These two excerpts come to us courtesy of Deep Vellum Publishing, which will release The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol (tr. George Henson) next year. Pitol is one of the most lauded writers in the Spanish-speaking world, and The Magician of Vienna is the third book in his “Trilogy of Memory,” the first two of which Deep Vellum has already released in Henson’s translation to wide acclaim.
AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS. On June 2, 1939, Jorge Luis Borges, so undisposed to become excited about literary styles and news, published in the magazine El Hogar, in Buenos Aires, an essay titled “When Fiction Lives in Fiction,” where he commented on a book by a young Irish author that had recently appeared in London:
I have enumerated many verbal labyrinths, but none so complex as the recent book by Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds. A student in Dublin writes a novel about the proprietor of a Dublin public house, who writes a novel about the habitués of his pub (among them, the student), who in their turn write novels in which proprietor and student figure along with other writers of novels about other novelists. The book consists of the extremely diverse manuscripts of these real or imagined persons, copiously annotated by the student. At Swim-Two-Birds is not only a labyrinth; it is a discussion of the many ways to conceive of the Irish novel and a repertory of exercises in prose and verse which illustrate or parody all the styles of Ireland. The magisterial influence of Joyce (also an architect of labyrinths, also a literary Proteus) is undeniable, but not disproportionate in this manifold book.
Borges could not know then that he was one of only two-hundred-and-forty-four readers who for more or less twenty years would cross the threshold of that exceptional work. In the same way, the author of that intricate verbal labyrinth would for his entire life be unaware of the enthusiasm that his book had stirred in a distant reader in Buenos Aires, whose name he perhaps never managed to know.
Flann O’Brien was an Irish novelist born in 1911 and died in 1966, whose real name was Brian O’Nolan, and who used the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen in journalism, an activity that consumed him almost all his adult life, and also his tranquility and his energy, and which made him widely popular in his native country. With less regularity, less interest, and greater disregard, he also hid behind the names John James Dol, George Knowland, Brother Barnabas, Stephen Blakesley, and Lir O’Connor.
As Flann O’Brien, he wrote two masterpieces: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman; a novel written in Gaelic, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), a sort of requiem in a whisper for a language on the verge of extinction, and for the last inhabitants who still speak it, descendants of warrior kings and talented poets, degraded to a condition in which the difference between their life and that of pigs whose breeding sustained them was scarcely perceptible; as well as two minor novels written in his waning years, The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive, and the play Faustus Kelley.
He was a personality with three faces: a public functionary, an avant-garde novelist known only by a tiny handful of enthusiasts, and the author a popular column in Dublin’s most important newspaper. Journalism ended up invading his creative faculties, by making him famous and unhappy, by turning him into a creation of his pseudonym. His genuine needs of discretion and anonymity were demolished. A man who wears so many masks and denies the relationship between his persona and the multiple names that hide it aspires necessarily to live in a cell, located, if possible, in the middle of the desert. It troubled him, but he was unable, or for some reason refused, to renounce the popularity of Myles na Gopaleen, a name that his readers began to associate with him and that little by little managed to replace his real one. The triumphant conquest of Myles na Gopaleen over Flann O’Brien, and over Brien O’Nolan, ultimately destroyed him.
He encountered intractable enemies, without knowing how to defeat them. The principle ones were: the personal frustration produced by the failure of his first novel and the unanimous rejection by editors of the second, The Third Policeman; the cultural and moral rickets and the isolation of the Ireland of his time; the unyielding pressure placed on him by his journalistic fame, and an unquenchable fondness for alcohol, which eventually turned into a terrifying disease. A recent illustrated biography by Peter Costello and Peter Van de Kamp reveals the evolution that his appearance suffered from his time as a student to shortly before his death. The face of the diabolic cherub of his university youth determined to devour the world is transformed, first, into a plump and flabby moon on the body of a pudgy civil servant, and evolves later into a weave of the frazzled and pathetic features of his final years, a face that combines the expressions of victim with that of executioner, a living image of guilt and disarray, and of resignation. His last photographs recall the faces of those psychopaths that startle us from time to time in the crime pages of tabloids, surprised by the camera at the very moment of their arrest or en route to the gallows: the receding and menacing forehead, the skin that we imagine to be grey or blueish, the careless manner in which the tie clings to a dirty and unbuttoned collar. In a recent and splendid essay, Gianni Celati compares the image of O’Brien to that of certain characters from the films of Carné. I suppose he is referring to that haze that fluctuates between sainthood and crime.
