Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Censorship and Books

Righteous Bubba asked for some Flann O'Brien. That sort of ties into the thing I was talking about below, about the "voice." Aaaarhg. I'm faced with a knot. Bear with me. The specific knot I'm trying to unravel is partially to do with F O'B's second novel, The Third Policeman -- widely regarded as his second masterpiece, along with the earlier At Swim-two-Birds. F O'B is one strand in the knot.

The entanglement here is the place and function of creative literature in the Irish Republic, 1941-1942. Below I link to the great debate in the Irish Senate of that year over censorship.

Now, pay attention. While this public furor was furor-ing, just the previous year had seen probably the second most famous act of literary self censorship in Irish literary history. That is, F O'B's decision to stuff The Third Policeman into his desk drawer and not try to publish it. See, his first book, At Swim had been published, to dismal sales (the war had a lot to do with that, also, the book was just plain weird), but his publisher turned down T3P on the grounds that it was even more bizarre. F O'B could not handle the rejection, went into a tailspin, assumed his book was rubbish, hid it, lived about 30 more years, died, and than had the book found and hailed as utterly brilliant. Which it is. Poor bastard.

Now, why did he hide it? That was hardly Joyce's response, or Sean O'Casey's, to rejection. Why the failure of artistic nerve? A lot of people consider themselves artistic failures, and you know, most of them are right. But this was a guy who really DID sit on a masterpiece. Why?

Well, biography helps... The thing about F O'B that a lot of people don't get is that he was really a depressed, cynical bastard with a major drink problem. This is not especially uncommon among comic geniuses, as he undoubtedly was. But his depression I think was clearly tied to his ambivalent social position. On the one hand, he relished the freedom and the prestige of being a writer in a place and time where that had a lot of value -- in the right circles. On the other hand, he had a profound bourgeois suspicion of "artists," a suspicion that derived from a lot of sources... This left him in rebellion against everything but with a profound unwillingness to actually risk anything significant in his struggle. He was a career civil servant. A cruel but perhaps accurate assessment would be to say that he is very much like Little Chandler in Joyce's "A Little Cloud," but much smarter and far more gifted so he knew it and hated himself for it. Anthony Cronin's biography, No Laughing Matter of F O'B is worth reading on this if you have any illusions about the man's life. (Cronin was a friend of F O'B's, and of Patrick Kavanagh's, and is a fascinating poet in his own right. And if you have not read his book about Ireland's literary scene in the mid-20th century, Dead as Doornails, do it when you can, as it's a great fucking book.)

All right. So here we have a masterpiece buried. But on the other hand... we have another one censored in plain sight at the same time. That would be Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices. (no relation, of course).

What you have here are two of the greatest novels in mid-century Irish literature, both of them subjected to different forms of censorship. One is public, the other private. And both of these novels have to do with sex, in very bizarre ways...

Anyway, I think it's interesting that these two books are quite literally never spoken about as being at all related.

Also, every censored work of literature contains within it the story of its own censorship. That much is clear.

That's pretty interesting.

I'm sure it would be even more interesting if I'd actually read the novels in question or knew something about Irish literature.

Damn you!! now I'm going to have to read both books.
You're in for a treat. But I'd start O'Brien with At Swim-Two-Birds, which is one of the funniest novels ever ever ever. Makes Lucky Jim look like A Remembrance of Things Past.

mebbe we can make it a family thing 4lg. I read At Swim years and years ago but never got around to Third Policman. I guess I should now.

I could take it with me to Ireland in the fall!!! Or mebbe the biography.....
I enjoyed very much Hugh Kenner's assessment of Irish Literature, and his effort to establish a way of describing "an Irish lie" which is pretty much the craic in Ireland, the fruit of living as people colonized but not entirely conquered under the oppressive and obtusly un-subtle English system.

(I don't care much for the term "an Irish lie," because it suggests that the truth is singular and lies are many, where what it comes down to it seems to me is that in Irish culture and literature truths are multiple, personal and strongly held by individuals or (usually) groups.)

Flann O'Brien & Paddy Kavanaugh both drive me crazy because of all the lost potential-- the peoms and stories they could have been writing but squandered on living.

But can we call living, raw living, really squandering anything? Even if it's simply to spend one's nights among friends in the pub instead of in front of the keyboard, is a life squandered? Isn't the alienating act of writing usually when life is really being squandered? It's hard to write and not feel separated from life. It takes distance to write well, and that alienation is its own madness.

Irish history is a history of potential wasted-- Parnell & the Land League, Ireland on the precipice of a real solution, then plunged into scandal over Kitty O'Shea. Then the Easter Uprising, the War and the treaty and the resulting Civil War...on and on.. forward and back you find example upon example of squandered potential.

Now Kate O'Brien I haven't read, and should. Must. Will. Maybe I'll go try her now. Just to see what's being kept from my consciousness by the the censors of the status quo.
Makes Lucky Jim look like A Remembrance of Things Past.

I dunno, I've had three separate people tell me about infortunate incidents with snot and Lucky Jim, so I'll give it the funny points, but ASTB is obviously, uh, better. Or awesome or rad or something.

Anyway, thanks Thers for the request fulfilled, right on the money for my purposes. It's been a long time since I've read ASTB but I seem to recall the same obliviousness to shame in the in the initial voice of that book as exists in The Third Policeman, which is kind of heartbreaking when when shame seems to have forestalled the publishing of the latter. Maybe he should have had more to drink.

A further question: do you know what the deal is with the "pancake"? Aside from the official jargonathon you'd expect from cops, "pancake" makes me kinda crazy.
But I'd start O'Brien with At Swim-Two-Birds, which is one of the funniest novels ever ever ever

I'd start with "The Third Policeman." I've found that a lot of people simply don't have the patience for ASTB.

I know lots of people who like TTP but not ASTB, but I don't know anyone who likes ASTB but not TTP. So there ya go.

Apropos of the post, one day I'll bore you with my ruminations on S.J. Perelman, and the artistically crippling effects of being a "comic genius."
I was just thinking that I need to get myself a book to read, it being Summer and all.

Thanks for the tip!
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