A Cozy Home for Plagiarists
Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
At Swim-Two-Birds is a “metafictional novel,” full of literary gamesmanship (gamespersonship?) and excerpts from books both real and imagined – including, I believe, an essentially complete version of the Irish epic Sweeny Astray. (I say that on the basis of having read Seamus Heaney’s translation.) There is something to flatter pretty well any style of literary poseur; Classical poseurs such as myself, to pick one example close to my heart, will delight in jokes like the following:
They met two decadent Greek scullions, Timothy Danaos and Dona Ferentes, ashore from the cooking-galley of a strange ship. (101)
I’m not sure how to even begin summarizing this novel in such a way as to make the context of the following quote clear, but I’ll give it a shot. The main character is a university student who lives with his uncle and apparently spends little time studying, and a great deal of time out with his friends, drinking and regaling them with excerpts from a novel he is writing. The student’s novel, which makes up much of the book, is about an author named Dermot Trellis and a group of characters he has invented for a novel he is writing; the characters, however, are offended by what Trellis wants them to do in the book, and so they begin plotting to overthrow him and gain their freedom. With the help of Trellis’ son Orlick (conceived when Trellis rapes a female character immediately after creating her for his novel), they begin a new novel in which Dermot Trellis is brutally assaulted and dragged across the Irish countryside, almost to the point of death, and then put on trial for his crimes in a court in which the characters from his novel are both the witnesses against him and the judges.
Got that? Okay, good.
The reference to Canada comes during the trial, when William Tracy, another author and a rival of Trellis, gives evidence:
Is there any other incident which occurs to you explanatory of the character of the accused?
Yes. During his illness in 1924 I sent him – in a charitable attempt to entertain him – a draft of a short story I had written dealing in an original way with banditry in Mexico towards the close of the last century. Within a month it appeared under his own name in a Canadian periodical.
That’s a lie! screamed Trellis from his chair. (200)
So Trellis is being accused of plagiarism – one of the worst allegations that can be levelled at an author, hence his angry reaction. But, given that the novel takes place in Ireland and the main characters are, presumably, Irish, why the reference to a Canadian periodical?
I think the implication here is twofold: first, Trellis is understandably eager to prevent Tracy from detecting his plagiarism, and he’s afraid that if he publishes Tracy’s story in a journal in Ireland or England, Tracy will see it and recognize the theft. Accordingly, he publishes it in a place that he considers so obscure that Tracy would never read a journal from there – if it even occurred to him that journals could be produced in so backward a place: Canada!
(This plan has clearly gone awry, and raises the intriguing question of what Canadian literary journals would have been available in Ireland in 1939?)
Second, it’s hard not to feel that aspersions are being cast on the stringency of the editorial policies at Canadian magazines of the day. Granted, if a story comes in the mail, an editor will tend to assume that the name on the first page is the name of the author; and yet there is an implication of poor quality and general carelessness here, as though Trellis’ subterfuge would never have passed in a journal in the UK, but is the sort of thing one can get away with by practising on the innocence of those distant colonials in Canada.
The overall impression of Canada, then, is of a distant, slightly wild and unregulated place, where almost any sort of literary crime will pass unnoticed. It is an outpost with literary pretensions but without the real knowledge or expertise to produce anything of reliable quality, and filled with rubes who can be imposed upon by even the most rudimentary subterfuge.
Conclusion of the discussion of the reference to Canada.
Biographical Reminiscence of How I Came to Purchase this Book (in the Style of Flann O’Brien)
I had, at that time, a group of friends of a decidedly literary bent.
Collective Description of this Group of Friends: Literary, musical, mildly disputatious, garrulous.
We determined among ourselves on the formation of a sort of a Society, or a Club, the purpose of which would be to read the honey-sweet words of the finest and most illustrious authors, and then to meet together in a selected public house to consume spiritous liquors and engage in pleasant colloquy, occasionally verging into mild disputation, on the interpretation and relative merits of said works. Beyond that, this embryonic Club had a further purpose, which was to offer lightsome, frolicsome (not to say gay) diversion from our days, which were spent drearily enough in the employ of [Note: I have here removed the name of the company on the advice of my attorneys] – a formalizing, in a way, of the kind of discussions we would indulge in surreptitiously around the office and which we desired to carry on beyond its confines, so that we could more freely debate the relative merits of different authors, discuss the finer points of the iambic pentameter or the dactylic hexameter, regale one another with humorous excerpts from the various manuscripts we all had in progress at the time, and occasionally come out with melodious though melancholy staves which we had composed in our idle moments, along the lines of the following:
I sit here, heartsore, at my desk;
this job, it not at all fulfils
the dreams that animated my youth;
it barely pays the bills.
Note: I have here excised some ten or twelve further stanzas, feeling that their juvenility might render them somewhat embarrassing.
Resumption of Biographical Reminiscence. According to a set of very abstruse and precisely worked-out rules guaranteed to ensure that we only brought our minds into contact with the finest things that had been thought and written through the centuries of endless struggle waged between Art and The Darkness, it was eventually determined that At Swim-Two-Birds, by Mr. Flann O’Brien (pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan) would be the work that would mark the first stage of our Society’s journey towards Enlightenment.
Note: I have here taken the advice of legal counsel and removed a long passage descriptive of the lengths I went to seeking a copy of the above-named novel, on the grounds that it might be construed as libellous of persons still living.
Resumption of Biographical Reminiscence. When I opened the door of this establishment and stepped into its shadowy interior, the light from the street behind me poured – poured is the only word – slowly in, as if it possessed a viscosity, it poured like mellow-glowing syrup slowly into all the dusty dingy corners of that venerable bookstore and spread a pale honeyed light on the serried volumes crammed on the shelves, their spine-colours faded several shades lighter than their cover-colours despite the best efforts of the shielding gloom around them. The door closed; the shadows gulped down the light; and out of the restored darkness, as if himself restored to courage now that the light had passed, a little man sprang up at me.
Description of the man: Short, rotund, bearded and bespectacled, something gnome-like, though not at all gnomic, about him.
Can I help you find anything? he asked. I replied that I was in search of a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds, by Mr. Flann O’Brien, nom de plume of Brian O’Nolan. At these words his eyes grew wide, his jaw slackened, and a most peculiar expression overtook his countenance.
Nature of the expression: Amazement, delight, intermingled with a hint of suspicion and trepidation, as a child receiving a gift they fear they will not be allowed to keep.
Wow, he said, and followed that one word with a long pause. Sorry, it’s just – in all the twenty-five years I’ve worked here, this is the first time anyone has ever asked about a good book. Mostly people come in asking for crappy bestsellers.
Okay, I said, I’ll let you enjoy the moment.
Thank you. He let the silence stretch on.
Nature of the silence: Past lengthy, past uneasy, on the cusp of departing the realm of the uncomfortable and entering into the realm of the weird and perhaps disturbing.
At last, seeing really no other alternative, I chose to arouse him from reverie with a sharp query, along the lines of, So, about the book? At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien, actually christened Brian O’Nolan, or, more correctly, Brian O Nuallain?
Oh, right. Sorry, we haven’t got it.
Pause to allow readers to formulate their own philosophical reflections on how the ships of our dreams inevitably founder upon the reefs of reality.
At that moment I abandoned my afore-stated plans [Note: the afore-stating of these plans was part of the passage excised for legal reasons] to find a rare, exquisite first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, ne Brian O’Nolan, in a dusty corner of some little-visited used bookstore, the sort of physical object that would have delighted my literary companions and made both it and, by extension, myself, the object of many pleasingly envious exclamations, and instead bought a cheap paperback copy at a big-box bookstore. Conclusion of the foregoing.