If the inhabitants of a certain Victorian townhouse in Lampeter, west Wales, ever strip the wallpaper in one of the upstairs rooms, they’ll be surprised to find what’s hidden underneath it. The bare plaster of the walls is covered with an array of word-clusters written in thick black pencil. Prominent among them is this one:
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.
I inscribed this sentence, together with the other fragments of poetry and prose that adorn the walls, when I redecorated the house shortly after moving into it in 1989. Knowing that the words would soon be covered over with new paper made writing them on the walls – something I’d normally not dream of doing – seem not only acceptable but called for.
Thinking about it now, years later, long after selling the house and leaving Wales, this writing on the walls doesn’t strike me as anything trivial. Rather than being a light-hearted, spur-of-the-moment impulse, or some temporary lapse into minor vandalism, these word-bursts of literary graffiti were more like the carving of a signature onto the very substance of the house. They acted as a constellation of hidden signs, secret tattoos that marked the place as mine. My wall-written words had the air of ritual about them, rather than mere whimsy. They were like talismans or charms, something that might be whispered into the ear of a newly born child; a kind of sacramental incantation.
Everything on the walls was written from memory; I was transcribing from what was in my mind, not copying out of books. Each text-fragment was taken from a piece of writing that had made sufficient impact for me to want to memorize some key part of it. What we know by heart like this, according to George Steiner, “becomes an agency in our consciousness, a pacemaker in the growth and vital complication of our identity.” He argues (in Real Presences) that “what is committed to memory and susceptible to recall constitutes the ballast of the self.” The epigraphs I wrote on those bare plaster walls were precisely this kind of ballast. Since, en masse, they provided revealing clues about the “vital complication” of my identity, it’s no wonder I preferred them to be covered over. In a sense they functioned as a kind of secret name, known only to its bearer.
“When a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed. . .” is from Flann O’Brien’s novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. For me, this sentence has the kind of haunting lyricism more usually associated with poetry. I can’t remember ever consciously learning it, but it’s been in my mind word-perfect for years. I guess I must have committed it to memory at my first reading of the book. As far as I can determine, this happened in 1974, when I was nineteen.
Reading At Swim-Two-Birds again today, forty years later, has been a curious experience. It feels more like peeling off skin than wallpaper, paring things back to the bare bones of what was laid down in the deep strata of my reader’s psyche all those years ago. Covering over my first impressions of the book with the very different textures woven by my current reading doesn’t feel like the obliteration of what went before – At Swim-Two-Birds is too deeply ingrained for that to happen – but it has made me recalibrate the way I see it, and recognize more clearly than I did before the impossibility of recapturing in more than ghostly outline the feelings that accompanied my first encounter with what’s been described as O’Brien’s “novel within a novel within a novel.”
Of course I shouldn’t be surprised to find a mismatch between two readings separated by so many years. It would be as naïve to imagine that literary landscapes could be revisited after long absence and be found unchanged as it would be to suppose that a favourite place from childhood would be just the same when we return to it as adults. However much the words on the page or the contours of the land remain fixed in their positions, the fact is that we change. Heraclitus made the point that you can’t step in the same river twice. Books, I suspect, for all their apparent fixity, have a similarly mercurial quality. Their words don’t change of course – “When a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed. . .”, like the rest of At Swim-Two-Birds, remains exactly as O’Brien composed it seventy-five years ago. But the way these unchanging words fall upon the fabric of the mind at nineteen and at fifty-nine isn’t the same at all. In four decades that fabric has received many rents and bruises, much weathering. I like to think it has matured and that, however much I may lament the loss of a nineteen-year-old’s energy, my mind today is marked by all manner of intricately nuanced shadings and inflexions that weren’t there in 1974.
Given how the “growth and vital complication” of identity develops, it’s inevitable that At Swim-Two-Birds should strike me differently today. Books are static entities, the author’s words like insects caught in the amber of the page. But reading is a live transaction between psyche and text which acts to melt the amber, lets its prisoners fly free. What patterns their flight will trace out as they weave and pirouette through a reader’s mind is impossible to predict, beyond the certainty that no two readings will ever be the same.
