Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).
Flann O'Brien was one of the pseudonyms of Brian O'Nolan (1911-1966). He worked for the Irish civil service and also wrote a satirical column for the Irish Times as well as several novels and plays. He was certainly one of the great Irish writers of the twentieth century. He is said to have been strongly influenced by James Joyce, but for my money he is a lot more entertaining a writer than Joyce. It is perhaps a mercy that O'Brien has largely escaped the heavy-handed attention of literary critics, though as a result his books are less well known than they should be. I suspect that many people read Joyce because they feel they ought to; one reads O'Brien for sheer pleasure.
At Swim-Two-Birds is not a long book but it is extraordinarily rich. It is also extremely funny. There is little plot as such, but an underlying connecting thread is provided by the narrator, a Dublin student who lodges with his uncle (his father seems to be dead), drinks and smokes too much with his friends, and is writing stories peopled by characters whose conversation and adventures make up much of the book.
The writing style is varied. Some of it reproduces lower-class Dublin speech with remarkable fidelity yet with no recourse to phonetic spelling or similar props; it is the rhythm of the speech that O'Brien captures. At the other end of the scale we have high-flown poetry and rhetorical prose in the Irish bardic mode (O'Brien was an Irish scholar and indeed sometimes wrote in Irish). These "literary" passages manage to be both parodic and genuinely beautiful, a rare combination. Whenever things threaten to get too much out of hand, the student narrator interjects an ultra-formal explanatory passage which adds yet another dimension of comicality by virtue of its tonal contrast with the surrounding material.
A recurring theme throughout the book is that of fiction within fiction. The student narrator is writing a book about Trellis, the proprietor of a Dublin pub, who is in turn writing a novel about a series of characters whose actions and conversations are related at length. But Trellis is asleep much of the time and this gives his characters the chance to rebel against him and plot his downfall. I must admit to generally disliking literary devices of this kind but O'Brien's writing is so disarmingly free from pretentiousness that I went along with it unreservedly. (It is also possible that O'Brien is deliberately making fun of literary pretentiousness.)
I first read the book many years ago when I was myself a student in Dublin and I loved it then. I lost my copy and longed to replace it, so I was delighted to find that it has now been reissued by Penguin (though the facsimile reproduction isn't all that might be desired). Rereading books one enjoyed in the past is always something of a gamble. It's easy to be disappointed, but I'm very glad to say that I wasn't this time.
See also The Third Policeman
11 May 2005
%T At Swim-Two-Birds
%A O'Brien, Flann
%I Penguin Books
%D 1939, 2001
%P 218 pp
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