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Piteous Though Such Fraud Be The epigraph in Greek script at the beginning of the novel reads for all things change, making way for each other.It comes from the following passage of Euripides Heracles AmphitryonDaughter, there may yet be a happy escape From present troubles for me and you My son, your husband, may yet arrive So calm yourself, and wipe those tears From your children s eyes, And soothe them with soft words, Inventing a tale to delude them, Piteous though such fraud be Yes, for even men s misfortunes often flag, And the stormy wind does not always blow so strong, Nor are the prosperous ever so For all things change, making way for each other The bravest man is he who relies ever on his hopes, But despair is the mark of a coward At The Deep EndThe challenge in reading At Swim Two Birds is knowing when and how to start and when and how to stop A bit like drinking really It purports to start with three alternative beginnings That s if you don t count the framing device, which presumably adds a first or fourth beginning.Similarly, it contains antepenultimate, penultimate and ultimate conclusions.In between is a lot of carnivalesque fun and play and celebration.You can read the novel exclusively, assuming that it contains everything that you require to understand it.Alternatively, like James Joyce s Ulysses , you can read it as an inclusive text, whose role is to allude to, embrace and include other texts within its scope and meaning.Like Ulysses , it s a tale of real life Dubliners.Unlike Proust, in the words of the novel itself, it doesn t purport to be a high class story in which the names of painters and French wines are used with knowledge and authority It s very much a stout tale, even if it s well educated.Walking a Straight LineSuperficially, it s about drinking porters and stout , promiscuity, dissolution, dissipation, disputation and graduation.This is its subject matter But it s also its modus operandi Amazingly for a novel written in 1939, it s as far from a linear narrative as you can getOne beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with Inevitably, given this approach, it s a novel or several novels within a novel It also documents a rebellion of the characters against the author, almost as if they were actors disputing with the playwright or the director a major, credited influence on Christine Brooke Rose s Textermination.It s like listening to a drunk tell a tale while you re also drunk in the company of other drunks who interject and interfere with the narrative view spoiler so much so that the story starts to belong to the audience as much as the principal storyteller hide spoiler [Read Epub] ⚕ At Swim-Two-Birds ♎ A Wildly Comic Send Up Of Irish Literature And Culture, At Swim Two Birds Is The Story Of A Young, Lazy, And Frequently Drunk Irish College Student Who Lives With His Curmudgeonly Uncle In Dublin When Not In Bed Where He Seems To Spend Most Of His Time Or Reading He Is Composing A Mischief Filled Novel About Dermot Trellis, A Second Rate Author Whose Characters Ultimately Rebel Against Him And Seek Vengeance From Drugging Him As He Sleeps To Dropping The Ceiling On His Head, These Figures Of Irish Myth Make Trellis Pay Dearly For His Bad WritingHilariously Funny And Inventive, At Swim Two Birds Has Influenced Generations Of Writers, Opening Up New Possibilities For What Can Be Done In Fiction It Is A True Masterpiece Of Irish Literature A Review Composed of Interrogatives and SpeculationsWhat are we to make of At Swim Two Birds Despite the fact of its being one of the laugh out loud funniest, most absurdly and grossly comedic, most intelligent novels I ve ever read, At Swim Two Birds is simultaneously profoundly cruel, cruelly profound, unsettling, and causes such a discord with the idea of imaginative reality and authority in fiction that I would say that the overall effect of reading the book is something akin to a blend of intellectual burning, horror, and disorientation Truly a book about nothing except levels of fictive reality, it tears a wormhole in the fabric of fiction and it does not do this in the service of an expanding universe but a collapsing one What O Brien built here is meant to dismantle The idea that characters in novels live autonomous lives in some vague limbo beyond our reality and are only called into something like temporary employment when written about by authors is not so mind bending as all that What O Brien gets at in At Swim Two Birds is the next step, and it is a step into an abyss What is stopping the characters in a novel from starting a novel within the novel about the author of the novel that is writing them What then is the proof that as author X sits writing his or her precious, modern, important novel at a well stocked desk he or she is not simply a character being thrown into action by some other authorship at a higher or lower or next door dimensional remove, to be prodded and animated at his or her or its whim for whatever purpose of narrative And what if that narrative is not some blissful bildungsroman or cheeky romance but what if this author in another dimension despises author X and