How we find our way to books can be utterly straightforward – the set text at school, the recommendation of a friend, a gift, reading prompted by a persuasive review, choosing something from the volumes that just happen to be sitting on the bookshelves of wherever we live; part of the furniture of home. But often I’m at a loss to map in any detail the routes that have taken me to particular titles. Looking back, many of the books I now regard as foundational in terms of the place they occupy in my personal reading canon seem to have been discovered more or less by accident – though the accidents in question were often ones I courted by spending time in bookshops.
At Swim-Two-Birds certainly wasn’t a set text at school or university, nor do I recall any personal recommendation from a friend, or high praise in a review. And it wasn’t remotely the kind of volume that my parents would have wanted on their shelves. It was, I’m almost sure, a piece of literary flotsam picked up on one of the many occasions when I was beachcombing in bookshops in my late teens. There were no bookshops then in my hometown of Lisburn, County Antrim, so I regularly made the short train journey to Belfast to spend a few hours wandering around that troubled city, exploring what its bookshops had to offer.
I’m not sure why At Swim-Two-Birds caught my eye. Why, on that long-vanished day, did I decide that it, rather than some other volume, was worth buying and reading? Even if I had perfect recall of that moment forty years ago, I doubt if I could answer such questions convincingly. The alchemy of impulse yields few of its secrets to our thirst for reasons. At one level, buying a book is a simple undertaking. But behind it lies a complicated maze that’s rooted in the mystery of each individual’s personality, with its unique catalogue of likes and dislikes, inclinations and hesitations. The complex interaction of mood and moment, history and the present, attraction and availability, the subtle, shifting coincidence of thought and feeling, the interplay of interest and circumstance – this shifting network of interconnected factors only needs to change its alignments fractionally for the outcome in terms of selecting and reading particular books to be entirely different.
Looking at the copy of At Swim-Two-Birds that I (almost certainly) bought in a Belfast bookshop in the early 1970s, and have just read again, I can see nothing in the physical attributes of the book itself that would explain why I was first drawn to it. It’s the Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition, first published in 1967, with reprints in 1968 and 1971. The cover illustration features “The Bus by the River,” a painting by Jack B. Yeats (brother of the poet). There’s no back cover blurb extolling the author’s virtues in the manner of contemporary publishing’s catechisms of puffery. Front and back covers are almost entirely taken up by Yeats’s painting, which I don’t find particularly appealing. The only text that appears is, on the front, “Penguin Modern Classics” (with the Penguin logo), “Flann O’Brien” and “At Swim-Two-Birds”; and, on the back, in small print at the side of Yeats’s canvas, a list of prices whose paltriness emphasizes how much has changed since 1971.
Inside the front cover there’s a brief blurb about the book. We’re told – surely unnecessarily – that 1939, the date of its first appearance, “was hardly the time for exuberant literary experiments.” With its reissue in 1960 came the recognition that At Swim-Two-Birds is “a classic of its time and of ours.” Two celebrity endorsements are included to add weight to this assertion. According to Dylan Thomas, it’s “just the book to give your sister, if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” For James Joyce, Flann O’Brien is “a real writer, with the true comic spirit,” and At Swim-Two-Birds is “a really funny book.” All that’s said about the book itself is this dilute account of it:
The story introduces us to Finn MacCool, legendary giant; Sweeny, accursed bird-king of Dal Araidhe; the Pooka McPhellimey, a member of the devil class; and a fast-drinking cast of students, faeries, cowpunchers and clerics.
There’s also a short biographical note on Flann O’Brien, explaining that this is the pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan and giving outline details of his life and publications. We’re told he was “a life-long friend of James Joyce, whose influence can be traced in the experimental blend of satire, fantasy and farce in At Swim-Two-Birds.”
There’s nothing obvious about the book to explain why it exerted enough appeal to make me want to buy it. Was it the allure of something experimental? Or perhaps what clinched it was Joyce’s name, a totemic token of high culture, its presence acting as a guarantor of literary sophistication. I liked Dylan Thomas’s poetry – to the extent that several of his verses got written on the bare plaster walls of my house in Wales – but I can’t imagine that his vulgar-sounding recommendation would have impressed me. Or maybe I picked the book up and was intrigued by its opening paragraph:
Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.
