6. Julieta Abella: When Jorge Luis Borges encountered Flann O’Brien (9 June 2023)

In this episode Toby speaks to Julieta Abella, an Argentinian scholar working on Irish modernism who can explain the seemingly strange transatlantic connection between Flann O’Brien and Jorge Luis Borges – and much more besides.

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Toby: Hey, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Radio Myles. This is a podcast all about the life and work of the writer known as Flann O’Brien / Myles na gCopaleen, among numerous other names, but who was a man named Brian O’Nolan. Thank you to Birkbeck College for hosting this podcast, and today I’m really excited to be joined by Julieta Abella (I hope I pronounced the name right – she can correct me on that in a moment). Julieta is a teaching fellow at Universidad de Buenos Aires, having won a graduate research fellowship there in 2019. She also works as a translator and editor. In 2020, Julietta published an article in the Estudios Irlandeses exploring the faint understanding, mis-understanding and ‘over-understanding’ of languages in O’Nolan’s work, which I thought was fantastic. In 2021, she presented on the topic of bureaucratic rhetoric in O’Nolan’s 1943 play Faustus Kelly. Recently, she spent time in Europe doing archival work in Zurich and in Dublin, where she recently presented a fascinating paper comparing the translations of Joyce’s Ulysses by three different Argentinian writers – which will inspire some of our questioning and discussion today. Julieta’s work on understanding and translation brings a really useful perspective into the multilingual nature of O’Nolan’s work, and no doubt we will also talk about Borges, Joyce and O’Nolan just a little. So welcome, Julieta. Did I get your introduction right?

Julieta: It was perfect. Thank you for the introduction and, also, thank you for inviting me. I’m actually really excited because Myles’s work is amazing and I’m just excited to be here and be able to talk to you about this.

Toby: So to get us started, for the benefit of listeners who may be new, not just to the podcast, but new to Flann O’Brien / Myles na gCopaleen, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of this writer, just in a few words, who he is, what he did – that kind of thing?

Julieta: To start, I think I’d quote what a Dubliner said to me when I was doing my semester abroad there, which was, and I quote, “he was a funny guy”. So Flann and Myles and Brian are all names for this very complex figure that also has a very interesting, let’s say, works. So I would say that it’s very challenging, just to summarize in a few words, but I would say in short, that he was an Irish writer from the 20th century and he had quite a prolific writing career. He wrote novels, plays, stories, and especially columns. So that would be my brief summary.

Toby: So how did you first come across Flann O’Brien / Myles na gCopaleen, etc?

Julieta: The first time I encountered him and his works was back in 2019. I was preparing a research project, and I knew I wanted to explore 20th century Irish writing, but I didn’t know who exactly. So I just started to read some novels of the time of the literary period, and I found At Swim-Two-Birds, which is Flann’s best known novel. And I thought it was fascinating. I read the first couple of pages and I was hooked. So I just started reading him for this project that I was preparing. That was actually the first research scholarship that I won. So it’s very dear and special to me. And in Argentina, Flann is not known at all. He’s not, sort of, part of the foreign literary canon. So every time that I’m talking about him, I try to recruit people and have people read him in academia and outside of academia. Because I found when I went to Ireland that he’s very well-known there. But again, here, no one knows him.

Toby: These words are killing me, Julieta. I can’t believe … I fully believe that from the moment that Borges published that article, ‘When Fiction Lives in Fiction’ in the Argentinian magazine Hogar in June 1939, I thought from that point onwards, everyone would know. Are you saying that not everyone in Argentina has read the Borges review?

Julieta: I say that most of the people haven’t heard that. That is actually a very short snippet that is very much lost. Borges wrote a lot, and people mostly read his poems and his short stories. So his small writings on papers and newspapers and magazines are quite lost, in a way. People don’t come across that very often – I would say it’s not frequent. So I’m sorry to give you this news, but I actually did some research on Flann, and I just found that snippet, I think, after a year of research. So actually it took certain time for me to find that. I’m sorry to bring this very sad news.

Toby: Okay. Hay que hacer un podcast en español para el beneficio de toda la gente de Argentina. Okay, maybe we do that next…

Julieta: Deberíamos. La próxima vez.

Toby: So in a recent essay, you talk about languages and understanding of language. Specifically, you’re talking about the Irish language, and you distinguish between a faint understanding, a mis-understanding and an over-understanding of languages – which was my favourite, by the way. The over-understanding. It seems like something that’s quite important and germane to loads of different themes of thinking about Flann O’Brien, who, of course, is a bilingual writer, working in a language that many find difficult, and working in a language that’s spoken very widely – English – too. So can you explain for our listeners what these concepts mean: faint, mis- and over- understanding?