wishes on X the tortures of the damned Might this give you yourself pause before you, yes you, Goodreads reader and writer, sit down to compose your own creative work Further interrogatives So what are our responsibilities over our imaginings and creations Is there really that much distance between a thing imagined and a thing actual What tiny steps are there between a thought and an action Lou Reed says that between thought and expression lies a lifetime, but that was the heroin talking between thought and the physical world there is only a bright, thin, misty veil or vale Are characters in novels subject to the golden rule and a democratic governance, accorded their due freedoms by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Emancipation Proclamation, sundry constitutions and modern human rights laws What happens at Swim Two Birds Speculation on the latter, influenced by Gilbert Sorrentino s essay Fictional Infinities Mad King Sweeney is a major player in O Brien s book MKS is forced by a curse to jump from treetop to treetop like a bird, naked, in the wilds, at the mercy of nature, starving and blighted, for seven years He sings his lays in a weak and tortured voice from the treetops, and makes songs of all the places he is forced to encamp above limb and leaf wise Of all the churches and villages and forests and valleys Sweeney is made to visit, one is curiously brushed over in a brisk paragraph Swim Two Birds is the song never sung in the novel Swim Two Birds is what is absent from the novel, and therefore absent from the distorting effects of the narrative logic of At Swim Two Birds It is the thing unspoken, the silent thing that cannot be touched or defiled by coming into existence.Sweeney is an object of torture at the hands of some medieval scribe His suffering is in the service of creating beautiful songs What does it mean that much of history can be seen as using foundations of great suffering to build the things that last Additional interrogative and brief speculation Further, what are we to make of Flann O Brien Myles na gCopaleen Brother Barnabas n Brian O Nolan The man thrice removed from his given name, whose first novel is composed at least 6 and then some removes from any kind of authorial orientation, who suppressed his second masterpiece, The Third Policeman throughout his lifetime with some flimsy and ridiculous excuse of having lost the only manuscript it miraculously turned up right after his death , who exhausted much of his literary energy in composing short, pseudonymous columns in the Irish Times, after having proven himself capable of writing Joyce Sterne Rabelais ean wonderworks I love Gil Sorrentino s idea that the many pseudonyms Brian O Nolan took on during his career and the distance he kept between himself and his fictions were indeed a defense against this idea he came upon writing At Swim Two Birds if the characters of any of his novels ever got the idea to write a book about their author, Brian O Nolan would be safely removed from that revenge Flann O Brien, a man that only kind of exists, would be the subject of that novel within a novel within a novel within a novel within aConcluding DiscursionThis book obviously messed with my head a bit and there is an additional reason for this The book I read previous to At Swim Two Birds was DT Max s biography of David Foster Wallace entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story I read this book in two days while I was suffering a not inconsequential fever, and one of the results of this impaired or heightened or fevered reading state was that I could not shake this uncanny feeling that every time I resumed my reading of that book I was reanimating DFW, bringing him literally back to life, making him grow up again and play tennis again and go to Amherst again and go through all his trials and sufferings again and write Infinite Jest again and do whatever the hell happened with Mary Karr again, etc I felt I was by reading Wallace s life resetting time and making him live everything all over again A ghost story, but the ghost still has to go through the motions while the story lasts It made me feel guilty and somewhat sad and perplexed and nauseated The nausea however probably had to do with my illness Anyway, the very next book I pick up to read is Flann O Brien s At Swim Two Birds, the whole point of which is that characters in novels are autonomous beings, and what an author or reader compels them to act out or live through in a novel actually happens to them, and that these characters can bleed through into our reality and begin to take action on us This compounded my guilt about making DFW relive his painful life, it added credence to my fever fueled imaginings, it did me no good whatsoever. This is a seriously lovely inch perfect parabola of joy which everyone ought to at least try Go on You know you want to All right, you didn t know you wanted to But i know you better than that Would I lie How long have we known each other now Well then, have I ever recommended a duff book Name one There, you can t I admit that At Swim Two birds won t be everybody s slice of schwarzw lder kirschtorte Probably some will stumble away pallid