Of course it’s also possible that far from being persuaded by the quality of the prose, its experimental nature, or its endorsement by two great writers, I bought the book for entirely non-literary reasons. Perhaps there was a pretty girl serving in the shop and I thought that buying this arcane, Joyce-blessed item would impress her with my intellectual prowess. Or it could be that mention of Finn MacCool – “legendary hero of Old Ireland” – sparked an affectionate connection with home by reminding me of the pottery tankard that stood on a tallboy in one of our bedrooms, a souvenir from the Giant’s Causeway. There was a picture of Finn on one side, with details of his heroic exploits on the other. When you picked it up, the tankard turned musical box and played Percy French’s famous melody “Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea.”
When I came to reread it, I wondered if native loyalty to locale might have been a factor in my being drawn to Flann O’Brien; that I bought At Swim-Two-Birds out of a kind of literary patriotism, wanting to support a writer from Northern Ireland. But looking at the Penguin Modern Classics edition there’s nothing in the biographical note to suggest that O’Brien was, like me, an Ulsterman. The emphasis there is on Dublin, where he spent his adult life. It must have been some time after my first reading of the book that I discovered he was born in Strabane, a town in County Tyrone that we drove through every summer on our way to seaside holidays in Donegal. Not only was I innocent of Flann O’Brien’s provenance on that first reading, I had no visual image of him either – the Penguin Modern Classics edition doesn’t include an author photo. In fact I knew next to nothing about him. Today, by contrast, I approach At Swim-Two-Birds having read several biographical studies, some of which include photographs and portraits of Brian O’Nolan. How much does knowledge of an author’s life, an awareness of his struggles and disappointments as a writer, a picture of his face, affect a reading of his work?
One result of rereading At Swim-Two-Birds and thinking about the way my nineteen-year-old self first discovered the book – and how easily he might never have done so – has been to make me wonder more generally about how the reading profiles that come to characterize us are formed. This in turn has sparked more fundamental questions: Why do we read? What are we looking for in books? What do we take away from them? I think reading plays a significant role in determining the features of that inner physiognomy that seems so intimately to reflect us, but it’s hard to make any point-by-point correlation between the people we become and the books we read along the way. Even so, I believe that if At Swim-Two-Birds were deleted from my syllabus of reading, I would be somehow changed and lessened.
Whatever first drew me to it, At Swim-Two-Birds rapidly became a favourite book. I was entranced by O’Brien’s exuberantly complex comedy, thought his writing style combined unforced elegance with a sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek mockery that seemed at once philosophical, lyrical, and amusingly fantastical. I warmed to a book that had three separate beginnings and that intruded into the text an occasional “synopsis of what has gone before for the benefit of new readers.” The cleverness of interweaving the different narrative threads impressed me, and I was won over by the way O’Brien allowed fictional characters a life of their own, apparently independent of their authors. His mixing of the mundane and the mythological made for moments of hilarity, and the relaxed fluency of his diction drew me into the intricate absurdities he was constructing. It appealed to me to have the traditional form of a novel repeatedly interrupted with asides and notes that drew attention to what the author was doing, with the reader being stopped in his tracks on a regular basis by italicized subheadings flagging up the names of figures of speech being used, the nature of silences encountered, and the description of characters. Today, the book is described as a “metafictional text” or an “anti-novel.” To me, an amateur, independent reader, innocent of the terminology of literary criticism, it simply seemed amusing, original, beautifully written, and thought-provoking.
Essentially, At Swim-Two-Birds is a comedy of characters created by authors who are themselves the inventions of other writers. There are ten “biographical reminiscences” scattered through the book. These sections are written in the first person and detail the interactions of an unnamed individual – the “I” who is reminiscing – with his Uncle, his friend Brinsley, and others. This “I” is himself a writer. The manuscript on which he’s working features one Dermot Trellis, who in turn is also a writer. Some of Trellis’s characters start to write works of their own – and they also bring Trellis to trial for the suffering he has caused his protagonist, John Furriskey. Trellis’s seduction of one of his female characters, and the subsequent birth of Orlick Trellis, his son, adds to the complication. This mix-up of writers and characters is given a further bizarre twist by the inclusion of figures from Irish mythology – Finn MacCool, the bird-king Sweeny, a devil and a fairy – together with some Dublin cowboys from the pulp fiction of a local writer of westerns.
