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"Just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl," was Dylan Thomas's verdict on At Swim-Two-Birds, which sounded like high praise to me and was probably so intended.
However, since my sister could lay claim to only one of the three qualifying criteria, I withheld the gift and kept the book for myself, just the kind of thing that one of O'Brien's characters would have done, or so I reassured myself. I don't think she would have enjoyed it anyway.
You do need to be a certain kind of person to enjoy At Swim-Two-Birds to the full. You have to delight in words - their sounds and cadences, and in the ever-changing patterns of the meanings they convey. You have to be beguiled by ideas - quirky, paradoxical ideas that bend over backwards to undermine the ground they stand on. And you have to have a sense of humour.
Given these three characteristics, you'll love At-Swim-Two-Birds, even if you're not loud, dirty or boozy, though if you are it may well be a bonus.
Where to begin?
"One beginning and one ending for a book was something I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author...."
Thus the narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds sets out his stall on the opening page, and immediately goes on to give an "example" of three separate openings, involving three characters: the Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class; Mr John Furriskey, who had the distinction, "rarely encountered," of being born at the age of twenty-five; and Finn MacCool, a legendary hero of old Ireland - "though not mentally robust, he was a man of superb physique.... three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass".
All three of these characters go on to feature in the book itself, but is it the book of the narrator, the "I" of the opening page? Umm, on that hangs a tale.
The narrator is a student, living in Dublin in the house of his uncle, who grudgingly supports him while continually berating him for laziness, drunkenness and general untrustworthiness, charges that seem to be amply justified by his behaviour. When not out carousing with various unsavoury friends and acquaintances, the narrator lurks in his room, toying with his literary dabblings rather than concentrating on his studies.
Among his literary creations is Dermot Trellis, bed-ridden occupier of The Red Swan Hotel and himself an aspiring author. Trellis conceives the project of writing a salutary book on the consequences of wrong-doing and invents a range of characters for that purpose, including the afore-mentioned MacPhellimey, Furriskey and Finn MacCool.
Although they seem to spend most of their time drinking and chattering among themselves in irresistible flights of blarney, these characters are dissatisfied with their lot and band together to resist Dermot Trellis's power over them. One of them contrives to drug him so that he has little conscious time to devote to dictating their doings in his manuscript, leaving them free to pursue their own agenda. This includes creating the alternative author Orlick Trellis, who is induced to write an extension to the story in which Dermot Trellis is brought to trial for the mistreatment of his characters. In his brief bouts of consciousness, Dermot must try to outwrite his namesake and outwit his accusers.
The outcome of the struggle, the verdict of the trial and the conclusion to the plot I shall leave to you to discover, not that I think their disclosure would necessarily spoil the story, since the pleasure of reading it derives from the way it is told rather than in its substance.
Indeed, I would not blame you if, having read the above synopsis, you were wondering dismissively: is that it? Is that all there is to it?
No, it's by no means all there is to it. For a start, I haven't mentioned more than about a quarter of the characters, and there are some significant ones among the omissions. To describe them all and how they fit in would require a review almost as long as the book itself, which must be some kind of tribute to its succinctness, however verbose it sometimes seems on first acquaintance. Nor have I mentioned some entertaining sub-plots, for example the interplay between the Pooka MacPhellimey and the disembodied spirit of the Good Fairy, which revolves around the deployment of numbers. The truth being always single, and therefore an odd number, even numbers are favoured by members of the devil class, at least in O'Brien's universe. As you will have gathered, many things are taken for granted in O'Brien's universe that would not be readily recognisable in that of our everyday experience, even if we lived in Dublin.
Next, there is the multiplicity of styles and narrative approaches that O'Brien uses. Some passages are pure parody - as in the pseudo-bardic descriptions of the deeds of Finn MacCool and the mythical Sweeny; the "wideness of his backside" quotation above being typical. Others are parody of a different kind - the brogue and barroom banter. I have scoured the book for a excerpt of dialogue to offer as an example, and it is remarkably difficult, not because there are too few, but because there are so many and because so much of their effect is cumulative. Picking out any single example would rob it of the strength it draws from its context. The characters' exchanges build on each other with exaggeration topping exaggeration, and rhetorical embellishment building on rhetorical embellishment, all couched in involuted Irish manner. You can imagine yourself sitting in the corner of some Dublin pub amid the stale aromas of tobacco and spilled porter, eavesdropping endlessly.
These lengthy, almost overblown, passages might become tiresome, but they don't. They are given sharpness - almost punctuated - by sudden pauses, like time-outs, in which a particular comment or illustration is offered. For example, into an exchange between the narrator and his uncle, the following paragraph is interjected:
"Description of my uncle: Red-faced, bead-eyed, ball-bellied. Fleshy about the shoulders with long swinging arms giving ape-like effect to gait. Large moustache. Holder of Guinness clerkship the third class."
Again, after a description of Trellis drawing on trousers "over the bulging exuberance of his night-clothes, swaying on his white worthless legs":
"Nature of trousers: Narrow-legged, outmoded, the pre-War class."
Any danger of monotony is also alleviated by the action switching frequently between different times in which it is set, different locations and different levels of narrative. At times it is as much as the reader can do to make sense of it, although O'Brien is at pains to provide further pauses to summarise or explain the story so far.