and looking like they ve spent a week with a mad Irish person who has like this major multiple personality disorder and absolutely no grasp on reality But that s okay You have to give a little, take a little and sometimes let your poor heart break a little And that s the story of that s the glory of reading So how to describe this novel thing If a book could be a Mobius strip or a Klein bottle it would probably not be At Swim Two Birds because At Swim Two Birds is much weirder than those things In fact this book is the gold standard of weirdness I d say, for example, that Kraken by China Mieville scores maybe only five and a half on the At Swim scale And that one is pretty strange There is of course G K Chesterton s The Man Who Was Thursday, and that scores a ghastly 8 on the At Swim scale, AND was written in 1908, thirty years before At Swim, but by the end you can see old GK was straining for effect, and that s something At Swim just never has to do There is of course the New Weird or Bizarro fiction which I ve yet to try But that stuff seems to be a lot of camping about, like Carry On Weird Ass Some examples stolen from a website I foundWasher Mouth by Kevin L Donihe is about a washing machine who becomes human in order to follow his dream of becoming a soap opera star Sex and Death in Television Town by Carlton Mellick III a weird western where a band of hermaphrodite gunslingers have their last stand in a town where its citizens have televisions for heads Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk is about every character that William Shatner has ever played enter our reality with one mission hunt down and destroy the real William Shatner The Haunted Vagina by Carlton Mellick III is about the relationship problems that occur once a man discovers that his girlfriend s vagina is a gateway to the world of the dead Ass Goblins of Auschwitz by Cameron Pierce ooof, let s stop there At Swim Two Birds was published in 1939 and it has beauty, wit and heart, a lot of Irishness and a lot of Shandyness It also has a plot which it would be a form of torture to have to summarise Or let s say plot become a distant dream by chapter three Plot creeps back inside a couple of times only to be defenestrated immediately.At Swim puts a smile on your face which doesn t wear off for days It doesn t overbalance into stupid whimsy, and this is where you have to have the self assurance of Picasso or Klee and completely believe in the line you re talking for a walk Please say you ll be tryinFlann O BrienHis book isfunThan a big currant bunAnd I said hey babe, take a walk on the weird sideHey honey take a walk on the weird sideAnd all the Goodreaders singDo do do do do do do doDo do do do do do do doDo do do do do do do doDo do do do do do do do Here is how this goes On an intellectual level, at Swim two Birds is nonpareil Its like watching an expert surgeon performing keyhole surgery par excellence not a wrong move, each clinical motion precisely fitted and flowing effortlessly into the next a symphony of elegantly executed literary manoeuvres which coalesce discrete etudes into a continuo of cohesiveness no faults Not a one Innovative, large, yet humble, sprawling, yet mindful of an epicentre, gargantuan ambition anchored in realistic tether, liquid flowing prose with perfectly timed rhythm what is there to complain about Nothing.Yet here I am on my ship, and there Flan O Brian is on his, and we pass each other in the night. Cannot wait to start this one Highly recommended, a couple of fun little bookstore investigations, just chomping at the bit This book is going to be amazing I can tell already and it WAS great I had it on a four star basis throughout most of the reading, due to the metafictional thing leaving me just the slightest bit dry and confused, just can t abide being TOO alienated from the story But the last 20 pages brought me back and achieved an unexpected tenderness and a lyrical glow available throughout the text, but turned up another notch in the concluding episodes It was full of what I like most in fiction wit, vividness, characterization, and Language, sweet sweet language Flann O Brian Brian O Nolan, to his mother knows how to write the mirrior within a mirror thing only highlights the wonderfully alive qualities of the prose An louche, unnamed student who revels in his sleep, his row of tattered books, and neglecting his studies and his Pecksniffian uncle to write a story about a dude named Delmont Trellis writing a story about some characters with names like Shanahan, Sweeney, and The Pooka Macphillimey, who in turn plan a sort of coup against their author, spawning madcap dialogues of discussion of topics as pressing and obscure as the numerology of truth it s an odd number , the mythology of ancient Ireland, and whether or not one of them might be a kangaroo Sounds kind of strange, and it is, but O Brian has enough rhetorical gusto to keep everyhthing running smoothly I laughed, I perked up, I scratched my head, I whistled in awe and surprise Like a cool, fresh, glitteringly dark draught of Guinness and the churning splash in your belly and brain afterwards.a quick trip through several layers of fiction which, properly