At Swim-two-birds

by Flann O'Brien

Ebook, 1976

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Plume, 1976.

Description

"That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit. A really funny book." James Joyce.

Media reviews

At Swim-Two-Birds has such a strong claim to be one of the founding texts of literary postmodernism. All the markers of that baggy but indispensable cultural category—the deconstruction of narrative, the replacement of nature by culture, an ahistoric sensibility in which tropes and genres from different eras can be mixed and matched promiscuously, the prominence of pastiche, the notion of language itself as the real author of the work—are openly declared in At Swim.

User reviews

LibraryThing member slickdpdx
In the recent Dalkey reissue there is a nice intro from William Gass about O'Brien and the book. The book itself was a good read once I brought my expectations back to a reasonable level. It contains a wealth of decent to fine pastiche of Irish lit in addition to its structural shenanigans. Representative quote:

The passage, however, served to provoke a number of discussions with my friends and acquaintances on the subject of aestho-psycho-eugenics and the general chaos which would result if all authors were disposed to seduce their female characters and bring into being, as a result, offspring of the quasi-illusory type. It was asked why Trellis did not require the expectant mother to make a violent end of herself and the trouble she was causing by the means of drinking a bottle of disinfectant fluid usually to be found in bathrooms. The answer I gave was that the author was paying less and less attention to his literary work and was spending entire days and nights in the unremitting practice of his sleep. This explanation, I am glad to say, gave instant satisfaction and was represented as ingenious by at least one of the inquirers concerned.… (more)
LibraryThing member fathach
An amazing book, hard to believe that this book was originally published in 1939 in priest-ridden, censorious, holy Catholic Ireland. The book itself is totally original although some would argue that sections of it bear an uncomfortable resemblance to "Ulysses" by the old maestro himself. When asked about this, one of Ireland's leading interpreters of O'Brien's work - Eamonn Morrissey - was of the opinion that O'Brien and Joyce "drank from the same well". At times hilarious, this book willmake you laugh - and cry - from beginning to end. A forerunner of the impeccable "Third Policeman" this is O'Brien at his brilliant best, mixing fantasy, surrealism, absurdity and vulgarity as only he can.… (more)
LibraryThing member piccoline
Don't be scared off by the fact that O'Brien's name gets tossed around with Beckett and Joyce, and definitely don't be scared off by the word "metafiction", because this book is hilarious and hard to put down. O'Brien takes the piss out of all manner of Irish blarney, yet by the end you love the whole Irish thing all the more.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member abirdman
My all time favorite work of fiction. Funny, silly, serious, self-involved. In a book by an evil author the characters rebel, and try to create new lives for themselves. That's just one of the many plots all happening simultaneously. "A pint of plain's your only man."
LibraryThing member the_terrible_trivium
Some very very funny bits, some fairly baffling bits, and it doesn't really end up cohering too much by the end. Still, unique and well worth it.
LibraryThing member Proverbsforparanoids
At Swim-Two-Birds is an amazing creation. I'd leave it at that, and just tell you to read it as soon as you're able, but unfortunately I feel some sort of obligation to at least try to explain what makes it so wonderful.
At Swim-Two-Birds is, famously, the novel that was postmodern before there was such as word. It is about an unnamed, indolent Irish college student who is writing a novel about Dermot Trellis, who is also writing a novel, one that is filled with characters borrowed from other writers. In Trellis' world, one hires a fictional characters like one might a maid, or a gardener, and all his characters are kept prisoner in the Red Swan Hotel, which Trellis calls home.
I would continue with my plot summary but it is, as so many reviewers have noted, impossible and besides the point. O'Brien creates a multi-layered weave that is pleasing on many different levels. It is very, very funny. I have read that it is a mockery of Irish culture and mythology, which I am not too familiar with, and even so I found plenty to laugh at.
But what I don't think O'Brien receives enough credit for is the beauty of his writing. William H. Gass writes in his introduction that O'Brien's sentences go quickly where they need to go, but never in the way you expected them to. I couldn't agree more. I can't remember how many times a sentence surprised me with its knotty, rustic beauty.
Some books are just funny without intending to be anything else; At Swim-Two-Birds is something much more. No words can describe the wonder of it other than those that are found between its two covers.
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LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
Not really my kind of read but not a bad read.
LibraryThing member SimoneSimone
""Forget bloody James Joyce. This is THE Irish writer.""
LibraryThing member fourbears