Julieta: Sure. These three categories were names that I myself found for something that I encounter while reading An Béal Bocht, something that I found fascinating within the novel, and I realize it’s all over his works, is that characters, when they have conversations with each other, they don’t actually seem to be communicating very well. Like most of the times, communication is quite unsuccessful. And if we take a look at the dialogues, answers, replies, questions just don’t make sense. So these three ideas, these three concepts that I came up with is just a name to understand – this is redundant – but I think it’s important to understand these sort of misunderstandings.

So they were a way to divide these misunderstandings and understand them just a bit more. So faint and over understanding – meaning understanding too much or too little with the information that the person has, the background that the person has about that information – and misunderstanding, just focusing on this idea of getting something wrong. But of course, the first two, faint and over-understanding don’t necessarily mean that the person got something right, but on the contrary, that they got something wrong because they either had too little or too much information on one subject.

So, yeah, that was initially something that I came up with for An Béal Bocht. I worked this over with the columns as well and also a bit with a play. I recently got a paper published in a journal here in Argentina – so that’s in Spanish, sorry for the English readers – this idea of going through how interactions are portrayed and how communication is built is really interesting because I found that people really don’t communicate very well. And this is a key aspect for the comic side that the works have, I think, in a way.

Toby: Yeah sure, it is clearer and maybe we could just, to throw some more light on this, talk about one or two examples of where faint or mis- or over-understanding occurs. The most obvious and famous example of misunderstanding is a point in An Béal Bocht, the Irish-language novel that was published by O’Nolan in the early 1940s about an incident in which a philologist, a kind of academic visitor, uses whiskey to open the tongues of the inhabitants of the fictional village of Corkadoragha and ends up recording what turns out to be the squealing and grunting of a pig. And at that point he takes that to a conference of Celtic philologists in Berlin and it’s appraised as, you know, the finest Irish because it’s the most difficult to understand. No one can figure it out, no one can understand it. So it must be the best possible Irish. But that could be a few of those. I like the idea of maybe seeing it as over-understanding, I don’t know. What do you think?

Julieta: I actually disagree about being over-understanding there just because I think that in the example that you mentioned, we have this concrete message: the yelling of the pigs, let’s say. And the person that is making the understanding is just understanding this as another thing. So he doesn’t have another layer of background information on this. So I think he’s just misunderstanding this. I would say that it’s a clear example of misunderstanding and not over-understanding, because I think he would have needed a sort of complex layer on what he supposed that that yelling of the pigs is, and a complex theory on that and more elaboration on how that goes, to call that… But I mean, the concepts are already out, so if you make a compelling case, I can buy the over-understanding there, but I would say it would be misunderstanding. The differences between the three concepts are quite slight and it depends on in the scenes how much background information the characters have and how they, sort of, deal with it, let’s say.

Toby: Sure, sure, okay, well, we can agree to disagree on that. Maybe for some, of course, future critical debate, we can go with that.

Julieta: I’d love that.

Toby: So I wanted now to turn to Borges, and this interesting link between Borges and Flann O’Brien. We’ve discussed it beforehand, but I hope I’m not being ungracious, I’m just assuming it’s interesting to speak to an Argentinian literary scholar about this relationship. I think you are the best informed about it. So I’m going to go there and we’ll talk about Borges and Flann. So when he published what, in hindsight was a very important review of At Swim-Two-Birds entitled ‘When Fiction Lives in Fiction’, that’s an English translation, I guess, in the magazine Hogar or Home. And there’s a 2007 blog post recovering this article, which so essentially Home magazine, Hogar, was like an equivalent to a kind of Good Housekeeping or something like that. That’s probably a bit wrong, but it had a literary section, but it served, maybe spoke about how to keep your home and decorations and things like that. So the 2007 blog post describes, and I quote: ‘the unlikelihood of the O’Brien Borges convergence’, and it says that this, and I quote: ‘is roughly equivalent to Cosmopolitan devoting a page to the latest work by William H. Gass’. That does seem unlikely, but those kind of statements make me a bit suspicious. I’m like, yeah, I mean, it’s easy to say anything is particularly unlikely from that perspective just because it seems surprising and exotic to you, but maybe there is a reason for it. So maybe you can explain to us why it’s not as unlikely that Borges is reviewing At Swim-Two-Birds in the pages of Hogar magazine.

