Flann O'Brien's innovative metafictional work, whose unruly characters strike out their own paths in life to the frustration of their author, At Swim-Two-Birdsis a brilliant impressionistic jumble of ideas, mythology and nonsense published in Penguin Modern Classics.Flann O'Brien's first novel tells the story of a young, indolent undergraduate, who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dubin and spends far too much time drinking with his friends. When not drunk or in bed he likes to invent wild stories peoples with hilarious and unlikely characters - but somehow his creations won't do what he wants them to. A dazzling work of farce, satire, folklore and absurdity that gives full rein to its author's dancing intellect and Celtic wit, At Swim-Two-Birds is both a brilliant comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, and a portrayal of Dublin to compare with Joyce's Ulysses.Brian Nuallain, (1911-1966), better known by his pseudonym Flann O'Brien, was born in Strabane, County Tyrone, and studied at University College Dublin before joining the Irish Civil Service. Ifyou enjoyed At Swim-Two-Birds, you might like Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, also available in Penguin Modern Classics.'This is just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl'Dylan Thomas'That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit'James Joyce, author of Ulysses'A brilliant, beer-soaked miniature masterpiece'Time
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
"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
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.