At Swim-Two-Birds

at-swim.jpgThis was my first novel of 2008. I’m not even going to try to recount the plot of Flann o’ Brien’s first novel – besides that is available elsewhere on the web (as well as lots of other material, of varying quality, on the book). It made me laugh at loud, though, from time to time. It’s only a little over 200 pages long, but it’s no quick read. Rather each sentence needs to be savoured and digested, so rich is it as a piece of writing. The plot is at times difficult to follow, not least because of the layered narrative and the army of unlikely and badly behaved characters. In this book, o’ Brien has written a novel about a man who is writing a novel about a man who is writing a novel and whose characters write a novel about the man who is writing a novel about them, in order to get revenge on him. Yes?

It helps, I found, to read the novel in a Dublin accent (to yourself, of course), as then you begin to get a sense of the rhythm and cadences of the writing that otherwise disappear on the flat page. It also helps to know a little about Dublin, or at least to have spent time with Dublin people, preferably in the pub. It then starts to remind you of some of the conversations you might have had. Needless to say, I loved this book. It’s one of those books that I know I will return to time and again. There are many books that I thoroughly enjoy, but I know I will probaby only ever read the once. There are many fewer that I know for certain I will re-read. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better books (although it probably means that they are more memorable), but it does mean that my experience of them, as a reader, is different.

On the back of my (Penguin) copy, there is a quotation from Dylan Thomas that I rather like. Giving his opinion on At Swim-Two-Birds, he said, “This is just the book to give to your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”

Yesterday I finished Winter in Madrid, so I’ll write a few words about that tomorrow.


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  1. Pingback: Dublin. « The Hieroglyphic Streets

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