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At Swim-Two-Birds

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A wildly comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of a young, lazy, and frequently drunk Irish college student who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dublin. When not in bed (where he seems to spend most of his time) or reading he is composing a mischief-filled novel about Dermot Trellis, a second-rate author whose characters ultimately rebel against him and seek vengeance. From drugging him as he sleeps to dropping the ceiling on his head, these figures of Irish myth make Trellis pay dearly for his bad writing.

Hilariously funny and inventive, At Swim-Two-Birds has influenced generations of writers, opening up new possibilities for what can be done in fiction. It is a true masterpiece of Irish literature.

239 pages, Paperback

First published March 13, 1939

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About the author

Flann O'Brien

58 books678 followers
Pseudonym of Brian Ó Nualláin , also known as Brian O'Nolan.

His English novels appeared under the name of Flann O’Brien, while his great Irish novel and his newspaper column (which appeared from 1940 to 1966) were signed Myles na gCopaleen or Myles na Gopaleen – the second being a phonetic rendering of the first. One of twelve brothers and sisters, he was born in 1911 in Strabane, County Tyrone, into an Irish-speaking family. His father had learned Irish while a young man during the Gaelic revival the son was later to mock. O’Brien’s childhood has been described as happy, though somewhat insular, as the language spoken at home was not that spoken by their neighbours. The Irish language had long been in decline, and Strabane was not in an Irish-speaking part of the country. The family moved frequently during O’Brien’s childhood, finally settling in Dublin in 1925. Four years later O’Brien took up study in University College Dublin.

Flann O'Brien is considered a major figure in twentieth century Irish literature. Flann O'Brien novels have attracted a wide following for their bizarre humour and Modernist metafiction.

The café and shop of Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich (www.culturlann.ie), at the heart of the Belfast Gaeltacht Quarter, is named An Ceathrú Póilí ("The Fourth Policeman"), as a play-on-words of the title of O'Brien's book The Third Policeman.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,061 reviews
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,425 reviews3,392 followers
October 30, 2021
Birds fly… Some birds also swim…
Once upon a time an ingenious student of literature aspired to write a book…
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. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.

In his book the main character also writes a book – his personages come alive and they begin to write their own opus – a murderous tale about their author…
He is a great man that never gets out of bed, he said. He spends the days and nights reading books and occasionally he writes one. He makes his characters live with him in his house. Nobody knows whether they are there at all or whether it is all imagination.

Everything that happens in books had been taking place only in the heads of their authors – such is the ultimate solipsism of the literature.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
779 reviews
August 13, 2021
I finished this book late last night and when I woke this morning the last scene of a very vivid dream was still imprinted in full colour on my mind. In the dream I had been searching for something, google searching, and a google page filled my vision, a page to which I’d been lead by a bizarre mistype: jiethleef...


Oh, drat - so much for that promising beginning. I took a break for a coffee after writing a long paragraph based on linking that dream to having finished At Swim Two Birds late last night, and when I came back to the computer, the rest of the paragraph had vanished. I searched through all the Pages I have open on the screen and found it finally, It had gone off to become the first paragraph in another review —Vanishing Points — where it says it hopes to be better treated, work shorter hours and be generally better liked than here at Swim-Two-Birds. Several of the status updates from this review had already gone over there so I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised.


Fortunately I happen to have a few other beginnings lined up against unforeseen circumstances — in fact when I’m reading a book like this one, beginnings occur to me about every ten pages which is a tribute to the creative powers of the author in question. And Flann O’Brien must be about the most creative author ever. If there is a better author in the meta stakes, I’ll eat my keyboard....ok, I seem to have backed myself into a dead end with that beginning so I’ll have to pull out another one...


I started reading this book after coming across a couple of its characters prancing around in a friend’s review of a Sorrentino book. Seeing them again after so many years made me nostalgic so I took my old tattered copy of At Swim Two Birds down from its shelf slot causing Madame Bovary and The Ginger Man to fall against each other. Hmm, interesting possibilities there for a story but this is perhaps not the place..


Ok, let's begin this review again.

Before I picked up this book to reread it, I thought about what my reaction had been when I first read it. After a little chuntertering around the archives of my brain, I realised I had very few recollections of reading it — apart from the names of the characters and the fact that the student-narrator’s bed seemed to feature prominently. As I was a student myself when I first read about the student-narrator, and not averse to sleeping late and missing lectures, it’s not surprising that his bed is pretty much all I remember...hmm, another dead en..beginning.


2014 will always be associated with Finnegans Wake for me. I spent perhaps seven or eight months in Joyce’s company so it’s not surprising that I see his shadow everywhere, and especially in this book by Flann O’Brien - both books were published around the same time, 1939. I don’t believe that Joyce influenced O’Brien a lot, more that O’Brien saw new and original directions to take his fiction as a result of the groundwork which Joyce had done in Ulysses and in the extracts from Finnegans Wake that had appeared well before the final version was published. Hmm, as I’m not an expert on literary analysis, I can’t really take this paragraph much further..


There is a character in At Swim Two Birds called The Pooka MacPhellimey who carries fairies around in his pockets. It’s a bit of a coincidence that Halloween happens this week. That reminds me of a story about a Pooka and some fairies which my father used to tell us on Halloween. No. Hold that - I think such a piece belongs in the file called Biographical Reminiscence...


If you haven’t already read At Swim Two Birds, you might need to know that on the very first page, the narrator states that he doesn’t see why a book should have only one beginning, or words to that purpose, more or less. He immediately launches into three separate beginnings complete with separate plots and characters. Very soon however, basically anytime their fictional author is asleep, the characters begin to lead lives of their own. The narrator, who is distinct from the fictional author/authors of these stories, intersperses the characters’ doings with Biographical Reminiscences of his own concerning his student life, sleeping late, missing lectures and other vital student activities. If you have already read this book, If you have already read this book...is there an echo?
Oh, ok, I get it, there’s no one here, they’ve all gone off to read Vanishing Poin
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68.1k followers
September 26, 2020
Inmates In Charge of the Asylum

Novelists are, of course, fraudsters. They make a living by telling lies just enough like the truth to be credible and passing that off as work. Of course it isn’t work, but mostly boozing and collecting daft comments made by other people, mostly other writers as it turns out. They even turn their plagiarism into a principle of artistic technique: “Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference.”

But even a fraud and layabout must sleep from time to time. And there’s the chance for the interchangeable characters to exert a bit of independent thinking. Tired of being trapped in insipid prose and tired plots, they can take a few literary initiatives of their own. They’re fed up with the braggadocio, fighting and womanising of the likes of Finn McCool and other Celtic heroes. And the outdated styles of Joyce, Beckett, Zane Grey, Eliot and Pound. They want quality; and they get it. Poetry that sings:
“When things go wrong and will not come right, Though you do the best you can, When life looks black as the hour of night - A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.”
“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.”
“When health is bad and your heart feels strange, And your face is pale and wan, When doctors say that you need a change, A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.”
“When food is scarce and your larder bare And no rashers grease your pan, When hunger grows as your meals are rare - A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN”
“In time of trouble and lousy strife, You have still got a darlint plan, You still can turn to a brighter life - A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN!”

And who would argue? To hell with King Sweeny and the whole lot o’ them ungainly fellers flying from glen to glen like giant fowl. We need new heroes, like that bloke who can long jump to beat the band. That Jumping Irishman is a world-beater. And let’s not forget the merits of the Good Fairy, a wraith not be confused with your run of the mill leprechauns who don’t give nearly such good advice.

The trick is to keep these writing blokes unconscious. “We must invert our conception of repose and activity... We should not sleep to recover the energy expended when awake but rather wake occasionally to defecate the unwanted energy that sleep engenders.” That way novels would be in the hands of the experts, not the amateur wannabes with nothing new worth writing about.
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews7,022 followers
April 8, 2014

Did not think that anything more zany than the 'Third Policeman' was possible (people who like 'Lost' should check the book out, by the way)... On my first read of this book (in 2009) I was too entranced with the main plot device of the characters plotting against the author, etc and probably overlooked the insane ironies, the scathing parodies and the Joycean aspects.

Consider: Flann O’Brien offers the reader three possible openings and even has his narrator remark that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity.

Now I know why this is a classic. A must read for Borges and Calvino fans. Tristram Shandy, here I come.

Caveat: Store up oodles of patience before starting on this book. It is nonsensical beyond ordinary comprehension.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,196 reviews9,478 followers
May 22, 2012
This is a seriously lovely inch perfect parabola of joy which everyone ought to at least try. Go on! You know you want to. All right, you didn't know you wanted to. But i know you better than that! Would I lie? How long have we known each other now? Well then, have I ever recommended a duff book? Name one. There, you can't. I admit that At Swim Two birds won't be everybody's slice of schwarzwälder kirschtorte. Probably some will stumble away pallid and looking like they've spent a week with a mad Irish person who has like this major multiple personality disorder and absolutely no grasp on reality. But that's okay. You have to give a little, take a little and sometimes let your poor heart break a little. And that's the story of - that's the glory of reading. So how to describe this novel-thing. If a book could be a Mobius strip or a Klein bottle it would probably not be At Swim Two Birds because At Swim Two Birds is much weirder than those things. In fact this book is the gold standard of weirdness. I'd say, for example, that Kraken by China Mieville scores maybe only five and a half on the At Swim scale. And that one is pretty strange. There is of course G K Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, and that scores a ghastly 8 on the At Swim scale, AND was written in 1908, thirty years before At Swim, but by the end you can see old GK was straining for effect, and that's something At Swim just never has to do.

