered that ad because the image came from Flann O’Brien’s novel,  At Swim-Two-Birds. And last week I began a post with a poem “The Workman’s Friend” that came from the same novel. That post got me nostalgic for O’Brien’s work. A man of many pseudonyms, O’Brien is best known for the comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds, although my funnest memories are of The Third Policeman and The Poor Mouth, the latter which O’Nolan wrote in Irish as  An Beal Bocht under the pen name Myles na Gopaleen. (And both of which I first read in Connemarra and Sandymount respectively.)

At Swim Two-Birds is a rich novel of basically three stories, a meta-fiction in which a character created by the protagonist writes a novel from which his characters gang together with other characters in the novel to avenge their creator.  It starts with a university student, who spends more time in his bed and in the pubs than in the classroom. Besides drinking, the student is also writing a novel about a man named Dermot Trellis, a middling writer of Westerns. It is his characters who intermingle with each other, who plot against him, and who attempt to live their lives apart from their author’s intentions, after they drug him.

All of this is mixed with a great deal of Irish mythology and ancient poetry (wryly translated by O’Brien himself). From McCool to Mad King Sweeney, from pookas to fairies, an entire ancient world enters this most modern of novels and interacts with O’Brien’s and Trellis’s fictional creations.

To say there is a circularity to the plot is perhaps inaccurate, and certainly understated.  It is more like a mobius strip in another dimension.  One thing turns on another to make way for other things that reflect on something else. This jibes very much with the Greek epigraph which translated means “For all things change, making way for each other.”  For yes, indeed, one character after another makes way for one other character after yet another.

But most memorably, it is laugh-out-loud funny.

So I began re-reading At Swim-Two-Birds again this week and  I started thinking of comic novels in general.

I feel they are best enjoyed by the young.

Think The Gingerman and Catch-22. Think Tom Jones and Confederacy of Dunces. Think Lucky Jim and Reuben, Reuben.  Each presents a hero who is outrageously set up against the straight-laced establishment, whether it be the military bureaucracy, the world of academia, or society in general.  And each hero takes part in the most outrageous antics–antics that only a young soul could aspire to and believe in.  It was once said that an uncle of mine in the army tried to received a medal buck naked, much like–and before–Yossarian in Catch-22. (Unlike Yossarian, he was thrown in the brig.) For my 21st birthday, a good friend of mine wanted to rent a kangaroo suit for me to go bar hopping in, as Sebastian Dangerfield did in The Gingerman.  I still chuckle at the peccadilloes that the Scottish poet Gowan McGland gets himself into in the uptight Connecticut suburbs in Reuben, Reuben. (Apparently, the plot was based on Dylan Thomas’s drunken stay in the town in the 1950s.)

But these antics and nose-thumbings are the actions (and dreams) of younger men.  And, also, the world has changed.  I remember once reading The Gingerman on a bus and being accosted by a woman who yelled that Sebastian Dangerfield was the most misogynistic character in all of literature.  I had to admit she was right. In fact, I’d go one further: he is one of the most despicable anti-heroes of all time.  Yet, he is still extraordinarily funny.

But, young or old,  the truth of  all comedy is a certain sadness mixed with the high-jinx. Perhaps the perception of each changes with age–but they both are undoubtedly there. They both need each other.

And so, once more I am churning through At Swim-Two-Birds, and I am still laughing out loud.  I just hope that there is no one on my bus protecting the interests of characters who are thought up by characters who are thought up by characters.  Cheers.

Book Review: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Cover of Bernhard Schlink’s book.

A scene from Stephen Daldry’s film, The Reader

The old question of the book and the movie: Can a film ever do a novel justice?  Or should we look at them as entirely separate works of art and not make the comparison at all?  Just the parameters of a roughly  two hour viewing experience seriously limits what a film maker can do with his source, a source that usually comprises a multi-hour/multi-day experience for a reader.

Certainly there are films that are more successful than others in capturing the essence of a novel. And just as certain there are real travesties. But the successes are such because they capture the spirit of the novel rather than getting lost in trying to relate every detail.  I am thinking of Mike Nichols Catch-22 based on the Joseph Heller novel.  The film works because it perfectly captures the inanity of bureaucracy, the numbness of war, and the black humor of Heller.  It is a large novel, non-linear in its arc, and Nichols captures its essence without getting bogged down in trying to capture every character and sub-plot.

I saw the film The Reader when it was released in 2008 and only got to reading the book in 2012. (I had two friends who refused to see the film because they had loved the novel so much.)  Regardless, it was a compelling film with a maddening and dramatic twist.  A young school boy (Michael) has an affair with a older woman who insists that he reads to her every time before they have sex.  He reads her all the classics–The Odyssey, War and Peace, etc. But she seems oddly aloof, and at the end we realize why. The boy, on the other hand, grows into an unfeeling man, and his coldness and inaction when needed is what is infuriating.

The novel–by its very nature–is quite different. First, it is much more internal, narrated by the boy who often questions and analyzes his own thoughts and his own actions. There are ruminations on the ethical choices made by ordinary citizens during the Holocaust, on the responses of the following generations on the actions of their own mothers and fathers. (These scenes take place in 1966, two decades after the war.) And yet while the narrator weighs, dissects, conjectures about these ethics, his own actions–many years after the war–must also be examined.  His coldness, his lack of human kindness, his decision not to act is all quite similar to that which he condemns in the female guards who are on trial in the second half of the novel.

When Hannah (the older woman) confesses to a crime she did not commit rather than reveal a secret she is much more ashamed of, she is given life imprisonment. Michael has information that could acquit her that he does not reveal.

To me, the ending is insignificant, despite the attempt to redeem Michael. Yes, he does reach out to Hannah, he does realize his own hardness, and he does try to do right.  But it is all too late. I had grown to dislike him so much by then that his redemption was all but impossible for me.

Most of the details of the plot remained the same from  book to  film but the internal voice was missing–or at least adulterated. The novel also starts out quite erotic which simply cannot be captured adequately on film with the same impact–words seem always more intimate and immediate than soft-lit actors and actresses.

The old question of book and movie?  In the case of The Reader, both.  They are two different things, two very good experiences, two separate ways of engaging a reader/viewer.