speaking, aren t on any map at allnot bad for a brilliant newrag hack who liked the sauce and went through half a dozen pen namesJoyce inescapable as infuence here, as in so many things, and yet splendidly rebuffed within the contours of this antic yarn would have been proud and proud he was, we have on fairly solid evidence that it was the last book he ever read, with magnifying glass and milkman s outfit to catch the shine of the sun, and put it aside with the approving, Elysian murmur this man has the true comic spirit q.E.D Here s a part of a small paper I wrote about the book in comparison with Joyce Realism Squared At Swim Two Birds As Joycean Counter Sublime In this paper I will try to show how Flann O Brien s novel At Swim Two Birds exemplifies Harold Bloom s concept of the counter sublime as a response to the powerful textual influence of Joyce, one of his authentic textual precursors Bloom asserts that in Counter Sublime the later poet opens himself to what he believes to be a power in the parent poem that does not belong to the parent proper, but to a range of being just beyond that precursor O Brien s text contains much within it which is Joycean but ultimately frees itself from being derivative or overtaken by Joycean energies by innovatively creating another, newer space which out Joyces Joyce, as it were It would not be fair to O Brien, nor to any writer, to critically fold his or her work into the sole domain of any previous writer, no matter how influential they might have been Influence is omnipresent in all texts, of course, and it is well worth seeking out for critical analysis What can be illuminated through comparing a text with its assumed predecessor is often of value, curiosity, and well worth examining The danger a critic of influence runs almost by definition, however, is that one s zeal in critically comparing two texts can sometimes overshadow the essential innovation and individual vision of the text on the later end of the comparison History is always relevant no text exists in a vacuum, whole and unto itself The obscure nature of literary inspiration is always, to some degree at least, a response to the rhetorical, structural, and philosophical moves which have gone before What critics of influence might mistake as mimicry or misreading in one text might instead be a radical re definition or revolution in form, function, or worldview of that text Criticism of influence can be very helpful in understanding what makes a text unique, as long as the text is read ultimately within its own light, on its own terms, and as a world which responds to but is not finally subsumed by what may have followed it The shadow of James Joyce is clearly present for Flann O Brien, as it might be for any Irish novelist in the 20th Century Joyce was of course deeply formally experimental, but also wide ranging enough in his modes of fiction that he could fairly be called, at various points in his career, and for various reasons, a Realist, or a Surrealist, a Modernist, or a Post Modernist, or what you will Not only was his ability as a writer so obviously powerful, but his constant innovation with form intricately develops throughout his work One can trace the progression of his styles from the Chekhovian realism of Dubliners to the stream of consciousness re imagining of the traditional Buildungsroman in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man , the Ibsenesque Exiles , and the grand summation of Ulysses What is important about this progression in Joyce is what makes the comparison between his work and O Brien s so important what we see in Joyce is the unfolding of a certain kind of Realism This term can be too easily applied as a catch all but it is worth applying to Joyce in both Portrait and Ulysses for the simple fact that, throughout most of these books, Joyce is not actually departing from the Realist goal of exactness, verisimilitude, and holding the mirror up to nature at all Instead he is adding another level to what such a context might mean In classic Realist works, we are often given exact descriptions of landscapes, interiors of rooms, social context, character interaction, and so forth What we as readers are not often permitted access to is the internal dialogue within the minds of the characters we may see what they do, but not necessarily see it through their own eyes Expressing the inner workings of the characters minds is not often the goal If there is some explanation for what a character is thinking, we might be informed as to the subject of their thought process, but not shown precisely how they think In The Informer, for example, early in the story we are led to assume that Gyppo Nolan is thinking about turning McPhilip in to the authorities, but we are not given access to his individual thoughts as they occur to him In Portrait and especially Ulysses , the reality of the characters and their reactions to their surroundings is profoundly connected to their internal monologues as they experience the world around them Joyce s attention to detail is precise, of course, and he is famous for telling Frank Budgen that he hoped that if Dublin were to suddenly disappear