From At Swim-Two-Birds

Context N°12

by Flann O’Brien

Upon receiving Anne Burke’s contribution to this issue (see following page), the editors recognized at once that the argument Ms. Burke is making in her unique way—”A given in the discussion was that the panelists were all capable of understanding challenging books, but they were there to defend the common man against such things, and apparently they don’t have a high opinion of the common man”—is of course an argument that has been made before, in fact many times, and by many competent writers. Flann O’Brien, for example, takes a slightly different approach to the matter, which we include here in the hope that it will “flush out” a few of this argument’s more subtle aspects. The scene is the lodging of Orlick Trellis, a young writer of considerable sophistication. Mr. Trellis has been asked by three rough characters—Shanahan, Furriskey, and Lamont—to compose a literary tale.

At the conclusion of a brief interval, Lamont spread out his hand and addressed Mr. Orlick in a low earnest voice.

A nice simple story would be very nice, Sir, he said, you take a lot of the good out of it when you start, you know, the other business, A nice simple story with plenty of the razor, you understand. A slash of the razor behind the knee, Oh, that’s the boy!

The right hand of Orlick was fastened about his jaw.

Interpretation of manual attitude mentioned: a token of extreme preoccupation and intense thought.

I admit, gentlemen, he said at last, I admit that there is a certain amount to be said for your point of view. Sometimes. . . .

There’s this, too, said Shanahan with a quick continuance of his argument, there’s this, that you have to remember the man in the street. I may understand you, Mr. Lamont may understand you, Mr. Furriskey may understand you—but the man in the street? Oh, by God you have to go very very slow if you want him to follow you. A snail would be too fast for him, a snail could give him yards.

Orlick detached his hand from his jaw and passed it slowly about his brow.

I could begin again, of course, he said with a slight weariness, but it would mean wasting some very good stuff.

Certainly you can begin again, said Shanahan, there’s no harm done, man. I’ve been longer in this world and I can tell you this: There’s nothing to be ashamed of in a false start. We can but try. Eh, boys? We can but try.

We can but try, said Furriskey.

Well, well, well, said Orlick.

Tuesday had come down through Dundrum and Foster Avenue, brine-fresh from sea-travel, a corn-yellow sun-drench that called forth the bees at an incustomary hour to their day of bumbling. Small house-flies performed brightly in the embrasures of the windows, whirling without a fear on imaginary trapezes in the lime-light of the sun-slants.

Dermot Trellis neither slept nor woke but lay there in his bed, a twilight in his eyes. His hands he rested emptily at his thighs and his legs stretched loose-jointed and heavily to the bed-bottom. His diaphragm, a metronome of quilts, heaved softly and relaxed in the beat of his breathing. Generally speaking he was at peace.

His home was by the banks of the Grand Canal, a magnificent building resembling a palace, with seventeen windows to the front and maybe twice that number to the rear. It was customary with him to remain in the interior of his house without ever opening the door to go out or let the air and the light go in. The blind of his bedroom window would always be pulled down during the daytime and a sharp eye would discover that he had the gas on even when the sun was brightly shining. Few had ever seen him in the flesh and the old people had bad memories and had forgotten what he looked like the last time they had laid their eyes on him. He paid no attention to the knocking of mendicants and musicians and would sometimes shout something at people passing from behind his blind. It was a well-known fact that he was responsible for plenty of rascality and only simple people were surprised at the way he disliked the sunshine.

He paid no attention to the law of God and this is the short of his evil-doing in the days when he was accustomed to go out of his house into the air:

He corrupted schoolgirls away from their piety by telling impure stories and reciting impious poems in their hearing.

Holy purity he despised.

Will this be a long list do you think, Sir, asked Furriskey.

Certainly, answered Orlick, I am only starting.

Well what about a Catalogue, you know?

A Catalogue would be a very cute one, Lamont concurred. Cross-references and double-entry, you know. What do you think, Mr. Orlick? What do you say?

A catalogue of his sins, eh? Is that what you mean? asked Orlick.

Do you understand what I mean? asked Furriskey with solicitude.

I think I do, mind you. DRUNKENNESS, was addicted to. CHASTITY, lacked. I take it that’s what you had in mind, Mr. Furriskey?

That sounds very well, gentlemen, said Lamont, very well indeed in my humble opinion. It’s the sort of queer stuff they look for in a story these days. Do you know?

Oh, we’ll make a good job of this yarn yet.

We will see, said Orlick.

He paid no attention to the laws of God and this is the short of his evil-doing in the days when he was accustomed to go out of his house into the light.

ANTHRAX, paid no attention to regulations governing the movements of animals affected with.

BOYS, corner, consorted with.

CONVERSATIONS, licentious, conducted by telephone with unnamed female servants of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.

DIRTINESS, all manner of spiritual mental and physical, gloried in.

ELECTICISM, practised amorous.

The completion of this list in due alphabetical order, observed Orlick, will require concentration and research. We will complete it later. This is not the place (nor is the hour appropriate), for scavenging in the cesspools of iniquity.

Oh, you’re a wise man, Mr. Orlick, and me waiting without a word to see what you would do with x. You’re too fly now, said Shanahan.

E for evil, said Furriskey.

He is quite right, said Lamont, can’t you see he wants to get down to business. Eh? Mr. Orlick. Can’t you see that it means delay?

Quite right, said Shanahan. Silence!

On a certain day this man looked out accidently through a certain window and saw a saint in his garden taping out the wallsteads of a new sun-bright church. With a distinguished concourse of clerics and acolytes along with him, discoursing and ringing shrill iron bells and reciting elegant Latin. For a reason he was angry. He gave the whoop of a world-wide shout from the place he was and with only the bareness of time for completing the plan he was engaged with, made five strides to the middle of his garden. The brevity of the tale is this, that there was a sacrilege in the garden that morning. Trellis took the saint by a hold of his wasted arm and ran (the two of them), until the head of the cleric had been hurt by a stone wall. The evil one then took a hold of the saint’s breviary—the one used by holy Kevin—and tore at it until it was a tatters in his angry hand; and he added this to his sins, videlicet, the hammering of a young clergyman, an acolyte to confide precisely, with a lump of a stone.

There now, he said.

Evil is the work you have accomplished here this morning, said the saint with a hand to the soreness of his head.

But the mind of Trellis was darkened with anger and evil venom against the saintly band of strangers. The saint smoothed out the many-lined pages of his ruined book and recited a curse in poetry against the evil one, three stanzas in devvy-metre of surpassing elegance and sun-twinkle clearness. . . .

Do you know, said Orlick, filling the hole in his story with the music of his voice, I think we are on the wrong track again. What do you say, gentlemen?

Certainly you are, said Shanahan, no offence but that class of stuff is all my fanny.

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