From Virginia Woolf to Flann O’Brien – A literary patchwork quilt

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Changing from one literary world to another can often be a wrench. Quite a lot of time is devoted to reading a book from cover to cover and when the imaginary world that you have invited and invested yourself into caves in and dies on the last page, it is difficult not to feel bereft, especially if the jump from the old world into the new is particularly jarring.

I recently finished reading At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien and started to read Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

When it comes to plain facts, these two books have quite a lot in common. They are both heavily influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses. They both circumvent literary style, moving forwards and backwards in time and switch quickly from the perspective of one character to another.

Swim-Two-Birds is a ford in the River Shannon between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge, a place where you can cross the river more easily and find your footing. Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse sixteen years after finishing Mrs Dalloway.

And yet, the actual emotional affect on the mind that these two books have couldn’t be more different.

If you jumped from At Swim-Two-Birds to Mrs Dalloway, you go from witnessing Mad King Sweeney be driven insane by St. Ronan’s curse, banished for ever to fly about the Irish countryside like a bird and live in the trees, to watching dead headed summer flowers bobbing up and down in a vase of water in a summer drawing room.

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Neither Virginia Woolf nor Flann O’Brien ever wanted those two images to collide and they have done so now purely by chance and will, possibly, never be conjoined again, except in my memory.

These two pictures are now part of a composite patchwork quilt of imagery that one collects over a lifetime of reading. Patch after patch of seemingly unrelated images that come together, ultimately, to form a single garment, which is the backdrop to your life.

The book that links these two novels together, Ulysses, is a book which, like many people, I am familiar with, but have never actually finished. It is seen, perhaps incorrectly, as being the Mount Everest of the literary world. The final peak you have to conquer before you can class yourself as a well read person (with honours).

But Ulysses, much like Everest, has become worn down and overwrought by challengers. Base camp is strewn with rubbish and the old paths to the summit are becoming a little worn and tatty.

There are new, more recent challengers to the crown, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, for example, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Both fiendishly complicated. Both seemingly never ending.

‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home,’ writes James Joyce. No matter how many perspectives a book tries to bury you in, no matter how many complications and twists and turns, you are always going to run into one recurring character, yourself.

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