Aspiration: 50/50 gender & POC split (currently at a lame and terrible 20% and 0% respectively)

  1. Samuel Beckett — How It Is

Reaching the conclusion that How It Is represents Beckett’s prose writing reaching its most concentrated point of distillation and intensity is somewhat inevitable, seeing as it was his last novel; the longest prose work subsequent to How It Is barely reaches the length of a novella, almost as if the weight of the novelistic tradition, a form known for its expansiveness and maximalism, couldn’t withstand Beckett’s striving towards a more hermetic and taciturn literature.

Having said this, I don’t wish to fetishise How It Is for its its impecuniousness alone, for there are plenty of sections in which traditionally pretty descriptive prose appears:

we are on a veranda smothered in verbena the scented sun dapples the red tiles yes I assure you the huge head hatted with birds and flowers is bowed down over my curls the eyes burn with severe love I offer her mine pale upcast to the sky whence cometh our help and which I know perhaps even then with time shall pass away

The ‘yes I assure you’ is demonstrative of How It Is’ overriding push/pull dynamic, in advancing an almost sickly description, almost reminiscent of Keats alongside its subverting narrative commentary. But this doesn’t deaden the effect of the writing, just as setting imagery of abject ugliness and inhumanity amid these lyrical digressions intensifies the effects of both:

as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom

2. Jorge Luis Borges — Labyrinths

In talking about the short story’s as one of the more concentrated literary forms, one in which space is at a premium, and there can’t be too many words that don’t belong there, I think the work of Jorge Luis Borges is most deserving of mention. No other writer that I’m aware of is capable in under five hundred words of totally challenging the ways in which you think, how you think about how you think, and how you think about how you think about how you think. His capacity to do so through use of a style that is predominantly unadorned and perhaps uninviting makes him all the more fit to be praised.

Since ‘On Exactitude in Science’ is the length of just one paragraph, I’ll present it here:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

At the premium of literary art is its capacity to open up entire worlds with just words on a page. For those who believe world-building to be a preserve of genre fiction only, I encourage them to read Borges.

3. J.M. Coetzee — Waiting for the Barbarians

The allegory, and playing with the conventions around allegory, is a way in which Coetzee’s writing career in its entirety has been characterised by critics, but it might be a line of interpretation advanced too tenuously; it might be more accurate to say that his novels reflect a radical scepticism regarding narrative itself; an unwillingness to confront anything directly. In the Heart of the Country is one of the most deft examples of metafiction I’ve ever come across, and in its refusal to fix its plot around any one sequence of events, we see a narrative force that is as congenial to the forces of its unmaking as its genesis.

Waiting for the Barbarians is more contained than In the Heart of the Country in this sense, but in no other. That it has parallels to South African society under apartheid will surprise no one familiar with the rich literary tradition of that political milieu of the past fifty years, but it has also an uncanny capacity to encompass and seemingly respond to the nature of racial prejudice and ethnically-based in general. I was so sure that it was a product of the Bush years, so I Googled it to find out whether it was written in 2007 or 2005, only to discover that it was published in 1980. Not to turn my ignorance into a virtue, but I think this speaks to its universality.

Which is not to say that the narrative entire is grounded in geopolitics — in the colonial administrator’s love affair with one of the supposed barbarians, we are permitted to meditate on the unknowability of any love object, and by extension ourselves, how ‘In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.’

4. Don DeLillo — Underworld

To write a Great American Novel has, thankfully, become rather passé, after feminist critics drew attention to how unusual it is for a female author to be feted with this title. The liberal commentariat’s realisation that they have committed the error of elevating Jonathan Franzen to the role of cultural commentator. Underworld, I would say, is one of the few published in recent years that’s worth reading, for the reason that it is a novel about America that won’t allow real life in.

Underworld is a novel supposedly about baseball, the lost era of old New York, the faux-simplicity of the Cold War, and yet there is nothing ordinary, white bread or milquetoast about the America in this novel; the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted and unsettling sections in the text.

It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As you read it, you may find yourself compulsively noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the famous magic bullet. But for once, I’d encourage any potential reader not to spend their time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this good.

Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.

