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At Swim-Two-Birds

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  11,918 ratings  ·  919 reviews
A wildly comic send-up of Irish literature and culture, At Swim-Two-Birds is the story of a young, lazy, and frequently drunk Irish college student who lives with his curmudgeonly uncle in Dublin. When not in bed (where he seems to spend most of his time) or reading he is composing a mischief-filled novel about Dermot Trellis, a second-rate author whose characters ultimate ...more
Paperback, 239 pages
Published August 17th 1998 by Dalkey Archive Press (first published 1939)
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Popular Answered Questions
Rathbaner It's a book about a fella writing a book about a fella writing a book.…moreIt's a book about a fella writing a book about a fella writing a book.(less)
Jerry Balzano Not quite the answer to your question, but ....

I'm currently reading both books; my history with them so far: ASTB, one "false start"; TTP, three "fal…more
Not quite the answer to your question, but ....

I'm currently reading both books; my history with them so far: ASTB, one "false start"; TTP, three "false starts".

At present, I am enjoying ASTB to an extent I wouldn't have predicted from my initial false-start. It's funny how one's state-of-mind-at-the-moment ("mood") can so deeply affect one's pleasure in reading any given book – I never cease to marvel at this.

I would say that ASTB is the more "accessible" of the two books, although what I have read in each of them convinces me that they are both magnificent works of genius. So I would also say: read them both! And honor your "mood" in reaction to O'Brien's narrative(s) in each case. Because even as I write this, it occurs to me that there really are some respects in which TTP is the "simpler" book in that there is not all the shifting of points-of-view there that permeate ASTB ... so it's a bit strange, given that, that I would call ASTB the more "accessible" of the two books. (I suspect it has something to do with the fascinating remark in ASTB, "The modern novel should be largely a work of reference" (p. 33 paper, p. 20 Kindle) ... an idea that O'Brien actually puts more into practice in TTP than in ASTB, which can make TTP a tougher go.)

ASTB is the more comedic of the two, certainly; but I should add that I have always been more intrigued by TTP ... so we'll see ...!

Hope this helps.(less)

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Average rating 3.88  · 
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I finished this book late last night and when I woke this morning the last scene of a very vivid dream was still imprinted in full colour on my mind. In the dream I had been searching for something, google searching, and a google page filled my vision, a page to which I’d been led by a bizarre mistype: jiethleef...


Oh, drat - so much for that promising beginning. I took a break for a coffee after writing a long paragraph bas
Aug 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: irish
Inmates In Charge of the Asylum

Novelists are, of course, fraudsters. They make a living by telling lies just enough like the truth to be credible and passing that off as work. Of course it isn’t work, but mostly boozing and collecting daft comments made by other people, mostly other writers as it turns out. They even turn their plagiarism into a principle of artistic technique: “Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should
Riku Sayuj

Did not think that anything more zany than the 'Third Policeman' was possible (people who like 'Lost' should check the book out, by the way)... On my first read of this book (in 2009) I was too entranced with the main plot device of the characters plotting against the author, etc and probably overlooked the insane ironies, the scathing parodies and the Joycean aspects.

Consider: Flann O’Brien offers the reader three possible openings and even has his narrator remark that a satisfactory novel sho
Paul Bryant
Nov 19, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: novels
This is a seriously lovely inch perfect parabola of joy which everyone ought to at least try. Go on! You know you want to. All right, you didn't know you wanted to. But i know you better than that! Would I lie? How long have we known each other now? Well then, have I ever recommended a duff book? Name one. There, you can't. I admit that At Swim Two birds won't be everybody's slice of schwarzwälder kirschtorte. Probably some will stumble away pallid and looking like they've spent a week with a ma ...more
Jul 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: infinite-books
A Review Composed of Interrogatives and Speculations

What are we to make of At Swim-Two-Birds? Despite the fact of its being one of the laugh-out-loud funniest, most absurdly and grossly comedic, most intelligent novels I’ve ever read, At Swim-Two-Birds is simultaneously profoundly cruel, cruelly profound, unsettling, and causes such a discord with the idea of imaginative reality and authority in fiction that I would say that the overall effect of reading the book is something akin to a blend of
Ian "Marvin" Graye
Oct 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
"Piteous Though Such Fraud Be"

The epigraph in Greek script at the beginning of the novel reads "for all things change, making way for each other".

