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At Swim-Two-Birds (Irish Literature) Paperback – September 1, 2005
In Twenty Years: A Novel
When five college roommates gather after twenty years, can the rifts between them be repaired? Learn More
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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 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)
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Some people enjoy James Joyce, Irish literature, etc. After attempting to digest this book and failing horribly I have concluded that I am clearly not one of them. Read morePublished 11 months ago by XR
Did not like this book well enough to struggle past page 40. Too confusing. Couldn't understand the plot or the language. Not worth the work.Published 15 months ago by Kathryne Valentine
For fan's of Irish literature this is a must read. It's a little hard to follow at times but remains clever and pays off in the end. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Brandon Dolly
Unreadable.....not sure why or how this is rated in the Top 50 novels.Published 22 months ago by magpie
This is supposedly O'Brien's masterpiece, but I'll take The Third Policeman over it any day. It's hard to follow if you don't know Gaelic, perhaps something is lost in translation. Read morePublished on July 4, 2014 by Ron Ginzler
This is a book quite unlike any other. It may be the first metafictional romp, and it's a very Irish one at that. I enjoyed it, but it's not to everyone's taste, I'm sure. Read morePublished on October 5, 2013 by Fred C. Dobbs