The constant game of disguises, the inordinate proliferation of pseudonyms, the taste for concealment, the final outrageous mythomania, make it nearly impossible to pinpoint all the fundamental periods of O’Brien’s life. It is known with certainty that as soon as he graduated from the University of Dublin with a brilliant thesis on ancient Gaelic lyric, he began to write At Swim-Two-Birds, and that he used the pseudonym Flann O’Brien to publish it because he was on the verge of entering Public Service, whose functions seemed incompatible to him with the unbridled tone he had employed in the novel, the authorship of which he even denied on a few occasions. He was fortunate that the manuscript fell into the hands of Graham Greene, a reader for the publishing house Longmans. His reader report secured its publication. “It is in the line of Tristram Shandy and Ulysses: Its amazing spirits do not disguise the seriousness of the attempt to present, simultaneously as it were, all the literary traditions of Ireland.”
The novel sold two hundred and forty four copies. A couple of years later, the publisher’s warehouses burned during a bombing. Longmans decided not to republish the book. The readers might have been few, but some among them were exceptional: Borges, in Buenos Aires; and among those in the English language, Samuel Beckett, who immediately ferried a copy to Joyce, who wrote: “That’s a real writer, with a true comic spirt. A really funny book,” and Dylan Thomas, who, for his part, wrote: “This novel places O’Brien on the frontline of contemporary literature.”
Despite these pronouncements, Longmans rejected in 1940 O’Brien’s next novel, The Third Policeman, considering it bizarre. The publisher advised the author to write something more ordinary, closer and more acceptable to the common public. O’Brien offered his book to other publishers; they all rejected it with more or less similar arguments. Finally, he decided to tell his friends that he had lost the manuscript in a tavern, and he refused to talk about the matter again. The Third Policeman was published posthumously.
Our century seems to take pleasure in repeating cyclically that strange comedy of errors that stirs between certain authors and an unreceptive public. The cases of Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Malcolm Lowry, Joseph Roth are examples of writers who have needed an upheaval in literary taste, which happened twenty-five or thirty years after their death, in order for the magnitude of works like The Man Without Qualities, The S, Under the Volcano, The Radetzky March, At Swim-Two-Birds, and The Third Policeman to be added to the list of those fundamental novels of our time that have been rediscovered belatedly.
The bizarre name of this novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, comes from the name of a village that lies on the banks of the River Shannon, which is the Anglicized form of a long-ago place mentioned in medieval Irish lyric, which in Gaelic sounds like Snám-da-en.
At Swim-Two-Birds entails a dizzying transit between every register of Irish literature, and is a book that contains at least three other books: one, about the relationship between the novelist and his characters, an erratic convivence between the demiurge and his creatures, who end up rebelling against he who gave them life; another, about the old medieval legend of King Sweeney whom God cursed with madness and —as if that were not enough! —with immortality, for having attempted to kill a pious cleric, and who in those old Gaelic songs appears transformed into a pathetic old bird that leaps from tree to tree; and a third, which registers at a level that could be called realist, composed of the familial vicissitudes of a young man who attempts to write a novel, his initiation into alcohol, his day-to-day conflicts. From the meeting and imbrication of those three entities and their lush ramification around the work that he is writing, there slowly emerges the magnificent hallucination that is the entire novel.
Three, apparently, is the foundational number in O’Brien’s universe. At Swim-Two-Birds begins with the reflection of its young author, the student in Dublin, on the inconvenience of a book’s having a single beginning and ending. The ideal book would have three perfectly differentiated beginnings, interrelated only within the mind of the author, such that the multiple combinations might produce a hundred different endings. Once convinced of that formal necessity, he outlines three possible points of departure for the novel that he proposes to compose:
Examples of three separate openings—the first: The Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class, sat in his hut in the middle of a firwood meditating on the nature of the numerals and segregating in his mind the odd ones from the even. He was seated at his diptych or ancient two-leaved hinged writing table with inner sides waxed. His rough long-nailed fingers toyed with a snuff-box of perfect rotundity and through a gap in his teeth he whistled a civil cavatina. He was a courtly man and received honour by reason of the generous treatment he gave his wife, one of the Corrigans of Carlow.