The book’s strange title comes from one of the places traditionally visited by Sweeny during his purgatorial odyssey around Ireland. The medieval Irish work Buile Suibhbe tells of how he was cursed and made to wander the country as a bird in punishment for his attack on Saint Ronan. Snámh-dá-en, or Swim-Two-Birds, is described as being “by the side of the (river) Shannon.” The place has only the most minor relevance in O’Brien’s novel, being mentioned just once in passing and playing little role in the events that unfold. In fact, as I later discovered, O’Brien himself proposed changing the book’s title, but his publishers preferred the original to his suggestion of Sweeny in the Trees.
It’s hard to measure the influence reading has on a life, let alone calculate the effect of any single book. Some titles carry so little in the waters of their text that the words just wash over us and vanish, leaving no discernible trace. Others are more like boulder-loaded waves, a turmoil of water and sediment pounding on our shores. They feel as if they leave us marked by the storm of their passage. But do we really understand what happens when a book touches us (or when it fails to)? Can reading rewire the psyche, leave an impression that’s indelible, or is it no more than something of the moment, its impact evaporating as soon as we disengage the reading eye? At least with At Swim-Two-Birds there are several tangible markers that hint at the depth of impact the book had on me, even if it’s impossible to take soundings that might measure this precisely, fathom it in quantifiable units.
To begin with, I made extensive notes on it – just for my own interest rather than for any set academic purpose. The notes, dated “Belfast, April 30th 1974,” were handwritten, in blue fountain pen, in a hard-backed notebook that I’ve kept safe all these years. I guess I wrote them very soon after finishing the book, which is why I put my age at nineteen for that first reading. The notes mostly consist of direct quotes copied out – sections of the text that particularly appealed to me (like “When a dog barks late at night. . .”). But there are also several pages about the structure of the book. I was clearly impressed by the multilayered narrative, its interlocking threads featuring the characters of different writers, all ultimately invented by Brian O’Nolan. I’ve also noted some points of comparison between At Swim-Two-Birds and other books I was reading around the same time. Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author is mentioned in this context, as is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. I can understand the parallel with Pirandello, but it’s harder for me now to grasp what thread of connection I evidently saw between O’Brien and Vonnegut – unless it’s simply their common recourse to the fantastical. Reading my notes from 1974 today feels a bit like finding a message in a bottle, something my younger self cast into the waves forty years ago, with no idea which distant island in the self’s archipelago of ageing his handwritten pages would find their way to.
Another sign of how much At Swim-Two-Birds meant to me was the way it prompted me to buy and read all of O’Brien’s books, including those written under his other pseudonym, Myles na Gopaleen. And when I could afford to, I systematically replaced my initial paperback editions with hardbacks. As a student in Edinburgh I continued the bookshop beachcombing that I’d started in Belfast, only now I was particularly drawn to the secondhand and antiquarian shops and, as well as being open to the finds of serendipity, one of my goals became finding a first edition of Flann O’Brien’s novel. These are particularly rare because Longmans’ premises were hit by a German bomb in the autumn of 1944 and among the stock destroyed were copies of At Swim-Two-Birds. Alas, I never found a first edition. The hardback copy of the book I have is only a fourth impression of the Hart-Davis MacGibbon 1960 edition. This copy is signed “Chris Arthur, Oxford 1976.” I have only the vaguest memories now of this visit to Oxford, but I do remember that finding the hardback on the shelves in Blackwell’s bookshop was like meeting an old friend unexpectedly in a foreign city. I couldn’t resist buying it. Like the Penguin Modern Classics edition, this Oxford-purchased one has marginal pencil marks scattered through it, evidence of the fact that I must have read the book at least twice before this current rereading.
