BkFt: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brian

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 At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brian

At Swim-Two-Birds was published in 1939 by Irishman Brian O’Nolan under the pseudonym Flann O’Brian and is his first novel.   O’Nolan is described as one of the most inspired minds of the 20th century and is said to sit “along with Joyce and Beckett, Flann O’Brien constitutes our trinity of great Irish writers”.  At Swim-Two-Birds is “one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction” and has inspired many other authors in their writing careers.  When the novel was published it received most of its support not from the critics but from other writers, according to wikipedia:At-Swim-Two-Birds

Dylan Thomas, in a remark that would be quoted on dust-jackets in later editions of the book, said “This is just the book to give your sister – if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl”. Anthony Burgess considered it one of the ninety-nine greatest novels written between 1939 and 1984. Graham Greene’s enthusiastic reader’s report was instrumental in getting the book published in the first place:

“It is in the line of Tristram Shandy and Ulysses: its amazing spirits do not disguise the seriousness of the attempt to present, simultaneously as it were, all the literary traditions of Ireland. […] We have had books inside books before now, and characters who are given life outside their fiction, but O’Nolan takes Pirandello and Gide a long way further.”

On GoodReads the description of the novel is:

A wildly comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of a young, lazy, and frequently drunk Irish college student who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dublin. When not in bed (where he seems to spend most of his time) or reading he is composing a mischief-filled novel about Dermot Trellis, a second-rate author whose characters ultimately rebel against him and seek vengeance. From drugging him as he sleeps to dropping the ceiling on his head, these figures of Irish myth make Trellis pay dearly for his bad writing.  Hilariously funny and inventive, At Swim-Two-Birds has influenced generations of writers, opening up new possibilities for what can be done in fiction. It is a true masterpiece of Irish literature. (GoodReads)

However there are those that point out that summarising what this novel is really about is not as easy as that.  Here is a good excerpt from an article in The Atlantic by Allen Barra:

Only a fool would attempt to describe the plot of At Swim-Two-Birds. Here I go: The title is a literal translation from the Gaelic of … well, never mind, you wouldn’t make sense of it anyway (I certainly couldn’t), but it’s a ford on the River Shannon said to be visited by the legendary king, Mad Sweeney, who was exiled from his homeland after the Battle of Moira in 637 (see Seamus Heaney’s magnificent 1983 translation, Sweeny Astray) and resurrected by O’Brien as a character in his novel.  Still with me? A narrator, a student of Irish literature unnamed by O’Brien, lives with his uncle and has a dream job for an Irishman: He works in a Guinness brewery. He establishes his creed as a writer at the outset: “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.”  The narrator is a lazy sod who can’t seem to finish his book, control his characters, or tie all the strands of his book together. One of those plot streams involves Dermot Trellis, a writer of pulp westerns. Trellis’s characters rebel against their creator; wanting control over their own lives, they drug him to make him sleep so much he can’t write his book.

Barra goes on to say about the plot that:

“Part of the problem is keeping track of the three major intertwined plot threads; an even larger problem is recovering one’s concentration after laughing out loud at nearly every page.”

At Swim-Two-Birds is a novel that quite intrigues me for its union of comedy and Irish mythology so this one is going on my to-be-read list.  Have you read this novel? What did you think?

All TIME 100 Novels – At Swim-Two-Birds


2 thoughts on “BkFt: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brian

Add yours

  1. What horrifies me is that I’ve never even heard of this book! Like you, I find the sound of it quite intriguing. I think you have a duty to read it soon and let the rest of us know whether we should add it to our lists… 😉


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