Friday, 3 April 2009

At Swim-Two-Birds - Flann O'Brien

It was such a joy to revisit this book after many years (too many, I’m afraid). Funny, completely off the wall, so surreal in some places it is frighteningly real; this is a great work of literature. The fact that it is a send-up of literature and of writers whilst being a literary masterpiece itself, speaks volumes about the author, and about the courage of its first publisher (and Graham Greene on whose recommendation it was accepted). I suspect it would have a much harder time finding a home these days.

The plot, such as it is, involves a student writing a book about a character who is writing a book whose characters turn on him and use another fictional writer to write their creator out of the work. Into this convoluted Celtic knotwork are introduced characters from Irish mythology, a cast of people from Dublin life (albeit a surreal Dublin in which cowboys coexist with fairy folk), and an intellectual ambience familiar to anyone who has read Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, and other worthies of Irish literature.

Like all the best clowns, Flann O’Brien is very good at what he does. You cannot write such a wonderful send-up of the kind of literature Ireland was producing without being good at it yourself. Nor can you do it so well unless you have an affection for that which you are poking fun at. Because this book may be about pricking the pomposity of the literary world, but it does not make fun of the authors and the works they have created. Rather it deflates the pretensions of those who ride in the wild wake of the extraordinary writing that Ireland produced at that time.

If you like Joyce, Yeats, Beckett and all that crew (which I do), then you will (I hope) revel in this book, because it is wise, witty, funny, well-written, and slips down like a good pint of porter (or three).