5. Anne Enright — The Green Road

Enright is one of those few authors that refuses to write the same book twice, and never makes you regret it. Because there is, as publishers well know, a great seductive quality in becoming used to one writing style. Many authors who are too protean, simply do not catch on in a crowded marketplace. Well Enright is interested, and is good at, change. This is how she can move from the hilariously picaresque and surreal The Wig my Father Wore through the tortured monologue of The Gathering to an adept Irish family novel about land, which one could almost call realist, so subtle is the indirect discourse which drives it.

Enright is a deeply intellectual author, but unlike many book-readin’ writers, her ideas exists beneath the surface of the words, just gestured towards, to be decoded on repeated readings. For first readings, just allow the sentences to do their thing. You could read The Green Road all the way through and have no notion of the fact that its in conversation with William Shakespeare’s King Lear. You wouldn’t want to, of course, but you could.

It is a novel of many parts. Each of Rosaleen Madigan’s children get their own section and so the novel roves from Clare to New York to Mali and back, before they are all assembled for the set piece of the Christmas dinner. I really can’t emphasise enough how well this is done. It is in the novel’s closing sections that the function behind its structure becomes clear, in seeing exactly where these people are coming from, their ambivalence regarding their role in the family before their adult lives, then watching those roles slowly overcome them is great, hilarious and sad. A novel with characters you care about, things to say and great writing is too rare, which makes The Green Road all the more valuable.

6. William Faulkner — As I Lay Dying

7. David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace might be said to be undergoing his D.H. Lawrence moment, in having his reputation defined for too long by a reading community of dudey-bro-y dudebro brodudes, and y’know, to look at his representations of women, here and in The Pale King, not to mention his opinions, or life, it can be hard to say his books don’t deserve scrutiny. It is slightly disappointing all the same to see an author who, among the authors of phallogocentric literary fiction, to be tarred as such, considering he’s among the most giving of them. Infinite Jest apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre, and reading about eschaton is about as much fun as you can have with your eyes open.

Its flaws, the sections dealing with the Québecois separatists, the exposition-laden conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin, don’t totally come good in the end, but the unavoidable ambivalence one develops when reading a novel Infinite Jest’s length and ambition, is a feature, rather than a bug. As in any important relationship, the challenge is what matters.

So give yourself the chance to read it. It’s more than readable, and far more interesting than Foster Wallace’s persona as it has been construed in the pop-culture landscape since his death; as an icon, he simply cannot compare with the questions that his work throws up.

8. William Gaddis — The Recognitions

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a very conflicted novel. It is a profoundly generative work, one which may have given us every maximalist, encyclopaedic 500+ page text in contemporary American letters since, and it is also a profoundly angry text, one which lashes out at everything: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, the complacently bourgeois creative class, all these and more are targets of Gaddis’ ire.

However, it is also a novel based on profound erudition and cultural awareness. Its most proximate literary cousin is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and just as gallantly as Proust does, Gaddis manages to balance many portentous thematic concerns with Being, death and sex, alongside a vibrant social comedy. If I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the hipsters of 1950’s New York are.

And of course, the sentences are very powerful

Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.

It can often be a struggle, Jonathan Franzen tried, and mostly failed to deal with it (in a public article no less), but the bonus of my edition is a foreword by William H. Gass himself, who provides us with a great key to the work, as well as a get-out clause, should we find it too difficult:

No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.

9. William H. Gass — The Tunnel

10. James Joyce — Ulysses

I was once challenged to sum up a novel’s plot in six words, and for Ulysses, my attempt was ‘2 sad men meet. a woman thinks.’ This is a perfect example of how, when it comes to summing up Ulysses, its hard to know where to begin. Humour, bathos, beauty, poetry, history, love, death, family, sex, great writing, it has everything you could ever want.

I won’t contest that it’s a grower, and if you come to it fresh (‘fresh’ in this case meaning, having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which will be necessary), expect to find yourself moving your eyes over large tracts of text without quite knowing exactly what’s happening. Reading aloud helps.