The second opening: There was nothing unusual in the appearance of Mr. John Furriskey but actually he had one distinction that is rarely encountered—he was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it. His teeth were well-formed but stained by tobacco, with two molars filled and a cavity threatened in the left canine. His knowledge of physics was moderate and extended to Boyle’s Law and the Parallelogram of Forces.
The third opening: Finn MacCool was a legendary hero of old Ireland. Though not mentally robust, he was a man of superb physique and development. Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.
Finn MacCool is the vehicle that allows the narrator to interweave his project with the old Gaelic tradition. Finn sings in one of his first appearances:
I am an Ulsterman, a Connachtman, a Greek, said Finn,
I am a Cuchulainn, I am Patrick.
I am Carbery-Cathead, I am Goll.
I am my own father and my son.
I am every hero from the crack of time.
Avant-gardists tend to be harsh, severe, moralistic; they may proclaim disorder, but at that moment disorder becomes programmatic. They avoid pleasure. As they protest against the past as a rule they become weighed down by frightful moods. There are few exceptions to this rule. It is not the case with O’Brien. In his first novel nothing is left to chance; nor does he attempt to disguise his astonishing linguistic richness, his knowledge of philosophy, his complex thematic counterpoints. At Swim-Two-Birds is a labyrinth whose walls are covered with mirrors. Reality is continuously fractured, reduces or magnifies, is demolished to the point of transforming into another reality that is purely and simply literature. The form anticipates some novels that many years later would attempt a new structuring of the genre. But none can compare to that of the Irishman as far as the exercise of humor, the radiant joy, the happiness that seeps through his language.
At Swim-Two-Birds is, among many other things, a tale that follows up-close the literary progress of a young student, who, weary of the monotony of his studies and of the perpetual presence of a stern and irksome tutor, discovers two delightful forms of escape: the creation of a novel and the frequenting of the infinite number of taverns that populate the city of Dublin. Both pastimes lead him to invent Dermot Trellis, an off-the-wall figure, a novelist by profession, who, unlike his young creator, lives obsessed with imbuing literature with a moral and didactic function. Dermot Trellis proposes to write a book to excoriate mercilessly the evils derived from carnal incontinence, for which he keeps a series of imaginary characters locked up in a hotel that he owns, not unlike a movie director who might billet his actors while he is filming. A moralizing novel can only draw nourishment from archetypal protagonists that incarnate lasciviousness and virtue, absolute good and evil. The novel’s plot would be simple: Peggy, a beautiful and chaste young woman, is stalked by the libertine John Furriskey, created for the express purpose of releasing his lust onto the chaste maiden and ultimately receiving a just punishment. The other characters are charged with safeguarding the young woman’s virtue and the imposition of an exemplary sentence on the lascivious rapist. But, unbeknownst to the author, the characters have other designs. Furriskey falls tenderly in love with the heroine whom he must seduce. She requites his love and confesses to him that she has been violated by all those characters created precisely to defend her virginity. Furriskey forgives and marries her; they set up a pastry shop, have several children, and live happily ever after. So that the novelist Trellis doesn’t notice their escape, they drug him with a powerful soporific, and only appear at his house during the few minutes of the day that he might awaken from his lethargy. The story careens onto increasingly unlikely courses. Every style is well received, especially those that parody and ridicule other styles. The cast of characters includes elves, devils, gangsters. In their mouths the old sagas regain new life and intertwine phantasmagorically with the characters’ double existence: the one the author has imposed on them and the one they have freely chosen. In fact, everything is possible in the course of the novel. A tribe of redskin braves who have escaped from the imagination and the control of an author of westerns lay siege to Dublin, which is semi-destroyed; there are women who give birth to children who surpass them both in age and size; elves and demons who discuss the music of Bach and the scandalous rise in the cost of living; loves that are consummated between a novelist and the seductive female characters he creates. And there is a jocose ending in which all the characters of this kermesse prosecute and condemn to an exemplary punishment the author who so bedeviled them during the course of the novel.