There is of course the New Weird or Bizarro fiction which I've yet to try. But that stuff seems to be a lot of camping about, like Carry On Weird Ass. Some examples stolen from a website I found :

“Washer Mouth” by Kevin L. Donihe is about a washing machine who becomes human in order to follow his dream of becoming a soap opera star. “Sex and Death in Television Town” by Carlton Mellick III – a weird western where a band of hermaphrodite gunslingers have their last stand in a town where its citizens have televisions for heads. “Shatnerquake” by Jeff Burk is about every character that William Shatner has ever played enter our reality with one mission: hunt down and destroy the real William Shatner. “The Haunted Vagina” by Carlton Mellick III is about the relationship problems that occur once a man discovers that his girlfriend’s vagina is a gateway to the world of the dead. “Ass Goblins of Auschwitz” by Cameron Pierce ---

ooof, let's stop there. At Swim Two Birds was published in 1939 and it has beauty, wit and heart, a lot of Irishness and a lot of Shandyness. It also has a plot which it would be a form of torture to have to summarise. Or let's say "plot" become a distant dream by chapter three. Plot creeps back inside a couple of times only to be defenestrated immediately.

At Swim puts a smile on your face which doesn't wear off for days. It doesn't overbalance into stupid whimsy, and this is where you have to have the self-assurance of Picasso or Klee and completely believe in the line you're talking for a walk.

Please say you'll be tryin
Flann O'Brien
His book is more fun
Than a big currant bun

And I said hey babe, take a walk on the weird side
Hey honey - take a walk on the weird side
And all the Goodreaders sing
Do do do do do do do do
Do do do do do do do do
Do do do do do do do do
Do do do do do do do do
Profile Image for Geoff.
444 reviews1,191 followers
December 10, 2012
A Review Composed of Interrogatives and Speculations

What are we to make of At Swim-Two-Birds? Despite the fact of its being one of the laugh-out-loud funniest, most absurdly and grossly comedic, most intelligent novels I’ve ever read, At Swim-Two-Birds is simultaneously profoundly cruel, cruelly profound, unsettling, and causes such a discord with the idea of imaginative reality and authority in fiction that I would say that the overall effect of reading the book is something akin to a blend of intellectual burning, horror, and disorientation. Truly a book about nothing except levels of fictive reality, it tears a wormhole in the fabric of fiction and it does not do this in the service of an expanding universe but a collapsing one. What O’Brien built here is meant to dismantle. The idea that characters in novels live autonomous lives in some vague limbo beyond our reality and are only called into something like temporary employment when written about by authors is not so mind-bending as all that. What O’Brien gets at in At Swim-Two-Birds is the next step, and it is a step into an abyss. What is stopping the characters in a novel from starting a novel within the novel about the author of the novel that is writing them? What then is the proof that as author X sits writing his or her precious, modern, important novel at a well-stocked desk he or she is not simply a character being thrown into action by some other authorship at a higher or lower or next door dimensional remove, to be prodded and animated at his or her or its whim for whatever purpose of narrative? And what if that narrative is not some blissful bildungsroman or cheeky romance but what if this author-in-another-dimension despises author X and wishes on X the tortures of the damned? Might this give you yourself pause before you, yes you, Goodreads reader and writer, sit down to compose your own creative work?

Further interrogatives:

-So what are our responsibilities over our imaginings and creations?
-Is there really that much distance between a thing imagined and a thing actual?
-What tiny steps are there between a thought and an action? (Lou Reed says that between thought and expression lies a lifetime, but that was the heroin talking; between thought and the physical world there is only a bright, thin, misty veil or vale.)
-Are characters in novels subject to the golden rule and a democratic governance, accorded their due freedoms by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Emancipation Proclamation, sundry constitutions and modern human rights laws?
-What happens at Swim-Two-Birds?

Speculation on the latter, influenced by Gilbert Sorrentino’s essay “Fictional Infinities”:

Mad King Sweeney is a major player in O’Brien’s book. MKS is forced by a curse to jump from treetop to treetop like a bird, naked, in the wilds, at the mercy of nature, starving and blighted, for seven years. He sings his lays in a weak and tortured voice from the treetops, and makes songs of all the places he is forced to encamp above limb- and leaf-wise. Of all the churches and villages and forests and valleys Sweeney is made to visit, one is curiously brushed over in a brisk paragraph. Swim-Two-Birds is the song never sung in the novel. Swim-Two-Birds is what is absent from the novel, and therefore absent from the distorting effects of the narrative logic of At Swim-Two-Birds. It is the thing unspoken, the silent thing that cannot be touched or defiled by coming into existence.

Sweeney is an object of torture at the hands of some medieval scribe. His suffering is in the service of creating beautiful songs. What does it mean that much of history can be seen as using foundations of great suffering to build the things that last?

Additional interrogative and brief speculation:

Furthermore, what are we to make of Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen/Brother Barnabas né Brian O’Nolan? The man thrice removed from his given name, whose first novel is composed at least 6 and then some removes from any kind of authorial orientation, who suppressed his second masterpiece, The Third Policeman throughout his lifetime with some flimsy and ridiculous excuse of “having lost the only manuscript” (it miraculously “turned up” right after his death), who exhausted much of his literary energy in composing short, pseudonymous columns in the Irish Times, after having proven himself capable of writing Joyce/Sterne/Rabelais-ean wonderworks. I love Gil Sorrentino’s idea that the many pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan took on during his career and the distance he kept between himself and his fictions were indeed a defense against this idea he came upon writing At Swim-Two-Birds- if the characters of any of his novels ever got the idea to write a book about their author, Brian O’Nolan would be safely removed from that revenge. Flann O’Brien, a man that only kind of exists, would be the subject of that novel within a novel within a novel within a novel within a...

Concluding Discursion

This book obviously messed with my head a bit and there is an additional reason for this. The book I read previous to At Swim-Two-Birds was DT Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace entitled “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story”. I read this book in two days while I was suffering a not inconsequential fever, and one of the results of this impaired or heightened or fevered reading state was that I could not shake this uncanny feeling that every time I resumed my reading of that book I was reanimating DFW, bringing him literally back to life, making him grow up again and play tennis again and go to Amherst again and go through all his trials and sufferings again and write Infinite Jest again and do whatever the hell happened with Mary Karr again, etc. I felt I was by reading Wallace’s life resetting time and making him live everything all over again. A ghost story, but the ghost still has to go through the motions while the story lasts. It made me feel guilty and somewhat sad and perplexed and nauseated. The nausea however probably had to do with my illness. Anyway, the very next book I pick up to read is Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, the whole point of which is that characters in novels are autonomous beings, and what an author or reader compels them to act out or live through in a novel actually happens to them, and that these characters can bleed through into our reality and begin to take action on us. This compounded my guilt about making DFW relive his painful life, it added credence to my fever-fueled imaginings, it did me no good whatsoever.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
861 reviews2,188 followers
July 22, 2016
"Piteous Though Such Fraud Be"

The epigraph in Greek script at the beginning of the novel reads "for all things change, making way for each other".

It comes from the following passage of Euripides’ "Heracles":

"Daughter, there may yet be a happy escape
From present troubles for me and you;
My son, your husband, may yet arrive.
So calm yourself, and wipe those tears
From your children's eyes,
And soothe them with soft words,
Inventing a tale to delude them,
Piteous though such fraud be.
Yes, for even men's misfortunes often flag,
And the stormy wind does not always blow so strong,
Nor are the prosperous ever so;
For all things change, making way for each other.
The bravest man is he who relies ever on his hopes,
But despair is the mark of a coward."

At The Deep-End

The challenge in reading "At Swim-Two-Birds" is knowing when and how to start and when and how to stop. (A bit like drinking really.)

It purports to start with three alternative beginnings. That’s if you don’t count the framing device, which presumably adds a first or fourth beginning.

Similarly, it contains antepenultimate, penultimate and ultimate conclusions.

In between is a lot of carnivalesque fun and play and celebration.

You can read the novel exclusively, assuming that it contains everything that you require to understand it.

Alternatively, like James Joyce’s "Ulysses", you can read it as an inclusive text, whose role is to allude to, embrace and include other texts within its scope and meaning.

Like "Ulysses", it's a tale of real life Dubliners.

Unlike Proust, in the words of the novel itself, it doesn’t purport to be "a high-class story in which the names of painters and French wines are used with knowledge and authority".

It’s very much a stout tale, even if it's well educated.

Walking a Straight Line

Superficially, it’s about drinking (porters and stout), promiscuity, dissolution, dissipation, disputation and graduation.

This is its subject matter. But it’s also its modus operandi. Amazingly for a novel written in 1939, it’s as far from a linear narrative as you can get:

"One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with."

Inevitably, given this approach, it's a novel (or several novels) within a novel.

It also documents a rebellion of the characters against the author, almost as if they were actors disputing with the playwright or the director (a major, credited influence on Christine Brooke-Rose's "Textermination").

It’s like listening to a drunk tell a tale while you’re also drunk in the company of other drunks who interject and interfere with the narrative , and then trying to recall it the following day in bed, when you’re suffering from the greatest hangover ever experienced by an Irishman.