For those who may be used to more genre fare, there are sections for you too, there’s an episode written in the manner of a nineteenth-century romance novel, and while the line attributed to Joyce about enigmas codified into the text in sufficient quantities to keep the professors busy for hundreds of years is definitely apocryphal, what it tells us about the novel is definitely true — the novel is so dense with allusion, red herrings and unresolved questions that you’ll find yourself in the role of a sort of detective, which, is not a wholly inappropriate tack to take with Ulysses, since Joyce designed his one day in Dublin with meticulous attention to detail, his notes on how long it takes to walk down particular stretches of urban walkways, or the businesses Bloom encounters in his perambulations, were all derived from sources, and correspondences with people Joyce contacted in Dublin. A staggering work, everyone should make time for it.

11. Ben Marcus — The Flame Alphabet

12. Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman

13. Marcel Proust — In Search of Lost Time

The term ‘baggy monster’, so often applied to the novel, is a rather ingenious one, as it captures a central ambivalence regarding the form in relation to itself. Both terms can be read negatively, in fact, they are perhaps more on the negative end of the spectrum than not, but taken together there’s something alluring about it, particularly when you have come to know, over the course of reading many of them, how successful a novel can be in reaching for exactly the kind of excess that ‘good taste’ might seem to advise against. Well there’s plenty baggy and monstrous in Proust’s seven volume work In Search of Lost Time, but, as much as it could be said to be in need of an editor, its vices are perhaps indissociable from its virtues.

And this is itself a virtue. What other work of fiction can be so assuming as to impose itself on you 1,267,069 words? Well it isn’t for no reason, and a close reading of fin-de-siecle French bourgeois culture next to the metaphysician Bergson is more than worth the time you’d spend on it. Yes, it is occasionally tedious, and seemingly repetitive, but you’re unlikely to come away from Proust without recognising yourself in at least a few of the characters, nor coming to some disturbing conclusions regarding the way you live your life. Write down your definitions of habit, love and time before getting into these novels. It’s unlikely they’ll have remained intact in your journey through these texts.

But don’t come to it with a pious reverence. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, writes in his introduction to the second volume that

Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even…His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.

Far from being a virtuoso of words, or a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept, or amateurish, and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; the idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliantly bizarre novel.

14. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow

15. J.D. Salinger — The Catcher in the Rye

Yes, I know, I should definitely have grown out of thinking this novel is great. Well, every time I’ve gotten back to it, convinced that this time, this time, I’ll realise that I am an adult, and that Holden Caulfield is an annoying idiot, and The Catcher in the Rye is a novel for teenagers, well, it doesn’t happen, and I could read him a hundred novels with him just going about his business, being judgemental and obnoxious inside his own head forever and ever. My liking him is somewhat beside the point, and perhaps proves my immaturity, so I’ll try to deal with why these critics are wrong, for the fact that they seem to miss the rather big reveal at the end that Holden’s been institutionalised, and the oscillation between two different periods of time in his narrative; a representation of his thoughts in the moment and his recollection, attest further to his divided state of mind. It’s a bit odd to hear literary critics condemn him so roundly when his curmudgeonly attitude surely doesn’t lack for a cause.

It’s a great testament to Salinger’s skill as a writer that the surface level of the text, a brash, abusive narrator, can seem so available, that going any deeper into it would seem wrongheaded, but I think he, like all unreliable narrators, provides you with a clue up front. The novel begins, after all, with an act of self-censorship, an invocation to silence, as Holden refuses to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”

16. Will Self — How The Dead Live

17. William Shakespeare — King Lear

18. Virginia Woolf — To The Lighthouse

The question that this blog post sets itself is: What differences and similarities can be detected in modernist and contemporary authors on the basis of three stylistic variables; hapax, unique and ambiguity, and how are these stylistic variables related to one another?

I: The Data

The data to be analysed in this project were derived from an analysis of twenty-one corpora of avant-garde literary prose through use of the open-source programming language R. The complete works of the authors James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence were used.

Seventeen of these writers were active between the years 1895 and 1968, a period of time associated with a genre of writing referred to as ‘modernist’ within the field of literary criticism. The remaining four remain alive, and have novels published as early as 1991, and as late as 2016. These novelists are known for their identification as latter-day modernists, and perceive their novels as re-engaging with the modernist aesthetic in a significant way.

