Exploring the Flann O’Brien Archives

In Context, Theodore McDermott on the Flann O’Brien Archives.

Specifically, I went to see a microfilmed copy of an early manuscript of At Swim-Two-Birds. References online and in O’Brien scholarship suggest that a draft much longer than the published one exists—it seemed likely that it would be the manuscript in Carbondale. There, in the special collections room, I sat at the microfilm machine looking at the doodles on the book’s first page. Don’t tell Terry Eagleton, but the name “Engels” was scrawled around the title—we wouldn’t want a Marxist reading to jeopardize O’Brien’s genius, to see the theme of three in At Swim as an example of dialectical materialism (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) at play. Maybe this Engels is other than Marx’s sidekick? A Gaelic figure? A friend? Who knows?

And there were, indeed, as I got past the first page, some differences between this early manuscript and the one published. Some different ordering (mostly at the beginning), some extra material—“Memoir of Dermot Trellis, his youth, being an extract from A Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences on the subject of Dr. Beatty, now in heaven, by the reverend Alexander Dyce, but found on examination to be singularly referable to the life of Trellis. Serial volume in the Conspectus, the Thirty-seventh,” for example—and other slight variations (Finn having a conversation with Trellis, which might well be of note to the careful At Swim scholar) comprise the most notable changes from the un- to the published versions. On the whole, the manuscript seemed not to warrant what I hoped it might: publication. The differences simply aren’t substantive enough. In theory, there exists somewhere a manuscript that’s one-third longer than the published one—but this, unfortunately, wasn’t it. Best I could tell, it was a revision of something already sent once to the publisher. The substantively longer version was apparently given to a friend, then revised, and only then sent out.

With the rest of my time, I went through as much of the eleven boxes of O’Brien material as I could. I didn’t make it that far…