“I became subsequently addicted to brown stout in bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottles has often induced in me.”
At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien (1911 — 1966)
The year 1939 saw the outbreak of the Second World War, the deadliest human conflict in history. Understandably, this overshadowed everything else that took place during that year, but it should be noted that in 1939 Batman made his first appearance in a comic book, Billie Holiday recorded Strange Fruit, the famous anti-lynching song, and At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien’s metafiction masterpiece, was published in London. Because comedy is all about timing, 1939 was a dreadful year for the publication of an absurdist novel and the book sank, leaving barely a ripple on the literary surface.
Genius will out, though, and now we know that At Swim-Two-Birds was unlike anything that had come before. Seven decades on, O’Brien’s experiment with language, structure and consciousness has become hugely influential in the academic world, but if your interests are less highbrow and more surreal the book offers lots of laughs.
The narrator, an unnamed student of Irish literature, is sitting in Grogan’s licensed premises in Dublin with Brinsley and Kelly, his two true friends: “The three of us were occupied in putting glasses of stout into the interior of our bodies and expressing by fine disputation the resulting sense of physical and mental well-being. The stout was of superior quality, soft against the tongue but sharp upon the orifice of the throat, softly efficient in its magical circulation through the conduits of the body.”
Too much stout, regardless of its superior quality, can be calamitous, however.
“Afterwards, near Lad Lane police 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 nation. He was animated, his pale features striking in the starlight and his voice going up and falling in the lilt of his argumentum. I did not understand his talk and was personally unacquainted with him. But Kelly was taking in all he said, for he stood near him, his taller head inclined in an attitude of close attention. Kelly then made a low noise and opened his mouth and covered the small man from shoulder to knee with a coating of unpleasant buff-coloured puke. Many other things happened on that night now imperfectly recorded in my memory but that incident is still very clear to me in my mind. Afterwards the small man was some distance from us in the lane, shaking his divested coat and rubbing it along the wall. He is a little man that the name of Rousseau will always recall to me.”
The late John Updike wrote a magnificent essay on Flann O’Brien in The New Yorker. Shrewdly, he noted that “Like the overbearing master of the Dublin quotidian, James Joyce, O’Brien is not afraid to bore the reader. Pages go by in alcoholic discussion of the relative merits of various musical instruments (‘The fiddle is the man, said Shanahan’).” There’s nothing quite like it.Tweet