At Swim-Two-Birds


At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien. (Brian O'Nolan, or Nolan, or Ó Nualláin alias Myles na gCopaleen)


First published in the spring of 1939, it sold a mere 244 copies. Despite the paltry sales of the novel, it found an audience and over the years has been praised by writers and critics of widely divergent types. Very little could be found to unite Dylan Thomas, Philip Toynbee, Benedict Kiely, V. S. Pritchett, Anthony Burgess, and John Wain, aside from their all finding qualities to praise in this strange and various novel. A novel with such a diverse list of admirers commands our attention.


The main character, Trellis, is writing a novel in which he mixes characters of his own invention with others borrowed from Irish classics, Irish myth and folklore, and literature of his own experience, as for instance, with his use of cowboys from the Western novels of William Tracy (invented for the purpose by O'Brien). Trellis proves a far less successful novelist than he aspires to be. He plagiarizes from William Tracy and others, particularly in the matter of characters, violates his own precepts, fails to control either himself or his characters, succumbs to sloth when he should be writing, and produces a shapeless, aimless mess which literally overwhelms him.


“We regret to announce, said the Freeman’s Journal, the passing of Mr William Tracey, the eminent novelist, which occurred yesterday under painful circumstances at his home in Grace Park Road. Early in the afternoon, deceased was knocked down in Weaver’s Square by a tandem bicycle proceeding towards the city. He got up unaided, however, laughed heartily, treated the accident as a joke and made his way home on a tram. When he had smoked //two//[six] afterdinner pipes, he //got up to go to the lavatory//[went to ascend the stairs &] and dropped dead on the //stairs//[landing]. Subsequent examination revealed that the spleen ahd been ruptured. A man of culture and old-world courtesy, his passing will be regretted by all without distinction of creed or class, and in particular by the world of letters, which he has adorned with distinction for many years. He was the first man in Europe to exhibit twenty-nine lions in a cage at the same time and the only writer to demonstrate that cowpunching could be economically carried on in Ringsend. His best known works were ‘Red Flanagan’s Last Throw’, ‘Flower O’ The Prairy’, and ‘Jake’s Last Ride’. Deceased was 59.”




Last update: 18 March 2010