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At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

by Flann O'Brien

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,924573,582 (3.9)159
"That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit. A really funny book." James Joyce.
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» See also 159 mentions

English (53)  Swedish (1)  French (1)  Danish (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (57)
Showing 1-5 of 53 (next | show all)
1
  ejmw | Aug 4, 2021 |
Anthony Burgess, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and Dylan Thomas all raved about this debut novel, at a 1939 vintage one of the earliest examples of plot-playful metafiction ever published. I've been a fan of Flann's ever since I read his second novel The Third Policeman, and though I liked the sophomore novel a bit more, this one was also really funny and clever, declaring right on the very first page that "one beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with" and that it was going to play around with normal novel conventions. One interesting difference was the change in atmosphere - The Third Policeman is a strange and eerie novel, with an uncanny air hanging over the absurd dialogue and surreal events. At Swim-Two-Birds is more straightforward for the most part, having a simple frame story about a lazy college student who does more drinking than studying, and who's writing novels that feature writers, along with characters out of Irish mythology. The metafictionality comes in when the levels of narrative start to mix - characters decide to rebel and put their author on trial - and the book ends abruptly in a way that calls attention to the conceits of literary forms. I'm not Irish, but the parts that parodied traditional forms of native literature are pretty funny even if you're not completely familiar with the source material.

Most of the parts involving the Pooka (a sort of devil, etymologically related to the English puck, as in Shakespeare's The Tempest) are most notable for the language O'Brien uses, which is very reminiscent of a more lighthearted Joyce. There's lots of wordplay and creative ways to over-describe things, and it strikes me that the book would almost be even more enjoyable in audiobook form, as you would get to hear beautiful passages like this:

"They beguiled him with the mention of salads and crome custards and the grainy disorder of pulpy boiled rhubarb, matchless as a physic for the bowels, olives and acorns and rabbit-pie, and venison roasted on a smoky spit, and mulatto thick-tipped delphy cups of black-strong tea. They foreshadowed the felicity of billowy beds of swansdown carefully laid crosswise on springy rushes and sequestered with a canopy of bearskins and generous goatspelts, a couch for a king with fleshly delectations and fifteen hundred olive-mellow concubines in constant attendance against the hour of desire. Chariots they talked about and duncrusted pies exuberant with a sweat of crimson juice, and tall crocks full of eddying foam-washed stout, and wailing prisoners in chains on their knees for mercy, humbled enemies crouching in sackcloth with their upturned eye-whites suppliant."

Or this description of food:

"Quickly they repaired to a small room adjoining Miss Lamont’s bedroom where the good lady was lying in, and deftly stacked the papered wallsteads with the colourful wealth of their offerings and their fine gifts—their golden sheaves of ripened barley, firkins of curdy cheese, berries and acorns and crimson yams, melons and marrows and mellowed mast, variholed sponges of crisp-edged honey and oaten breads, earthenware jars of whey-thick sack and porcelain pots of lathery lager, sorrels and short-bread and coarse-grained cake, cucumbers cold and downy straw-laced cradles of elderberry wine poured out in sea-green egg-cups and urn-shaped tubs of molasses crushed and crucibled with the lush brown-heavy scum of pulped mellifluous mushrooms, an exhaustive harvesting of the teeming earth, by God."

Or the whole "A pint of plain is your only man" poem ("pome"), and also funny stories like the one about a guy paralyzed "from the knee up", and a bunch of other great writing. Still, it was great in regular book form and I'd definitely read more from O'Brien. Or, don't take my word for it, check out Dylan Thomas' laudatory quote: "This is just the book to give to your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl!" ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
surrealistic tale within a tale, influence on RAW
  ritaer | Apr 23, 2021 |
This dyslexic reader cannot cope with this book.
Some passages are wonderful but too many parts seem completely unfathomable ( )
  mjhunt | Jan 22, 2021 |
A fantastic post modern fantasy, full of irish culture at its best. ( )
  ansedor | Oct 13, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 53 (next | show all)
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.
 

» Add other authors (44 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
O'Brien, FlannAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bushman, Todd MichaelCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fiedler, LoreTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gass, William H.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Meinicken, HelmutÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pokorný, MartinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rowohlt, HarryTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.
Quotations
I'm thirsty, he said. I have sevenpence. Therefore I buy a pint.
...
The conclusion of your syllogism, I said lightly, is fallacious, being based on licensed premises.
Licensed premises is right, he replied, spitting heavily. I saw that my witticism was unperceived and quietly replaced it in the treasury of my mind.
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.
When money's tight and is hard to get,
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt--
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.
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"That's a real writer, with the true comic spirit. A really funny book." James Joyce.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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