from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book This attention to detail is fair enough on Realism terms, but Joyce takes this devotion to verisimilitude one step farther When Stephen Dedalus is walking along the beach in the second chapter, we are given not only his reaction to his surrounding environment but what it inspires in him, his meditations on the ineluctable modality of the visible and of the audible Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells You are walking through it howsoever I am, a stride at a time A very short space of time through very short times of space Five, six the nacheinander My two feet in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander Sounds solid made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand Crush, crack, crick, crick What is important about this excerpt is that it shows us Joyce s innovation The literal and the perceived is happening alternately, being written with equal attention It is perfectly fair to focus on the literal action in terms of Realism, but Joyce gives us Stephen s internal hum of thought, perception, speculation as it happens This is also reality no human being who walks anywhere amid the world is alien to this quiet hum, this presence, and Joyce captures it with amazing accuracy It is no less real for being entirely located within Stephen s consciousness We are still very much on terra firma Joyce had advanced the concept of Realism in art by expanding it, by creating a literary space wide enough to accommodate both immediate experience and perception of that experience In At Swim Two Birds , Flann O Brien rises equally to this occasion and transcends it through innovations of its own O Brien s gestures towards realism s exactitude are strong and consistent Whenever the narrator describes something for us he is thorough and exact with his language, and not only this but he intensifies the realism of his language by interrupting the flow of the narrative with stage directions which isolate and specify his description to an extraordinary, Joycean degree I surveyed my uncle in a sullen manner He speared a portion of cooked rasher against a crust on the prongs of his fork and poised the whole at the opening of his mouth in a token of continued interrogation Description of my uncle Red faced, bead eyed, ball bellied Fleshy about the shoulders with long swinging arms giving ape like effect to gait Large moustache Holder of Guinness clerkship the third class 2 The physical details and the location of the action could not be clearer,specific, andfully realized We are, as readers, hanging on the edge of his Uncle s fork We see everything about the Uncle immediately, in the real, within the proper coordinates for time and space The same applies to his description of his school The hallway inside is composed of large black and white squares arranged in the orthodox chessboard pattern, and the surrounding walls bear three rough smudges caused by the heels, buttocks and shoulders of the students 29 This minute attention paid to the intricacies of space and contact with the empirical world are significant, in that O Brien will later subvert them consistently This is excellent prose, but it is also Joycean O Brien s narrator and, by extension, O Brien is about to depart from Joyce, into the kingdom of his mind, and he will begin to write And this will free him fromempirical things, especially the looming shadow of the man with the ash plant One of the best openings of the narrator s novel hard to choose any specific one when there are several and after all, we know that for the student narrator the idea that one beginning and one ending for a book is something he does not at all subscribe to and that the epigraph O Brien s The Student s to the text itself mentions in an obscure reference that all things go out and give place one to another which displays the kind of space which O Brien creates is the Shorthand note of a cross examination of Mr Trellis at a later date on the occasion of his being on trial for his life, the birth of Furriskey being the subject of the examination referred to 38 Automatically we realize that as readers we are taken to a space which is not directly located, strictly speaking, on any map This is a fictional arraignment of a fictional character by his own fictional characters, none of whom are located on earth They do exist as figments of the student s imagination, but they aren t seen in the light of day It s interesting and significant that this particular interrogation is definitively ontological in nature The cross examination is concerned with the existence of sensations and consciousness of the fictional character in question His sensations Bewilderment, perplexity Are not these terms synonymous and one as a consequence redundant Yes but the terms of the inquiry postulated unsingular information Is it not possible to beprecise It is He was consumed by doubts as to his own identity, as to the nature of his body and the cast of his countenance In what manner did he resolve these doubts By the sensory perception of his ten fingers By feeling Yes 38 39 But what, exactly, does he feel Where is he It s easy to imagine that this is a