One thing this book reminded me of was writing a rag called "The Cuckoo's Nest" when I was in grad school in the 70ies. It was a dittoed paper distributed throughout the English Department and the goal was riffing on "academic style". I wrote abstracts for fake papers, agenda for academic conferences, riffs on footnotes. It was very popular for awhile and I wasted a lot of time at it. (I don't have anything left so maybe it wasn't as funny as I thought.)I'm not saying of course that I really had a masterpiece going, but I felt that spirit behind At Swim Two Birds. The narrator is a student who drinks and parties too much and spends endless time in his room so that his conventional uncle—with whom he lives—assumes he’s wasting time. He begins by telling us that the rules of fiction—one beginning and one ending, for example—make no sense. He insists that no new characters are needed; that writers should use existing characters—which he does, importing, for example, two cowboys from the American West into his Irish story. Well not so much into his story but into the story of the writer, Trellis ,he writes about. And at the end of the novel, the characters take Trellis to court for cruel and inhuman treatment.I suppose there’s a sense in which this book—which is difficult to follow and defeats many readers not willing to follow where it leads—as John Updike says to “drunken banter, journalese, pulp fiction and Celtic myth”—is a novelist’s novel, or at least one primarily of interest to those who study/care about the novel as form. That may account for the fact that although it’s been touted as a work of genius since it was published in 1939, it’s not read much, except in university courses in the novel—which is where I first encountered it 40 years ago.O’Brien’s—his real name was Brian O’Nolan and he also wrote a long-standing column in The Irish Times under the name Myles na gCopaleen—immediate predecessor is of course Joyce. One friend of mine, in fact, calls this novel "Joyce Lite", i.e., likely to prime readers for reading Ulysses and maybe even Finnegans Wake. Nothing illustrates O’Brien’s writing genius like when he gets hooked on a tale or a topic and runs away with it—until the reader collapses in laughter—innocuous subjects like tea and tobacco (which I remember from near the end). Usually totally out of the context of the story or only tangential, but an individual opportunity for cleverness and humor. Even just lists as when he "characterizes" Furriskey, Lamont and Shanaghan by systematically going through a list of qualities using a word or phrase for each character. Starts out informative and ends up hilarious. Head: brachysephalic; bullet; prognathicVision: tendencies toward myopia; wall-eye; nyctalopiaConfiguration of nose: roman, snub; mastoidUnimportant physical afflictions: palpebral ptosis, indigestion; German itchThe descriptions of Finn McCool in the beginning are like that—the descriptions go way beyond "describing" and into the area of the kind of humor that results from building up of detail upon detail—all that circumference of his body parts—“the neck to him was as the bole of a great oak, knotted and seized together with muscle humps and carbuncles of tangled sinew, the better for good feasting and contending with the bards. His chest to him was wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs.” And so forth, longer and cleverer than you’d think any man could extend the comparisons.All this would be tedious were it not so outrageous in the detail and so well written. The details are carefully chosen (no matter how random they seem) and if you read it aloud, the sentences are beautiful. There's a blurb by Updike about O'Brien on the back of my book: "Like Beckett, O'Brien...has the gift of the perfect sentence, the art, which they both learned from Joyce, of turning plain language into a lyric pitch."It also reminds me a little bit of Basil Fawlty when he goes off on one of his very funny tangents. In fact the humor of Monty Python works on a principal which Flann O'Brien uses again and again in this book. It's not so much the subject of Fawlty's raves that provides the humor, but (1) the sheer accumulation of ridiculous detail and (2) his ability to deliver the long speech fast and furiously with physical movements to enhance the humor--the acting equivalent of a perfect sentence. The title, by the way, comes from the literal translation of an Irish place name.… (more)
LibraryThing member Clurb
What I read of this was original and imaginative but I struggled with the writing from the start and couldn't even make it half way. In recompense, I feel like I'm missing out.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
This was a lot of fun to read. It's not a novel in the traditional sense, but several stories mashed together, and the characters rebel from the author at one point and so forth and so forth. Cowboy stories, trials, and Irish mythology. It's almost confusing, but very entertaining. I'll be reading more Flann O'Brien soon enough.… (more)
LibraryThing member mackthefinger
This has been on my shelf for a while and I only got around to it during the recent snowfall. Took me a while to get into it, as it jumps around a bit to begin with, but I'm glad I stayed with it. Absurd and inventive, funny and irreverent, it had me in stitches. Take's the mickey out of a lot of Irish mythology and folklore, and the language is at times dazzling. I'll be reading this again. A pint of plain is youur only man!… (more)
LibraryThing member stillatim
I'm glad I can write a review of this without giving it a rating, that's for sure. The last thing I need is to be assaulted by legions of self-consciously intellectual and/or hip readers decrying my inability to 'get it,' because I gave a crappy rating to a probably interesting book. Instead I can write a review which such readers won't bother reading and perhaps save you the effort of picking the book up, or, alternatively, help you discover that this is a book of the type that you enjoy.

