the tension between formal conservatism and experimentalism: Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds

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Published in 1939, Flann O’ Brien’s At Swim Two Birds is regarded as the high point of his literary achievement. It is a novel of satire and pastiche, which uses narrative embeddings to depict a multi levelled story based in a postmodern Dublin. The unnamed narrator, a student attending University College Dublin, acknowledges “the importance of being at all times occupied with literary activities of a spare time or recreative character” (O’ Brien: 32). There is a definite tension between formal conservatism and experimentation evident throughout the novel. The use of metalepsis was at the time extremely daring and experimental, even though the structure of a frame narrative is one that forms part of the literary tradition. There is also the political element of the novel to be analysed. Although most obviously a postmodern (experimental) novel, there is also a strong postcolonial element which reveals a more traditional and conservative influence. (3) It can also be argued that O Brien’s novel was a reaction against the literary Ireland of the 1930’s, where the modernism of Joyce and Beckett was ubiquitous and had itself become the established, and by extension conservative, style of its time. (4)Finally, the issue of Irish culture and nationalism is one which is addressed in the novel, and O’ Brien’s rejection of a romanticised Ireland while still being influenced by old Irish texts also illustrate the tension between the old and the new.

Embedded narratives are part of the literary tradition, and have appeared in many different periods and genres. Some of the better known examples include The Canterbury Tales, The Man Who Would be King and Arabian Nights. Traditionally the inclusion of an embedded narrative was done in such a...

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...include ‘plain’ readers, in the guise of Shanahan and Lamont, who are given the power to rewrite the story. Hence, the romantic portrait of the artist, which was personified by Stephen Dedalus is replaced by a committee of impetuous storytellers and petulant audiences .

Interestingly, James Joyce also attracted similar treatment from O’Brien. As some scholars have noted, At Swim Two Birds is, among other things, a parody of Joyce’s work, from Dubliners to Finnegan’s Wake. The book resembles Ulysses in that it is written in a variety of styles (thirty six according to Clissman ) and features a narrator who bears a resemblance to Stephen Dedalus. Parallels can also be drawn between Joyce introducing echoes of Homer’s Odyssey into Ulysses and O’Brien incorporating the ancient tales of the Madness of Sweeney and the tales of Finn Mc Cool into At Swim Two Birds.
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