I.II Uniqueness

The unique variable is a generally accepted measurement used within digital literary criticism to quantify the ‘richness’ of a particular text’s vocabulary. The formula for uniqueness is obtained by dividing the number of distinct word types in a text by the total number of words. For example, if a novel contained 20000 word types, but 100000 total words, the formula for obtaining this text’s uniqueness would be as follows:

20000/100000 = Uniqueness is equal to 0.2

I.III Ambiguity

Ambiguity is a measure used to calculate the approximate obscurity of a text, or the extent to which it is composed of indefinite pronouns. The indefinite pronouns quantified in this study are as follows, ‘another’, ‘anybody’, ‘anyone’, ‘anything’, ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘enough’, ‘everybody’, ‘everyone’, ‘everything’, ‘little’, ‘much’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘no one’, ‘nothing’, ‘one’, ‘other’, ‘somebody’, ‘someone’, ‘something’, ‘both’, ‘few’, ‘everywhere’, ‘somewhere’, ‘nowhere’, ‘anywhere’, ‘many’, ‘others’, ‘all’, ‘any’, ‘more’, ‘most’, ‘none’, ‘some’, ‘such’. The formula for ambiguity is:

number of indefinite pronouns / number of total words

I.IV Hapax

Finally, the hapax variable calculates the density of hapax legomena, words which appear only once in a particular author’s oeuvre. The formula for this variable is:

number of hapax legomena / number of total words

a bar chart giving an overview of the data

II: Data Overview

Even before analysing the data in great depth, the fact that these variables are interrelated with one another stands to a logical analysis. Hapax and unique are best understood as an indication of a text’s heterogeneity, as if a text is hapax-rich, the score for uniqueness will be similarly elevated. Ambiguity, as it is a set of pre-defined words, can be considered a measure of a text’s homogeneity, and if the occurrences of these commonplace words are increasing, hapax and uniqueness will be negatively effected. The aim of this study will be to first determine how these measures vary according to the time frame in which the different texts were written, i.e. across modern and contemporary corpora, which correlations between stylistic variables exist, and which of the three is most subject to the fluctuations of another.

more overviews for each variable

IV.I: The Three Groups Hypothesis

A number of things are clear from these representations of the data. The first finding is that the authors fall into approximately three distinct groups. The first is the base- level of early twentieth-century modernist authors, who are all relatively undifferentiated. These are Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. They are all below the mean for the hapax and unique variables.

boxplot of outliers for the unique hapax variable

The second group reach into more extreme values for unique and hapax. These are Djuna Barnes, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. Three of these authors are even outliers for the hapax variable, which can be seen in the box plot.

Joyce’s position as an extreme outlier in this context is probably due to his novel Finnegans Wake (1939), which was written in an amalgam of English, French, Irish, Italian and Norwegian. It’s no surprise then, that Joyce’s value for hapax is so high. The following quotation may be sufficient to give an indication of how eccentric the language of the novel is:

La la la lach! Hillary rillarry gibbous grist to our millery! A pushpull, qq: quiescence, pp: with extravent intervulve coupling. The savest lauf in the world. Paradoxmutose caring, but here in a present booth of Ballaclay, Barthalamou, where their dutchuncler mynhosts and serves them dram well right for a boors’ interior (homereek van hohmryk) that salve that selver is to screen its auntey and has ringround as worldwise eve her sins (pip, pip, pip)

Though Borges’ and Barnes’ prose may not be as far removed from modern English as Finnegans Wake, both of these authors are known for their highly idiosyncratic use of language; Borges for his use of obscure terms derived from archaic sources, and Barnes for reversing normative grammatical and syntactic structures in unique ways.

The third and final group may be thought of as an intermediary between these two extremes, and these are Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Beckett, Will Self and Anne Enright. These authors share characteristics of both groups, in that the values for ambiguity remain stable, but their uniqueness and hapax counts are far more pronounced than the first group, but not to the extent that they reach the values of the second group.

boxplot displaying stein as an extreme outlier for ambiguity

Gertrude Stein is the only author who’s stylistic profile doesn’t quite fit into any of the three groups. She is perhaps best thought of as most closely analogous to the first group of early twentieth century modernists, but her extreme value for ambiguity should be sufficient to distinguish her in this regard.

The value for ambiguity remains fairly stable throughout the dataset, the standard deviation is 0.03, but if Stein’s values are removed from the dataset, the standard deviation narrows from 0.03 to 0.01.