But seriously folks, take my mother, really, take her please, and make sure she doesn't have to read this stand up routine masquerading, quite self-consciously, as a novel, or rather a novel about a novel, or, to be quite precise, a record by the narrator about his life while writing a novel about a pub-owner writing a novel about characters stolen from other novels, in which those characters spend all their time telling stories and reciting poems, i.e., kind of talking out very short novels, only all the characters are also 'real,' not fictional, and can affect the life of the pub-owner. Meta-fictional nonsense ensues, self-consciously, and conceptually it's interesting in a two page Borges story kind of way. But it takes over 200 pages.

Now, I'm quite willing to believe that other readers might find all of this hilarious. But not being an aficionado of Irish myth and legend, cowboy novels, blarney, or novels about novels, I found much of it tedious. It's a fabulous linguistic showpiece, and I'm willing to keep it and give it another shot in a few years. But for now I find it unreadable.
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LibraryThing member DieFledermaus
This is just a really weird book. Quite interesting. The author uses some oddly formal prose, but not exactly sure the satire. There’s a twisted metafiction plot, with characters plotting the overthrow of their author – all the story of a lazy college student. A lot of Irish history entwined with the plots, can be a little hard going, but enough is explained so you’re not lost. Although there are a lot of crazy things going on, a good portion of the book is just small talk and getting from one place to another. The author starts out with...an author considering beginnings for a novel. He has three, one about a supernatural being, the Pooka, named MacPhellimey (like a Harvey the rabbit), another about John Furriskey, born at age 25, and legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool. The author is a college student who rarely goes to class and is always nagged at by his uncle. His story of Finn is continued – mostly with Finn giving long-winded speeches about how he and his clan enjoy magic and poems. Reminiscent of olde-type epic poetry. The highly stylized prose is quite humorous when describing the narrator/author’s experiences with alcohol. Formally written drunkenness. Later, he creates another ‘author’ in his book – fat invalid Dermot Trellis who lives in the Red Swan Hotel. Trellis 'writes' the other stories until his characters get fed up of him and get their revenge.… (more)
LibraryThing member magicians_nephew
An unnamed student, living with his uncle and working not very hard to finish his schooling, begins writing a novel.

The characters in the novel include louts from the local as well as legendary figures from Irish mythology and legend. "Mad King Sweeny" shows up and I had to put the book down and go a'Googling. Live and Learn.

(The author says you should always use characters in your novel that already exist so everyone knows them right away and it saves time.)

But pretty soon the characters in the novel (inside the novel) get restless being pushed around by their author and they begin writing a novel of their own. (Huh?). And we are down the rabbit hole with a vengeance. Fiction and meta-fiction and pushing and popping back and forth. If this makes sense to you, I'm not telling it right.

The book gently satirizes Irish literature and the Irish middle class and the study of Irish lore and legend and that's fun to listen to. There's a trial scene that is very funny indeed. The writing is sharp and clear and sometimes lyrical and sometimes even more. In the end our anonymous student passes his exams and gets a gold watch from his Uncle and is on his way.

But I suspect it was more fun to write than it was to read. Your mileage may vary
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LibraryThing member figre
Reading Flann O'Brien always makes me feel I am on the edge – on the edge of understanding, on the edge of sanity, on the edge of enjoying myself. That is, O'Brien's dizzying approach to "story" and the associated images is far enough out there that I am not always sure I have been invited on the correct trip.

But I have always found the voyage (whether I was really invited or not) bizarre and strange, and there has not been a trip I did not enjoy.

At Swim-Two-Birds comes as close to leaving me at the station as any of O'Brien's work. In fact, I'm not sure that, this time, I made it for the actual ride.

