Like all forms of art, there are pioneers and contemporaries. While the former have an indelible foothold, contemporaries possess a more narrow cult following. When we think of the great Irish novelists of the 20th century, James Joyce is without a doubt the first name that comes to mind. While Flann O’Brien’s recognized, but rarely mentioned, At Swim Two Birds fits the latter definition.
At Swim Two Birds follows an unnamed university student writing his first novel in-between classes and pub visits; Pooka McPhillimey, a member of the devil class; author Dermot Trellis, who (unknowingly) creates a cast of conscious characters who are none to happy about their creator’s ruling hand ; and Fin Mac Cool & Mad King Sweeney, two Irish folk legends. By the end of the story, we wonder who is writing who? An admirer and friend of Joyce(who would’ve thought?), the fellow Irishman confines an excessively meta-world in his debut novel.
Readers, and more importantly non-readers, know Modernist literature is not famous for simple comprehension. I remember a friend recalling, after finishing Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, tossing his paperback against the wall in frustration. O’Brien instead decides to keep his readers in mind with At Swim. Separating the novel into biographical reminiscences of the student, Trellis and his characters, and Mac & Sweeney, allows the author to combine the three stories into a single, less complex narrative. Moreover, like the best writing in the genre, an authorial rhythm soon develops:
“Biographical reminiscence, part the first: It was only a few months before composing the foregoing that I had my first experience of intoxicating beverages and their strange intestinal chemistry. I was walking through the Stephen’s Green on a summer evening and conducting a conversation with a man called Kelly, then a student, hitherto a member of the farming class and now a private in the armed forces of the King. He wa addicted to unclean expression in ordinary conversation and spat continually, always fouling the flowerbeds on his way through the Green with a mucous deposit dislodged with a low grunting from the interior of his windpipe. In some respects he was a coarse man but he was lacking in malice or ill-humor. He purported to be a medical student but he had failed at least once to satisfy a body of examiners charged with regulating admission to the faculty. He suggested that we should drink a number of jars or pints of plain porter in Grogan’s public house. I derived considerable pleasure from the casual quality of his suggestion and observed that it would probably do us no harm, thus expression my whole hearted concurrence by a figure of speech.
Nature of figure of speech: Litotes(or Meosis)”
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas quipped “The perfect book for your sister- if she a loud, dirty, boozy, girl“, which later acted as a tagline for At Swim. While the quote has comedic accuracy, it also carries the quality of down-playing depth within the novel. As “third in the trinity” of Irish writers from the 20th century, O’Brien oscillates between humor and exploring a deeper conscious, much like Nabokov. Even if it’s rife with cynicism, the author has no hesitation vocalizing his opinion:
“It happened that this remark provoked between us a discussions on the subject of Literature – great authors living and dead, the character of modern poetry, the predilections of publishers and the importance of being at all times occupied with literary acitivites of a spare-time or recreative character. My dim room rang with the iron of fine words and the names of great Russian masters were articulate with fastidious itonation. Witticims were canvassed, depending for the utility on a knowledge of the French language as spoken in the medieval times. Psychoanalysis was metnioned – with, howerever, a somewhat light touch. I then tendered an explanation spontaneous and unsolicited concerning my own work, affording an insight as to its aesthetic, its daemon, its arguement, its sorrow and its joy, its darkness, its sun-twinkle clearness.
Nature of explanation offered: It was stated that while the novel and the play were both pleasing intellectual exercises, the novel was inferior to the play inasmuch as it lacked the outward accidents of illusions, frequently inducing the reader to be outwitted in a shabby fashion and caused to experience a real concern for the fortunes of illusory characters. The play was consumed in whole fashion by large masses in places of public resort; the novel was self-administred in private. The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic. In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree credullity. It was undemocractic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent stardnard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service. “
At Swim Two Birds is an example of “Mineppian satire”- novel length prose focusing on confronting mental attitudes. Literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin famously characterized this form as Carnivalesque, stating “Carnival is past millennia’s way of sensing the world as one great communal performance.” Following this definition, O’Brien finds himself in the same vein as Joyce and Swift:
“Many social problems of contemporary interest, he wrote in 1909, could be readily resolved if issue could be born already matured, teethed, reared, educated, and ready to essay those competittive plums which make the Civil Service and the Banks so attractive to the younger breadwinners of to-day. The process of bringing up children is a tedious anarchronism in these engligtened times. Those mortifying stratagems collectively known as birth-control would become a mere memory if parents and married couples could be assured that their legitimate diversion would be straightway result in finished breadwinners or marriageable daughters. “
Sadly, unlike the aforementioned predecessors, fame for At Swim Two Birds was stunted. Publication paralleled with the outbreak of war in 1939, causing the novel to sell a meager 244 copies, despite having the praise of Graham Greene and Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. A further curse arose after a Nazi bomb burned down the publication house in 1944. Thankfully in 1998, the Dalkey Archives would republish At Swim and O’Brien’s subsequent novel (and apparently more experimental), The Third Policeman.
Brian O’Nolan, the actual Flann O’Brien, would find best success under another pseudonym, Myles na gCopaleen. This latter nom de plum was most prevalently seen in The Irish Times, allowing more instant success than the novels permitted. Due to heavy drinking, a heart attack would take his life at 54. Regardless of At Swim Two Birds finding a spot on Time’s Best English Novels of the Century, and a Google Doodle to commemorate his 101st birthday, O’Nolan, O’Brien, and Myles are still fighting to be a contemporary, much less a pioneer.