O’Brien’s vocation for three manifests itself again in the glorious paragraph that brings the book to a close:
Well-known, alas, is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three and who made each aspect of his life a thing of triads. He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each cup, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.
THE DE SELBY CODE. If in At Swim-Two-Birds everything is movement and the world is transformed into an outrageous series of encounters and missed encounters in a vertiginous transit of characters, situations, ideas, epochs, and styles, in The Third Policeman, O’Brien creates, instead, a world where immobility is the rule. His characters enter—and with them the reader—Eternity, where everything stops. As time fails to pass, actions never seem to completely end, to manifest itself in a time that knows no ending.
It was two or three hours—the narrator says—since the Sergeant and I had started on our journey yet the country and the trees and all the voices of everything around still wore an air of early morning. There was incommunicable earliness in everything, a sense of waking and beginning. Nothing had yet grown or matured and nothing begun had yet finished. A bird singing had not yet turned finally the last twist of tunefulness. A rabbit emerging still had a hidden tail.
What happens in that world seems not to happen literally. Everything is obvious and means nothing. As in children’s stories, the logic that governs actions is different than that to which reality has made us accustomed. There is a policeman obsessed by the queer theory of molecular transubstantiation that gradually turns cyclists into bicycles at the same time the real bicycles become human. A bicycle serves a sentence in jail; another has been hanged, as his semi-human condition has driven him to crime. The Sergeant is worried that the time will come when the bicycles begin to demand the right to vote, expect to hold seats in Parliament, decide to unionize.
The plot of The Third Policeman is relatively simple. An Irish lad, one-legged to be precise, and good at nothing, except at studying the work of the brilliant and controversial philosopher de Selby and the commentaries of his impassioned exegetes, allows himself to be taken in by an associate and participates in the murder of a country millionaire. A decisive argument manages to convince him: with the proceeds of the crime he’ll be able to publish at last his work on de Selby at which he has labored away for many years. After committing the crime, the narrator loses awareness of his identity. He doesn’t remember his name or the place where he has hidden the murdered man’s box of riches. He believes the best solution is to head to the police station and demand they search for the treasure that has inexplicably slipped out of his hands. With difficulty he manages to convince the policeman on duty, a chatty sergeant, that he doesn’t wish to file a report about the theft of his bicycle, nor to file charges against a bicycle. In the police station he comes into contact with a world of objects so fine, so impossibly minute, that they become invisible, even if they are observed through the most powerful magnifying glass, and of musical notes so high that no human ear can register them. He finds the greatest consolation in that world where he has become lost in philosophical meditation. He dedicates a good part of his mental energy to reviewing some of de Selby’s theories and to attempting to clear the jungle of confusions created by the apologists and detractors of his admired philosopher. The bits of information that the reader begins to discover about the celebrated thinker are as extravagant as the circumstances in which the protagonist moves. De Selby, for example, suggested that night, far from adhering to the commonly accepted theory of planetary movements, was merely a product of accumulations of black air produced by certain volcanic disturbances, about which he did not elaborate, and also of some rather regrettable industrial activities. Equally extraordinary is the philosopher’s theory about the nature of sleep, which he defines as a mere succession of fainting-fits brought on by a state of mild asphyxia. Among his commenters there was a current of fierce detractors. The worst, the repugnant du Garbandier, dared to write:
Le suprème charme qu’on trouve à lire une page de de Selby est qu’elle vous conduit inexorablement a l’heureuse certitude que des sots vous n’êtes pas le plus grand.