O'Brien was acutely aware of the danger of incomprehensibility, and worried that his novel might be seen as a "very queer affair, unbearably queer perhaps". He knew that the surreal, taken in isolation, is not particularly funny. Humour is generated by the friction between a surreal situation and the elements of conventional reality still recognisable within it.
In maintaining just enough recognisable reality (or, at least, enough recognisable stereotypes) to generate the necessary friction, O'Brien does keep the book funny, even if there are loose ends around the corners of the plot that are never quite woven into its fabric. Any attempt to knit together all the strands would, one feels, be doomed to failure. At Swim-Two-Birds is a chaotic novel, and an opaque one - occasionally almost impenetrable - but it is none the less enjoyable for that.
What's it really about, you may well ask. At the most obvious level, it's (sort of) about the task of writing fiction, and about the relationship between an author, his themes and his characters. O'Brien offers an engaging perception that characters exist independently of their author, who "hires" them for particular purposes, thereby taking on obligations towards them, whilst they retain rights to lead their own lives outside their indentured service to the author's plot. This perception acts as the mainspring for most of the novel's zanier action and for many a wry observation, but it can hardly be seen as a world-shaking insight, more as an amusing conceit.
Beyond it, however, I am far from sure that At Swim-Two-Birds has a deeper message to convey. To me it seems happily bereft of homily, serious import, or even allegory. Since O'Brien has lately being enjoying a bit of an intellectual vogue, there are, I'm sure, plenty of learned theses washing around American academia expounding interpretations drawing on psychology, mythology, and most other ologies besides. So far as I can see - and, at the risk of being presumptuous, I suspect O'Brien might have seen it similarly - if you want to read such meanings into the book, good luck to you, but don't assume that anyone else need do the same.
Flann O'Brien was just one of the pen-names adopted by Brian O'Nolan, who was born in County Tyrone in 1911 and brought up by nationalist parents to speak Gaelic as his first language, before moving to Dublin and learning English. He wrote a bi-lingual column for The Irish Times under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen and for other publications as George Knowall.
The Gaelic background helps explain the extreme 'Irishness' of his style, especially in dialogue. Although witty and often even hilarious, it does sometimes stray into stage-Irish self-parody, though this seems to me to be a minor criticism.
As Flann O'Brien, in addition to At Swim-Two-Birds, his works include The Hard Life, The Dalkey Archive and The Third Policeman. He also wrote a play entitled Faustus Kelly. At Swim-Two-Birds is generally regarded as his masterpiece. He died in Dublin on April 1st 1966; somehow I think he would have regarded the date as appropriate.
His influences were as Irish as his background, notably Synge and Joyce. The latter, notoriously grudging in his readiness to recognise the writing of others, paid O'Brien an exceptional compliment in commenting on At Swim-Two-Birds: "That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit. A really funny book."
O'Brien has been influential in turn. Many modern Irish writers - and writers of surrealistic humour outside Ireland - acknowledge a debt to him. Even in less literary territory, it is impossible to read Spike Milligan's Puckoon, for example, without hearing echoes of At Swim-Two-Birds.
At Swim-Two-Birds is published in paperback in the UK by Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-118268-7, 218 pages, cover price £8.99. Needless to say, you can buy it on the internet slightly more cheaply.
What else? Oh, the title, of course; you're wondering about the title. Having somehow absorbed the fact that it was a place-name, I had always assumed that it was the location of The Red Swan Hotel where much of the action is set. However, on re-reading I can find only one mention of it, in one of the 'heroic' passages: "After another time he set forth in the air again until he reached the church at Snámh-dá-én (or At Swim-Two-Birds) on the banks of the Shannon, arriving there on a Friday, to speak precisely; here the clerics were engaged in the observation of their nones, flax was being beaten, and here and there a woman was giving birth to a child."
What might be the significance of this passage, to merit the place-name becoming the title of the whole novel? Don't ask me. It is perhaps what O'Brien would see as a good question. "A good question is very hard to answer. The better the question the harder the answer. There is no answer at all to a very good question."
Elsewhere, he writes: "A satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity."
There are several points in At Swim-Two-Birds where I have always had to regulate the degree of my credulity. But for the richness of its language, the originality of its ideas and its unfailing humour, I whole-heartedly recommend it.
© First published on under the name torr Ciao UK, 1st May 2006.
In a 1938 letter to a literary agent, Flann O'Brien described his first novel as a very queer affair, unbearably queer perhaps. The book in question was At Swim-Two-Birds--and if we take queer to mean diabolically eccentric, then truer words were never spoken. The author, whose real name was Brian O'Nolan, had successfully stirred Gaelic legend, pulp fiction, and grimy Dublin realism into a hilarious cocktail. His mastery of modernist collage would have been an ample accomplishment itself. But O'Brien was also blessed with the writer's equivalent of perfect pitch, and in At Swim-Two-Birds he squeezes the maximum beauty and banality out of the English language. All he lacks is a tragic register, but he makes up for this deficit with a sense of comedy so acute that even James Joyce couldn't resist blurbing his fellow Dubliner's creation: A really funny book.