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Flann O’Brien: At Swim-Two-Birds

This is not a novel to read for its plot. While O’Brien certainly was not the first to use the Chinese box or mise en abyme technique, he certainly used it to full effect. The novel is about an Irish student who is studying Irish Gaelic, though he spends most of his time lying in bed and hanging out with his friends. He is writing a novel about Trellis, an Irish writer of Westerns. Trellis is writing about a group of people living in a hotel and he even rapes one of these characters. The victim gives birth to a son, Orlick. Meanwhile the characters in the hotel have drugged Trellis so that he cannot control their lives. Orlick now writes a story about Trellis, in which Trellis is tried by his characters who proceed to torture him, till Teresa, a servant in the hotel burns some of the story so that some of the characters cease to exist, enabling Trellis to escape. Meanwhile the student passes his exams and the novel ends.

O’Brien himself was not very fond of this novel and considered it juvenilia. However, others have considered it a masterpiece. Dylan Thomas said of it This is just the book to give your sister – if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl. The plot given above is, in fact, more complicated, with various strands intertwining, Irish legends mixing in to the story and O’Brien giving his philosophical, religious and literary views (and then damning them). You can read it as a rollicking comedy, as a parody of literature, as a clever attempt to play with fiction and reality. However you read it, it is a great work of Irish literature.

Publishing history

First published 1939 by Longmans, Green