Books Magazine

Book 88: At Swim Two-Birds

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

88 books down.

This one was a bit difficult for me to endure. It’s essentially three stories in one. The first, autobiographical, is about an unnamed Irish Lit student. The second story is about a character named John Furriskey, created by a second character named Dermot Trellis, both of which were created by the student. The final story are adaptations of Irish legends involving characters named Finn Mac Cool and Mad King Sweeney.

Follow? Me neither.

I’ve read stories inside stories before (like The French Lieutenant’s Woman), but this one was more difficult to get through.

An example of both the wordiness of the novel and O’Brien’s view on literature.

“Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.”


The book wasn’t received well when it was first released in 1939. In fact, according to our friends at Wikipedia, it had only sold 240 copies by World War 2 in 1940.

The reviews weren’t great either. One reviewer called labeled it as a “schoolboy brand of mild vulgarity.” Another said the book “had a general odour of spilt Joyce all over it.”

However, on the plus side, both Graham Greene and James Joyce loved At Swim Two Birds. The Irish Comic Tradition described the book as “the most fantastical novel written by an Irishman in the twentieth century—with the doubtful exception of Finnegans Wake.”

Me? I wasn’t a big fan.

I slogged through the book just to get it finished. It’s not unlike my description of reading The Sound and the Fury. Comparable novels, actually.

Anyway, I’m ending this review quickly and moving on. The whole reboot of the blog ended up with this novel getting forgotten about mostly. Let’s just call that out and move on to book 89. We’ll start up with To The Lighthouse this week.

More to come on that.


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