Necessary or Probable Cause

This literary device plays around with our perceptions of causation:

"All things change, making way for each other."

There is no one cause, but many. Not only is there a Deus Ex Machina, but a Diabolus Ex Machina is present as well. They fight it out before our very eyes.

Also, things don't seem to change in any particular order or sequence. The novel seems to be designed to frustrate the intentions of at least one author.

In the words of Aristotle, nothing seems or is allowed to be "necessary or probable".

Much of the action seems unnecessary and improbable.

Things don’t go from A to B, let alone to Z. Or perhaps they do arrive at Z, but not necessarily via B? How are we to know?

Narrativus Interruptus

How does Flann O'Brien do it? How does he play with our perceptions? Having invited us to his bar, what liquor is he serving? Does he serve it responsibly?

To start off with, he writes in the first person:

"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."*

* I should mention in this context that Kant gets a mention later in the novel.

The primary narrator decides to write a novel. One of its characters decides to write a novel. That character creates another character whom he impregnates, giving birth to an adult son, who also wishes to write a novel. We follow the second novel intermittently, until its characters rebel against its author. The son's first creative act is to influence the novel he is already in, the novel his father has been writing.

This creates chaos within the novel[s] within the novel. However, you can argue that it also creates chaos within the primary or framing novel.

Ironically, without necessarily knowing it, the narrator of the novel within the novel might have rebelled against the narrator of the primary novel.

If so, did the primary narrator rebel against the author (Flann O’Brien) or did he maintain control of his novel?

Does it matter? Is this novel about control or chaos? Or both, controlled chaos, or perhaps even a highly managed clusterfuck?

"The more one studies the problem, the more one postulates a cerebral norm."

Where There's Stout, There's Hope

A norm might be the obvious answer to the problem.

On the other hand, it might be exactly what needs to be avoided.

Perhaps, the point is that we (and our fictions) should eschew cerebral norms, that normality warrants rebellion, that we worry too much, that we get discouraged and depressed too easily in our quest to conform with the crowd, that "despair is the mark of a coward"?

In this way, the novel is an heroic literary exploration of non-conformity, a precursor to Post-Modernism.

Still, "At Swim-Two-Birds" never takes itself too seriously. It is above all an entertainment. The novel can be enjoyed solely at this level, without all of its Post-Modern accoutrements, as just a "tale that deludes us", a "happy escape", a stout-fuelled escapade or piece of escapism.

A Novel In Which the Plot is Brewed

Somehow, I think alcohol has a large part to play in the novel's constitution and effect on us.

This is a tale in which the plot is brewed, if not with ale, then with porter and stout, the dark ales.

Maybe we're wrong to say that "trouble is brewing", maybe, as pubs everywhere would have us believe, brewing is the solution?

The mind boggles. At the same time, the throat is dry.

Are you ready for a gargle? It’s my shout. Would you like a Guinness? A pint of plain?


This Pome Contains Two Rhymes Perverse

When you’ve just finished "At Swim-Two-Birds"
And you’re trying to rhyme like Flann,
Don’t worry if you’re lost for words:

Are You Drinking With Us or a Guinness?

"Wait, listen to this before it’s lost,"
Urgently interposed Shanahan,
"If it’s just your thirst that you want quashed,

A Wee Stout Ne'er Ailed the Chance of Any Man

If you’d known Mary was the daughter
Of a rich and famous publican,
There’s but one drink you would have bought her:

Before Drinking Stout, Take the Proper Precautions

If your love object seems didactic,
One sip’s enough, so you’d better plan
To have on you a prophylactic:

A Gawk on Defiled Side

Sheila came from Dublin in Ireland
At the Red Swan she was everybody's darling
Dermot made her up so he might seduce her
Though not even pregnancy could reduce her.

Still, offended, she would be her own avenger
As soon as she got out of bed, she adventured,
"Pooka, you and your Good Fairy
Get off your bums and on your feet.

"You're comin' down the pub with Orlick
And me and Finn and Sweeney,
You all need look no further
For soul food and a place to eat.

"We'll have a few pints of Guinness
Then I guess we'll overthrow the author."
Dermot, spooked, was last seen at Swim-Two-Birds,
Muttering incomprehensible words.

Was it coke or speed? We'll never know
But you should have seen him go go go.
Valium would have helped his diction,
But we'll settle for this work of metafiction.

Apologies to Lou Reed and Paul Bryant

See Paul's review here:



Eamon Morrissey - "A Pint of Plain Is Your Only Man"


Ronnie Drew (The Dubliners) - "A Pint of Plain Is Your Only Man"


Starts at 3:26

"The Dubliners are very fond of the 'gargle'...and it took a great frequenter of Dublin pubs, Flann O'Brien, to write what amounts to a homage to the 'gargle'..."

Gerry McGowan (Gerry Smyth) - "A Pint o' Plain" [set to music]


According to Professor GoogleWiki:

"In 2011 Smyth wrote a two-man show entitled 'The Brother' which he adapted from the work of Flann O'Brien.

"He performed the play (with actor David Llewellyn, directed by Andrew Sherlock) at an international Flann O'Brien conference in Vienna in July 2011, and at another international conference in Trieste in May 2012.

"The Brother had a six-night run at the Edinburgh Free Fringe Festival in August 2012, and has subsequently been performed at the Eleanor Rathbone Theatre (the University of Liverpool) and as part of the 2012 May Festival at the University of Aberdeen.

"Smyth wrote a companion piece entitled 'Will the Real Flann O'Brien ...? A Life in Five Scenes' which he performed (in a double header with 'The Brother') at the 2013 Liverpool Irish Festival."


The Daughters of Mary - "The Angelus"

223 reviews195 followers
January 6, 2013
Here is how this goes. On an intellectual level, at Swim two Birds is nonpareil. Its like watching an expert surgeon performing keyhole surgery par excellence: not a wrong move, each clinical motion precisely fitted and flowing effortlessly into the next: a symphony of elegantly executed literary manoeuvres which coalesce discrete etudes into a continuo of cohesiveness: no faults. Not a one. Innovative, large, yet humble, sprawling, yet mindful of an epicentre, gargantuan ambition anchored in realistic tether, liquid flowing prose with perfectly timed rhythm: what is there to complain about?


Yet here I am on my ship, and there Flan O’Brian is on his, and we pass each other in the night.
Profile Image for Blaine.
749 reviews613 followers
February 9, 2022
Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before—usually said much better.

As a matter of fact, said the Good Fairy, I do not understand two words of what you have said and I do not know what you are talking about. Do you know how many subordinate clauses you used in that last oration of yours, Sir?
At Swim-Two-Birds is … really hard to describe. At surface level, it’s about an unnamed college student who to the great annoyance of his uncle would rather sleep in, drink, and hang out with friends. You know, like college students do. The student has been writing a novel about a bad writer, Dermot Trellis, who believes in simply borrowing characters from other works of fiction, mythology, and folklore to populate his novel. These characters, who live together with Dermot at the Red Swan Hotel, are unhappy with the way Dermot treats them: making them cruel, failing to explain things to them, forgetting about them and leaving them twisting in the wind. So they conspire to rebel against him, including writing their own book in which they are able to torture Dermot and have their revenge.

So, yeah, there is a book within a book within a book within this book At Swim-Two-Birds. And that really only scratches the surface of the weirdness on parade here. Long stretches of the story take place within the fictional story being written by Dermot, with these wildly disparate characters—among them, a devil, a fairy, a warrior, a cowboy—slowly coming together and trading strange and strangely detailed stories. The writing style is very experimental and meta. There are all of these italicized asides in which the narrator sets out certain descriptions. For example, after stating that a character chuckled, there a little paragraph “Nature of chuckles: Quiet, private, averted.” It’s odd, and had this novel been more recently, I imagine it would have been written with footnotes in a manner like Infinite Jest.

I can handle weird metafiction. A cow briefly takes the stand in a trial against Dermot to complain that he forgot to have her milked? That’s hilarious. And the book did get better as it went along. But in the end, At Swim-Two-Birds didn’t work for me. There were long stretches of the story were pretty boring, tedious and overly descriptive about irrelevant details. It’s that brand of comic that’s rarely actually funny. The story is so convoluted that it was very difficult to follow. It’s praised as a classic of Irish literature, but I couldn’t tell if the novel was pro-Irish literature or subversively mocking it. It may work better for a reader with some knowledge of the Irish history and folklore being referred to throughout the book.

In terms of reading experience, At Swim-Two-Birds was more of a 1-star book. Finishing it took real effort. But I’m giving a second star because even though it didn’t work for me, the author was really going for something original here, and this book was apparently very influential over a range of Irish writers. But if I’m in the mood for metafiction, I’d much rather reread Six Characters in Search of an Author, House of Leaves, or Redshirts.
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,305 followers
March 20, 2010
Flann O'Brien is surely Ireland's most neglected writer. Though his talent was on a par with the genius of his contemporaries, Joyce and Beckett, he has never come close to achieving the same degree of recognition. There are several possible explanations for this. The simplest is that Joyce and Beckett managed to cut the umbilical cord - though Mother Ireland featured large in their writing, they both managed to make an escape, living the latter part of their lives in exile. This might not seem like a big thing, but the conservatism, stasis and repression that characterized Irish 'cultural life" in the first decades of the new Republic were truly horrendous. Dominance of the Catholic hierarchy was absolute, writers were subject to heavy censorship at the hands of both Church and State, the appetite for novelty was non-existent. This was the Ireland of "Angela's Ashes".