Plots are somewhat superfluous to what O'Brien is doing with his writing (not to mention confusing if not just down right unintelligible), but here is what's going on this time. The narrator is attempting to go to school as he writes his novel. However, it is obvious that laying about, drinking, and living off his uncle are much more important than school. In spite of this somewhat suspect focus in life, his novel is making progress (as is his school work.) The novel itself is about a novelist who is writing a novel. However, this second novelists creations are coming to life, fighting him and trying to take over. (Or are there three different stories being written by the narrator that, as they come to life, intertwine? I'm not sure I ever got this straight. But I'm also not sure it is that important.) Absurdity mounts as the characters begin to take umbrage at the gentleman who is writing their lives (one of the characters in the novel – not the narrator himself), so they drug him and begin to take control of their own lives. One of the characters, to provide retribution against the author in the story, becomes an author himself and writes about his creator's trial and death.

Did I mention that describing an O'Brien plot is an exercise in frustration? Suffice to say that absurdity is piled on absurdity.

Such adventures can be fun. And O'Brien has numerous examples of his success at writing this way. Unfortunately, this time I felt as if I wasn't allowed in on the joke as strongly. In particular it seemed some of the exposition went on too long. And, in a very rare response for this type of writing, I got to the end and wondered what it was all for.

There is entertainment to be had in this book. And O'Brien's writing is as absurd as ever. But the final product just doesn't have the resonance of other efforts I have read to date.
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LibraryThing member dbancrof
Claimed by its author to have been so detested by Hitler that he started World War II just to sabotage its sales, this 1939 novel is about a guy writing a novel about a guy writing a novel. Unexpectedly, the characters from the innermost story, yearning for freedom, rebel against their author by trapping him in a novel of their own. This is not always an easy read, but there is no matching Flann O'Brien's witty and subversive imagination.… (more)
LibraryThing member IreneF
I really, really wanted to like this book but it ultimately fell flat. It started well enough, with an indication of a "real" story framing three fantasies. These tales meander around and mix it up, but the last quarter of the book, which is mostly given over to the torment of an author by his characters, seemed pointless.

Much of the book is "about"--well, not really "about", but maybe what the author was thinking about--is the collision between Ireland's literary, heroic past and its grimy, mundane present. But here's the rub: the commonplace pre-War Dublin of the book is as unreal to me, as a 21st century Californian, as any invented city; and the threads of Irish literature glimmering through At Swim-Two-Birds are indecipherable to anyone who hasn't already sought them out. (Unless, perhaps, you grew up in Ireland. )

For example, early in the book, characters "borrowed" from another "author"--a writer of westerns--go cattle rustling cattle in Dublin. If you know that one of the earliest works of Irish literature is the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or "Cattle Raid of Cooley" you realize this is more than absurdist humor; but how many readers have heard of it?

A counterpoint between high and low fun runs through the text:

"The mind may be impaired by alcohol, I mused, but withal it may be pleasantly impaired. Personal experience appeared to me to be the only satisfactory means to the resolution of my doubts. Knowing it was my first one, I quietly fingered the butt of my glass before I raised it. Lightly I subjected myself to an inward interrogation... Who are my future cronies, where our mad carousals? What neat repast shall feast us light and choice of Attic taste with wine whence we may rise to hear the lute well touched or artful voice warble immortal notes or Tuscan air? What mad pursuit? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Here's to your health, said Kelly.

Good luck, I said. . . . You can't beat a good pint."

Much of the text is dialogue. The going is a little tough, because it lacks quotation marks. This has never bothered me before, but

to be cont'd
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LibraryThing member Fenoxielo
Brilliant on many levels, since it's meta-fiction. It may not seem that radical when read today, but O'Brien was truly creating something that had never been done before with At Swim-Two-Birds. His language is both engaging and compelling to read while at the same time incredibly dense and almost baroque. Read this book if you want to have your mind blown.… (more)
LibraryThing member buffalopoet
Ladies and gentleman, for your consideration: the archetypal slacker-college-student-undiscovered-artist. His lofty aspirations and lackluster ambition average out, topographically, to a tragically amusing meadow of some kind. He's curt and defensive to those by whom, we're assured, he's woefully misunderstood (including the inevitable tuition-paying family). He's haughty in the classroom or any other venue where his superiority isn't acknowledged up front. And of course, he's often brilliant and entertaining among friends or a friendly audience – particularly when fueled by alcohol. He's been a staple in literature since, well, since colleges, and literature, were invented.

Among the most brilliantly-rendered and hysterically funny members of this fraternity is the unnamed, Dublin university student at the center of Flann O'Brien's 1939 novel At Swim-Two-Birds. He lives in a spare room in the home of his uncle (“holder of Guinness clerkship the third class” we're told derisively and often): an uncle who's suspicious of the sleep-to-study ratio he's observing in his nephew. The young man's interactions with his uncle, or his drinking mates, as he divides his days between astonishing quantities of sleep, Imperial Stout, and occasional visits to class, are worth the price of admission alone. But it's the novel he's working on, and the progress of its characters, that make At Swim-Two-Birds astonishing to read.