world which exists only in the imagination only as a fictional construct The meta fiction is a reality unto itself, all theso for being very directly probed and prodded, the way a person in a padded cell might push against the contours of the room If the student were only recounting this story to his friend Brinsley and he does, at points that would be Joycean to the extent that it acutely acknowledges the divide between external reality and internal perception of that reality O Brien takes the cue from Joyce s complex portrayal of the real and creates a literary space where he can get rid of this dialectic and replace it with one of his own his fictional characters arguing with each other about the nature of their own existence The relativistic ontology of this is reinforced in the sense that the characters act within their own context, as if the fictional world they inhabit is as real as the forest plot of Swim Two Birds itself or of Dublin or of anywhere else What might reality be like for a character which has become aware of his own fictional contingency, and thus seemingly having no other choice treats his own fictional contingency as reality This is only a slight sketching of the limitless contours of the space O Brien opens with his text The fact that characters from Irish mythology Sweeney, Finn McCool, etc inhabit the same space as those who were creations of O Brien emphasizes the fiction at play or at swim The student seems to write them as though they are real enough but only to the extent that any of the other,recently fictional figures Trellis, Orlick, etc are real O Brien juxtaposes mythology with his own fiction in order to use them each simultaneously as indicators of truth and falsehood They are real in the sense that they signify their own reality if O Brien had never written the book in the first place and continued being an annoyed civil servant, where would they have ended up and by doing so they necessarily occupy a space all their own, which is ultimately O Brien s It s significant that as this alternate reality progresses throughout the text, the student will occasionally break through to inform the reader of the minutiae of his days Almost two thirds of the day through the book, we are given Biographical reminiscence, part the eighth and Nature of daily regime or curriculum 160 Again, the loops of metatextuality are complexly anchored in very specific accounts of time and space This might be seen as an example of Joseph Frank s concept of spatial forms the principle of reflexive reference units of meaning must be apprehended reflexively, in an instant of time The student is very scrupulous about informing the reader about moment of time and what they signify for him For the characters, we see W.J.T Mitchell s fourth level of spatial form the interpretive the patterns are not merely formal principles which govern the temporal unfolding of the story but are the very metaphysics which lies behind a story told about this world in this particular way The first spatial form might lend itself to Stephen s meandering along the beach, listening to his footsteps along the crackle of the rocks We know as readers where he is in time, in space, and so does he Mitchell s level might suggest the new space opened by O Brien s stylistic innovations The metaphysic is the medium, which is the message O Brien has, as is were, taken Joyce s worldly dialectic and levitated it to a place which is ineluctably visible but forever out of reach This naturally follows us to question the idea of truth itself, of reality Is it merely a construct Is it a fantasy Joyce is notorious for saying that he purposefully included many puzzles, riddles, and paradoxes into his texts to keep interested parties busy for years This could be terribly pretentious for some, fascinating for others It could very well be that, implicit in such a statement, is a kind of reverence for truth, for the search for truth itself The artist as god smiling amusedly at the mortals poking through his creation for eternity indifferent, paring his fingernails might work for Joyce, but O Brien discards it There is a summation in his text which quietly suggests to the reader that such searching might be fun and intellectually worthwhile a writer given to a panoply of pen names and who willfully includes obscure, parodyingly pedantic references Ars est celane artem, the untypeable Greek noise on pg 34 which are, in fact, evocative in themselves and relevant to the richness of the text would hardly be dismissive of that the main character is a student, after all but not enough to go mad over O Brien seems to suggest this with his irreverently sincere suggestion that Evil is even, truth is an odd number, and death is a full stop 237 He supplants Joyce s impassive artist creator god figure with a democratic, rowdy, essentially comic one and lets the chips fall where they may.which would be a place Stephen Dedalus, for all his silence, exile and cunning, could never reach Unless, of course, he picked up the book and read it himself Where are you going, I asked him To Byrne s, he answered Where are you going Michael Byrne was a man of diverse intellectual attainments and his