While Joyce and Beckett made their escape (hell, even the McCourts made their escape), Flann O'Brien stayed, working for most of his life in the Irish civil service. At Swim-Two-Birds, his first novel, was published in 1939. Although it was well-received (championed by Graham Greene, publicly acclaimed by both Joyce and Beckett), the timing was perhaps not the best. Europe, it is fair to say, had other things on its collective mind.

Some first novelists are tentative, growing into their craft over time. Even those who subsequently mess with the rules often start out on a conventional note (Joyce had to work up to the horror that is Finnegans Wake). But occasionally there surfaces a talent so brilliant that the rules go out the window. Bulgarov's "The Master and Margarita" is an obvious example - a masterpiece not only because of the author's genius, but because he also had the confidence to give free rein to his genius, parting company with more or less everything you might expect from a novel. "At Swim-Two-Birds" shows the same kind of dementedly funny, astonishingly brilliant, throw-caution-to-the-winds talent. It is sui generis, absolutely hilarious, and breathtakingly accomplished. It's hard to describe adequately, but I'll give it a shot.

From the very first paragraph, we are on notice that the book doesn't play by the conventional rules. The narrator, a literature student at University College Dublin, tells us that he disagrees with the notion that a book should have 'one beginning and one ending' and immediately proves it by providing three completely different openings. The first introduces the "Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class", another involves "Mr John Furriskey, who had the distinction of being born at the age of twenty-five, entering the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it", while the final opening features Ireland's
legendary hero Finn MacCool, a man not only skilled in declaiming vast tracts of Irish epic verse, but absolutely hellbent on doing so. Within a few pages, characters from the three initially distinct stories are wandering in and out of each other's tales, with the situation being further complicated by the realization that John Furriskey is actually a character in a potboiler being dreamed up by yet another writer, Dermot Trellis, a scribbler so inferior that his characters ultimately rise up against him, refusing to act out the plot that Trellis has concocted for them. Add to the story the character of mad Sweeney, accursed bird-king of the Dal Riada, with a penchant for spouting serial mock heroic stanzas bewailing his fate. Mix in a "fast-drinking cast of students, fairies, cowpunchers and clerics", and there's never a dull moment. In the hands of a lesser author things could spiral disastrously out of control.

O'Brien not only pulls it off, he is hilariously funny, with a command of the language that is unmatched by any other author that I know.

There are paragraphs like this:

I like gull-cries and the twittering together of fine cranes. I like the surf-roar at Tralee, the songs of the three sons of Meadhra and the whistle of Mac Lughaidh. These also please me, man-shouts at a parting, cuckoo-call in May. I incline to like pig-grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whinging of fauns in Derrynish. The low warble of water-owls in Loch Barra also, sweeter than life that. I am fond of wing-beating in dark belfries, cow-cries in pregnancy, trout-spurt in a lake-top. Also the whining of small otters in nettle-beds at evening, the croaking of small-jays behind a wall, these are heart-pleasing. I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen mona, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sleibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough-gull, the long-eared bush-owl, the Wicklow small-fowl, the bevil-beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common corby, the fish-tailed mud-piper, the cruiskeen lawn, the carrion sea-cock, the green-lidded parakeet, the brown bog-martin, the maritime wren, the dove-tailed wheatcrake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill-bantam and the pilibeen cathrach. A satisfying ululation is the contending of a river with the sea. Good to hear is the chirping of little red-breasted men in bare winter and distant hounds giving tongue in the secrecy of god. The lamenting of a wounded otter in a black hole, sweeter than harpstrings that.

O'Brien unleashed the book in 1939, hardly the time for "exuberant literary experiments". Sadly, when he submitted his equally subversive (and equally brilliant, IMO) second novel "The Third Policeman" to his publishers the following year, they rejected it. (Shades of Bulgarov, it was published posthumously in 1967)

In 1940, under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen (Miles of the little horses), O'Brien began to write a regular satirical column in The Irish Times. It was, depending on one's place in the power structure, loved, celebrated, admired, respected and feared. Several collections of the pieces have been published - if you want to see pure comic and satirical genius in action on a daily basis, they are indispensable. Definitely a fundamental part of Ireland's literary history and some of the funniest, smartest stuff to be found anywhere.

What I am strongly suggesting, folks, is that you take the trouble to seek out either of the two novels "At Swim-Two-Birds or The Third Policeman and devote an afternoon or an evening to sampling one of Ireland's forgotten geniuses.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,380 reviews2,256 followers
May 6, 2023

At last. A classic Irish novel that didn't leave me wanting to climb the walls and pull my hair out. (Finnegans's what?; who?; where?—whatever). This was fun to read mostly, but I can't lie—just what is it about some of these Irish writers, boy it could be tough going in places.

It's comical and farcical nature sure did result in quite a few laughs—would have been even better tanked up on Guinness, but to keep on top of the three main plot threads convoluting around inside a maze makes trying to describe the overall goings on the equivalent of trying to swim against the current with arms pumped full of barbiturates. There is a lazy student, I do know that. A link to the Battle of Moira in 637. A pulp western writer within a writer—the student, who is having trouble with his characters rebelling against him. Something about a mythical Irish hero and, oh....another writer, Orlick, writing a novel about putting the other writer, Trellis, on trial. It has to be experienced rather than described really. For its laugh out loud moments alone, a 4/5 is about right, because it was so darn funny!

Here's a scary thought—could you imagine had Thomas Pynchon been Irish....
Profile Image for Matt.
1,017 reviews663 followers
October 7, 2011
Cannot wait to start this one. Highly recommended, a couple of fun little bookstore investigations, just chomping at the bit. This book is going to be amazing. I can tell already.


and it WAS great. I had it on a four star basis throughout most of the reading, due to the metafictional thing leaving me just the slightest bit dry and confused, just can't abide being TOO alienated from the story. But the last 20 pages brought me back and achieved an unexpected tenderness and a lyrical glow (available throughout the text, but turned up another notch in the concluding episodes)...

It was full of what I like most in fiction- wit, vividness, characterization, and Language, sweet sweet language. Flann O'Brian (Brian O'Nolan, to his mother) knows how to write: the mirrior-within-a-mirror thing only highlights the wonderfully alive qualities of the prose. An louche, unnamed student who revels in his sleep, his row of tattered books, and neglecting his studies and his Pecksniffian uncle to write a story about a dude named Delmont Trellis writing a story about some characters with names like Shanahan, Sweeney, and The Pooka Macphillimey, who in turn plan a sort of coup against their author, spawning madcap dialogues of discussion of topics as pressing and obscure as the numerology of truth (it's an odd number), the mythology of ancient Ireland, and whether or not one of them might be a kangaroo.

Sounds kind of strange, and it is, but O'Brian has enough rhetorical gusto to keep everyhthing running smoothly. I laughed, I perked up, I scratched my head, I whistled in awe and surprise. Like a cool, fresh, glitteringly dark draught of Guinness and the churning splash in your belly and brain afterwards....a quick trip through several layers of fiction which, properly speaking, aren't on any map at all...not bad for a brilliant newrag hack who liked the sauce and went through half a dozen pen names...Joyce (inescapable as infuence here, as in so many things, and yet splendidly rebuffed within the contours of this antic yarn) would have been proud- and proud he was, we have on fairly solid evidence that it was the last book he ever read, with magnifying glass and milkman's outfit to catch the shine of the sun, and put it aside with the approving, Elysian murmur "this man has the true comic spirit."



Here's a part of a small paper I wrote about the book in comparison with Joyce:

Realism Squared: “At Swim-Two-Birds” As Joycean Counter-Sublime

In this paper I will try to show how Flann O’Brien’s novel “At Swim- Two- Birds” exemplifies Harold Bloom’s concept of the ‘counter-sublime’ as a response to the powerful textual influence of Joyce, one of his authentic textual precursors. Bloom asserts that in Counter-Sublime “the later poet opens himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent-poem that does not belong to the parent proper, but to a range of being just beyond that precursor.” O’Brien’s text contains much within it which is Joycean but ultimately frees itself from being derivative or overtaken by Joycean energies by innovatively creating another, newer space which out-Joyces Joyce, as it were. It would not be fair to O’Brien, nor to any writer, to critically fold his or her work into the sole domain of any previous writer, no matter how influential they might have been. Influence is omnipresent in all texts, of course, and it is well worth seeking out for critical analysis. What can be illuminated through comparing a text with its assumed predecessor is often of value, curiosity, and well worth examining.

The danger a critic of influence runs almost by definition, however, is that one’s zeal in critically comparing two texts can sometimes overshadow the essential innovation and individual vision of the text on the later end of the comparison. History is always relevant: no text exists in a vacuum, whole and unto itself. The obscure nature of literary inspiration is always, to some degree at least, a response to the rhetorical, structural, and philosophical moves which have gone before. What critics of influence might mistake as mimicry or misreading in one text might instead be a radical re-definition or revolution in form, function, or worldview of that text. Criticism of influence can be very helpful in understanding what makes a text unique, as long as the text is read ultimately within its own light, on its own terms, and as a world which responds to but is not finally subsumed by what may have followed it.