That At Swim-Two-Birds and its author soon became important touchstones in my life can also be seen in the way in which, in addition to the primary texts, I started to buy some of what was written about O’Brien. Back in the 1970s this didn’t amount to much – what George Steiner describes as “the locust mechanics” of the secondary hadn’t got properly into gear. I can still remember my mother’s horrified disapproval in 1975 at my spending the then astronomical sum of £9.50 on the first full-length assessment of O’Brien’s writing – Anne Clissmann’s Flann O’Brien: a Critical Introduction to his Writing. This extravagance was soon followed by purchases of Peter Costello and Peter Van De Kamp’s Flann O’Brien: An Illustrated Biography, Anthony Cronin’s No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien, and Timothy O’Keefe’s edited collection, Myles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan.
My interest in O’Brien was still running strong in 1985. I can say this with certainty because in that year I delivered the Gifford Research Fellowship lectures at the University of St Andrews and began the lectures – and the book that derived from them – by quoting the scene from At Swim-Two-Birds where Dermot Trellis gives birth to a fully grown man. An extract from the local press reports that “the new arrival, stated to be doing ‘very nicely,’ is about 5 feet 8 inches in height, dark and clean shaven.” This is John Furriskey, the protagonist in Trellis’s story – Trellis being the invention of the “I” of the “biographical reminiscences,” himself the creation of Flann O’Brien, who is in turn the creation, or alter ego, of Brian O’Nolan. I also drew my audience’s attention to Trellis’s trial, at which he is cross-examined by some of his own characters about the nature of Furriskey’s arrival in the world.
‘In what manner was he born?’ the court asks.
‘He awoke’, replies Trellis, ‘as if from sleep.’
‘What were his sensations?’
‘Bewilderment, perplexity. He was consumed by doubts as to his
In an effort to dispel these doubts, Furriskey is seen, shortly after his impromptu entrance into the world, “searching his room for a looking glass or for a surface that would enable him to ascertain the character of his countenance.”
The court is particularly outraged at Trellis’s seeming indifference to the severe mental anguish he has occasioned by creating a character who is left so uncertain about who he is and what he ought to do.
‘Why’, they ask him, ‘did you not perform so obvious an errand of mercy as to explain his identity and duties to him?’
To this, Trellis has no answer.
With a nod to Furriskey searching for a looking glass, my lectures and subsequent book were entitled In the Hall of Mirrors. I began them with extracts from At Swim-Two-Birds because I thought the impromptu birth of Furriskey would catch an audience’s attention in the same way that it had caught mine. But it also seemed to me that Furriskey’s doubts about his own identity and purpose – and his discontentment with the nature given to him by his creator – resonated with fundamental features of our existence, as did his seeking out some reflective surface by which he might see things more clearly. Like his dog barking late at night, O’Brien’s prose – for all its fantastical elaborations – lays the human condition more evenly and heavily upon the fabric of the mind, emphasizing its essential characteristics.
As well as hooking an audience’s attention and providing a kind of existential paradigm, At Swim-Two-Birds provided me with a precedent-cum-prelude for giving birth to someone of my own invention. In the Hall of Mirrors focuses on “Cipher,” a fictional character who is intent on exploring the various reflections of humanity shown in the mirrors of the world’s religions. Of course Cipher wasn’t just a philosophical fiction designed to aid an exploration of religious pluralism. He was, in part, autobiographical, a reflection of the fact that in 1985 I was myself struggling to make sense of the world’s diverse faiths and philosophies, trying to establish whether any of them offered a view of existence that would shed light on questions of identity and purpose. But I’ve often wondered since if I’d have thought of using a character like Cipher if it hadn’t been for the influence of At Swim-Two-Birds.