Two disclaimers need to be made about this general account from the descriptive statistics and graphs. The first is that there is a fundamental issue with making such a schematic account of these texts. The grouping approach that this project has taken thus far is insufficiently nuanced as it could probably be argued that McBride could just as easily fit into the third group as the second. Therefore, the stylistic variables do not adequately distinguish modern and contemporary corpora from one another.

IV.II Word Count

word count for the most prolific authors

It should not escape our attention that those authors who score lowest for each variable and that the first group of early twentieth-century author are the most prolific. The correlation between word count and the stylistic variables was therefore constructed.

Pearson correlation for word count and stylistic variables

Both the Pearson correlation and Spearman’s rho suggest that word count is highly negatively correlated with hapax and unique (as word count increases, hapax and unique decreases and vice versa), but not with ambiguity.

Spearman’s rho for word count and stylistic variables

The fact that the Spearman’s rho scores significantly higher than the Pearson suggests that the relationship between the two are non-linear. This can be seen in the scatter plot.

scatter plot showing the relationship between word count and uniqueness

In the case of both variables, the correlation is obviously negative, but the data points fall in a non-linear way, suggesting that the Spearman’s rho is the better measure for calculating the relationship. In both cases it would seem that Joyce is the outlier, and most likely to be the author responsible for distorting the correlation.

scatter plot displaying the relationship between word count and hapax density
Pearson correlations for word count and each stylistic variable

SPSS flags the correlation between hapax and unique as being significant, as this is clearly the most noteworthy relationship between the three stylistic variables. The Spearman’s rho exceeded the Spearman correlation by a marginal amount, and it was therefore decided that the relationship was non-linear, which is confirmed by the scatter plot below:

Spearman’s rho correlation for word count and stylistic variables

The stylistic variables of unique and hapax are therefore highlycorrelated.

VI: Conclusion

As was said already, the notion that stylistic variables are correlated stands to reason. However, it was not until the correlation tests were carried out that the extent to which uniqueness and hapax are determined by one another was made clear.

The biggest issue with this study is the issue that is still present within digital comparative analyses in literature generally; our apparent incapacity to compare texts of differing lengths. Attempts have been made elsewhere to account for the huge difference that a text’s length clearly makes to measures of its vocabulary, such as vectorised analyses that take measurements in 1000 word windows, but none have yet been wholly successful in accounting for this difference. This study is therefore one among many which presents its results with some clarifiers, considering how corpora of similar lengths clustered together with one another to the extent that they did. The only author that violated this trend was Joyce, who, despite a lengthy corpus of 265500 words, has the highest values for hapax and uniqueness, which marks his corpus out as idiosyncratic. Joyce’s style is therefore the only of the twenty-one authors that we can say has a writing style that can be meaningfully distinguished from the others on the basis of the stylistic variables, because he so egregiously reverses the trend.

But we hardly needed an analysis of this kind to say Joyce writes differently from most authors, did we.

Flann O’Brien’s ‘An Béal Bocht’ and the altitudinous authenticity of the Gael


Flann O’Brien’s satirical, picaresque novel The Poor Mouth was written in Irish and a decent English translation was a long time in the making. O’Brien was deeply informed on the subject of Irish literature; his M.A. Thesis was entitled Nature Poetry in Irish. An Béal Bocht, to give it its original title, took its inspiration from the semi-fictionalised autobiographical memoir foisted on Irish schoolchildren, authored by Peig Sayers, or Tomás Ó Criomhthain. As a lifelong lover of the language, aswell as a not unskilled prose stylist in his own right, O’Brien seems uncannily capable of emulating the same understatedly ariose, yet monotonous and repetitive qualities that comprises the diction of these pieces. Capturing the very particularity of the pastiche that O’Brien was conveying with a straight face as far as the content itself goes, must have been a staggering task for a would-be translator. I’m glad it exists.
O’Brien’s satire takes particular aim at the essentialist notions of those who would hold the native Irish speakers up as being ‘the most Irish,’ of deserving beatification in the Irish Free State for their lack of engagement with the fiendish Saxons. Such notions are of course ahistorical; O’Brien names his protagonist Bonaparte O’Coonassa, reaching back to the failed revolution of the late eighteenth century in Ireland, and the assistance received from the French against the English. For this Napoleon was rewarded with canonical status in manifold artifacts from the Irish folk tradition, along the lines of enemy of my enemy is &c. rationale. If you’re into Irish folk/want to hear more along these lines here’s a link to an archived episode of The Rolling Wave from RTÉ Lyric FM on the subject.