Julieta: I actually agree with you. I think it’s not that unlikely. Borges was part of an elite and rich upper-class sector of Buenos Aires. And he was, of course, well-educated and interested in literature, and he had the means to travel to Europe. So I think this answers a bit of how he might have gotten the novel in the first place. He was well aware of what was going in Europe literary-wise, and he was really interested in these kind of avant-garde works. So I think in one of his travels, in his research on what was being written, what was new, what was avant-garde, he might have found Flann in the continent. And I think that’s very possible. And at the time, people were also surprised and impressed by At Swim and how it was a very interesting literary experiment. So I think that’s another possible way in which he might have encountered the novel. So I think it’s not strange at all. I think it’s strange, if you look at it from our side, that Flann is not very familiar. But at the time, and because Borges travelled a lot, I think it’s not that strange. He was well aware of what was going on, so…

Toby: I’ve often found this in my research. We have this assumption that in a time where you couldn’t necessarily hop on a plane, or maybe you could only just hop on the plane between countries and continents, there wasn’t this widespread network and interchange. However, in practice, the more you examine these things, you do find these transnational networks linking writers and artists and little magazines together. And so it’s not quite as unusual and, of course, as you recently mentioned in a paper in Dublin: in 1925, Borges is writing about Ulysses and translating a part … the last page of Ulysses of the ‘Penelope’ episode. So he’s well aware that’s his almost entry point into discussing Irish modernism, a good nearly fifteen years before this is coming up.

Julieta: Yes, I would say two things about that. First, even though Argentina is very far away from Europe, and at that time it seemed more far away, there is this history in the Argentinian literary canon in which writers and thinkers always had examples and works from Europe in their hands, because there were lots of ships and boats coming and going. We know that – I don’t know – the fathers of our nations did have examples and copies from foreign literature from the very beginning. So that is something that happened in the 19th century. So that it’s something that is within the tradition and within Argentinian writing and reading. And what I’d also like to add is that because of what you’re mentioning about Borges writing about Ulysses and everything, which I’m sure we will come to this a bit later, but it’s fascinating how he proclaims himself as the first reader and as the first translator. He was well aware of the modernism movement of the time, and he was really interested in Irish tradition, in Irish writing, I would say, because of matters of just what we today call postcolonial / centre periphery relations. I’m using these more specific words now, but he really made a link with Argentinian and Irish tradition in the sense that both traditions respond in a way to other universal canons. So he was really interested in Irish writing in general, and he was well aware of modernism. So the connection between the two was also very fascinating to him. I just drifted away from the given everything from the main point.

Toby: No, I mean, you’ve answered it exactly. I think, given everything that you’ve just said, it seems like the opposite of this being a chance encounter, something unlikely. It seemed like it was meant to happen: Borges proclaims himself to be the first reader and translator in Argentina of Ulysses in 1925. So for him to get to At Swim just a few months after it appeared – a month in fact – is just perfect, right? He had to do it.

Julieta: He had to. And he always has this idea about I’m being first, I’m building the canon. So I think it makes a lot of sense.

Toby: And I just wanted to cover off a story that seems to refer very directly to Brian and Olan and his work in some ways. And this will start to make more sense now, even given the explanation you’ve shared. So the Borges story is called The Theme of The Traitor and a Hero, published in January 1944, not so long after he encounters Flann. And it’s essentially well, it’s that Borgesian brand of meta fiction that goes beyond fiction of in fiction and talks about the interaction between things you might write and things happening in the world. So there’s a character named Ryan who starts to uncover this bizarre plot where he’s looking into the life of his great grandfather, the leader of a 19th century revolt against the English. And he uncovers certain strange resonances between the story of this guy, Fergus Kilpatrick, and Julius Caesar. And he uncovers this bizarre conspiracy and synthesis of history and fiction orchestrated by someone named James Alexander Nolan, in which Kilpatrick is not really the leader of the rebellion, but in fact the person who betrayed the rebellion. And as the story says in English: ‘since the most tenuous suspicion of infamy would have jeopardized, Nolan proposed a plan which made of a traitor’s execution, an instrument for the country’s emancipation’.

So Kilpatrick is executed as a traitor, but Nolan scripts a vast kind of dramatic performance involving, in a sense, the whole country who pretend that he’s actually a hero. And there’s a pretend war, there’s a pretend fight, and he’s executed almost on the field of battle. This absolutely captivated me when I read the story because I saw that name Nolan, and at the time I didn’t know as much about this connection. In fact, maybe it is just a coincidence, but I’m not so sure now. That seems like a pretty direct line of influence. I mean, it’s an enormously interesting idea that you would import lines of … reuse lines of Shakespeare and parts from Shakespeare to kind of rebuild your country’s history to make it a more coherent story. Can you talk about that a little bit, that interesting line of influence, especially given this association that Borges seemed to make between Argentina and Ireland.