When I moved to the University of Wales in 1989 to take up a lectureship in Religious Studies, O’Brien’s star remained bright in the firmament of my thinking. I still have a folder of notes and jottings and photocopied articles about his writing that I started to put together around that time, and added to intermittently for years. My intention was to write something about the religio-philosophical themes in O’Brien’s work. That I never did perhaps reflects a waning of interest, or perhaps it was just a reflection of how the demands of a new job leave little time to pursue such things. Or maybe, an outsider to the world of academic English literature and its specialist discourse, I was daunted by the sheer amount of material that had by then accrued about O’Brien. It seemed as much an entombment of the original as an elucidation of it, still less a celebration. When I look today at the proliferating swarm of O’Brien-related articles, books, theses and conference proceedings it brings a comment of George Steiner’s to mind. He talks about “a mandarin madness of secondary discourse” that “infects thought and sensibility.” As a lover of O’Brien’s work, perhaps it’s not surprising that I was reluctant to add to this thickening carapace of commentary that threatened to constrict the very thing that gave rise to it.
Rereading what I’ve long regarded as one of my favourite books turned out to be less of a pleasure than I’d anticipated. I found myself impatient with its often slow pace, its longwindedness, its lack of any conventional chapter breaks. Some of what originally appeared as integral and amusing embellishment now seemed closer to tedious digression. What, in 1974, according to my own handwritten notes, was “extremely funny” rarely made me smile. Some of the humour just seemed juvenile. The complete absence of any credible female perspective, something not noticed in 1974, now grated as an obvious deficiency. The intricately worked literary design that had so impressed me when I was nineteen now looked, in parts, lumbering and laboured. Now and then I was, frankly, bored with what seemed little more than silly shenanigans. If my impression first time round had been like this, I might soon have grown weary with At Swim-Two-Birds and abandoned it half read.
And yet – I know it will sound strange – the fact that I can see its flaws more clearly now has, if anything, increased my affection for the book. In the same way as, when we grow up, we can see our parents’ frailties but love them nonetheless, so it seems to be with At Swim-Two-Birds. It played a not insignificant part in my growing up. Feeling sometimes disappointed with it now is akin to seeing lines and wrinkles on a parent’s face, or noticing their forgetfulness. Far from being the discovery of culpable faults, such realizations seem more a recognition of essential nature – and of the unreasonableness of expecting perfection.
It’s worth remembering how much readings are influenced by the milieu in which they happen. Reading something in the course of a passionate affair, on a long sea voyage, whilst recuperating in hospital, or whilst serving time in prison, will not result in identical impressions of a book. Reading in a library, in an airport, sitting outside naked in the sun are very different experiences – likewise reading at different times in an individual’s life. Reading At Swim-Two-Birds at nineteen and at fifty-nine involves radically different circumstances being brought into play, for all the underlying commonality stemming from the fact that it’s the same person reading.
It would be extraordinarily unrealistic to expect the book to make the same impression now as it did back then. And yet, a part of me wanted precisely that – longed for At Swim-Two-Birds to lay upon the fabric of the mind the same spell that it cast when I was nineteen. Had it – impossibly – done so, I hope I would have had the sense to be disappointed with myself. For if my reading now had yielded exactly the same outcome as it did then, it would surely suggest a worrying stagnation. It would be completely unreasonable to expect what had an impact when I was fresh out of school, single, living as a student in Edinburgh, or with my parents in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, inexperienced in terms of reading, relationships, employment, or travel, to have the same impact all over again today when I’m nearing retirement age, married with a family, settled far away from Belfast’s sectarian poisons, my parents long dead, and with a history of employment, reading, relationships, and living in different places behind me.
Rereading At Swim-Two-Birds has been a bit like revisiting a well known place held in affectionate remembrance but, as you walk around it, knowing that you won’t be there again. This sparks a mixture of sadness and a feeling that it’s time to move on; the knowledge that you no longer really belong here. Journeying through O’Brien’s familiar wordscapes increasingly took on an elegiac quality. My rereading was underlain by the growing certainty that I wouldn’t be here again – so that, as well as allowing a re-acquaintance with an old friend, this reading also acted as a bidding of goodbye. Any inclination to judge At Swim-Two-Birds as wanting was tempered by the forgiving acceptance of nostalgia (made more affectionate by this sense of leave-taking), and by the recognition of the impact the book once had on me. For the fact remains that my first encounter with it laid down an important part of the jigsaw of my reading life, the pieces of which are sutured to my real life in complex patterns of interaction. In any case, however differently I might view it now, for me to sit in judgment on my younger self’s experience and evaluation would be as absurd as Trellis’s characters taking him to task for various shortcomings. Things happen in their time and, as At Swim-Two-Birds’ epigraph puts it (with a line from Euripedes), “All things go out and give place one to another.”