His novel's central character is one Dermot Trellis, who lives in the Red Swan Hotel and has stayed in bed for as much of the last twenty years as is possible. And of course, Mr. Trellis is working on a novel as well. His novel, however, is birthing characters who chafe at the control the author exerts over them, including those whom Trellis 'borrows' from other novels and fables. They discover autonomy during Trellis' extended slumbers, and begin to fight back. Keeping track of which novel a given character inhabits at any given time is as challenging as it is entertaining. But it's the conversation of these absurdly diverse characters, rendered with with O'Brien's gift for language, that makes it hard to read in public, which reacts with suspicion to those who burst into sudden, repeated laughter.

At Swim-Two-Birds is a gem, and the blistering pace of the final chapters becomes a shocking study of the ethics or authorial invention – shocking mainly because you continue laughing throughout. Its reputation among writers (I first learned of it while reading William Gass' essay 'Fifty Literary Pillars') is well deserved, and I look forward sitting down with it again to see what I missed on the first go-around.
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LibraryThing member Wubsy
I cannot write a review of a book this bizarre, other than to say that it is brilliantly creative.
LibraryThing member shadowofthewind
This is a writer's book. It's for those who are fascinated by the writing process and those who fear their creation or obsession could overwhelm them. Reading up on this book afterwards, I found out that most early fans were writers, but not so much the general public. Even Borges praised it in a famous essay When Fiction Lives in Fiction:

"At Swim Two Birds is not only a Labyrinth: it is a discussion of the many ways to Concieve the Irish novel and a repertory of exercises in prose and verse which illustrate or parody all the styles of Ireland."

This is one of those books that could have been the inspiration for movies like Inception. The unnamed author is writing a story about an author creating a mythology tale that includes devils, fairies, and other figures of Irish mythology and Legend. The main author is attending college with an occasionally drinking binge. It's a worry by his uncle that he may not complete his studies. Indeed as the story progresses more and more time is spent with the author's author's characters who defy him when he is asleep. Inciting his son to write a story about the author where the characters rebel and then try the author in court. It becomes a surreal Alice in Wonderland situation. Will these characters overwhelm it's author? Will the story overwhelm the author's studies?

A very wild ride that goes deeper and deeper into the idea of writing and creating. It reminded me of If on a Winter's night as it covers this same territory of the fascination over the writing process.

"In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity." p. 21

"Your father is dead, said Linchehaum. That has seized me with a blind agony, said Sweeny.
Your mother is likewise dead. Now all the pity in me is at an end.
Dead is your brother. Gaping open is my side on account of that.
She has died too, your sister. A needle for the heart is an only sister.
Ah, dumb dead is the little son that called you pop.
Truly, said Sweeny, that is the last blow that brings a man to the ground. p. 67

"When things go wrong and will not come right
Though you do the best you can
When life looks black as the hour of night
A pint of Plain is your only man. p. 74

He is a great man that never gets out of bed, he said. He spends the days and nights reading books and occasionally he writes one. He makes his characters live with him in his house. Nobody knows whether they are there at all or whether it is all imagination. A great man. p. 97
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LibraryThing member daniilkharmsarms
one of my favourites, for sure... and extremely clever, inventive and funny! if i could find a week inside each day i'd read this book every week! i love the cover of this edition too.. a detail from "the Sabines Theme" by Ceri Richards.
LibraryThing member ffortsa
This was a tough one. Touted as the great Irish post-modern novel, it is an exuberant exploration and mockery of various kinds of Irish writing. I'm not acquainted with Irish folk stories and mythology, and I found myself hitting Wikipedia a lot for the various characters O'Brien employs.

Strangely, I suspect this novel is better at second reading, when the reader knows the arc of the story within the story and can enjoy the ride a little more. On first reading, the long lists were a bit off-putting, and the 'hero', if we can say there is one, is not appealing or devilish enough.

Those who relish the story within a story structure, Irish tales, and character rebellion will definitely enjoy this book. I found it more work than enjoyment.
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LibraryThing member LizARees
How to rate a book that I can see is a work of genius but which I found incredibly difficult? The use of words is breathtaking and some passages are hilarious, but without having read a synopsis beforehand I really would have had no idea what was going on. I'd say this is something you must read but don't necessarily enjoy, though it's worth persevering with.… (more)

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