Sunday, June 12, 2011

Progress on The Third Policeman - Bike Month Reading

This book I am currently reading for Bicycle Month is not about a bicycle per se but bicycles loom large in it as they do in a fair number of Irish books. This one was written around 1940 according to my In-House Literary Advisor.

I observed to my In-House Literary Advisor this morning, when he was kind enough to bring me a Sunday morning coffee in bed, that I think it brings you closer to the main character that you never know his name though you don't realize you don't know his name until about 30 pages in (if your copy is about 200 pages, like mine is) at which point something happens and you start flipping back through the first pages looking for a name.

I also said I thought it felt weird how I had no problem in one sense following the action but that my rational brain was confused because the events started to not make any sense...were absurd. My I.H.L.A. said, yes the book was subjective and everything was from the point of view of the one character so it wasn't like reading a book with an omniscient narrator where you might be given additional information that the main character doesn't know and therefore have a more complete understanding of what's going on.

He said he likes it better, because it provides a more authentic experience noting that in the early twentieth century the omniscient narrator fell out of favour in some literary circles "being too much like 'God'" and therefore "untenable" which I took to mean that if a writer is trying to create a work truly conveying an individual's human experience, it doesn't make any sense to have a reader be able to observe the fictitious world of the novel from above as though they were an all knowing creator.

But he said there was an explanation for the absurdity and the subjective approach in the end makes the story more entertaining and also more scary.

My I.H.L.A. thinks it's possible O'Brien (which is a pen name, by the way) had Dante's view of the world in mind summed up in this quote (and he pulled out John Ciardi's translation of The Divine Comedy):

"  For Dante, as for classical man, there was no real distinction between moral and physical law; between, say, the moral law against incest and the physical law of gravity. All of matter was a projection of God's will, and what we call physical law and what we call moral law derived equally from that will. When Oedipus, though unknowingly, transgressed moral law by killing his father and marrying his mother, a plague descended upon Thebes. It would not have occurred to the Greeks that to think of a flight of locusts as a consequence of what happened in the king's bedroom was to cross categories." 1

I'm a slow reader and I haven't found a lot of time for leisure reading. So here I am just about 1/3 of the way through The Third Policeman by Flan O'Brien and just getting to the point where....(if you don't want to know anything at all about the book before reading it, stop here, though I wouldn't go as far as to call my coming revelations spoilers)....he is trying to report his gold watch stolen and the policeman keeps going on about bicycles.

"'Why should anybody steal a watch when they can steal a bicycle?'
  Hark to his cold inexorable logic.
  'Search me,' I said.
  'Who ever heard of a man riding a watch down the road or bringing a sack of turf up to his house on the crossbar of a watch?'
  'I did not say the thief wanted my watch to ride it,' I expostulated. 'Very likely he had a bicycle of his own and that is how he got away quietly in the middle of the night.'
  'Never in my puff did I hear of any man stealing anything but a bicycle when he was in his sane senses,' said the Sergeant,'-except pumps and clips and lamps and the like of that. Surely you are not going to tell me at my time of life that the world is changing?'
  'I am only saying that my watch was stolen,' I said crossly.
  'Very well,' the Sergeant said with finality, 'we will have to institute a search.'
  He smiled brightly at me. It was quite clear that he did not believe any part of my story, and that he thought I was in delicate mental health. He was humouring me as if I were a child.
  'Thank you,' I muttered." 2

It's funny that we don't find it frustrating that we can't get outside of our own minds on a daily basis to have a better understanding of our own story or the world around us and yet when we are reading a novel if the mind of the character whose view point we are following wanders off in ways that conflict with our own view of reality we can have trouble accepting and following it.

I have to say though that I have been completely drawn into this novel and am really liking it but feel a certain foreboding for what might be coming next after my discussions this morning with my I.H.L.A.

For more reading suggestions see Books to Read for Bike Month.

1 John Ciardi, introduction to The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri, xv. Translated by John Ciardi. New York: New American Library, 2003.
2 Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman (Glasgow: Paladin, 1988), pp. 63-64.

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