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At Swim-Two-Birds (Irish Literature Series) Paperback – August 17, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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


At Swim-Two-Birds is a marvel of imagination, language, and humor.” (New Republic)

At Swim-Two-Birds has remained in my mind ever since it first appeared as one of the best books of our century. A book in a thousand . . . in the line of Ulysses and Tristram Shandy.” (Graham Greene)

“If I were a cultural dictator in England I would make At Swim-Two-Birds compulsory reading in all universities.” (Philip Toynbee)

“Flann O'Brien is unquestionably a major author. His work, like that of Joyce, is so layered as to be almost Dante-esque. . . . Joyce and Flann O'Brien assault your brain with words, style, magic, madness, and unlimited invention.” (Anthony Burgess)

At Swim-Two-Birds is both a comedy and a fantasy of such staggering originality that it baffles description and very nearly beggars our sense of delight.” (Chicago Tribune)

“'Tis the odd joke of modern Irish literature—of the three novelists in its holy trinity, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O'Brien, the easiest and most accessible of the lot is O'Brien. . . . Flann O'Brien was too much his own man, Ireland's man, to speak in any but his own tongue.” (Washington Post)

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Product Details

  • Series: Irish Literature Series
  • Paperback: 239 pages
  • Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press; 1st Dalkey Archive ed edition (August 17, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 156478181X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1564781819
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #277,682 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Flann O'Brien, whose real name was Brian O'Nolan, also wrote under the pen name of Myles na Gopaleen. He was born in 1911 in County Tyrone. A resident of Dublin, he graduated from University College after a brilliant career as a student (editing a magazine called Blather) and joined the Civil Service, in which he eventually attained a senior position.

He wrote throughout his life, which ended in Dublin on April 1, 1966. His other novels include The Dalkey Archive, The Third Policeman, The Hard Life, and The Poor Mouth, all available from Dalkey Archive Press. Also available are three volumes of his newspaper columns: The Best of Myles, Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn, and At War.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 4, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Published in 1939, the same year that James Joyce published Finnegan's Wake, this novel was lauded in its day by Joyce himself, Samuel Beckett, and Graham Greene. A wild concoction involving a completely disjointed narrative, multiple points of view, farce, satire, and parody, this "novel" offers any student of Irish literature unlimited subject matter--and equally unlimited laughs. In this unique experiment with point of view, author Brian O'Nolan has used a pseudonym, Flann O'Brien, to tell the story of the novelist/student N, who tells his own story at the same time that he is writing a book about an invented novelist (Trellis), who is himself developing another story, while Tracy, still another author, tells a cowboy story and appears in the previous narratives.
Believing that characters should be born fully adult, one of the writers tries to keep them all together--in this case, at the Red Swan Hotel--so that he can keep track of them and keep them sober while he plans the narrative and writes and rewrites the beginning and ending of the novel. But even when the primary writer stops writing to go out with his friends, the characters of the other (invented) fictional writers continue to live on in the narrative and comment on writing. Before long, the reader is treated to essays on the nature of books vs. plays, polemics about the evils of drink, parodies of folk tales and ballads, a breathless wild west tale starring an Irish cowboy, the legends of Ireland, catalogues of sins, tales of magic and the supernatural, almanacs of folk wisdom and the cures for physical ills, and even the account of a trial--and that's just for starters.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 26, 1999
Format: Paperback
Is Swift's A Tale of a Tub a great novel? Is Carlysle's Sartor Resartus a great novel? Is Tristram Shandy a great novel? Each of these works takes as its basis another form, whether the controversialist pamphlet, the philosophical treatise, or the biography, and comes out the other side with a new type of work, as well as a new work. These books occupy an originary and terminal position: they are the first and the last of their kind. For readers, these works are stones -- either the stones that become the foundations for understanding or the stones that drag them down. At Swim-Two-Birds takes as its foil the popular novel and the Irish renaissance myth discovery and the personal narrative. Why should a novel have only one beginning, O'Brien (aka Brian O'Nolan, aka Brian Nolan -- a man who got into university with a forged interview with John Joyce) asks? Why one ending? If, as some reviewers have suggested, you try to find the "structure," you're missing the point. Trying to mash this book into a novel's mold is misguided, and O'Brien will eventually make that clear. In fact, it is the story of a college student (fictional), who is writing a novel about a man (fictional) who is writing an Irish western (which cannot be). Additionally, the student's translation homework -- tales from the Dun Cow Book -- emerge in a full Lady Gregory parody and begin to interact with the other fictions, and the characters of the Irish Western themselves begin to resent their lots in life. The book plays games on so many levels that reading it the way one reads a novel is useless. This is not about information and straight lines, but about play -- sometimes rough and tumble and sometimes gentle.Read more ›
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31 of 36 people found the following review helpful By "lexo-2" on December 2, 1999
Format: Paperback
At Swim-Two-Birds is the first great cult book of the century. Well, maybe the second, after Ulysses. Or possibly the fifth, after Kafka's novels. Oh, never mind. The author, Brian O'Nolan (to give him his real name) wrote it in a fairly desultory manner, handing out bits to his friends and asking them what they thought; he would often change it on their suggestion, not always for the better (as comparisons with early drafts show). It gives the impression of being intricately structured without actually being so, as I found when I adapted it for the stage. In fact, it's structurally a mess, with a hastily tacked-on sentimental ending that was written after O'Nolan's father's unexpected death - the book is always threatening to get really dark, and then fudges it in the wind-up.. The humour is side-splitting the first time round, but it gives diminishing returns (believe me). Far better is his second novel in English, The Third Policeman, written without AS2B's pretensions to modernity and avant-gardism, and, paradoxically, much more genuinely avant-garde.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful By C. Ebeling on August 8, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Wanted: A reader for Flann O'Brien's AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS.
1) Requisites: Forgiveness of the not-very-linear, willingness to suspend disbelief and attachment to conventions, flexibility to take hairpin turns and seeming leaps of logic without a moment's notice, and tolerance of sloth, drink and the occasional effluvia.
2) Experience and education: familiarity with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Irish literary culture of the early 20th century helpful. Competitive emphasis awarded applicants with a working definition of "metafiction."
3) Job description: Sort out nested narratives of authors and their characters; identify author's concepts regarding the creative process; laugh at author's lampoons, ironies and jokes; develop a high appreciation of author's conceptuality and use of voice; locate surprising floes of prose through which echo all kinds of intelligence; don't worry about getting absolutely every reference; appreciate William Gass's critical introduction to this edition, which adds to the fun and vision, and spoils nothing.
4) Compensation and benefits: Never boring, earns reader the metafictional and modern Irish literature badge of experience without much bloodletting.
5) Work location: Ideally read in proximity to others with whom insights and jokes can be shared but post-college isolation doable; bed not recommended unless weird dreams desired; does not go overly well with sand, gooey sunscreen and the sounds of the top 40 blasting from the radio three beach blankets away. The local pub would quite suit the content.
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