Stout born

December 3, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. 1939 French title: Swim-Two-Birds.

OBrienMea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I’m late for November’s Book Club billet. I have abandoned the book so I don’t have any excuse for the late entry, except that work got in the way. I have to say it was a general abandonment, nobody managed to finish the book this month. It was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien. I bought my copy at the bookshop in the Dublin Writers Museum. The quote by Dylan Thomas on the back caught my eyes This is just the book to give to your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl. I thought it sounded fun. I wish I had seen that Flann O’Brien had been knighted as “real writer” by James Joyce. It would have tipped me off.

So what’s it about? Er…I don’t exactly know. There’s some guy who’s attending Dublin’s University. He lives with his uncle and loves staying in his room until the air is stale. He likes to drink beer in pubs (well, he’s a Dubliner, right?) He writes unclassifiable stories that are related in the book. The reader, me in this instance, is totally disoriented. I have the novel in English, it’s full of parody of Irish things I know nothing about and I felt I was drowning in an ocean of words perfumed with Irish stout.

I’ve struggled with 50 pages and then I gave up. I asked for help, got some and was told to basically enjoy the funny ride. The problem I couldn’t because it was too complicated to follow. I’ve read 50 pages and I have 13 quotes, most of them marked down as “funny”. Examples:

It was only a few months before composing the foregoing that I had my first experience of intoxicating beverage and their strange intestinal chemistry.


To convert stout into water, I said, there is simple process. Even a child can do it, though I would not stand for giving stout to children. Is it not a pity that the art of man has not attained the secret of converting water into stout?

I enjoyed the booze induced parts of the pages I’ve read and the descriptions of the narrator’s life in Dublin. Apart from this, it is hard for me to describe O’Brien’s work. It’s totally wacked and yet innovative. It’s unsettling especially since it’s populated (in the 50 pages I’ve read, at least) with legendary heroes of Ireland, fictional Mr Furriskey created by the fictional narrator of the book, Irish version of cowboys… It made me dizzy in a Laughing-Cow sort of way: the Laughing-Cow has earrings, in which there’s a Laughing Cow that has earrings that have a Laughing Cown that…etc. And that’s where you forget where you came from. All this in a language rather difficult for me, as a non-native. It’s a literary scrap-book of the narrator’s thoughts and excerpts of his writing.

I do enjoy crazy books but this one was too much for me. Perhaps it should be read under the influence of stout, to be attuned to the character. Alas, I don’t drink stout. Or perhaps I should have read it in French? Anyway, don’t dismiss this book because of this billet. The problem is clearly on my Book Club’s side.

  1. December 4, 2014 at 3:21 am

    This one gets so much praise that I’ve looked at it more than once and passed it over repeatedly. The second time I looked at it, I couldn’t remember why I passed it over the first time, but then when I looked closer, I remembered why I’d passed it over. I would have bet that you wouldn’t like it.


    • December 5, 2014 at 6:06 pm

      I do that with some good books too. I know they’re good literature but my mind screams “no way” when I pick them up.
      Stay away from this one, I don’t think you’d like it.


  2. December 4, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Sorry to hear that this was a frustrating experience for you and your group. I’ve never read Flann O’Brien (or James Joyce for that matter) but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t click with this book either. Your description of it being a literary scrapbook sounds very apt – a collection of thoughts and ideas but somewhat disconnected?


    • December 5, 2014 at 6:10 pm

      I don’t know how to describe it. I should scan a page to show you. The narrator is speaking about his life, his friends and suddenly he inserts excerpts from his writing, fake newspaper articles and ramblings.

      You need to be a native English speaker to enjoy it I think. Reading this in English requires too much from me and keeps me to the ground. You need to fly a bit above the text to enjoy it. It’s like with playing music: you may know how to play the score but if you don’t know it well enough to put interpretation to it, it’s tasteless.


  3. December 4, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    I’ve heard good things about it – but from Irish friends, so perhaps there is something there that we are missing? I haven’t quite – ahem – got round to it…


    • December 5, 2014 at 6:12 pm

      Being Irish helps, that’s for sure. I suspect there are lots of allusion to Irish culture and history that were totally lost on me.
      I hope Leroy drops by, he’s Irish and he loved it. Perhaps he’ll give us some clues. (although he did advise me to take it as a “joke” and go with the flow)


  4. December 4, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    I found this a lot of fun, but I can understand you having trouble with it, given O’Brien’s Irish flavored English. It’s probably a mistake to follow it; I think he meant for you to get lost in the house of mirrors, with characters writing novels with characters who write novels. Either you enjoy that type of metafiction or not; I think O’Brien was better at it than most.