The shadow of James Joyce is clearly present for Flann O’Brien, as it might be for any Irish novelist in the 20th Century. Joyce was of course deeply formally experimental, but also wide-ranging enough in his modes of fiction that he could fairly be called, at various points in his career, and for various reasons, a Realist, or a Surrealist, a Modernist, or a Post-Modernist, or what-you-will. Not only was his ability as a writer so obviously powerful, but his constant innovation with form intricately develops throughout his work. One can trace the progression of his styles from the Chekhovian realism of “Dubliners” to the stream-of-consciousness re-imagining of the traditional Buildungsroman in “A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man“, the Ibsenesque “Exiles“, and the grand summation of “Ulysses“. What is important about this progression in Joyce is what makes the comparison between his work and O’Brien’s so important- what we see in Joyce is the unfolding of a certain kind of Realism.

This term can be too easily applied as a catch-all but it is worth applying to Joyce in both “Portrait“ and “Ulysses” for the simple fact that, throughout most of these books, Joyce is not actually departing from the Realist goal of exactness, verisimilitude, and ‘holding the mirror up to nature’ at all. Instead he is adding another level to what such a context might mean. In classic Realist works, we are often given exact descriptions of landscapes, interiors of rooms, social context, character interaction, and so forth. What we as readers are not often permitted access to is the internal dialogue within the minds of the characters- we may see what they do, but not necessarily see it through their own eyes. Expressing the inner workings of the characters’ minds is not often the goal. If there is some explanation for what a character is thinking, we might be informed as to the subject of their thought process, but not shown precisely how they think. In The Informer, for example, early in the story we are led to assume that Gyppo Nolan is thinking about turning McPhilip in to the authorities, but we are not given access to his individual thoughts as they occur to him.

In “Portrait” and especially “Ulysses”, the reality of the characters and their reactions to their surroundings is profoundly connected to their internal monologues as they experience the world around them. Joyce’s attention to detail is precise, of course, and he is famous for telling Frank Budgen that he hoped that “if Dublin were to suddenly disappear from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” This attention to detail is fair enough on Realism’ terms, but Joyce takes this devotion to verisimilitude one step farther. When Stephen Dedalus is walking along the beach in the second chapter, we are given not only his reaction to his surrounding environment but what it inspires in him, his meditations on ‘the ineluctable modality of the visible’ and of the ‘audible‘:

“Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsoever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander…My two feet in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick.”

What is important about this excerpt is that it shows us Joyce‘s innovation. The literal and the perceived is happening alternately, being written with equal attention. It is perfectly fair to focus on the literal action in terms of Realism, but Joyce gives us Stephen’s internal hum of thought, perception, speculation as it happens. This is also reality- no human being who walks anywhere amid the world is alien to this quiet hum, this presence, and Joyce captures it with amazing accuracy. It is no less real for being entirely located within Stephen’s consciousness. We are still very much on terra firma. Joyce had advanced the concept of Realism in art by expanding it, by creating a literary space wide enough to accommodate both immediate experience and perception of that experience.

In “At Swim-Two-Birds”, Flann O’Brien rises equally to this occasion and transcends it through innovations of its own. O’Brien’s gestures towards realism’s exactitude are strong and consistent. Whenever the narrator describes something for us he is thorough and exact with his language, and not only this but he intensifies the realism of his language by interrupting the flow of the narrative with stage directions which isolate and specify his description to an extraordinary, Joycean degree: “I surveyed my uncle in a sullen manner. He speared a portion of cooked rasher against a crust on the prongs of his fork and poised the whole at the opening of his mouth in a token of continued interrogation. 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.” (2)

The physical details and the location of the action could not be clearer, more specific, and more fully realized. We are, as readers, hanging on the edge of his Uncle’s fork. We see everything about the Uncle immediately, in the real, within the proper coordinates for time and space. The same applies to his description of his school: “The hallway inside is composed of large black and white squares arranged in the orthodox chessboard pattern, and the surrounding walls…bear three rough smudges caused by the heels, buttocks and shoulders of the students.” (29) This minute attention paid to the intricacies of space and contact with the empirical world are significant, in that O’Brien will later subvert them consistently. This is excellent prose, but it is also Joycean. O’Brien’s narrator (and, by extension, O’Brien) is about to depart from Joyce, into the kingdom of his mind, and he will begin to write. And this will free him from more empirical things, especially the looming shadow of the man with the ash plant.

One of the best openings of the narrator’s novel (hard to choose any specific one when there are several and after all, we know that for the student/narrator the idea that “one beginning and one ending for a book” is something he does not at all subscribe to and that the epigraph (O’Brien’s? The Student’s?) to the text itself mentions in an obscure reference that “all things go out and give place one to another”!) which displays the kind of space which O’Brien creates is the “Shorthand note of a cross-examination of Mr. Trellis at a later date on the occasion of his being on trial for his life, the birth of Furriskey being the subject of the examination referred to:” (38) Automatically we realize that as readers we are taken to a space which is not directly located, strictly speaking, on any map. This is a fictional arraignment of a fictional character by his own fictional characters, none of whom are located on earth. They do exist as figments of the student’s imagination, but they aren’t seen in the light of day. It’s interesting and significant that this particular interrogation is definitively ontological in nature. The cross-examination is concerned with the existence of sensations and consciousness of the fictional character in question:

“His sensations?
Bewilderment, perplexity…
Are not these terms synonymous and one as a consequence redundant?
Yes: but the terms of the inquiry postulated unsingular information…
Is it not possible to be more precise?
It is. He was consumed by doubts as to his own identity, as to the nature of his body and the cast of his countenance.
In what manner did he resolve these doubts?
By the sensory perception of his ten fingers.
By feeling?
Yes.” (38-39)

But what, exactly, does he feel? Where is he? It’s easy to imagine that this is a world which exists only in the imagination; only as a fictional construct. The meta-fiction is a reality unto itself, all the more so for being very directly probed and prodded, the way a person in a padded cell might push against the contours of the room. If the student were only recounting this story to his friend Brinsley (and he does, at points) that would be Joycean to the extent that it acutely acknowledges the divide between external reality and internal perception of that reality. O’Brien takes the cue from Joyce’s complex portrayal of the real and creates a literary space where he can get rid of this dialectic and replace it with one of his own- his fictional characters arguing with each other about the nature of their own existence.

The relativistic ontology of this is reinforced in the sense that the characters act within their own context, as if the fictional world they inhabit is as real as the forest plot of ‘Swim-Two-Birds’ itself or of Dublin or of anywhere else. What might reality be like for a character which has become aware of his own fictional contingency, and thus (seemingly having no other choice) treats his own fictional contingency as reality? This is only a slight sketching of the limitless contours of the space O’Brien opens with his text. The fact that characters from Irish mythology (Sweeney, Finn McCool, etc) inhabit the same space as those who were creations of O’Brien emphasizes the fiction at play (or at swim). The student seems to write them as though they are real enough but only to the extent that any of the other, more recently fictional figures (Trellis, Orlick, etc) are real. O’Brien juxtaposes mythology with his own fiction in order to use them each simultaneously as indicators of truth and falsehood. They are real in the sense that they signify their own reality (if O’Brien had never written the book in the first place and continued being an annoyed civil servant, where would they have ended up?) and by doing so they necessarily occupy a space all their own, which is ultimately O’Brien’s.

It’s significant that as this alternate reality progresses throughout the text, the student will occasionally break through to inform the reader of the minutiae of his days. Almost two thirds of the day through the book, we are given “Biographical reminiscence, part the eighth” and “Nature of daily regime or curriculum.” (160) Again, the loops of metatextuality are complexly anchored in very specific accounts of time and space. This might be seen as an example of Joseph Frank’s concept of spatial forms: “the principle of reflexive reference: units of meaning must be apprehended reflexively, in an instant of time.” The student is very scrupulous about informing the reader about moment of time and what they signify- for him. For the characters, we see W.J.T Mitchell’s fourth level of spatial form: “the interpretive: the patterns are not merely formal principles which govern the temporal unfolding of the story but are the very metaphysics which lies behind a story told about this world in this particular way.”

The first spatial form might lend itself to Stephen’s meandering along the beach, listening to his footsteps along the crackle of the rocks. We know as readers where he is in time, in space, and so does he. Mitchell’s level might suggest the new space opened by O’Brien’s stylistic innovations. The metaphysic is the medium, which is the message. O’Brien has, as is were, taken Joyce’s worldly dialectic and levitated it to a place which is ineluctably visible but forever out of reach. This naturally follows us to question the idea of truth itself, of reality. Is it merely a construct? Is it a fantasy?

Joyce is notorious for saying that he purposefully included many puzzles, riddles, and paradoxes into his texts to keep interested parties busy for years. This could be terribly pretentious for some, fascinating for others#. It could very well be that, implicit in such a statement, is a kind of reverence for truth, for the search for truth itself. The artist-as-god smiling amusedly at the mortals poking through his creation for eternity “indifferent, paring his fingernails” might work for Joyce, but O’Brien discards it.

