Tuesday, June 13, 2023

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

Some of these posts function like reviews, because there's a decent chance that I can tell people something useful about a particular book, especially a new one. And sometimes I'm revisiting a book I read before, perhaps even one I was professionally connected with during my misspent youth, where it's also reasonable to assume I have something to say.

But sometimes I read an old famous book for the first time, and I want to be honest: I don't really expect anyone will care. I might wander my way into saying something interesting, and, if I'm lucky, it will be a relatively new or felicitously phrased thing, but that's not the way to bet. Old famous books get that way because people have been writing about them since they came out: some people who actually got paid for their opinions, others who got tenure for their opinions, and I'm a guy who's going to get, at best, a few dozen random Internet eyeballs for my opinions.

So! At-Swim-Two-Birds! A 1939 novel by the Irishman Brian O'Nolan, written under the name Flann O'Brien! A pillar of Irish literature, though in an older mode than I expected, given its metafictional structure and High Modernist reputation!

On top of everything else, it's the kind of book that's difficult to sum up: the unnamed narrator, a university student in Dublin, is writing a novel about a guy who's writing a novel, and the characters of the second guy's novel, a few of whom are heroic figures from Irish folklore, gang up to overthrow novelist #2, largely because (this is subtext) it's in a modern misery-loving style and so they all have to do horrible things and be bad people in Unnamed Novel #2. That's the "plot," but it's not a book of plot; that comes together mostly at the very end of the novel, but then fizzles, because it's also the kind of book that's mostly about things that fizzle. The book is mostly about the random thoughts of the first novelist, the university student who is likely some transmuted version of the author himself.

Most of the quotes are about how funny it is, and it does definitely have humor in it, but - and this is a big but - it's the kind of humor that connects most strongly if you are:

  • Irish
  • living in 1939
  • No, like, not "Irish" in the sense of a mook from Boston, but born in Dublin and living there your entire life
  • preferably born there in the first decade or two of the 1900s, actually
  • probably Catholic, too - couldn't hurt
  • deeply familiar with Irish legends
  • also deeply familiar with the then-contemporary Irish literary scene
  • also also at least vaguely familiar with the popular Western novel (as in cowboys, herding cattle, etc.), for some reason
  • a university student, preferably in Dublin
  • knowledgeable about the physical layout of 1939 Dublin

I don't want to say it's entirely a book of its time and place - I read it, I found bits amusing, and I still plan on reading O'Brien's second novel, The Third Policeman, someday - but that, if you don't check a lot of those boxes, you should discount all of the "this is incredibly funny!" quotes approximately as much as an inflatable Santa on January 8th.

There are lots of amusing bits, but, in general, it comes off as a novel full of signposts that say "this was massively funny to the author and his close compatriots eighty years ago." It is probably more funny to modern English people than to Americans, for proximity reasons, and (obviously) even more so to the actually Irish. But any reader going into At Swim-Two-Birds should know what they're in for: a whole lot of drinking, a whole lot of epic poetry, a smaller bit of pseudo-epic poetry about drinking, the exploits of Finn MacCool and several related persons, and repeated kibitzing from the narrator's uncle about the narrator's lack of academic rigor.

Now, as I type that, it does sound funny. And At Swim-Two-Birds genuinely is funny. Occasionally. How many occasions, as I said above, will depend on what you bring to it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed it, but The Third Policeman definitely works better if you're coming to it as a contemporary American.

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