    A better introduction to O’Brien might be his second novel, “The Third Policeman.” It’s just as funny and inventive, but more linear.

    I do hope, by the way, that you peek ahead in STB and meet the Pooka, a gentlemanly devil with a nasty little angel in his pocket. They’re two of my favorite comic characters.


    • December 5, 2014 at 6:15 pm

      I think you enjoy that kind of literature more than me and here, the language was too much for me.
      O’Brien is good. This book was not for me but it’s a great piece of literature.

      I’ll have a look at The Third Policeman because I did enjoy the passages where the narrators speaks about his life in At Swim-Two-Birds.

      What’s STB?


      • December 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm

        Oh, STB is “Swim-Two-Birds.” I was just being lazy. I’m not a particular fan of metafiction, but I like what O’Brien did with it.

        He wrote three other novels, all good in their way. “The Poor Mouth” is a parody of all those Irish memoirs of growing up poor. “The Dalkey Archive” introduces Joyce as a character: he’s an elderly Christian gentleman who is very upset that people are publishing dirty books under his name. “The Hard Life” is about two brothers, probably the weakest of the novels. And nobody could write pub talk like O’Brien!


        • December 6, 2014 at 5:44 pm

          Sorry, I can be dense sometimes.

          I think I’ll stick to The Third Policeman if I decide to try him again.


  5. December 4, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    I should probably check this out, I suspect having Irish family would make it a great deal easier for me to follow and I note Doug’s advice about not trying to follow it.

    The Third Policeman is I think his better known novel, probably because it’s more accessible given what Doug says (I’ve not read it). If I read him though having seen Doug’s comment it’s that one I’ll read first.


    • December 5, 2014 at 6:16 pm

      Leroy said the same as Doug: just go with the flow. I was held back by the difficulty of the English. At least you’re sure that won’t happen to you.

      I think you’d like it.


  6. December 9, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Seamus suggested this a long while ago when I did a post on funny books. Of course I had to get it but didn’t try it.
    I suspect it could be more logical when read inebriated. 🙂
    I’ll let you know how I get along if I get to it.
    Btw – When’s The Good Soldier due? I was tempted to read it the other day.


    • December 9, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      Your English is a lot better than mine, it should help.

      We’re reading The Good Soldier in December, so you can post about it whenever you want in December. I’ll post about it at the end of the month. I have started it yet.


  7. leroyhunter
    December 19, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Tough for me to be objective on this as I read it when I was young and Flann has been a hero ever since. First time round I just marvelled that someone could write something so barmy. Gradually I started to understand the layers in it, how precise his satire is, how well he skewers the pretension of the student, the folly of youth, the perils of the pub life, the bad weather and mediocrity that made up the Ireland he saw all around him in the 40s. Plus he just has fun with the idea of all these characters from books running riot in the real world and causing their author incessant trouble.

    Flann’s strengths are dialogue, cynicism, the portrayal of “types” (like the bore, the drunk, the wannabe artist etc.) and the pursuit of a fantastical notion or proposition to its apparently logical (or at least logically worked out) terminus of insanity. People have mentioned The Third Policeman, which is his other masterpiece (I’m not as keen as some on The Poor Mouth), and is the epitome of this kind of through-the-looking-glass testing of absurdity to the furthest (or most sinister) possible reaches. I can see how he would be hard going, especially if you feel you’re always missing something or can’t find the frame of reference. I guess my advice before was just to put aside the fact it’s an “Irish” book and see what you get from it on those terms – as a fantastic comedy set in a distant and inscrutable place.


    • December 20, 2014 at 6:50 pm

      Thanks for the comment, it’s very interesting to hear your thoughts about this.

      It is a fantastic book but the language was too difficult. I couldn’t get past it and if you add all the Irish references, it was too much for me. You need to speak English better than I do to read it in the original.


  1. December 21, 2014 at 12:15 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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