It comes from the following passage of Euripides’ "Heracles":

"Daughter, there may yet be a happy escape
From present troubles for me and you;
My son, your husband, may yet arrive.
So calm yourself, and wipe those tears
From your children's eyes,
And soothe them with soft words,
Inventing a tale to delude them,
Piteous though such fraud be.
Dec 22, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2012
Here is how this goes. On an intellectual level, at Swim two Birds is nonpareil. Its like watching an expert surgeon performing keyhole surgery par excellence: not a wrong move, each clinical motion precisely fitted and flowing effortlessly into the next: a symphony of elegantly executed literary manoeuvres which coalesce discrete etudes into a continuo of cohesiveness: no faults. Not a one. Innovative, large, yet humble, sprawling, yet mindful of an epicentre, gargantuan ambition anchored in re ...more
Oct 02, 2007 added it
Recommends it for: Those who like this sort of thing
Shelves: freebox, falsestarts
Ok, it's official: I got to page 127, and I GIVE UP.
There were parts at the beginning of this book which I quite enjoyed. Unfortunately, after slogging through the last 80 or so pages of random witterings, I can't remember what they were or why I enjoyed them. A few casual impressions that I was left with:

1. "What do you read, my lord?
Words, words, words."
-HAMLET, Act II, scene 2

2. I am reasonably certain that, had I read this book in high school, I would have eaten it up; I would have rea
Cannot wait to start this one. Highly recommended, a couple of fun little bookstore investigations, just chomping at the bit. This book is going to be amazing. I can tell already.


and it WAS great. I had it on a four star basis throughout most of the reading, due to the metafictional thing leaving me just the slightest bit dry and confused, just can't abide being TOO alienated from the story. But the last 20 pages brought me back and achieved an unexpected tenderness and a lyrical glow (availa
Jul 05, 2007 rated it really liked it
Flann O'Brien is surely Ireland's most neglected writer. Though his talent was on a par with the genius of his contemporaries, Joyce and Beckett, he has never come close to achieving the same degree of recognition. There are several possible explanations for this. The simplest is that Joyce and Beckett managed to cut the umbilical cord - though Mother Ireland featured large in their writing, they both managed to make an escape, living the latter part of their lives in exile. This might not seem ...more
K.D. Absolutely
Jun 20, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to K.D. by: Time 100, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006-2010)
Shelves: 1001-core, time-100
At Swim-To-Birds is a 1939 novel by Irish author Brian O’Nolan under the non de plueme Flann O’Brien. At one time, he also used a pen name Myles na Coppaleen (Myles of the Little Horses) taken from the character in Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn. When my brother and I learned about this other pseudonym we thought that O’Brien might have some naughty Filipino friends or relatives. Myles could be a name of an Irish person, male or female. Then na Coppaleen is, in Filipino language, a desc ...more
But which of us can hope to probe with questioning finger the dim thoughts that flit in a fool's head.
I will admit, I liked The Third Policeman better. I will also admit to holding this as the better book, one with recognizable traces of TTP amidst so much more. There, alongside the author's singular wit and superb hand at mixing the pragmatic with the absurd until neither can tell which is the other, is performance, is parody, is a supreme consideration of reality's dance with fiction
Jan 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"Evil is even, truth is an odd number, and death is a full stop."
- Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds


First, this is one of my favorite recent novels. I loved it. I loved its playfulness, originality, energy, discursiveness, absurdity. I loved the fugues of dialogue, the interruptions, insertions, the confusion of characters, the meta-fiction of youth. There were parts where I was quoting or reciting paragraphs, lines and poems from almost every page to my wife. Except with the poems, this proved d
Justin Evans
Jan 03, 2012 added it
Shelves: fiction
I'm glad I can write a review of this without giving it a rating, that's for sure. The last thing I need is to be assaulted by legions of self-consciously intellectual and/or hip readers decrying my inability to 'get it,' because I gave a crappy rating to a probably interesting book. Instead I can write a review which such readers won't bother reading and perhaps save you the effort of picking the book up, or, alternatively, help you discover that this is a book of the type that you enjoy.

But s
Adam Floridia
This is a testament to why I love goodreads: I don't think I ever would have stumbled across this singularly unique gem without it.

The book almost defies review because it defies all literary conventions; however, it does so in such an overt and parodic manner that it never becomes tedious reading. I suppose it's like the ying to Beckett's yang--both completely discount plot, but one is lighthearted and comical while the other is laborious and depressing.

The absurdity of the book is always righ
Mar 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: immortal
Good news! My “No Dogs, No Irish” sign has officially been removed from above the front door. My Irish wife will be ecstatic!

You know what I’m going to do for you good kids? I’m going to explain, in intricate and hyper-articulate fashion, why At Swim-Two-Birds is a perfect novel. I’m going to do this in such a manner that even Flann O’Brien would be jealous. I am going to deconstruct the entire novel and build it up again, expanding upon the work where I see fit. Then, for my second act, I’m goi
Vit Babenco
Dec 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A protagonist writes a book in which the main character also writes a book - his personages come alive and they begin to write a book too - a murderous tale about their author. Everything that happens is taking place in our heads after all - such is the ultimate solipsism of the literature.
Mattia Ravasi
For people who read Ulysses and thought, "this is good and all, but is it Irish enough?"

