Thursday, 2 March 2017

In which I ramble on about At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien

Reading Group Read
247 pages

The blurb

Flann O'Brien's innovative metafictional work, whose unruly characters strike out their own paths in life to the frustration of their author, At Swim-Two-Birds is a brilliant impressionistic jumble of ideas, mythology and nonsense published in Penguin Modern Classics.

Flann O'Brien's first novel tells the story of a young, indolent undergraduate, who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dublin and spends far too much time drinking with his friends. When not drunk or in bed he likes to invent wild stories peoples with hilarious and unlikely characters - but somehow his creations won't do what he wants them to. A dazzling work of farce, satire, folklore and absurdity that gives full rein to its author's dancing intellect and Celtic wit, At Swim-Two-Birds is both a brilliant comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, and a portrayal of Dublin to compare with Joyce's Ulysses.

My thoughts

Rambling alert! I know I’ve said it before, but this review is more a stream of consciousness reflection of what I thought while reading than a review of the book. It has also been written in two parts. It’s amazing what a night’s sleep will do with random thoughts.


I fear I’m not clever enough for this book. Or maybe it’s just that my brain doesn’t work the right way. Yes, I did pick up on the fact that this is a book about a character writing a book about a character writing a book in which the characters take over and attempt to bring down the author. As such the story jumps back and forth, not only from character to character but also from plot to plot. I apologize in advance for the fact that this collection of my thoughts may well do the same thing.

Note to self – Pooka: (in Irish mythology) a hobgoblin or sprite able to take on the form of various animals.

Because I write myself I’m all too aware that the characters I write and who should therefore be under my control, all too often take over and lead the story in a direction I couldn’t have foreseen. In fact, the whole premise that characters lead their own, independent lives while the author sleeps only to fall in with their plans during waking hours rather delights me. Especially since I have woken up once or twice, knowing exactly where a story of mine should be going next. I’m just not convinced that is the message I’m supposed to be taking away from this book. In fact, I’m completely bewildered as to what, if anything, I’m supposed to have gained from reading this book.

Part of my problem was that the story/stories rely on the classics and mythology a lot of the time, and I’m not well enough versed in either to appreciate their application. I’m just glad I managed to notice them and the fact that they more often than not went over my head.

For purely selfish reasons the following sentence made me smile; the timing is rather perfect.

“The tune came duly, a thin spirant from the Patience opera.”

I’m glad I persevered with this story, despite not having any idea what I was reading. In between everything I didn’t understand I occasionally came across little gems that made me smile. For example, how prophetic was the author to write the following in 1939, long before portable music players were thought of:

You are not in the habit of carrying a small gramophone in your pocket, are you, Sir?

I wonder if I’m wrong when I think that the journey the Pooka makes with the Good Fairy, Casey, Slug, and Shorty has overtones of Beckett?

It’s fun how this book appears to break several rules writers are always told to follow, such as ‘show, don’t tell’. Flann O’Brien takes ‘telling’ to a whole new level with his paragraphs starting with ‘Nature of legend’ or ‘Description of Mr. Hickey’, followed by a collection of descriptive facts. The author, of course, knows exactly what he’s doing and even has one of his characters pointing writing mistakes out.

“From a perusal of the manuscript which has just been presented in these pages, he had expressed his inability to distinguish between Furriskey, Lamont and Shanahan, bewailed what he termed their spiritual and physical identity, stated that true dialogue is dependent on conflict rather than the confluence of minds and made reference to the importance of characterization in contemporary literary works of high-class, advanced or literary nature.”

Question: Are we absolutely sure Mr. O’Brien was Irish? That sentence (and many others) runs on like I’ve only known Dutch and German sentences to do.

As much as I never got to understand what exactly I was reading, I have to admit to getting somewhat caught up in Shanahan, Furriskey, Lamont, and Orlick’s efforts to take control of their author’s life through writing his.

It is probably fitting that I’ve written a ‘review’ that’s at least as obscure as the book it deals with. And I’m not much clearer on how I should rate this book. Part of me wants to keep it low because it was so very confusing and I never got to that point of clarity where it suddenly all made sense. On the other hand the fact, that I finished the book and couldn’t help being intrigued despite—or maybe because of— the insanity of what I was reading makes me think it must be a work of genius. I’m just not clever enough to ‘get it’. J

Truthfully I have to admit that I’m no clearer as to what this story is really about now that I’ve finished it, then I was before I started reading. I can only hope that at least a few of my fellow bookclub members have a better idea and will be able to enlighten me. I think this is either going to be a very interesting or a very short book discussion J


Okay. I slept on it and woke up realising at last what I had found in this story. I have no idea if this is what the author had in mind when he wrote the story just as I don’t know if I’m the first or the hundredth person to say this. For me this book and all the stories within its story were a metaphor for writing. It’s about the relationship between author and characters; about characters taking a story for a spin the author didn’t see coming; about taking scenes from real life and fictionalising them, when necessary extracting revenge in the process.

It is of course possible I only found what I wanted to be there. And, what’s more, despite the fact that I’ve now come up with what is for me a plausible explanation of what I’ve read, I’m still not sure whether this was an extremely clever book or 247 pages of nonsense. Considering the status of this book I have to assume the first option is right and I’m just not wired the right way to appreciate it all.

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