There is a summation in his text which quietly suggests to the reader that such searching might be fun and intellectually worthwhile (a writer given to a panoply of pen names and who willfully includes obscure, parodyingly pedantic references (“Ars est celane artem,” the untypeable Greek “noise” on pg. 34) which are, in fact, evocative in themselves and relevant to the richness of the text would hardly be dismissive of that- the main character is a student, after all) but not enough to go mad over. O’Brien seems to suggest this with his irreverently sincere suggestion that “Evil is even, truth is an odd number, and death is a full stop.“ (237) He supplants Joyce’s impassive artist-creator-god figure with a democratic, rowdy, essentially comic one# and lets the chips fall where they may….which would be a place Stephen Dedalus, for all his silence, exile and cunning, could never reach. Unless, of course, he picked up the book and read it himself:

“Where are you going, I asked him.
To Byrne’s, he answered. Where are you going?
Michael Byrne was a man of diverse intellectual attainments and his house was frequently the scene of scholarly and other disputations…
Nowhere, I answered.
You might as well come along then, he said.
That, I answered, would be the chiefest wisdom.” (101)

For O’Brien, that nowhere is everywhere, and this includes Joyce even as it excludes him. The ‘nowhere’ is sublime enough, and complete enough, to be entirely his. The relinquishment (“good-bye, good-bye, good-bye”) in the last sentence hints that the world O’Brien has created for the student to create for himself and for we readers will truly exist only to the extent that the narrative, the words in order on successive pages, continues. When it doesn‘t, it is a movingly firm sealing off of what can never be, since what is written must be perpetually in a state of re-reading, of becoming.
Profile Image for Spiros.
827 reviews24 followers
October 9, 2007
Ok, it's official: I got to page 127, and I GIVE UP.
There were parts at the beginning of this book which I quite enjoyed. Unfortunately, after slogging through the last 80 or so pages of random witterings, I can't remember what they were or why I enjoyed them. A few casual impressions that I was left with:

1. "What do you read, my lord?
Words, words, words."
-HAMLET, Act II, scene 2

2. I am reasonably certain that, had I read this book in high school, I would have eaten it up; I would have read books on Irish myths and legends, I would have drawn Venn diagrams to plot the relationships of the various narrative threads. That was 25 years ago.

2,a. In the immortal words of Crash Davis, in BULL DURHAM: "I'm too old for this shit".

3. This is a work of brilliance, one of the great Irish novels. William Gass, who is exponentially more intelligent and learned than I could ever hope to be, categorically says so in his introduction. Having come to a standstill on page 127, I reread Gass' introduction, and feel that I know less about the book than when I first read the introduction.

3,a. I didn't get it.

3,a,i. To quote Dorothy Parker: "It was so far over my head, I couldn't even jump for it."

4. Maybe I was distracted because I have been following the play-offs, and eagerly anticipating the new Wes Anderson movie; maybe I am just a Philistine.

5. In the words of the John Lennon character in BACKBEAT: "It's all bollocks".

6. "...it is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing."
-MACBETH, Act V, scene 5
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,690 followers
January 10, 2020
"Evil is even, truth is an odd number, and death is a full stop."
- Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds


First, this is one of my favorite recent novels. I loved it. I loved its playfulness, originality, energy, discursiveness, absurdity. I loved the fugues of dialogue, the interruptions, insertions, the confusion of characters, the meta-fiction of youth. There were parts where I was quoting or reciting paragraphs, lines and poems from almost every page to my wife. Except with the poems, this proved difficult because there was seldom a break of coherence where I could explain exactly where we were, how we got there, or give her anything more than a vague sense of what exactly was happening. I felt validated after telling my wife that it felt like a mash-up between Joyce, Beckett, and Sterne.

Now, I've read O'Brien before, so my effusive love of this book didn't come as a complete shock because I also adored The Third Policeman. But still. Americans seem to be fantastic at making money and blowing shit up, but the IRISH can write. They may not be able to be psychoanalyzed, but dammit that mad clack of humans can scrib.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,308 reviews757 followers
December 2, 2014
But which of us can hope to probe with questioning finger the dim thoughts that flit in a fool's head.
I will admit, I liked The Third Policeman better. I will also admit to holding this as the better book, one with recognizable traces of TTP amidst so much more. There, alongside the author's singular wit and superb hand at mixing the pragmatic with the absurd until neither can tell which is the other, is performance, is parody, is a supreme consideration of reality's dance with fiction both foolish and all too wise. The book is a train with a sober first stop and a mad tomfoolery increase in speed with every page and nested trope, but the ending is well worth the grim hanging on for dear life.

I mentioned that I did not like this as much as my first reading of Flann O'Brien as conducted through the equally as peculiar dash of The Third Policeman. That right there is mostly bias, as in TTP there was a great deal of engineering style slap dash, physical laws and computational calculations extended to an absurdity in reality and a recognizable form in the classroom. There's a hint of that in At Swim-Two-Birds, a heavy dose of it near the end bringing some satisfaction to my Bioengineering bred sensibilities, but unfortunately for me O'Brien was far more focused this time on classical mind, specifically of the Irish. I caught a reference here and there, but the large tracts of Irish mythology escaped my enthusiasm in terms of anything more complex than story and poetical sensibilities.

However, that component was far from the majority of the work, and while being familiar with the original material augments enjoyment of the parody, it is not always necessary. Besides, there was so much else going on outside of the Finn Mac Cool and his tall tale rhasodizing, so many odd tricks and twists with minimal punctuation that I was quickly distracted from my poor knowledge of Irish lore. Bamboozling at points, tedious for longer than I'd like, but always, always, a lure to the next and the next and the next.

Lovers of meta, have your meta and eat it too, but also compliment your meta, become engaged with your meta, elope with your meta to newfound states of the detail and the devil so long as you mind your meta-ed manners. We may be seventy-four years on in time and a few in the know-how may moan and groan at the nouveau metas and their ironic urges, their self-conscious-consciousing to an all too often boring degree of banal nihility, but here it is still fresh, here it still has heart. A boisterous and boozy and far too long abed heart, to be sure, but here there is a heart bulleting its way to the soul of the fiction of the time, the odes and cowboys and morality gimmicks and all the poor charactered creations succored away from their easy nonexistence and spit out onto a stage of the so called author's making.

Parts of it light and pounds of it weird and buckets of it deathly serious, but when in doubt, be sure to let yourself laugh. Each and every time will land you a little farther along, and in no time you'll have finished this highly lauded and extremely odd piece of work. Then, I can assure you, you'll have an awful lot to think about in terms of cast and creator and everything in between, and is that not all we can ask for?
Profile Image for K.D. Absolutely.
1,820 reviews
July 5, 2011
At Swim-To-Birds is a 1939 novel by Irish author Brian O’Nolan under the non de plueme Flann O’Brien. At one time, he also used a pen name Myles na Coppaleen (Myles of the Little Horses) taken from the character in Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn. When my brother and I learned about this other pseudonym we thought that O’Brien might have some naughty Filipino friends or relatives. Myles could be a name of an Irish person, male or female. Then na Coppaleen is, in Filipino language, a description of dirty unwashed male genitals.

Despite that odd pseudonym, this book is amazing. With the 400+ fiction works that I’ve read so far, there is nothing like this yet. When I write reviews, I normally say this book reminded me of this book or that book. I can’t say that here. The reason is that this is the first book I encountered where there is a frame story about a young novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing a novel. Then the characters in the 2nd novel overthrow or raise arms against the novelist (the character). The frame story is about an unnamed Irish young man, a literature student, who lives with his nagging uncle. The uncle is concerned that his nephew spends a lot of time writing his book and no longer studies at home and rarely attends his classes at school. The young novelist does not believe in starting and ending his novel with only one scenario so he begins his story with three separate scenes that get interweave later in the narration. He also does not believe that his characters should be either good or bad so he has each of his characters with both good and bad characteristics.

The story within the story is about a devil called Pooka MacPhellimey who creates John Furriskey. Furriskey along with other characters like Paul Shanahan and Anthony Lamont become resentful of their story’s author, Dermot Trellis, a cynical writer of Westerns. So, the three drug him so that Dermot will sleep more and the three can do anything they want. However, Trellis creates Shiela Lamont (Anthony’s sister) and Trellis falls in love with her. Shiela bears Trellis a son, Orlick who happens to be a writer too and he begins to write a story where his father is tried, found guilty and then tortured. I will not tell you the rest of the story as it will be too much of a spoiler already.

There were a couple of scenes when I really laughed out loud. The scene between the devil Pooka and the Good Fairy and the Good Fairy is threatening that she will go inside Pooka’s ears. You should read their tirades against each other. Then I also laughed in the scene when Dermot is being tortured and he says to Pooka to turn him into a female so he can marry Pooka. He is turned into a rat instead. I mean, you are being tortured and you still want to marry your torturer ha ha.

Those are just examples of the scenes that I found funny but they really did not make any sense. However, I read in the Wiki that this book was supposed to be a satire of the political conditions in Ireland during the time of its writing so there must be an explanation on those.

Lastly, I started reading this book alongside another book entitled At Swim, Two Boys by another Irish writer, Jamie O’Neill. I thought that this book’s title refers to two birds swimming and I thought that it would be interesting to know which book or which two characters (the birds or the boys) will turn out to be more interesting. However, Wiki says that Swim-To-Birds was a fictitious place on the River Shannon (the longest river in Ireland), visited by the legendary King Sweeney, a legendary king in Ireland and a character in the novel. Thus, no birds were asked to swim in the river here. I should have taken note of those hyphens in the title.