Maybe not as difficult as Joyce's masterpiece, but every bit as crazy.
"As a matter of fact, said the Good Fairy, I do not understand two words of what you have said and I do not know what you are talking about. Do you know how many subordinate clauses you have used in that last oration of yours, Sir?"

I feel so smug that I'm finished. As Riku says in his review, "It is nonsensical beyond ordinary comprehension" but in a enjoyable way! I will revisit in the future hopefully with a better knowledge of early Irish literature.

P.S. The student was the original Bridget
·Karen· was explained that a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service. It would be incorrect to say that it would lead to chaos. Characters should be interchangeable as between one ...more
"Evil is even, truth is an odd number and death is a full stop. When a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed, he punctuates and gives majesty to the serial enigma of the dark, laying it more evenly and heavily upon the fabric of the mind." (314)

Nature of the review: glib, perfunctory, obtuse, bulbous

Extract from the reviewer's review:
One of the funniest and maddest novels I've ever read. This thing [the book, At Swim-Two-Birds] does not need me to recommend it, but I might give
Jan 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: own
Honey-words of the meta variety before the term metafiction was derived.

An author ahead of his time; a work of intelligence, fun, and sharpness. A one-chapter book with multiple beginnings, multiple dimensions, and a quick organic flow. This book is funny, it's sardonic, it's philosophical, but it's not too high on itself. This book has something for the professor and a regular old boyo. The style is funky and loose, weaving in and out of the different layers of the story at a whim, without bre
May 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: people who can handle metafiction and have a fondness for stout
Shelves: comedy, lush
If I was to be stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life and could only take one book with me this would be it. It is so complex and rich that every new reading reveals details previously missed and perspectives not previously considered. The Pooka MacPhellimey and the Good Fairy are just genius.

"Afterwards, near Lad Lañe Pólice Station a small man in black fell in with us and tapping me often about the chest, talked to me earnestly on the subject of Rousseau, a member of the French n
Sep 10, 2015 rated it liked it
I don't know how to adequately review this book. It's beyond strange.
Basically the story of a student who would rather sleep and drink than go to class (who wouldn't, right?) who writes a story about a writer who is writing a story. The characters of the fictional writer turn against him and start to live their lives on their own.
Sounds like a good premise, right? It is. There are so many twists and turns. Yet it's told in such a way that it's truly hard to follow. I recognized good writing, so
Paul Sánchez Keighley
I’m equally tickled and impressed. This unassumingly thin tome belies unexpected depths and dimensions, a literary experience well worth diving into.

This book is basically the premise of Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla gone wild. (If you haven’t read Niebla , please do so.) As in, it’s about characters interacting with their authors, but taken to such an extreme as to probe the limits of such a literary exercise.

Being a book within a book within a book etc. we are treated to a wide range of l
Aug 16, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Mir by: Marc
Shelves: mythology, poetry, fantasy
A story within a novel-in-progress within a frame narrative compounded with an interlocking series of jests.
Lee Foust
Aug 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well, damn the star rating system! This is obviously a very, very clever novel, a wonderfully conceived experiment in literary rhetoric--exactly my kind of thing! It's fabulously against the grain of the false paradigm of the classic novel. Plus it's laugh out-loud funny, poignant at times, always merry and entertaining...

But, well, as much as I appreciated all of its intricacies, the literary references (I picked it up just after reading Haney's translation of Sweeney Astray when I came to und
Sep 24, 2007 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I didn't finish this book--which is very rare for me--because I just didn't like it that much. I got about halfway through, which I felt like a real achievement considering how slow-going it is. I've read some slow books in my day but usually there's a substitute for a practically plotless novel: humor, stylistic beauty, philosophic depth, etc. Although some think this is a hilarious book, I didn't find even a tenth as entertaining as "The Third Policeman." And even though O'Brien is a terrific ...more
Noel Ward
Jun 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites
We all know the blurbs on the cover lie but this one says “hilariously funny and inventive” and it is exactly that. It’s the hardest I’ve laughed at a book all year and you can’t beat it for creativity. Brilliant!
May 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction, classics, comedy
Flann O’Brien take the English language on a careening pub crawl. Hilarity ensues.
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Pseudonym of Brian Ó Nualláin , also known as Brian O'Nolan.

His English novels appeared under the name of Flann O’Brien, while his great Irish novel and his newspaper column (which appeared from 1940 to 1966) were signed Myles na gCopaleen or Myles na Gopaleen – the second being a phonetic rendering of the first. One of twelve brothers and sisters, he was born in 1911 in Strabane, Count

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