On another occasion, the implacably malevolent ill-wisher took advantage of de Selby’s inability to distinguish men from women, which gave rise to a series of slanderous assumptions:
After the famous occasion when the Countess Schnapper had been presented to him (her Glauben ueber Ueberalls is still read) he made flattering references to ‘that man’, ‘that cultured old gentleman’, ‘crafty old boy’, and so on. The age, intellectual attainments and style of dress of the Countess would make this a pardonable error for anybody afflicted with poor sight but it is feared that the same cannot be said of other instances when young shop-girls, waitresses and the like were publicly addressed as ‘boys’. In the few references which he ever made to his own mysterious family he called his mother ‘a very distinguished gentleman’ (Lux Mundi p. 307), ‘a man of stern habits’ (ibid, p. 308) and ‘a man’s man’ (Kraus: Briefe, xvii). Du Garbandier (in his extraordinary Histoire de Notre Temps) has seized on this pathetic shortcoming to outstep, not the prudent limits of scientific commentary but all known horizons of human decency. Taking advantage of the laxity of French law in dealing with doubtful or obscene matter, he produced a pamphlet masquerading as a scientific treatise on sexual idiosyncracy in which de Selby is arraigned by name as the most abandoned of all human monsters.
The protagonist of The Third Policeman, in the course of a long day’s journey during which he seems to fall through the looking glass, ventures out one afternoon with an associate to search for the box of money. He suddenly finds himself alone; instead of finding the coveted chest he finds the man he has murdered. He holds a tense and unpleasant conversation with him which is more of a non-conversation; he discovers suddenly that he has forgotten his own name; he wanders along crooked lanes; stumbles upon a one-legged murderer (he also has a wooden leg), the captain of the country’s band of one-legged men, who promises him eternal friendship and help; he arrives at the police station, where a smiling sergeant asks him if the matter has anything to do with a bicycle, and then, along with another policeman, they introduce him to the peculiar wonders that the office possesses. Shortly thereafter he is sentenced to death on the gallows, not for the crime he has committed, but for a combination of mix-ups that cause him to appear guilty of a crime about which he hasn’t the slightest idea; he demonstrates his inability to prove his innocence, descends to a place deep below the earth, another leap through the looking glass, and he catches a vague glimpse of Eternity. As he is about to be taken to the scaffold, a partially humanized bicycle helps him escape. Along the way, by chance, he enters the secret office of the mythical third policeman, about whom he has heard the two servants of public order, from whose hand he has just escaped, speak with admiration, before finally arriving at his own house. With restrained astonishment he discovers that what has seemed to be a single night or part of a night has lasted twenty years. He also notices that he has died during that time. With resignation, and led by inertia, which is how his fate is revealed to him, he sets out for the next police station, where the same sergeant on duty who received him the first time asks him the same question again: “Is it about a bicycle?” He knows that the cycle has started over and that it will never end, he’ll once again meet a one-legged man, descend to an underground place, watch the scaffold go up where they’ll attempt to hang him, escape, return to his birthplace and discover along the way the secret office of the third policeman. Everything must be carried out over and over in the same way.
This somnambulistic wandering, where the implausible is described with the greatest naturalness, with the same adjectivization that someone would employ to describe the most ordinary events of daily life, is tinged only occasionally with a slight unreality, like the slight out-of-focus of a lens through which someone contemplates a landscape, rests on an ungraspable sadness, broken from time to time, in a brilliant counterpoint, by the commentaries on de Selby and the recreation of the sordid struggle unleashed by his commentators, which has ended up causing them to go mad and driven them to crime. The absurdity that governs the acts that happened in the Great Beyond has ended up contaminating the philosophical imaginings of and about de Selby. The Third Policeman is a novel, a nightmare, and a delirious fable about a philosopher and his disciples.