The worst offenders against O’Brien’s sensibilities are the antiquarian, self-identified Gaeilgeoir academics who invade O’Coonassa’s region of Corca Dhorcha. In these scenes we see O’Brien re-treading the ethnographic trips of John Millington Synge and his ilk who beheld the inhabitants of the West of Ireland, in their prodigious poverty, a more meaningful or authentic Irishness, allowing the Irish Literary Imagination and those responsible for it to culturally agitate for self-determination, while retaining their disregard for the urban poor.

In these sequences, there remains the familiar trope of the native being completely misunderstood by the credulous would-be ethnographer, who, when seeking to record one of the many stories the islanders are known to have in their repertoires, instead becomes an internationally renowned and decorated scholar for recording the inchoate grunts of a pig dressed in a suit, dressed as such by the natives to game the government into providing them with cash for the welfare of their kids.

O’Brien is unsparing too in his treatment of the Gaelic, who he, in one of his correspondences, derided as being in many cases, a ‘moronic’ people. One should note that O’Brien modulates the ethnography trope slightly in that the subjects of the study are not getting one over on the interloper, but merely sit mute in darkness, unable to summon up a narrative for the benefit of the scholar. The pig merely takes the initiative. The backward indigence and fatalism of the natives comes in for O’Brien’s scorn, in one particular sequence in which Sitric O’Sanassa seems to be an object of some envy among his neighbours for the extremity of his starvation and poverty, makes a memorable request of his onlookers, which confirms the multi-directionality of O’Brien’s satire:
“would ye carry me to the seaside and throw me into the sea? There’s not the weight of a rabbit in me and ‘twould be small deed for well-fed sound men to throw me over a cliff.”

Patrick Kavanagh: London Poet?


I’ve never ranked Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry very highly, ‘The Great Hunger’ aside. If I had to generate a fancy reason for why, rather than the simplistic sounding, ‘I don’t like this,’ it would be my consciousness of his biography, as I find him far more engaging as a representative of his era, than as a poet.

If you’ve never read Pat Walsh’s book Patrick Kavanagh and the Leader, for example, do, it gives a thorough account of future Taoiseach John A. Costello’s intensive cross-examination of the poet when he sued the Dublin publication, The Leader, for libelling him. The courtroom drama is begging to be adapted from the page after page of snappy, witty dialogue, with the poet and future Taoiseach arguing over where the irony in a particular line in Shelley resides. Yes, really, they debate this at length. Kavanagh gives as good as he gets I think, and it’s no wonder there were queues outside the courts for the days and days that the trial ran on for.

Notions of Ireland’s cultural stagnancy in the forties and fifties are being rolled back at this point, but there is something bleak that persists about Kavanagh’s generation, himself and Flann O’Brien sitting in Dublin pubs rife with backbiters and destined for varying shades of obscurity and penury.

The RTÉ documentary below complicates the picture we have of Kavanagh quite a bit, giving a detailed account of the years he spent in London, enmeshed in its cultural and artistic scene, which all seems quite a bit more vital and indeed, enjoyable for Kavanagh than his years spent in Dublin. There is a suggestion in the documentary that there are those who prefer Kavanagh in his current state, as a peasant, Dublin-canal poet, but whatever side you fall on interpretively, I think the consciousness of Kavanagh as more metropolitan than most people are aware, can only ameliorate, rather than diminish his reputation.

Listen also for Flann O’Brien’s advice for what to do if an author you’ve never read comes up in conversation.

The Radio Drama of Samuel Beckett and Dylan Moran

dylanI’ve been a fan of Dylan Moran’s stand-up for as far back as I can remember, since I saw his first stand-up special Monster. I think I was about twelve, and Moran’s misanthropic and depressive whimsy got lodged deep into my world view, and influenced me to try stand-up the few times that I did, aswell as slur the way I speak infinitesimally. I’m not sure if the way I speak now is my actual voice. I would obsessively Google clips in the hopes of finding bootleg gigs, as Moran has always been quite good modifying and improvising local and topical material unlikely to turn up in his one-hour specials, the best example of which is his commentary on the 2011 Irish presidential election in Roísin Dubh, Galway.