Another unforgettable read. A notch, just a notch, better than his other work that I read first: The Third Policeman (4 stars).
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,525 reviews799 followers
January 3, 2012
I'm glad I can write a review of this without giving it a rating, that's for sure. The last thing I need is to be assaulted by legions of self-consciously intellectual and/or hip readers decrying my inability to 'get it,' because I gave a crappy rating to a probably interesting book. Instead I can write a review which such readers won't bother reading and perhaps save you the effort of picking the book up, or, alternatively, help you discover that this is a book of the type that you enjoy.

But seriously folks, take my mother, really, take her please, and make sure she doesn't have to read this stand up routine masquerading, quite self-consciously, as a novel, or rather a novel about a novel, or, to be quite precise, a record by the narrator about his life while writing a novel about a pub-owner writing a novel about characters stolen from other novels, in which those characters spend all their time telling stories and reciting poems, i.e., kind of talking out very short novels, only all the characters are also 'real,' not fictional, and can affect the life of the pub-owner. Meta-fictional nonsense ensues, self-consciously, and conceptually it's interesting in a two page Borges story kind of way. But it takes over 200 pages.

Now, I'm quite willing to believe that other readers might find all of this hilarious. But not being an aficionado of Irish myth and legend, cowboy novels, blarney, or novels about novels, I found much of it tedious. It's a fabulous linguistic showpiece, and I'm willing to keep it and give it another shot in a few years. But for now I find it unreadable.
Profile Image for Burak.
194 reviews108 followers
January 20, 2021
Vermediğim 2 yıldızın biri O'Brien'ın suçu, biri de benim. Kitabı muhtemelen yanlış bir zamanda okuduğumu söyleyerek kendi kabahatimi aradan çıkarayım ve yazarı ilgilendiren kısma gelelim.

Neden olmadı bilmiyorum açıkçası. Kağıt üzerinde baktığımızda seveceğim çok fazla şey var Ağaca Tüneyen Sweeney'de: birbirine paralel ilerleyen birçok anlatı, üst kurmacanın alametifarikalarından iyi faydalanılmış olması, gerçekten eğlenceli bir mizah anlayışı... Ama yok, nedense Üçüncü Polis kadar sevemedim bu kitabı. Ben Borges'in bana vaat ettiği karmaşık labirentlere girmeyi umuyordum ancak benim gibi ortalama bir okurun dahi çok zorlanmadan takip edebileceği bir anlatıyla karşılaştım (ya da o kadar karmaşıktı ki anlamadığımı bile anlamadım). E hikaye de çok fazla heyecanlandırmayınca biraz hayal kırıklığına uğradığımı itiraf etmem lazım.

Günümüzde bile birçok yazarın başarılı olamadığı edebiyat manevralarını neredeyse bir asır önce ıskalamadan yaptığı için gerçekten hayret uyandırıcı bir eser Ağaca Tüneyen Sweeney. Gülden Hatipoğlu'nun çevirisi de epey iyi. Ancak bazen olmayınca olmuyor. Biçimsel ve kurgusal yenilikleri takdir etsem de absürtlüğün hikayeyi bu kadar boğmuş olması hoşuma gitmedi. Bir başka zaman tekrar okumayı deneyebilirim belki, Üçüncü Polis'in epey kredisi var bende.
Profile Image for Adam Floridia.
583 reviews30 followers
December 29, 2012
This is a testament to why I love goodreads: I don't think I ever would have stumbled across this singularly unique gem without it.

The book almost defies review because it defies all literary conventions; however, it does so in such an overt and parodic manner that it never becomes tedious reading. I suppose it's like the ying to Beckett's yang--both completely discount plot, but one is lighthearted and comical while the other is laborious and depressing.

The absurdity of the book is always right on the surface, which follows the rule that "a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity" (33). For example, there is humor to be found when a Good Fairy is debating with a Pooka (a member of the devil class) whether or not the Pooka's wife is a kangaroo. The funniest part, though, comes after reading three pages or so of this absurd, inane, jocular, puerile, argument when you realize that you have been completely absorbed in it. As the book cover says, "It is also funny, once the reader gets used to the suspicion that the biggest joke is on him."

Five stars for originality. A book that should be taught in every creative writing classroom.
Profile Image for Mattia Ravasi.
Author 5 books3,510 followers
October 8, 2018
For people who read Ulysses and thought, "this is good and all, but is it Irish enough?"

Maybe not as difficult as Joyce's masterpiece, but every bit as crazy.
Profile Image for Cody.
506 reviews182 followers
May 16, 2016
Good news! My “No Dogs, No Irish” sign has officially been removed from above the front door. My Irish wife will be ecstatic!

You know what I’m going to do for you good kids? I’m going to explain, in intricate and hyper-articulate fashion, why At Swim-Two-Birds is a perfect novel. I’m going to do this in such a manner that even Flann O’Brien would be jealous. I am going to deconstruct the entire novel and build it up again, expanding upon the work where I see fit. Then, for my second act, I’m going to simultaneously pull a rabbit out of a hat, pass a camel through the eye of a needle, and play a note-perfect solo of “Donna Lee” on cornet.

Since I can (in other words) add nothing to the discussion, I will say this: At Swim-Two-Birds is a ‘no-shit’ masterpiece. The last time I read it, OK Computer, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, and Either/Or were hot new releases burning up my turntable. A lot of fermented water has passed under the bridge in that span, and I can say without reserve that I don’t think I ‘got’ one-tenth of the majesty as a 20-year-old that I did this time around. This is Irish piss-taking elevated to high Art. As the 'Funny One' of the Holy Irish Trinity, O’Brien is oftentimes given less credit than Beckett or Joyce. Termination of the foregoing, he was every bit a genius as his fellow countrymen. Genius, like venereal disease, comes in multiple forms.

And that last paragraph. My God. If you have a copy, go re-read those last two lines and tell me that they don’t rank as some of the greatest of any closing in literary history. Beckett and Joyce are the cherries on my Irish cupcake (green frosting, 28.9% alcohol content); Thin Lizzy and Flann O’Brien are my vegan meat and potatoes. Call me shallow, Shannon.

Profile Image for Ailsa.
159 reviews216 followers
May 28, 2020
"As a matter of fact, said the Good Fairy, I do not understand two words of what you have said and I do not know what you are talking about. Do you know how many subordinate clauses you have used in that last oration of yours, Sir?"

I feel so smug that I'm finished. As Riku says in his review, "It is nonsensical beyond ordinary comprehension" but in a enjoyable way! I will revisit in the future hopefully with a better knowledge of early Irish literature.

P.S. The student was the original Bridget Jones:
"Minutae: No. of cigarettes smoked, average 8.3 ; glasses of stout or other comparable intoxicant, av. 1.2 ; times to stool, av. 2.65 ; hours of study, av. 1.4 ; spare-time or recreative pursuits, 6.63 circulating. "

P.P.S. I loved the recommendation from Dylan Thomas on the blurb of my edition "Just the book to give to your sister, if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl."
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
614 reviews763 followers
August 3, 2018
...it was explained that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service. It would be incorrect to say that it would lead to chaos. Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before - usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature. Conclusion of explanation.
That is all my bum, said Brinsley.

Biographical reminiscence, part the first:
It was not many pages in before this explanation of the novel came to the perusal of my ocular sense, at which point I swiftly began to form the opinion that I myself was indeed such a mountebank, upstart, thimblerigger.
Lightly I subjected myself to an inward interrogation.

Nature of interrogation:
Who are all these people?
It is Caolcrodha Mac Morna from Sliabh Riabhach, said Conán, it is Calecroe MacMorney from Baltinglass. It is Liagan Luaimnach O Luachair Dheaghaidh, the third man of the three cousins from Cnoc Sneachta, Lagan Lumley O'Lowther-Day from Elphin Beg.....
Why do you find your mind wandering?
Answer: Humans are sense-making machines. Deprived of a coherent theory as to what the sense might be, the mind follows its own paths.

Biographical reminiscence, part the second:
Not many days later, we had dinner with the friends who gave me this book. I described my lack of ability to concentrate. Jürgen mentioned that he appreciated the idea of the characters in a story rebelling against their creator. Furthermore, during the evening, large amounts of alcoholic beverages were consumed, but not sufficient to cause the body to evacuate. Sleep was curtailed and fitful.
The next day, I decided to try again. Without questioning too much. The lack of sleep was conducive to a mood of openness but not restlessness.

It has been known for me to complain in the past about the cruelty of writers towards their characters. Thus I was highly gratified, if not a little shocked, by the level of cruelty of these characters towards their writer.

Conclusion of the foregoing.
Profile Image for Oscar.
1,927 reviews482 followers
October 26, 2020
Comedia, sátira, surrealismo, metaliteratura, mitología irlandesa, demonios, duendes, beodos, metafísica, fábulas, historias de historias de historias, y mucha cerveza, de todo esto nos habla Flann O’Brien en la que fue su primera novela, ‘En Nadar-dos-pájaros’ (At Swim-Two-Birds, 1939).