house was frequently the scene of scholarly and other disputations Nowhere, I answered You might as well come along then, he said That, I answered, would be the chiefest wisdom 101 For O Brien, that nowhere is everywhere, and this includes Joyce even as it excludes him The nowhere is sublime enough, and complete enough, to be entirely his The relinquishment good bye, good bye, good bye in the last sentence hints that the world O Brien has created for the student to create for himself and for we readers will truly exist only to the extent that the narrative, the words in order on successive pages, continues When it doesn t, it is a movingly firm sealing off of what can never be, since what is written must be perpetually in a state of re reading, of becoming. Flann O Brien is surely Ireland s most neglected writer Though his talent was on a par with the genius of his contemporaries, Joyce and Beckett, he has never come close to achieving the same degree of recognition There are several possible explanations for this The simplest is that Joyce and Beckett managed to cut the umbilical cord though Mother Ireland featured large in their writing, they both managed to make an escape, living the latter part of their lives in exile This might not seem like a big thing, but the conservatism, stasis and repression that characterized Irish cultural life in the first decades of the new Republic were truly horrendous Dominance of the Catholic hierarchy was absolute, writers were subject to heavy censorship at the hands of both Church and State, the appetite for novelty was non existent This was the Ireland of Angela s Ashes.While Joyce and Beckett made their escape hell, even the McCourts made their escape , Flann O Brien stayed, working for most of his life in the Irish civil service At Swim Two Birds, his first novel, was published in 1939 Although it was well received championed by Graham Greene, publicly acclaimed by both Joyce and Beckett , the timing was perhaps not the best Europe, it is fair to say, had other things on its collective mind Some first novelists are tentative, growing into their craft over time Even those who subsequently mess with the rules often start out on a conventional note Joyce had to work up to the horror that is Finnegans Wake But occasionally there surfaces a talent so brilliant that the rules go out the window Bulgarov s The Master and Margarita is an obvious example a masterpiece not only because of the author s genius, but because he also had the confidence to give free rein to his genius, parting company withor less everything you might expect from a novel At Swim Two Birds shows the same kind of dementedly funny, astonishingly brilliant, throw caution to the winds talent It is sui generis, absolutely hilarious, and breathtakingly accomplished It s hard to describe adequately, but I ll give it a shot.From the very first paragraph, we are on notice that the book doesn t play by the conventional rules The narrator, a literature student at University College Dublin, tells us that he disagrees with the notion that a book should have one beginning and one ending and immediately proves it by providing three completely different openings The first introduces the Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class , another involves Mr John Furriskey, who had the distinction of being born at the age of twenty five, entering the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it , while the final opening features Ireland s legendary hero Finn MacCool, a man not only skilled in declaiming vast tracts of Irish epic verse, but absolutely hellbent on doing so Within a few pages, characters from the three initially distinct stories are wandering in and out of each other s tales, with the situation being further complicated by the realization that John Furriskey is actually a character in a potboiler being dreamed up by yet another writer, Dermot Trellis, a scribbler so inferior that his characters ultimately rise up against him, refusing to act out the plot that Trellis has concocted for them Add to the story the character of mad Sweeney, accursed bird king of the Dal Riada, with a penchant for spouting serial mock heroic stanzas bewailing his fate Mix in a fast drinking cast of students, fairies, cowpunchers and clerics , and there s never a dull moment In the hands of a lesser author things could spiral disastrously out of control O Brien not only pulls it off, he is hilariously funny, with a command of the language that is unmatched by any other author that I know There are paragraphs like this I like gull cries and the twittering together of fine cranes I like the surf roar at Tralee, the songs of the three sons of Meadhra and the whistle of Mac Lughaidh These also please me, man shouts at a parting, cuckoo call in May I incline to like pig grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whinging of fauns in Derrynish The low warble of water owls in Loch Barra also, sweeter than life that I am fond of wing beating in dark belfries, cow cries in pregnancy, trout spurt in a lake top Also the whining of small otters in nettle beds at evening, the croaking of small jays behind a wall, these are heart pleasing