Keeping consonants consistent, pt. 1

Recently I entered the state of marriage.  Which is big news, of course, but not particularly relevant here, except for the fact that when you become married, you will frequently receive gifts.

One pleasant and unexpected gift came from good friend Bradley B., who gave us a copy of Flann O’Brien’s 1939 At Swim-Two-Birds with a note indicating that, of books, it is “possibly the funniest.”  The glowing blurbs from James Joyce and Dylan Thomas didn’t hurt either.

And indeed, many of the passages, particularly those in which rogue characters torture their (also-fictional) novelist, are absurdly rollicking fun.  I shall provide an example:

The butt of that particular part of the story is this, that Trellis, wind-quick, eye-mad, with innumerable boils upon his back and upon various parts of his person, flew out in his sweat-wet night-shirt and day-drawers, out through the glass of the window till he fell with a crap on the cobbles of the street.  A burst eye-ball, a crushed ear and bone-breaks two in number, these were the agonies that were his lot as a result of his accidental fall.

To make it better, Mr. Trellis goes on to call his tormentor (a devil named Pooka Fergus McPhellimey) “You hog of hell, you leper’s sore, you!…You leper’s death-puke!”

As long as you won’t throw a book at the wall over unconventional narration and plot structure, I certainly recommend it.  But what really stuck with me, and anyone can see it even from the above passage, is that O’Brien is very creative and flexible in his use of the language.  He twists new words together or reaches into the dim past to brush off an antique.  Most notably he does so in the sections featuring Finn MacCool and Sweeney from Old Irish mythology, the same passages that are the least parodic in the entire work.

His use of descriptive language is extravagant, immoderate, palatial, dare I say rococo.  It is frustratingly dizzying at times, but yet supremely evocative.  Reading the words that man put on the page made me think about the English language differently.  The following passage (as a variety of stock Irish characters resuscitate mad, wild, wretched King Sweeney) is demonstrative, though not unique:

And getting around the invalid in a jabbering ring, they rubbed him and cajoled and coaxed, and plied him with honey-talk and long sweet-lilted sentences full of fine words, and promised him metheglin and mugs of viscous tar-black mead thickened with white yeast and the spoils from hives of mountain-bees, and corn-coarse nourishing farls of wheaten bread dipped in musk-scented liquors and sodden with Belgian sherry, an orchard and a swarm of furry honey-glutted bees and a bin of sun-bronzed grain from the granaries of the Orient in every drop as it dripped at the lifting of the hand to the mouth, and inky quids of strong-smoked tabacca with cherrywood pipes, hubble-bubbles, duidins, meerschaums, clays, hickory hookahs and steel-stemmed pipes with enamel bowls….They also did not hesitate to promise him sides of hairy bacon, the mainstay and the staff of life of the country classes, and lamb-chops still succulent with young blood, autumn-heavy yams from venerable stooping trees, bracelets and garlands of browned sausages and two baskets of peerless eggs fresh-collected, a waiting hand under the hen’s bottom.  They beguiled him with the mention of salads and crome custards and the grainy disorder of pulpy boiled rhubarb, matchless as a physic for the bowels, olives and acorns and rabbit-pie, and venison roasted on a smoky spit, and mulatto thick-lipped delphy cups of black-strong tea.  They foreshadowed the felicity of billowy beds of swansdown carefully laid crosswise on springy rushes and sequestered with a canopy of bearskins and generous goatspelts, a couch for a king with fleshly delectations and fifteen hundred olive-mellow concubines in constant attendance against the hour of desire.  Chariots they talked about and duncrusted pies exuberant with a sweat of crimson juice, and tall crocks full of eddying foam-washed stout, and wailing prisoners in chains on their knees for mercy, humbled enemies crouching in sackcloth with their upturned eye-whites suppliant.

Mister-my-friend, says you, would you arrive at the upshot presently as I was promised hoary Northmen and sooty Irish won’t cut it.

I understand, says I.  But time is short and life is long.  Paddle about in that foamy stout for this evening, and I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow.

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1 Comment

  1. T. Herman said,

    October 9, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Ouch! My eye-ball!


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