Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2010

At Swim — Two Birds (1939), by Flann O’Brien

I’m the first to admit that I didn’t pay this book the undivided attention it deserves. It’s a very interesting, very bizarre modernist text from 1939, and I should have read it in a concentrated burst so that I could keep track of events. That’s because it’s a book that deliberately makes it difficult to keep track of events, and reading scraps of it interposed with Barcelona by Robert Hughes as I make my way through Spain really doesn’t do At Swim – Two Birds justice at all. Blame the Dublin Writers Museum for reminding me that I had it on my Kindle…and once started, I had to keep going. It’s that kind of book.

It begins with the story of an indolent young university student who is writing a novel. There are some very funny exchanges between him and his exasperated uncle who is (quite rightly) convinced that the young man isn’t doing much work. The dialogue is perfectly rendered Irish of the sort that tends to be caricatured on TV; it’s even funnier when the student and his equally indolent friends engage in mock serious ‘philosophical’ conversations down at the pub.

There’s a wonderful scene in which the uncle comes home with his friend from the opera society, a Mr Corcoran who politely apologises for interrupting the student at his work. That’s hardly possible is the uncle’s rejoinder, but Mr C springs to the student’s defence, recounting a tale about his son who is also evidently bone-idle but came home with first prize in the Catholic Catechism. What follows is a sage conversation about how valuable and useful a knowledge of the catechism is, how it’s a guide to life and so on, with which wisdom the uncle has no choice but to concur. The student slinks off upstairs again, having won yet another round in this comic domestic battle of wits.

But the student’s novel, which seems not be written down but rather is still in the ‘conceptual’ stage takes on a life of its own. One of the characters, Dermot Trellis, is also writing a novel, which seems to be a western. An Irish western, and his characters try to murder the author i.e. the layabout student. It is absolutely impossible to read this nonsense without laughing out loud, especially in the bits that read like a Catholic Catechism, as if a priest were interrogating the narrator and the narrator replies in mock seriousness.

In the middle there is an exchange between a Pooka (a professional Satan) and a Good Fairy where the question of whether the Pooka’s wife might be a kangaroo is discussed.

I would not be in the least surprised to learn that my wife is a kangaroo, for any hypothesis would be more tenable than the assumption that she is a woman.

Your name, said the Good Fairy, is one thing that you have not yet related to me privately. There is nothing so important as the legs in determining the kangaroolity of a woman. Is there, for example, fur on your wife’s legs?

My name, said the Pooka, with an apologetic solicitude, is Fergus MacPhellimey, and I am by calling a devil or pooka. Welcome to my poor house. I cannot say whether there is fur on my wife’s legs for I have never seen them nor do I intend to commit myself to the folly of looking at them. In any event, and in all politeness – nothing would be further from me than to insult a guest – I deem the point you have made as unimportant because there is surely nothing in the old world to prevent a deceitful kangaroo from shaving the hair off her legs, assuming she is a woman. (Kindle location 2018).

These daft exchanges are most enjoyable, a kind of slapstick humour in prose. According to Good Reads  he has written heaps of books and I am looking forward to finding some more.

And when I do, I’ll read them properly.

PS I’ve discovered a really annoying aspect to reading books with a Kindle on a plane. It can’t synch to where you left off reading, like it can on land…..

Author: Flann O’Brien
Title: At Swim – Two Birds
Publisher: Amazon Kindle
Source: Personal Library


  1. Oh Lisa, I don’t think this is the best holiday read (and least it wouldn’t be for me). It’s huge fun but it does require a lot of concentration to keep track of all the shenanigans. The Pooka exchanges are hysterical as I recollect. I haven’t read others of his, but would be keen to.

    And that IS annoying about the Kindle not bookmarking your place when you are in the air.


    • I will have to re-read it. The trial is the funniest part of the whole book, I think!


  2. Ive only read the third policeman by O’brien which I enjoyed if I found a bit hard to follow at times ,didn’t put me of that much thou got two of his other book the Dalkey archive and a collection of his writings for the Irish time as Myles na g copaleen ,which is meant to be very funny as its everyday observations on post war ireland,all the best stu


    • Stu, I think I am smitten by this writer! The more I think about it, the richer the writing seems: I think he was taking the mickey out of Irish sagas as well, and there’s probably more there that I just haven’t picked up on. I’m going to see what else I can find when I get back home, cheers


  3. Like you, after reading “At Swim-Two Birds”, I hunted for more books by Flann O’Brien. None of them has matched “At Swim-Two Birds’ which is a one of a kind comic classic.


    • Oh that’s a pity, because I really loved it. It was so clever, especially after we had been to Trinity College and taken a tour led by a Trinity student – I really felt as if I knew the kind of student that O’Brien was writing about.


  4. I re-read your review because I am halfway with this book and I am not sure if I am understanding everything :)


    • Hello K.D., my dear friend from Good Reads, how lovely to see you here!
      Alas, I don’t think I will have enlightened you much, but I want to thank you for bringing me back here to my post and reminding me that I wanted to hunt out other books by Flann O’Brien. I think I’ll start with Stu’s suggestion, The Third Policeman.


  5. […] At Swim – Two Birds, by Flann O’Brien […]


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