Monday, March 30, 2020

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (novel #146)

Evil is even, truth is an odd number, and death is full stop.


At Swim-Two-Birds is rather like Camelot…"‘tis a silly place".


It is the first-person narrative of an unnamed Irish student, who lives with his uncle. The uncle is a simple Irish working man, who is a bit hard on the lad, for fear the nephew is something of a wastrel. At numerous points throughout the
story the uncle asks…

Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all?


His concern seems fair enough, as the narrator spends most of his time in bed, or carousing with fellow students. Like so many college students, he has his first experience with alcohol.

On the other hand, young men of my acquaintance who were in the habit of voluntarily placing themselves under the influence of alcohol had often surprised me with a recital of their strange adventures. The mind may be impaired by alcohol, I mused, but withal it may be pleasantly impaired. Personal experience appeared to me to be the only satisfactory means to the resolution of my doubts.

…brown stout in a bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottle has often induced in me.


But the novel is far more complicated than merely telling the narrator’s story. It is a novel, within a novel, within a novel – metafiction and frame story. The student sets out to write a novel emphasizing that…

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


He begins three different novels: one about the Pooka (devil class) Fergus MacPhellimey, and the fairy who lives in his pocket, a second about Furriskey, a character created by fictional writer Dermot Trellis, and the third about Irish legends Finn MacCool and Mad King Sweeney.


Intermittently, the main story, switches to any one of these stories, which eventually become intertwined – characters from one, crossing into one of the others. 


It was ridiculous and confusing. The dialogue was sometimes fun, but still ridiculous. Like the fairy introducing herself to the Pooka…

My correct name is Good Fairy, said the Good Fairy. I am a good fairy.


Or when a group of Irish lads are enjoying a pint, or five, discuss the merits of their race, and one of their proudest distinctions…

That was always one thing, said Shanahan wisely, that the Irish race was always noted for, one place where the world had to give us best. With all his faults and by God he has plenty, the Irishman can jump.  


It’s a thing, said Furriskey, that will always stand to us – jumping. 


When everything’s said, said Lamont, the Irishman has his points. He’s not the last man that was made now.


All the characters join forces against the fictional author Dermot Trellis, for his injudicious manipulation of their fates. They employ the Pooka to first torture Trellis, and then bring him to trial – a kangaroo court, where the plaintiffs are also judges, and conduct the trial while imbibing in yet more stout – they use their glasses as gavels, to overrule any objection or testimony offered by Trellis. He will be found guilty of course, but the novel returns to the student and uncle – where both come off a bit better than the reader has previously perceived.


The Uncle quotes from Hamlet, with some liberty…

There are more things in life and death than you ever dreamt of Horatio.


My rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars


This book satisfies square N-3 “Reader’s Choice” in the 2020 Classic BINGO Challenge


This was my first read of Flann O’Brien. I wasn’t crazy about it at first, but eventually I got into it. O’Brien has a quirky sense of humor and a fun turn of phrase. I will certainly give him another try. What do you think of At Swim-Two-Birds or Flann O’Brien?


Have you ever wondered about the odd title? Swim-Two-Birds, is simply a place name aka Snámh-dá-én, along the banks of the River Shannon. 





  1. i read swim2birds a lot of years ago and couldn't make much out of it at the time... maybe i'll... well, probably not: too many other things i'd rather read... interesting analysis, tho...

    1. I can see that. I was rather confused for a while. Cheers :)

  2. Completed ASTB last night. Not an easy read, the intertwining of the stories forces the reader to pay attention versus mindless narrative follow-along. However, the biggest challenge is understanding Irish humor, banter, and history. The jokes were lost on me - google search helped but then the stop and start interfered with the flow of the story. I think an introduction to Irish literature would greatly enhance the richness of this novel for the reader. For me, it was a little reminiscent of Bulgakov’s the Cat and the Margarita and Robbins’s Skinny Legs and All with the off the wall story telling. I can’t say if this is great or not due to a lack of general comprehension. But it is a one of a kind. That is not debatable.

    1. You're absolutely right. I struggled with some of the same things.


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