I am friend to the pilibeen, the red necked chough, the parsnip land rail, the pilibeen mona, the bottle tailed tit, the common marsh coot, the speckle toed guillemot, the pilibeen sleibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough gull, the long eared bush owl, the Wicklow small fowl, the bevil beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common corby, the fish tailed mud piper, the cruiskeen lawn, the carrion sea cock, the green lidded parakeet, the brown bog martin, the maritime wren, the dove tailed wheatcrake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill bantam and the pilibeen cathrach 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 harpstrings that.O Brien unleashed the book in 1939, hardly the time for exuberant literary experiments Sadly, when he submitted his equally subversive and equally brilliant, IMO second novel The Third Policeman to his publishers the following year, they rejected it Shades of Bulgarov, it was published posthumously in 1967 In 1940, under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen Miles of the little horses , O Brien began to write a regular satirical column in The Irish Times It was, depending on one s place in the power structure, loved, celebrated, admired, respected and feared Several collections of the pieces have been published if you want to see pure comic and satirical genius in action on a daily basis, they are indispensable Definitely a fundamental part of Ireland s literary history and some of the funniest, smartest stuff to be found anywhere.What I am strongly suggesting, folks, is that you take the trouble to seek out either of the two novels At Swim Two Birds or The Third Policeman and devote an afternoon or an evening to sampling one of Ireland s forgotten geniuses. Did not think that anythingzany than the Third Policeman was possible people who like Lost should check the book out, by the way On my first read of this book in 2009 I was too entranced with the main plot device of the characters plotting against the author, etc and probably overlooked the insane ironies, the scathing parodies and the Joycean aspects Consider Flann O Brien offers the reader three possible openings and even has his narrator remark that a satisfactory novel should be a self evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity.Now I know why this is a classic A must read for Borges and Calvino fans Tristram Shandy, here I come.Caveat Store up oodles of patience before starting on this book It is nonsensical beyond ordinary comprehension. Inmates In Charge of the AsylumNovelists are, of course, frauds They make a living by telling lies just enough like the truth to be credible and passing that off as work Of course it isn t work, but mostly boozing and collecting daft comments made by other people, mostly other writers as it turns out They even turn their plagiarism into a principle of artistic techniqueCharacters should be interchangeable as between one book and another The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet The modern novel should be largely a work of reference But even a fraud and layabout must sleep from time to time And there s the chance for the interchangeable characters to exert a bit of independent thinking Tired of being trapped in insipid prose and tired plots, they can take a few literary initiatives of their own They re fed up with the braggadocio, fighting and womanising of the likes of Finn McCool and other Celtic heroes And the outdated styles of Joyce, Beckett, Zane Grey, Eliot and Pound They want quality and they get it Poetry that singsWhen things go wrong and will not come right, Though you do the best you can, When life looks black as the hour of night A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN When money s tight and is hard to get And your horse has also ran, When all you have is a heap of debt A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN When health is bad and your heart feels strange, And your face is pale and wan, When doctors say that you need a change, A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN When food is scarce and your larder bare And no rashers grease your pan, When hunger grows as your meals are rare A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN In time of trouble and lousy strife, You have still got a darlint plan, You still can turn to a brighter life A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MANAnd who would argue To hell with King Sweeny and the whole lot o them ungainly fellers flying from glen to glen like giant fowl We need new heroes, like that bloke who can long jump to beat the band That Jumping Irishman is a world beater And let s not forget the merits of the Good Fairy, a wraith not be confused with your run of the mill leprechauns who don t give nearly such good advice The trick is to keep these writing blokes unconsciousWe must invert our conception of repose and activity We should not sleep to recover the energy expended when awake but rather wake occasionally to defecate the unwanted energy that sleep engendersThat way novels would be in the hands of the experts, not the amateur wannabes with nothing new worth writing about.