At Swim-Two-Birds  

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At Swim-Two-Birds is a novel by Irish novelist Flann O'Brien (one pen-name of Brian O'Nolan) published in 1939. It is widely considered O'Brien's masterpiece and one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction.


Plot summary

The novel is narrated by a college student who never goes to class. Instead, he spends his time carousing with friends and smoking cigarettes (in bed, while wearing a single suit of clothes). The student begins to write a novel about an Irish novelist who writes only Westerns. The student is studying Irish, and his translations of Irish legend (both of Finn MacCool and mad King Sweeney), which are satires of the inflated and culturally unaware translations done by Lady Gregory, begin to appear alongside narratives of college life, the story of a very colloquial pookah, and the "novel" about the Western-writer. The author of Westerns is an eccentric who lives alone in an hotel, and he falls in love with his own description of a female character. He then, Zeus-like, summons her to his room and seduces her. The characters in the Western writer's proposed novel, meanwhile, dislike their narrative and give their author drugs to keep him asleep (and therefore not in control of their world). The author's seduction results in the birth of a child, whose upbringing is controlled by the pookah -- a child who will eventually write a novel about his novelist. Just at the point of the child writing a novel about his novelist and torturing his author to death, the college student passes his exams, and At Swim-Two-Birds ends. Interlaced with the two interior fictions is the author's college career through a term at school. This narrative is a sort of Rake's Progress, as the young man engages the literary life of Dublin in the 1930s.

Publication history

Published in 1939 at the onset of World War II by Longman's, the novel resulted in few sales but developed a devoted following among academics and scholars. O'Brien soon claimed the manuscript and stock of books burned during the London blitz. In 1959 Timothy O'Keeffe, while editorial director of the London publishing house MacGibbon & Kee, convinced O'Brien to allow him to republish At Swim-Two-Birds. The novel has more recently been republished in the United States by Dalkey Archive Press.

At Swim-Two-Birds has also been produced on the stage, although not in the mainstream: its London première in the early 1980s took place in a public house in Balls' Pond Road.

Literary significance & criticism

At Swim-Two-Birds has been admired by British and Irish authors for decades, with Dylan Thomas offering high praise ("This is just the book to give your sister – if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl") and Anthony Burgess considering it one of the ninety-nine greatest novels of the first half of the twentieth century. It was one of the last books read by James Joyce, who read it with the help of a magnifying glass, being nearly blind. He declared it the work of a writer who had a 'true comic spirit'. Publication of the novel in the United States has been spotty, and the work has only recently begun to attract a strong following there. American writer Gilbert Sorrentino paid homage to the book with his sprawling 1979 novel Mulligan Stew, itself a novel about the writing of a novel, with characters drawn from other works (including At Swim-Two-Birds) who wreak havoc upon the fictional author and the text itself. More recently, the title of O'Nolan's book has received a punning appropriation by Jamie O'Neill, the author of At Swim, Two Boys.

A note for the curious

The Greek phrase found in the front-matter of the novel is from Euripides' Heracles:

ἐξίσταται γὰρ πάντ' ἀπ' ἀλλήλων δίχα


existatai gar pant' ap' allêlôn dikha


for all things change, making way for each other

The title of the novel derives from Snámh-dá-éin (Swim-Two-Birds), which is a place on the river Shannon visited by the legendary Mad Sweeney; the story can be found in the Cycle of the Kings.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "At Swim-Two-Birds" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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