Flann O'Brien O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) (Vol. 4)
by Brian O’Nolan

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O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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O'Brien, Flann (Pseudonym of Brian O Nuallain) 1911–1966

O'Brien, an Irishman and a comic genius, was a novelist and columnist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

At Swim-Two-Birds by the late Flann O'Brien, as the work of a fellow-countryman of Joyce and Beckett, is a piece of characteristically Irish verbal exuberance and can hardly be considered as a representative English novel. Yet its reputation has developed interestingly since it was first published in 1939; it made no impact at all then, but after the book was reprinted in 1960 it attracted a growing circle of admirers, although John Wain, in a masterly analysis of At Swim-Two-Birds, has described it as 'the only real masterpiece in English that is far too little read and discussed.'… At Swim-Two-Birds both contains a novel within a novel, and embodies the idea of a Promethean or Luciferian revolt against the novelist who, as Sartre said of Mauriac, wants to play God…. In so far as it is a very funny book, At Swim-Two-Birds is more like Tristram Shandy than are other twentieth-century novels that juggle with levels of reality. Yet … it is also a continuous critical essay on the nature and limits of fiction. In Trellis's story the characters plot against him while he is asleep, at the same time quarrelling among themselves. One of them is the legendary giant Finn McCool, who tells a beautiful but interminable story drawn from Irish mythology, which counterpoints the naturalistic lowlife chat of the others. The narrative is also complicated by two cowboys who had been characters of—or, as they put it, worked for—a writer of cheap Western fiction….

Flann O'Brien's imaginative and verbal exuberance dominates the whole work, which is a magnificent piece of ludic bravura. John Wain, who sees the novel in slightly more serious terms than I do myself, has effectively shown the way in which it is about the culture and destiny of Ireland…. The influence of Joyce is, of course, paramount, although absorbed by an original intelligence. In the naturalistic parts of the novel the situation of the seedy young narrator, spending long hours lying on his bed and occasionally drifting into a class at the National University, recalls Stephen Dedalus, while the ribald conversations of Shanahan, Lamont and Furriskey, although rooted in the speech of Dublin, also remind us of stories like 'Grace' and 'Ivy Day in the Committee Room'. And the prevalent encyclopaedism of O'Brien's novel, the collage-like introduction of extraneous fragments of information (a sure way of short-circuiting the distance between fiction and the external world), the tendency to present information in question-and-answer form, all derive from Ulysses, particularly the 'Ithaca' section. At Swim-Two-Birds is one of the most brilliant works of modern English fiction, which was fortunately given a second chance to establish a reputation. In the 1960s critical opinion, however averse to heavily experimental or innovatory works, has been more inclined to look sympathetically at novels which depart from the established norms of fictional construction.

Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by Bernard Bergonzi), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 199-200.

To attempt a criticism of At Swim-Two-Birds is a task I have alternately longed and dreaded to approach. I love it and have always been willing to testify to my love. Yet to discuss it? To do anything more ambitious than merely assert its uniqueness? In an essay published in 1962 I made a passing reference to At Swim-Two-Birds as 'a Gargantuan comic novel which makes a simultaneous exploration, on four or five levels, of Irish civilization'. The vagueness of 'four or five' suggests that I wasn't counting the levels very carefully or distinguishing them with much clarity, but what interests me now, looking back, is my untroubled assumption that the book...

(The entire section is 2,764 words.)