Sunday, October 11, 2009


This is the 1930s debut novel from the cracked genius of Irish humourist Brian O'Nolan (published under his regular nom de plume, Flann O'Brien).  It has come to be regarded as something of a cult classic, and crops up more and more often in 'Greatest Novels' lists.  This exalted reputation developed early, with one of its first reviews being a rave from none other than Graham Greene. A little later, the great James Joyce (of whom the book is principally making fun) acknowledged that it was "a very funny book".
I'm going to take the iconoclastic position here.  Now, I love O'Brien/O'Nolan, I have been a huge fan for years.  I like all of his work, and his The Third Policeman is, I think, one of the finest comic novels ever written.  For me, At Swim-Two-Birds just isn't in the same league; in fact, I think it's probably the weakest of all his books.  O'Nolan honed his craft churning out voluminous 'funny stuff' for the Irish Times newspaper through the 1930s and 1940s and on into the 1950s.  He was enormously erudite, and had a unique ear for language; but he was also a drone, used to having to produce quantities of material in a very short space of time, and thus he would lapse into set patterns of creation: when he got into a certain parodistic groove, it became a kind of 'automatic writing' with him, and he could turn out pages and pages of the same sort of stuff in no time at all.  He was also quite unashamed about lifting great chunks of material wholesale from dictionaries and encyclopedias - he was a master of the funny list, taking a series of mundane facts or exotic words and making them amusing through the manner of their presentation.  But he often got tempted to overdo it.  Sometimes that was the point of the joke - challenging his readers' patience, defying them to call him out on just reeling off three or four paragraphs of the same old stuff.  But sometimes, too, I think he may have been doing it just out of sloth, because it was easy, because he could get away with it.  I suspect he may often have been hoping to goad his readers - and even more editors and reviewers - into protest, and was probably mightily dispirited when, again and again, they just lapped it all up uncritically.
This is particularly the case with At-Swim-Two-Birds.  It's not really a novel at all; just a ragbag of offcuts from the Irish Times column.  If it has any point, it is to mock the pretensions of modern literature, to parody the stylistic and structural eccentricities pioneered by writers like Joyce.  But I'm not convinced that this was a serious overarching purpose for O'Nolan here; it feels to me more like a private joke, perhaps the result of a bar bet with a friend that he could get a whole book of his trademark whimsy published and taken seriously as a novel.
Now, it's not by any means a worthless book.  There is some wonderful writing in it, and many extremely amusing incidents (my favourite scene involves the unusual ethical problems posed by allowing an invisible - and, indeed, incorporeal - entity to participate in a game of poker).  And the principal conceit of the book is interesting, probably the key reason for its enduring popularity: it's a humorous investigation of the relationship between the author and the characters he creates.  The ostensible narrator in the main 'frame story' is an indolent university student whose name we never learn (largely an autobiographical sketch of O'Nolan himself, one suspects), who begins writing a novel in his spare time - though we never see him engaged in his writing.  He creates a character called Dermot Trellis, the owner of an Inn (who shares and exaggerates the student author's own predilection for spending as much of the day as possible in bed) who is himself engaged in writing a novel.  A manifesto is put forward that an author's typical treatment of his characters is cruel and tyrannical, and that it would be more humane to allow them "a private life of their own" outside of their work in his fiction.  Hence, Trellis's characters become 'real' people, lodging in his Red Swan Inn and idling away their time together in the intervals between being called upon to act out Trellis's plot.  For no given reason, a large part of the student's manuscript is given over to extended parodies of old Gaelic lays about the legendary hero Finn MacCool - who (along with Sweeny, the mad king of Ireland, another legendary character in a story told - at inordinate length - by MacCool) later appears at the Red Swan as a companion to Trellis's characters (who include a trio of cowboys he has borrowed from a writer of Westerns in order to fill out some of the bit parts in his novel).  Trellis proves an unpopular master, and the other characters eventually rebel against him and exact an unspeakably cruel revenge - by writing a novel about him.
So, yes, it's a quaint idea, and there are some very, very funny bits along the way.  But it all goes on way too long (the lays of Finn MacCool are beautifully written, but they just go on and on for page after page after page, and you can't help thinking that O'Nolan is daring you to skip them).  And ultimately, there's no real point to any of it.  The most engaging episodes, in fact, are those about the student author himself (an early prototype of Withnail and I), but these only account for about 15% of the book, which is rather frustrating.
It's a short read, and it does certainly have its moments of brilliance; but you shouldn't feel ashamed of skimming or skipping many passages (I'm convinced O'Nolan really intended that you should).
And if you are curious to try it out, you should move quickly.  It has been reported that the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson is slated to direct a film version of it shortly (with Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy said to be starring).


