Sunday 5 April 2020

"A bad knee is worse than no knee at all. A bad knee and an early grave."

As someone who has one, indeed two of them; I'd partly agree with that statement - and also that water on the knee is a 'bad man'. These come from a favourite passage in At Swim Two Birds, by Flann O'Brien; a passage with some of the funniest lines I have ever read. 

Having said that; O'Brien is a writer who sharply divides opinion. If you find the texture of his prose droll, you will love him; if not, he will leave you stone cold. For one thing, you need to have an appreciation of Irish English: to be able to hear the lines spoken as you read. 

Note: FO'B's best - his one great - work is The Third Policeman. But if you go ahead and read ASTB, I would advise skipping the many and lengthy passages that are a translations of the poetic Gaelic legends of Sweeney. After several readings, I cannot see that these add anything to the novel, and omitting them loses nothing substantive...   

I’ll tell you what’s hard, too, said Shanahan, a bad knee. They say a bad knee is worse than no knee at all. A bad knee and an early grave.

Water on the knee do you mean?

Yes, water on the knee is a bad man, I believe. So I’m told. But you can have a bad cap too, a split knee. Believe me that’s no joke. A split knee-cap.

Where are you if you are gone in the two knees? asked Furriskey.

I knew a man and it’s not long ago since he died, Bartley Madigan, said Shanahan. A man by the name of Bartley Madigan. A right decent skin too. You never heard a bad word about Bartley.

 I knew a Peter Madigan once, said Mrs. Furriskey, a tall well-built man from down the country. That was about ten years ago.

Well Bartley got a crack of a door-knob in the knee. . . .

Eh! Well dear knows that’s the queer place to get the knob of a door. By God he must have been a bruiser. A door-knob!—Oh, come here now. How high was he?

It’s a question I am always asked, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s a question I can never answer. But what my poor Bartley got was a blow on the crown of the cap. . . . They tell me there was trickery going on, trickery of one kind or another. Did I tell you the scene is laid in a public-house?

You did not, said Lamont.

Well what happened, asked Furriskey.

I’ll tell you what happened. When my hard Bartley got the crack, he didn’t let on he was hurt at all. Not a word out of him. On the way home in the tram he complained of a pain. The same night he was given up for dead. For goodness sake! Not a word of a lie, gentlemen. But Bartley had a kick in his foot still. A game bucko if you like. Be damned but he wouldn’t die! He wouldn’t die? Be damned but he wouldn’t die. I’ll live, says he, I’ll live if it kills me, says he. I’ll spite the lot of ye. And live he did. He lived for twenty years.

Is that a fact?

He lived for twenty years and he spent the twenty years on the flat of his back in bed. He was paralysed from the knee up. That’s a quare one.

He was better dead, said Furriskey, stern in the certainty of his statement.

Paralysis is certainly a nice cup of tea, observed Lamont. Twenty . . . bloody . . . years in bed, eh? Every Christmas he was carried out by his brother and put in a bath.

He was better dead, said Furriskey. He was better in his grave than in that bed.

Twenty years is a long time, said Mrs. Furriskey.

Well now there you are, said Shanahan. Twenty summers and twenty winters. And plenty of bedsores into the bargain. Oh, yes, bags of those playboys. The sight of his legs would turn your stomach.

Lord help us, said Furriskey with a frown of pain. That’s a blow on the knee for you. A blow on the head would leave you twice as well off, a crack on the skull and you were right.

From At Swim Two Birds, by Flann O'Brien (1939)

1 comment:

Bruce Charlton said...

Comment from Hrothgar:

My internal Irish accent kept wanting to metamorphose into a particularly thick Welsh accent before returning to Irish when I read this through, perhaps because that is what I am more familiar with hearing. I can think of a few older Welshmen (one in particular, who would need only a suitable interlocutor) of my own acquaintance on whom you might be able to eavesdrop and hear a very similar conversation to this day, actually - supposing you could understand what they were saying at all, which might be something of a challenge for most. The conversation certainly rings true, at any rate, and hardly even seems much exaggerated - I can certainly imagine hearing it somewhere like a bar where elderly, old-fashioned, and garrulous gentlemen of a "Celtic" persuasion are accustomed to hang out.