Flann O’Brien and Louis de Bernières

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(St Pancras station, December 2016)


“[MacCruiskeen] took a little spear from a place he had on the shelf. ‘Put your hand out’, he said. I put it out idly enough and he held the spear at it. He kept putting it near me and nearer and when he had the bright point of it about half a foot away, I felt a prick and gave a short cry. There was a little bead of my red blood in the middle of my palm …

‘Why did your spear sting when the point was half a foot away from where it made me bleed?’ …

‘I will tell you because you are a confidential man,’ he said … ‘The point is seven inches long and it is so sharp and thin that you cannot see it with the old eye.’…

‘I suppose it is far thinner than a match?’, I asked.

‘There is a difference,’ he said. ‘Now the proper sharp part is so thin that nobody could see it no matter what light is on it or what eye is looking. About an inch from the end it is so sharp that sometimes – late at night or on a soft bad day especially – you cannot think of it or try to make it the subject of a little idea because you will hurt your box with the excruciation of it.’ …

‘It was sharp sure enough,’ I conceded, ‘it drew a little bulb of the red blood but I did not feel the pricking hardly at all. It must be very sharp to work like that.’

MacCruiskeen gave a laugh and sat down again at the table and started putting on his belt.

‘You have not got the whole gist of it at all,’ he smiled. ‘Because what gave you the prick and brought the blood was not the point at all; it was the place I am talking about that is a good inch from the reputed point of the article under our discussion.’

‘And what is this inch that is left?’, I asked. ‘What in heaven’s name would you call that?’

‘That is the real point,’ said MacCruiskeen, ‘but it is so thin that it could go into your hand and out the other extremity externally and you would not feel a bit of it and you would see nothing and hear nothing. It is so thin that maybe it does not exist at all and you could spend half an hour trying to think about it and you could put no thought around it in the end. The beginning part of the inch is thicker than the last part and is nearly there for a fact but I don’t think it is if it is my private opinion that you are trying to enlist.” – Flann O’Brien, The third policeman (1967)


“[T]he captain spread a sheet of music upon the table, and both illuminated it and prevented it from being carried away by placing a lantern on its upper edge. Solemnly he sat down and began to tap the [mandolin’s] striking plate with the plectrum.

The doctor raised his eyebrows in perplexity. This tapping seemed to go on for a very long time. Perhaps the captain was trying to establish a rhythm. Perhaps this was one of those minimalist pieces he had heard about, which was all squawks and squeaks and no melody, and perhaps this was the introduction. He looked at Pelagia, and she caught his glance and raised her hands in incomprehension. There was more tapping. The doctor peered at the captain’s face, which was rapt in deep concentration. The doctor always found that in incomprehensible artistic situations like this his backside inevitably began to itch. He shifted his seat, and then lost patience. ‘Excuse me, young man, but what on earth are you doing? This is not quite what my daughter led me to expect.’

‘Damn,’ exclaimed the captain, his concentration utterly destroyed, ‘I was just about to start playing.’

‘Well, about time too, I should think. What on earth were you doing? What is it? Some ghastly modern twaddle called “Two Tin Cans, a Carrot, and Dead Harlot?”‘

Corelli was offended, and spoke with a distant tone of lofty disdain, ‘I am playing one of Hummel’s Concertos for Mandolin. The first forty-five and a half bars are for the orchestra, allegro moderato e gracioso. You have to imagine the orchestra. Now I’ve got to begin all over again.’ – Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994)


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(Haaltert, Flanders, April 2017)

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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