Category Archives: books

Joyce & O’Brien; Ulysses & At Swim Two Birds

Joyce, 1918

James Joyce’s Ulysses is an acclaimed masterpiece, one of the key works of the 20th century. Joyce himself was a peripatetic piratical genius, wandering the world dispensing wisdom and blarney in his white suit and eye-patch. Or so my English teacher told me. I think he was both dull and a bit of a git, but I guess when your face is against the window, there’s no room for reflection.

Why did that critical 1920s generation say Ulysses was so good? Well, it was the longest of his books – always a good sign for a magnum opus. He invented an awful lot of new literary techniques – the stream of consciousness, – and reused older ones, like heavy references to older works. So it professed to be about the odyssey, even though Joyce didn’t know that much about it, and nicked his chapter titles from a French author (hence the misspellings of several Greek names).

It mixed all these high-end literary techniques, with grubby writing in Irish dialect, so was perfect for playing to the sympathies of the modern English teacher, who was himself often a product of the grubby reading rooms of some rural town, rather than the Victorian teachers who were normally younger daughters of posh families. Finally, it was prosecuted for obscenity, because of the scenes where Molly Bloom fantasises about her lovers and Leopold’s masturbation – and writers love to big something up that’s under attack (see the equally turgid Lady Chatterley’s Lover.) What Ulysses wasn’t notably praised for, in my opinion, was for being any cop as a novel. Story, characters, description, even the puns, all are second-rate , even compared to Joyce’s more readable soap opera that is The Dubliners.

Mr Flann O'Brien

Contrast this with the works of Flann O’Brien (born Brian O’Nolan). A contemporary, and protege, of Joyce’s he was in fact a civil servant all his life, and only wrote, under many pseudonyms, as a sideline. His books use the stream of consciousness – but turn it into a comprehensible, first-person perspective, as seen most notably in his hilarious, Gothic masterpiece ‘The Third Policeman’. He uses the trick of nesting, making Matrioshkas of his stories, raising the reality levels the nearer you get to the ‘real’ storyteller, but never letting you know of the authenticity of the experience. He also plays with these levels, crossing the characters over, except where he wants to maintain authenticity – so in his experimental novel ‘At Swim Two Birds’, the heroes and villains of his deepest stories sneak into the level next to them, causing chaos, but never up to the ostensible sub-author, a semi-autobiographical student of literature. He drops references into his books – but they’re either absurd nonsense, parodying Joyce and Eliot, or ones that the majority of his readers could be expected to know. And though, he uses scientific and philosophical thought experiments, anticipating much, more turgid modern fiction, they’re saturated with humour instead of text. He’s a much more commercial writer – because, unlike Joyce, he wasn’t writing for fame (he had to be anonymous, after all), or to develop new techniques, but to entertain.

You get this sense most easily from his columns that he wrote, every week for years and years, under one of his many pseudonyms, Myles na gCopaleen. These are witty, local, perfect examples of what a newspaper column should be; from his presumed Mexican grave they conjure up the spirit of Ambrose Bierce, with their perfect acts of creation, their running jokes, the interspersion of created characters who live and die with the whims of the columnist and his correspondents.

I’d argue that it’s rare that perfection occurs in the first instance of an art; often, it takes someone who’s grown up in that art to polish and more it to the next step. O’Brien took Joyce’s metafiction, his flirting with academia and new literary techniques and punched the po right out of its face. Writing like Joyce’s is just a matter of rigorously applied labour – but writing like O’Brien is craft and genius.


Buying Books: The Perils of Nabokov

To the tune of: April March – Poor Lola

You are browsing the second-hand books in a small town’s famous covered market, waiting for the other reader to finish whatever the other reader is finishing, when you happen across a book. It is amongst the Books You Normally Read and The Books You Like The Cover Of, a most fortuitous placing, and it is a Book You Always Wanted To Read as well as a Book You’re Ashamed You’ve Never Read, and possibly a Book You Pretend You’ve Read.

It is Lolita, a book you are so familar with that you can trip the first three syllables of the book off your tongue, Lo-lee-ta, in a self-pleasing parody of the book’s first line which, again, you’ve never read. You’re excited, because you’re a fan of Nabokov, and you’ve never found this in a second-hand bookshop – whether through the prurience of proprieters or the retention of readers, you don’t know.