JES said...

Very insightful. Never having been able to get through At Swim-Two-Birds myself, I couldn't quite put my finger on the problem. (I like reading him in the small doses offered by his newspaper column, written as Myles na gCopaleen.) But you're right: he can make for exhausting reading at length.

So now it appears that I've got to try The Third Policeman. (Thanks for the link to that review.)

The Weeble said...

I don't necessarily disagree with the criticisms, but I still have a problem deciding whether I prefer The Third Policeman or At Swim-Two-Birds. I do tend to incline toward the latter: it's a much messier book, and there are whole passages that cry out to be skipped, but there are also more than enough highlights -- particularly the debate between the Good Fairy and the Pooka MacPhellimey on "the kangaroolity of women" and the passage beginning with the narrator and his friends sitting in Grogan's and ending (nearly) with a discussion of Rousseau -- to make up for it, at least in my book. The effects of reading At Swim-Two-Birds are analogous to the contact high one gets watching a Cheech and Chong movie, except in this case one is (or at least I am) left with the feeling of having spent a long, boozy night in the company of glossomaniac professors who enjoy a drop.

Incidentally, I'd have to double-check this but I believe At Swim-Two-Birds was written before O'Nolan began writing for the Irish Times, or at least well before he'd become famous for doing so: the book came out when he was 27. It does seem to draw heavily upon some of the things he wrote while a student, particularly "Extracts from a Novel (probably posthumous) by Brother Barnabas," a work in which the main conceit is that an author's characters begin to rebel against him and eventually conspire to murder him. I've only read a couple of short excerpts (the ones in Cronin's No Laughing Matter), but in a couple of places even the character names are the same.

At Swim-Two-Birds is certainly a much less mature novel than The Third Policeman (which was unbelievably rejected by Longman's, the publishing house that had accepted At Swim-Two-Birds), but there's still something there, the boozy whirlwind of it, that is missing from the later novel.

Froog said...

Well, I don't have my Cronin with me, but I thought I recalled that he'd started in with the Irish Times pretty much as soon as he began drudging with the Civil Service. However, Wikipedia (that fount of Heisenbergian uncertainty) suggests that he didn't start it until 1940 - in which case (as so often) you would be right, Mr Weeble. However, I think my general analysis still stands. This is very much the style of the stuff that he was about to start churning out on a daily basis, and of the stuff that he'd been churning out for the student magazines when he was at UCD.

I rather think the 'Brother Barnabas' prototype might be a more satisfying work. I too feel the appeal of the "boozy whirlwiind", but I feel that's mainly present in the student life scenes - and there aren't enough of them.

I too will always now feel queasy at the mention of Rousseau's name.

Keith Donohue said...

I did my diss on Flann O'Brien, and indeed, he started writing At Swim before he became Myles, though you're also right about the whole thing stemming from his college days.

It's a lovely ting in any case, but different from Third Policeman, and for that matter, every other book.

You'd also do well to give The Poor Mouth a try. Another early book, and full of the zest that departed as the author aged...and drank.

Froog said...

The Weeble has loaned me his O'Brien anthology, so I am endeavouring to read all the novels in fairly quick succession. I read The Poor Mouth some years ago, but I'm giving it another try now. (The Weeble can probably read it in Gaelic, polyglot prodigy that he is.)

Froog said...

Mr Donohue, did you see a few years ago the Irish theatre company Rough Magic created a musical farce inspired by O'Brien's writing. It was called Improbable Frequency, and was set in Dublin during 'The Emergency' - featuring O'Brien, John Betjeman, and Erwin Schrodinger as leading characters. One of the funniest shows I've ever seen at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Convenor said...

I am the editor of a small Irish journal called CHRISTVS REGNAT. I wonder if you would consider writing an article on Flann O'Brien and Catholicism?

A reply to would be greatly appreciated.