Julieta: I think all of this is very interesting and I think it makes sense to me at least, because this integrated plot lines where we have different levels of narration that cross each other is something that we do not only see in Borges in the story, but it’s something that we see a lot in At Swim. So we’re going back to this snippet, this first review of At Swim, and Borges.

And also another point of contact that I find here between the two is – and it’s also in other stories by Borges – is the idea of, as a reader, losing from time to time the layer of narration in which you’re in, which is confusing, but at the same time fascinating because as the story ends you find that everything makes sense. And you have all of these entangled plots and all of these references and worlds and they all come up, they all make sense in the end and you don’t understand why or how.

And I think that is something that is happening, for example, in At Swim, as well. So these two texts, I think, have a very similar way of how to approach a very complex narration with different layers, with different plots and subplots that all intertwine. So I think it’s something worth looking at with, let’s say, more depth, because I think there is something there. I agree with you and think there’s something really interesting there.

Toby: I think many listeners will be thinking this Julieta is a really inspiring person. She’s from Argentina. She’s working in English and writing and publishing in English to look at writers like Joyce and others. And she’s also engaging with the Irish language material, which …  you know, it’s a lot. And there’s difficulties. And so I wondered if you could just close by talking about where you’re going next, but also about how you motivate yourself to work through those difficulties of translation, of working with different languages and writing across languages. What is it about it that keeps you going? And what advice could you give to people who want to engage? Because it’s a struggle that I’ve had as well, trying to work across different languages to produce the work that you know that you need to do somehow.

Julieta: Thank you for calling me inspiring. I really appreciate that. That is certainly something that will keep me going forward, I would say. But first of all, I would, I will back down and start with the second bit first, which is I find that I’ve studied – not now I stopped studying, but because I think I got to a really nice point – I’ve studied English all my life. So ever since I was a kid, I encountered this idea of having different languages, how languages communicated, communicating in different languages. And I always found that very fascinating. And I think languages and themselves and how people communicate, it’s really interesting. And that idea is what keeps me somehow motivated, because all of the things that language can do are amazing. And if you take a look at another language, you find that the other language can do all of that, and even different things, because languages in themselves can be constructed similarly. But they have this semantic …. semantic ideas which are very different, and they’re really close to their cultures. So I find that very interesting.

And just the idea of being able to understand another person, understand other ideas, not just in their words, but in their whole context, in their whole meaning, is something that keeps me going forward. I wouldn’t say that understanding everything would be my goal ever, because I know even as a native Spanish speaker, I sometimes do not understand other Spanish speakers. So keeping in mind that language is fascinating but at the same time really complicated, is something that I keep in mind when working with Spanish, with English – especially English, which is very complicated. Not just Joyce’s works, but also, I mean, Flann’s work, because they have all these aspects of the Irish language within them. Because Flann / O’Nolan was a bilingual writer and you can see that in the use of words in the syntax. It’s something that is really challenging, but it’s really rewarding once you start understanding that in a more comprehensive manner. So I just find all of this fascinating. And that is why I keep going, even though I know that I’ll probably be misunderstanding things.

Toby: You can take a leaf out of Borges, right? I didn’t read this whole thing, it was too hard, but I’m going to be the first person to translate it.

Julieta: Exactly, I can just do Borges style and then let’s go with it.

Toby: Some really valid points about language and the difficulties of language, and I agree with you. What’s worth motivating … what motivates you through it, rather, is that you’ll get a different angle on concepts. So if you’re interested in ideas and what they mean, trying to translate them, or understand how different languages elaborate, or elucidate, that concept is important because it’s just not the same. It’s not the same concept in a different language.

Julieta: It’s not the same. And I found this a lot with O’Nolan’s work. Even his ideas, with this background of these two languages that are constantly speaking to each other, it’s even more complex than just the English word in itself. So I think it’s just a matter of taking that extra time to really see everything that it’s going on around the text, around the word. It takes a lot of time, but I think it’s worth it.

Toby: And that’s a fantastic point to finish on. So Julieta thanks so much. You’ve been a fantastic and as I said, an inspiring, guest. Thank you for being on a podcast.

Julieta: Ah, thank you. And thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

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