At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien review

Hi everyone! Today I am going to review Flann O’Brien’s debut novel At Swim-Two-Birds which was first published in 1939. Set in Dublin an unnamed narrator, much to the exasperation of his uncle, spends less time studying and more time drinking and lying in bed. He also creates fantastical stories and characters including Dermot Trellis, an aspiring author who wishes to write a novel about the dangers of sin. However the characters in Trellis’ work start to turn against him and subsequently begin to plot their revenge.

This might sound odd but at the beginning of the novel I loved to hate the narrator. He seemed so ridiculously full of himself and pompous (he is the first character I’ve read who has compared their body to a citadel) that I couldn’t help but laugh at him. Throughout the narrative he leaves these little asides explaining the figure of speech used or the implications of a gesture or comment, even though you are fully aware of them. His explanations appear very condescending and highlight his pretentiousness. However as the novel progresses we hear less from the narrator, to the point I had almost forgot about him. In the end I don’t think he had that much of a character arc, certainly I didn’t see much character development. I also wish that O’Brien had explored the relationship between the narrator and his uncle a bit more as I found that dynamic interesting. Instead we have a couple of scenes with Mr Corcoran, one of the uncle’s friends, who seems to serve no purpose to the plot at all. The narrator started out as a fascinating, ridiculous character yet by the end he seemed underdeveloped and forgettable which was a pity.

One thing that isn’t forgettable however is the metafictional aspect within the novel. It is stories within a story within a story. At times it was a tad confusing, especially at the beginning, but I found it really funny and, due to O’Brien’s superb writing, it didn’t feel gimmicky. It helped to add to the farcical element of the story, with characters rewriting scenes several times or people from other genres popping up in the narrative. By making At Swim-Two-Birds metafictional it makes the novel feel like a celebration of storytelling. There is a scene about a quarter of the way through the novel where a group of characters are sitting by a fire telling stories. Trellis is asleep so they are free to do what they want. A warrior from Irish mythology, Finn McCool, narrates a tale about Sweeney, another mythical figure, while the others jump in with their own stories. The alternation between traditional folklore and more ‘modern’ stories emphasises how influential the old myths are, as well as showing how storytelling has evolved through time. Whilst the language has obviously changed throughout the centuries a lot of the themes have remained the same or have very slight changes. Speaking of language, the prose used by O’Brien is stunning. All these characters have very distinct voices, depending on which genre they are supposed to be from. Like the narrator I think some of them are one-dimensional, but since they are supposed to be caricatures that feels like a deliberate choice by O’Brien.

If you’re a fan of James Joyce, or just 20th century Irish literature in general, you should definitely pick this book up. You will definitely notice some clichés and tropes being mocked here. Whilst I had issues with the narrator, I thought At Swim-Two-Birds was very engaging, in turns funny and thought-provoking. Feeling both like a parody and a tribute, this is the ultimate love-letter to the art of storytelling.

At Swim-Two-Birds is published by Penguin.

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