The reader will be familiar with the storms which have raged over this most tantalizing of holograph survivals. The ‘Codex’ (first so-called by Bassett in his monumental De Selby Compendium) is a collection of some two thousand sheets of foolscap closely hand-written on both sides. The signal distinction of the manuscript is that not one word of the writing is legible. Attempts made by different commentators to decipher certain passages which look less formidable than others have been characterized by fantastic divergencies, not in the meaning of the passages (of which there is no question) but in the brand of nonsense which is evolved. One passage, described by Bassett as being ‘a penetrating treatise on old age’ is referred to by Henderson (biographer of Bassett) as ‘a not unbeautiful description of lambing operations on an unspecified farm’. Such disagreement, it must be confessed, does little to enhance the reputation of the writer. Hatchjaw, probably displaying more astuteness than scholastic acumen, again advances his forgery theory and professes amazement that any person of intelligence could be deluded by ‘so crude an imposition’. A curious contretemps arose when, challenged by Bassett to substantiate this cavalier pronouncement, Hatchjaw casually mentioned that eleven pages of the ‘Codex’ were all numbered ’88’. Bassett, evidently taken by surprise, performed an independent check and could discover no page at all bearing this number. Subsequent wrangling disclosed the startling fact that both commentators claimed to have in their personal possession the ‘only genuine Codex’. […] If Kraus can be believed, the portentously-named ‘Codex’ is simply a collection of extremely puerile maxims on love, life, mathematics and the like, couched in poor ungrammatical English and entirely lacking de Selby’s characteristic reconditeness and obscurity. […] Hatchjaw alone did not ignore the book. Remarking dryly in a newspaper article that Kraus’s ‘aberration’ was due to a foreigner’s confusion of the two English words code and codex, declared his intention of publishing ‘a brief brochure’ which would effectively discredit the German’s work and all similar ‘trumpery frauds’. The failure of this work to appear is popularly attributed to Kraus’s machinations in Hamburg and lengthy sessions on the transcontinental wire. In any event, the wretched Hatchjaw was again arrested, this time at the suit of his own publishers who accused him of the larceny of some of the firm’s desk fittings. The case was adjourned and subsequently struck out owing to the failure to appear of certain unnamed witnesses from abroad. Clear as it is that this fantastic charge was without a vestige of foundation, Hatchjaw failed to obtain any redress from the authorities. It cannot be pretended that the position regarding this ‘Codex’ is at all satisfactory and it is not likely that time or research will throw any fresh light on a document which cannot be read and of which four copies at least, all equally meaningless, exist in the name of being the genuine original. […] It is perhaps unnecessary to refer to du Garbandier’s contribution to this question. He contented himself with an article in l’Avenir in which he professed to have deciphered the ‘Codex’ and found it to be a repository of obscene conundrums, accounts of amorous adventures and erotic speculation, ‘all too lamentable to be repeated even in broad outline’.
In Eternity—there can be no doubt!—the de Selby codex will never be deciphered. Hatchjaw, Bassett, Kraus, and du Garbandier will continue to contribute the same incompatible commentaries about its content. They will “eternally” continue to malign each other, and they will hate each other with an animal intensity until ending time and time and time again in the same identical madness.
“Hell,” O’Brien wrote, “goes round and round. In shape it is circular, and by nature it is interminable, repetitive, and nearly unbearable.”
Sergio Pitol is one of Mexico’s most prominent living authors. The recipient of some of the Spanish-speaking world’s most important prizes, including the Herralde Prize for Novel, the Juan Rulfo Prize, the Cervantes Prize, and the Alfonso Reyes Prize, Pitol remained relatively unknown in the English-speaking world until the publication in 2015 of The Art of Flight and The Journey (Deep Vellum Publishing). The Magician of Vienna, from which these excerpts are taken, is scheduled to appear in early 2017, also with Deep Vellum. The author of more than two dozen novels, short story collections, and memoirs, Pitol was also a prolific translator of, among others, Austen, James, Woolf, Conrad, Nabokov, Gombrowicz, Andrzejewski, and Chekhov. George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose. His translations include works by Elena Poniatowska, Andrés Neuman, Miguel Barnet, Alberto Chimal, Juan Villoro, Leonardo Padura, and Claudia Salazar, which have appeared variously in Words Without Borders, The Kenyon Review, The Literary Review, Bomb, Asymptote, and World Literature Today, where he is a contributing editor. His translation of Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight and The Journey appeared in 2015. The Magician of Vienna, the third volume in Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, is forthcoming in early 2017. He currently teaches Spanish at the University of Oklahoma.
 Translated by Esther Allen.
The supreme charm one finds on reading a page of de Selby is that it inexorably leads you to the happy certainty that among fools you are not the greatest. (This footnote appears in the novel. —Trans.)
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