At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien

I first read At Swim-Two-Birds at secondary school in the 1980s. I was astounded; until then I had assumed that all Irish literature must – at best – be worthy but dull. Not that I had read much of it. The native writings to which I had been exposed were the short prose works that bulked out the English and Gaelic syllabi – tales of Catholic piety gently triumphing over temptation, accounts of how hay was made before balers were invented, neutered versions of Irish myths, that sort of thing. No politics, sex or laughs, for fear of offending someone. And someone, of course, meant the Catholic Church, and southern Ireland’s moderate nationalist orthodoxy.

But I yearned for sophistication, which wasn’t easy, growing up in the heart of the Irish countryside and attending a small local Catholic school. I read important literary novels by important English and American literary authors, even when I didn’t understand them. That was proper writing, for grown-ups, from the real world, I told myself adolescently. And then I picked up Brian O’Nolan’s first novel, written under the pen name of Flann O’Brien.

Much of the praise that has been heaped on At Swim-Two-Birds centres, justly, on its experimental brilliance. The novel has three separate beginnings and endings, and employs a cast of characters stolen from other literary works. These are set to work in contemporary Dublin by a tyrannical bed-bound author whom they later rebel against, and attempt to destroy. The mutinous characters include a polite devil, a posse of cowboys and the ancient Irish hero Finn McCool. Hired for his “venerable appearance” to play the father of another character, Finn mystifies his fellow literary serfs – portrayed with withering accuracy as boorish, working-class Dubs – with his high-flown Celtic ramblings.

“I incline to like pig-grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whingeing of fauns in Derrynish . . . 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 harp strings that.”

Gleefully anarchic in structure, the book is held together – more or less – by a series of metafictional “biographical reminiscences” from the anonymous narrator, a student who skips lectures to spend days on end lurking in his bedroom in his uncle’s house, where he lodges. Cunning, lazy, narcissistic, disaffected, at times even verminous, our slacker artist anti-hero makes occasional forays to bicker with his bewildered uncle (“Tell me this: do you ever open a book at all?”), inflict his literary efforts on his friends, and experiment with drugs. I’m stretching a point here; the drugs in question are stout and tobacco. That’s about all there was to get loaded on in Dublin when O’Brien wrote his book, in the late 1930s.

One of the most striking things about At Swim-Two-Birds is how far ahead of its time it feels, even now. Not only does it anticipate much
of the experimental fiction that was to follow, decades later, in the wider world, but his narrator is also the earliest example I have found of that familiar modern character, the angsty adolescent rebel. In one passage, his uncle’s hosting of a rehearsal for a light opera society forces the narrator to flee the house, sick with aesthetic dismay.

The book is not without flaws. Chiefly, there are no meaningful female characters, reflecting an Irish male fear of women that O’Brien’s hero, James Joyce, did not share. I was a little taken aback, when I later read Joyce, to discover how heavily O’Brien had been influenced by him. But whereas Joyce’s work also embraces the tragic and the truly epic, O’Brien remains ruthlessly focused on the comic.

Thrown contemptuously together from snatches of “autobiography”, hastily sketched plot synopses and chunks of text lifted from Catholic tracts, Irish epic verse, a horse racing tip sheet and an antique encyclopaedia (the joke, you realise after a while, is that you really should be skipping them), his book satirises everything in sight – including himself, and the reader. At Swim-Two-Birds is a punk rock collage of a novel, a student in-joke that I wish I’d been in on.