La novela se inicia con un joven estudiante, bastante haragán, al que su tío no deja de incordiar para que abra algún libro de vez en cuando, y que dedica su tiempo de ocio para escribir una novela. Esta novela tiene como protagonista a Trellis, un escritor que reside en El Cisne Rojo, del que nunca sale, y que también está escribiendo su propio libro, donde ataca directamente a la vida licenciosa. Y esto sigue, porque a su vez los personajes creados por Trellis tienen vida propia y cuentan sus propias historias, atacan a su autor y saltan entre novelas.

La mayor parte de ‘En Nadar-dos-pájaros’ está basada en Buile Suibhne, una antigua leyenda gaélica del siglo IX, de donde proviene tan extraño título. Pero la novela de Flann O’Brien es más que un mero artificio literario. Mediante el humor, la sátira y la ironía de sus personajes, O’Brien arremete contra la religión, la política y las tradiciones irlandesas, y sobre todo contra los cimientos de la novela propiamente dicha, como hizo en su día Joyce.

La historia es original, imaginativa y talentosa, pero no me ha gustado tanto como 'El Tercer Policía', una absoluta obra maestra, y 'Crónica de Dalkey'. Con estas disfrutaba de cada página y no dejaba de sorprenderme la imaginación de O’Brien, algo que no me ha sucedido con ‘En Nadar-dos-pájaros’.
Profile Image for Jason.
355 reviews46 followers
March 17, 2018
Honey-words of the meta variety before the term metafiction was derived.

An author ahead of his time; a work of intelligence, fun, and sharpness. A one-chapter book with multiple beginnings, multiple dimensions, and a quick organic flow. This book is funny, it's sardonic, it's philosophical, but it's not too high on itself. This book has something for the professor and a regular old boyo. The style is funky and loose, weaving in and out of the different layers of the story at a whim, without break. The story is whimsical, dark, and Irish.

As the reader you are introduced to a university student that sparingly attends classes - when moods and weather permit, who spends a fair amount of time with his mates in pubs partaking of porter, some small amount of time writing, and a large quantity of time in his bed. This student/writer/pub-goer/sleeper is never named, but he does name the numerous characters within his mischievous tale that he relates at intervals. Dermot Trellis is a writer (second layer), he is the primary character (I suppose) of the young unnamed man's work, and he finds that once he writes his characters into being (or borrows them from another author) they are quite literally so, and he continuous to employ and house them. Mr. Trellis's characters (second-point-five layer) may do as they like while he sleeps, they of coarse take good advantage of this, devising a way of keeping him asleep more and more. A somewhat tranquil time reigns for some while, but the brought-to-life characters still hold a grudge against their creator for the things he forced them to do and the hardships they endured at his hands. Eventually a means to punish is realized. Meanwhile through all of this we resurface to get glimpses of the student and his Dublin existence, nothing terribly dramatic, but very natural and interesting in it's own right.

An excerpted pome that I would like to share:
When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night -

When money's tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt -

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare -

In time of trouble and lousy strife,
You have still got a darlint plan
You still can turn to a brighter life -

This is a quirky book filled with sharp wit and creativity. It made me think of Nabokov's Pale Fire for the metafiction factor (though in my opinion Nabokov was far superior), and a bit of David Foster Wallace for some of the asides, notes, and extracts. This is a fun and interesting read. I do have one quibble and that is multitude of dialogue devoid of quotation marks, you get used to I guess, but I never learned to like it or feel that anything were gained from this choice.
Profile Image for Libby.
354 reviews75 followers
May 8, 2009
If I was to be stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life and could only take one book with me this would be it. It is so complex and rich that every new reading reveals details previously missed and perspectives not previously considered. The Pooka MacPhellimey and the Good Fairy are just genius.

"Afterwards, near Lad Lañe Pólice Station a small man in black fell in with us and tapping me often about the chest, talked to me earnestly on the subject of Rousseau, a member of the French nation. He was animated, his palé features striking in the starlight and voice going up and falling in the lilt of his argumentum. I did not understand his talk and was personally unacquainted with him. But Kelly was taking in all he said, for he stood near him, his taller head inclined in an attitude of cióse attention. Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff-coloured puke. Many other things happened on that night
now imperfectly recorded in my memory but that incident is still very clear to me in my mind. Afterwards the small man was some distance from us in the lañe, shaking his divested coat and rubbing it along the wall. He is a little man that the namc of Rousseau will always recall to me"

...and now, for me, Rosseau will always be associated with unpleasant buff coloured puke. Brilliant.
Profile Image for Christopher.
272 reviews89 followers
August 24, 2019
"Evil is even, truth is an odd number and death is a full stop. When a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed, he punctuates and gives majesty to the serial enigma of the dark, laying it more evenly and heavily upon the fabric of the mind." (314)

Nature of the review: glib, perfunctory, obtuse, bulbous

Extract from the reviewer's review:
One of the funniest and maddest novels I've ever read. This thing [the book, At Swim-Two-Birds] does not need me to recommend it, but I might give it a go, so that if I manage to get my thoughts sorted rightly, I can begin to see what is what. And I well admit that this will never do for the high-falutin academics, but as long as it can be of some service to the man-in-the-street, then perhaps it will be worthwhile. That remains to be judged by a jury of ridiculous characters. Conclusion of the foregoing.

Muddled substance of reminiscence regarding the ontological status of the characters that populate the novel and The ramifications of same; a preliminary account: Mr. Brian O'Nolan, writing under his best known pseudonym, Flann O'Brien gives us a stout tale: A lazy college student, who lives with his uncle and drinks too much, becomes diarist, fabulist and satirist. And as ye might have guessed, things very quickly go off the rails. O'Nolan's fictive persona is an author who gives rise to a narrating author, who gives rise to an author-character (Trellis) whose characters rebel against their misuse by becoming authors themselves. Somewhere along the way the characters sit around listening to one of Trellis' characters writing about Trellis, ostensibly for purposes of vengeance, but themselves get written into the vengeance narrative. (Is this a doubling or hijacking of the Mad Sweeney myth?) The result is not trivial meta-narrative or cute self-reference, but a questioning of the ontological status of fiction. At first, it seems impossible for characters to have the ability to wrestle a story away from their author. Categorically impossible. Not simply unbelievable, like the giant Finn Mac Cool. Like, flat-out impossible, for obvious reasons. But it becomes possible with the vehicle of O'Brien's author-character writing it into being. And, the reader becomes complicit, the one who commits the impossible act by virtue of doing the reading of the text. And once the text has been read and written about, it becomes possible that the text will haunt its author in reality for as long as the author lives. In fact, it's guaranteed. Conclusion of the foregoing.

Subsidiary notes on un-englishing, or translation: There are particular humorous turns of phrase that would simply not be funny if translated wrongly. For example: "Three members of the bench had fallen forward in an attitude of besotted sleep as a result of the inordinate quantity of brown porter they had put into their bodies." (297) One can well imagine that bit being straightforwardly translated as some variation of: some dudes in a courtroom fell into a drunken sleep. That's not funny. The sleep needs be besotted. They need to put the drink into their bodies. How many things are like this? If Un-Englishing people like O'Brien (or how about Joyce!?!) is difficult or impossible, how many authors suffer the same when Englished. A user of the language at the top of their game must be butchered, it is like the window in the hot room drawing us to open it.

Actually, don't read any of this shit. Rather, just click on my friend Geoff's review.

There will be much more Flann O'Brien for me, please and thank you. And remember, a pint of plain is your only man.
Profile Image for Petra.
1,123 reviews12 followers
September 8, 2016
I don't know how to adequately review this book. It's beyond strange.
Basically the story of a student who would rather sleep and drink than go to class (who wouldn't, right?) who writes a story about a writer who is writing a story. The characters of the fictional writer turn against him and start to live their lives on their own.
Sounds like a good premise, right? It is. There are so many twists and turns. Yet it's told in such a way that it's truly hard to follow. I recognized good writing, some humorous sections, an interesting storyline. This story would improve, I think, upon rereading....and possibly a third rereading.
There are supposedly Irish myths and stories throughout this book. Perhaps knowing those would have made this an easier read?
Not for the faint of heart. This little book is a commitment and I'm not sure what one gets out of it. It won't be a boring ride but it will be a smoky, foggy, unfocussed ride.
I liked the writing and would read another of Flann O'Brien's stories, will even reread this one one day (but probably not soon). With luck, some of his stories are more linear than this one.
Profile Image for Paul Sánchez Keighley.
150 reviews92 followers
January 3, 2020
I’m equally tickled and impressed. This unassumingly thin tome belies unexpected depths and dimensions, a literary experience well worth diving into.

This book is basically the premise of Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla gone wild. (If you haven’t read Niebla , please do so.) As in, it’s about characters interacting with their authors, but taken to such an extreme as to probe the limits of such a literary exercise.

Being a book within a book within a book etc. we are treated to a wide range of literary genres, styles and voices, from westerns to fairy tales. I especially loved the lyrical elegiac passages about the god-sized Finn Mac Cool and everything relating to the Pooka MacPhellimey. The last third was hands-down awesome, a gruesome tour de force that came out of nowhere.

Perhaps what surprised me most was how easy this experimental multi-layered novel is to follow. At no point did I feel lost as to which “book” I was reading, be it the one penned by the protagonist or the one penned within the former by its own protagonist. On paper it sounds confusing, but O’Brien makes it feel like a stroll in the park.

Looking forward to reading Gilbert Sorrentino's take on this one.
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