It was during one of these excursions into the vortex of ‘Related Videos’ that I turned up a radio play that Moran wrote for the BBC, entitled ‘The Expedition,’ in which the protagonist, Aidan Clarke, addressed his absent girlfriend Isabel, in a series of recordings. Their relationship seems to be reaching a breaking point, but nevertheless, Aidan updates Isabel on his progress on a hike with her brother Leonard, though, in the same manner of Eminem’s ‘Stan,’ it is uncertain how the protagonist will get the recordings will make it to her, and why also, he renders them episodically, if it is the case that he will play all of them to her when he returns from his hike.

I would be surprised if Moran didn’t have the drama of Samuel Beckett in mind here. The most obvious parallel is his 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an ageing man, apparently a writer, pores over a directory of recordings that he has made on every one of his birthdays, and makes a new one. Rather than dwelling on the details which his young self imparts with most fervour, his aesthetic realisations about life, love, art and all that, Krapp is most interested in returning to recollections of his bygone sexual conquests. Krapp’s Last Tape is far more engaged with the medium in which the recordings are contained than Moran is; the only signal we have that what we are listening to is the imprint of a magnetic field is the click-click noise that each monologue begins with.

Like Krapp’s Last Tape, however, it does chart the decline of its protagonist, from getting nippy and passive aggressive with his partner to succumbing to psychosis and delusion in the play’s second half. Albeit psychosis with comedic intent. It is in these sections that the whimsy that characterises Moran’s act enters the play, the marrying of surreal situations, such encountering a camel in a blizzard on a mountain, with the quotidian experience of being a tourist out of water, trying to amiably make chat with a local. His increasingly choppy and erratic syntax, as well as his estrangement from conventionally expressed emotion may well recall Beckett’s later, scatty prose works: ’I want to say that I want to go home, the wind. The wind.’

It is a cliché generally observed in Irish comedy journalism that such acts driven by their loquaciousness and absurdist perspectives be compared to Flann O’Brien, in who’s writing we see similar things. And this is fine, Moran probably read him and I think Tommy Tiernan is a fan, but it ignores the fundamental aspect of stand-up, and what makes it a form worth discussing on its own terms; the performative element.

Moran’s comedy is primarily character-based; we respond to his material in ways that if another, more Apollo Theatre type stand-up were to make them, we wouldn’t, because he is, in a very short period of time, capable of conveying to an audience what kind of comedian he is. His coming onstage stage in Monster for example features a glass of wine, extravagant arm gestures, a half-hearted audience greeting, and a spot of bother with the mic stand.

This affectation of partial incompetence or world-weariness is what makes his observations on boozing and drugs in his first special, and his take on family life in his second and those thereafter so good. In the former we see that he’s probably the type to have partaken his fair share of intoxicants. In the second, the absurdity is compacted, as he hasn’t quite shaken off the image of the perpetually drunk sexily dishevelled raconteur. In saying so, I don’t demean character-based stand-up. Stand-up, as traditionally practiced, requires repetition of material, glossed with the illusion of spontaneity.

Flann O’Brien is a very different creature. I’ve sometimes been at odds with his current critical reputation, which seems to me to depend more on his columns than his novels, The Third Policeman, At-Swim-Two-Birds and An Béal Bocht. Seeing him as an anticipator of contemporary Irish stand-up seems to miss how withdrawn he is as an author from his work, how hermetic and alienating his writing style is. In The Third Policeman for example, the bicycles seem more animated than the allegedly human characters, who barely seem to have advanced beyond the sentience of Syngean automata. Fintan O’Toole has spoken well on this peculiar sense of rootlessness in O’Brien’s writing, and wondered how it is possible for such an archetypal postmodern stylist to emerge from a society which hadn’t quite entered modernity yet.

This impersonal note sounded in O’Brien’s fiction is almost antithetical to the notion of comedy as practiced by Moran, who’s stage persona manages to be vital, even when channeling Beckett.