The Complete Novels: At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, The Poor Mouth, The Hard Life, The Dalkey Archive
In The Poor Mouth, Flann O’Brien’s delicious parody of Gaelic-language autobiographical peasant narratives, the hero is alone at night on the seashore when he hears a terrible, unrecognizable sound. He is then assailed by “an ancient smell of putridity which set the skin of my nose humming and dancing.” He eventually sees a huge black quadruped like a giant hairy seal with legs. He manages to escape and the following day tries to describe the beast to his grandfather, who asks him to sketch it.
The contours of the terrible creature, called the Sea-cat, appear in the text of the novel. It is a map of Ireland turned on its side, the four major peninsulas acting as legs, the bulbous sweep of the northeastern shoreline forming the head. In a footnote, the “editor” of the memoir tells us:
It is not without importance that the Sea-cat and Ireland bear the same shape and that both have all the same bad destiny, hard times and ill-luck attending on them.1
The “ancient smell of putridity” that emanates from this half-comic, half-terrifying embodiment of Ireland is not unrelated to the stink of “history’s ancient faeces” that, according to the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s First Love (written five years after The Poor Mouth, in 1946), largely constitutes “the charm of our country.” If Beckett and O’Brien shared a great deal besides their belief that something was rotten in the state of Ireland, the overwhelming difference between them is that Beckett, like most of their literary contemporaries, managed to flee from the Sea-cat. O’Brien, almost alone among the great writers of twentieth-century Ireland, fell into its clutches. He stayed in Ireland and paid a fearful price in frustration and neglect. “It is suicide to be abroad,” says Beckett’s Maddy Rooney in All That Fall. “But what is it to be at home, Mr. Tyler, what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution.”
Frank O’Connor, writing in 1942 when Irish neutrality in World War II made it in his eyes “a nonentity state entirely divorced from the rest of the world,” defined the impossibility of the social novel in Ireland:
Chekhov, the son of a slave, could write as easily of a princess as of a peasant girl or a merchant’s daughter. In Ireland, the moment a writer raises his eyes from the slums and cabins, he finds nothing but a vicious and ignorant middle-class, and for aristocracy the remnants of an English garrison, alien in religion and education. From such material he finds it almost impossible to create a picture of life…a realistic literature is clearly impossible. We have, I think reached the end of a period.2
The period that had ended was that of a political and artistic revolution. The great ferment of change in the early years of the twentieth century had resulted rather anticlimactically in a small,…
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