- "Evidently of the second-hand denomination"Flann O'Brien's Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and the Disenchantments of Late Modernism
On May 1, 1939, an aspiring young author known under the pen-name Flann O'Brien wrote a confident letter to Longman, the publisher of his quixotic first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, in which he vaunts the appreciation received from a literary father-figure:
By the way, a friend of mine brought a copy of "At Swim-Two-Birds" to Joyce in Paris recently. Joyce, however, had already read it. Being now nearly blind, he said it took him a week with a magnifying glass and that he had not read a book of any kind for five years, so this may be taken to be a compliment from the fuehrer. He was delighted with it—although he complained that I did not give the reader much of a chance, "Finnegan's Wake" [sic] in his hand as he sp[o]ke—and has promised to push it quietly in his own international Paris sphere.1
By now volumes have been written about O'Brien's fraught relationship with the "fuehrer" (lowercase f, a curious choice for a student of German as Brian O'Nolan / Flann O'Brien then was2), whose texts were the prime target of his recreative zeal, and whom he would resurrect in his last finished novel, The Dalkey Archive, and commit to a posthumous fogeydom of washing the dirty linen of the Jesuits. Nevertheless, Joyce's encomium would adorn all editions of At Swim. Stephen Abblitt has proposed the term "ironic modernism" for O'Brien's disrespectful respect for Joyce, characterized by a troubled hesitancy between "tribute and travesty, praise and parody"; O'Brien, he argues, writes "against" but also, "up against," that is, very close to, Joyce.3 From the 1940s onward, partly as a reaction to the way [End Page 196] critics fashioned of him a poor man's Joyce, O'Brien's fabled "diffidence of the author"4 would give way to resentment-fueled lampooning, directed mainly against the Joyceolatry of American academia.5 While it is dangerous to project late-life attitudes retroactively to the time of writing At Swim, one can nevertheless detect a note of provocative dethronement in addition to the obvious anxiety of influence in the novel's jocose attempt to affirm a mode of experimental writing that had not been already explored and exhausted by Joyce. On one level, At Swim can be, and has been, read as an extended parody of Joyce's novels, especially A Portrait; yet the Joycean penchant for self-parody may be the ultimate impediment to parodying Joyce, any such attempt yielding instead, as Keith M. Booker points out, "a fairly authentic replica" of the older master's techniques.6 However, the long-standing critical consensus in acknowledging the resistance of Ulysses to an overarching master discourse and its centrifugal deployment of a multiplicity of parodied styles, those of the opening Stephen and Bloom episodes included, should not be confounded with the book's reception in the 1930s as the supreme achievement of a singular personality, intrinsically bound up with the myth of the sovereign modernist artist. For O'Brien's generation of Irish writers one way out of the conundrum was to unleash a concerted attack on the residual omnipotence and authority of the modernist "Arranger" as epitomized by Joyce,7 distributing the author function to a series of comical anti-heroes in the grip of their own fictions, and even dispersing the authorial signature across collectively written texts or fictional found objects appropriated from existing works.8 A certain degree of creative misreading may have been necessary to carry out such an attack, interpreting Joyce's works in an autobiographical key and overlooking their pervasive self-irony. One may see as symptomatic the following bull O'Brien dispatched to art historian Ewan Phillips, curator of the Joyce Exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London (June 14–July 12, 1950), who asked him to contribute: "In regard to letters from Joyce, he asked me some years ago to make some confidential inquiries on business and...