However, and there’s always a however in your Calvino mental life, there’s a reason you’ve not gone out of your way to buy this book in the past, though you’ve always been interested in buying it. That’s because, even though this is a classic work of literature by the greatest writer of the 20th Century, since the pornographers degraded the name Lolita and since the advent of a frothing, scare-mongered disgust in your country regarding the book’s subject, you wouldn’t want to be seen with the book in public. Especially if you’re a funny-looking person relative to the people around you, you wouldn’t want to be tarred with the Humbert brush.

But, here, the book has practically fallen into your hands. And you know it’s a great book, and he’s a great author, and you know your own reticence is silly and irrational. It’s just a book, with a plain cover and small text. You’re treating it like Mein Kampf. You’ll just wander over to the bookseller’s office, buy it quickly, and be done with this overthinking. Or perhaps you should pick up another book or two, to hide it?

You look up. The nearest Mac-wearing bookseller has already noticed your hesitation and she is a she, and is pursing her lips at you curiously, while you been stood there lost in thought. If you’d actually been browsing the book that wouldn’t have been a problem, but you’ve been standing, lost in thought,  and partially blocking the isle with your bags (I neglected to mention how weighed down you are with the accoutrements of two people, so that your every move is a collecting-heaving-shuffling-dropping motion). Now she’s caught your eye and smiles welcoming. In a moment she’s going to ask you if you need any help.

The moment is at hand. Before she can speak you collect and heave and shuffle and drop so you’re next to her, book in hand, asking politely for this one please. She smiles, glances at the book’s title, and changes her expression as she asks for the money. The smile’s still there, but you can’t tell if there’s confusion or disgust behind it, for the moment, as you hand over a note. By the time she has shuffled into the small office, found your change and extended her arm through the door, her smile has gone completely to be replaced with a intense stare with the bowed eyebrows you think are associated with curiosity. You leave, rapidly, and wait elsewhere for the other reader.

It has been three months. You’ve still not opened the book.

I Won A Book!

Congratulations to Dan Griliopoulos, winner of our Medical London competition. We asked for a piece of trivia connected with medicine in London, and Dan provided this:

“The premier London medical story has to be that of Samuel Pepys’ stone. Not the actual operation – which was long and painful (without anaesthetic) or highly dangerous (without modern medical techniques they had to cut up through the perineum to actually reach the kidneys where the stones were forming) – but his later love for the tennis ball-sized lump of crystalline urine. He’d carry it in his pocket everywhere, show it to friends, and once considered spending 24s (a hefty sum) on a display case so he could show it off in his house. He also had yearly dinners to show his appreciation at surviving, where guests would drink and eat themselves into an absolute stupor, pretty much guaranteeing that they too would end up with similar kidney problems to his…”
So a copy of the much-praised tome Medical London is on the way to him.

Elf (Dick's)

Quint from the Disney Presentation! Disney’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s KING OF THE ELVES! — Ain’t It Cool News: The best in movie, TV, DVD, and comic book news.

WALT DISNEY’S KING OF THE ELVES, based on the Philip K. Dick story about a gas station attendant who receives a knock on the door one rainy night. It’s a group of elves. Small, maybe a foot tall each. They are all green, with leaves and foliage growing off of them.They beg him for shelter from the storm. Despite his better judgment he allows them to stay and as reward he is made king of the Elves.

Not one of Dick’s finer works then…

Skip To The Next One…

Seeing that someone came up with a list of the most significant Sci-Fi and Fantasy books of the last Fifty Years, I thought I’d have a read over it and see which ones I’d absorbed… it turns out to be about 90% of them, as the following list shows – ones are in bold that I’ve read. I’ve also seen most of the Sci-Fi movies that Wired put in their top twenty. Perhaps I should cut down on the escapism… How’s everyone else doing?


A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Neuromancer, William Gibson

Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
Cities in Flight, James Blish
The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison

Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
Dune, Frank Herbert
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
Gateway, Frederik Pohl
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Little, Big, John Crowley
Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith

On the Beach, Nevil Shute
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
Ringworld, Larry Niven

Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
Timescape, Gregory Benford
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer


1. Blade Runner
2. Gattaca
3. The Matrix
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey
5. Brazil
6. A Clockwork Orange
7. Alien
8. The Boys From Brazil
9. Jurassic Park
10. Star Wars
11. The Road Warrior
12. Tron
13. The Terminator
14. Sleeper
15. Soylent Green
16. RoboCop
17. Planet Of The Apes
18. The Day The Earth Stood Still
19. Akira
20. Barbarella