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At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
Favourite Books (441)
Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 156478181X, Paperback)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."
O'Brien labored mightily to make At Swim-Two-Birds summary-proof. But here, anyway, are the bare bones: the narrator, a university student, is writing a novel, which keeps morphing from mock-heroics to middlebrow naturalism. Meanwhile, one of his characters, Dermot Trellis, is himself writing a Western--an Irish Western--whose cowpunching protagonists will eventually throw off their fictional shackles and attempt to murder their creator. (Talk about the death of the author!) There's enough structural shenanigans here to keep an entire industry of critics afloat. Still, what matters most is the pungency of O'Brien's prose. His dialogue is agreeably grungy, his parodies delicious, and the narrator speaks in the sort of Jesuitical dialect that we associate with Samuel Beckett:
That same afternoon I was sitting on a stool in an intoxicated condition in Grogan's licensed premises. Adjacent stools bore the forms of Brinsley and Kelly, my two true friends. The three of us were occupied in putting glasses of stout into the interior of our bodies and expressing by fine disputation the resulting sense of physical and mental well-being. In my thigh pocket I had eleven and eightpence in a weighty pendulum of mixed coins.Snippets, alas, do little justice to At Swim-Two-Birds, which relies heavily on cumulative chaos for its effect. Graham Greene, an early fan, compared its comic charge to "the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage." A half century after its initial appearance, O'Brien's masterpiece remains a gleeful read--a marvelous, inventive, and (last but not least) really funny book. --James Marcus
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:06 -0400)
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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.
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