I rarely reread books. It’s a mark of the esteem in which I’ve long held O’Brien’s comic masterpiece that I’ve read it at least twice before embarking on this current rereading. If I find it wanting now, that’s only to be expected. As folk wisdom has it: you only have one chance to make a first impression. At Swim-Two-Birds made its first impression in 1974; it would be as unreasonable to expect it to repeat that impression forty years later as it would be not to acknowledge the depth of impact that it had back then. I also take heart from the fact that O’Brien himself in later life damned the book for which he’s now most famous. In a letter to Tim O’Keefe dated October 15th 1965 he said:
I am so sick of this At Swim-Two-Birds juvenile scrivenry that I just can’t take it seriously on any level and absolutely loathe the mere mention.
In the same letter he says that if he gets “sufficiently drunk over Christmas” he might read “that damned book,” but he acknowledges that, for all the flaws he now perceives, “those birds must have some unsuspect stuffing in them.” O’Brien was only twenty-eight when At Swim-Two-Birds was published. These comments about it were made when he was fifty-five. I can’t help seeing a parallel between my reading at nineteen and at fifty-nine. I can’t help agreeing about the “unsuspect stuffing.”
Even if I’m lucky and have another two or even three decades of reading life ahead of me, I doubt if I’ll go back to At Swim-Two-Birds. The time seems too short to lavish yet more hours on this one volume. Yet thinking that I’m unlikely to traverse these wordscapes again makes me feel a kind of homesickness for the book already, so perhaps – who knows? – I will be minded to revisit it. As well as making me think about my own experience of the book, rereading it has also made me curious about other readers. In the forty years between this reading of At Swim-Two-Birds and my first one, how many people around the world have let their eyes be led through the artful maze of O’Brien’s prose? Who are they, this unmet tribe of fellow readers? What impact has the book had on them? What difference has it made to their lives?
I wonder, too, about readings yet to come – and how far into the future At Swim-Two-Birds will stretch its beckoning word-paths. Will people still read it in 2514? In particular, I wonder about what readings await my own copies of O’Brien’s books. Who will read them after my death? What will they make of my marginal pencil marks? Is this where they too would place an emphasis, or would different parts of the text strike them as noteworthy? My rereading has tripped some switches I expected and some that I did not. Naturally, it has gone hand in hand with memory – rereading and what I remember from previous readings interacting with each other, alongside the baleful note of what I’d completely forgotten. More surprising has been the way in which going over the familiar ground of At Swim-Two-Birds has acted at once to emphasize my finitude and solitariness – the lonely reader and his inevitable end – at the same time as pointing to other readings and the community, albeit spectral, of other readers; the way the book draws to its strange, alluring light a crowd of moth-readers who, however unbeknownst to each other, flutter around a common flame and partake of the same wordy communion. Walking along the word-paths that O’Brien has laid down, I know my reader’s tread is as invisible today as it was when I was nineteen. Yet, for all that we leave no residue of ourselves in the reading territories we traverse, I’ve sometimes thought that on the cusp of a particular sentence, amidst the foliage of certain word combinations, I’ve glimpsed a shadow, some ghostly remnant of the person I used to be, so perhaps traces of others are lingering invisibly here too, their fugitive presences haunting the sentences that house them.
Perhaps in another forty years, in the unlikely circumstance of my being here to do it, I should schedule a final reading of At Swim-Two-Birds. Whatever I might make of the book at ninety-nine, I’m sure it would be different from my readings at nineteen and at fifty-nine. That thought makes me wonder about who the oldest reader is of At Swim-Two-Birds, who the youngest, and how much their readings overlap and differ. And, on a more sombre note, I wonder what will be the last book I ever read, the last printed page the eyes take in, the final words, before they shut forever.
As we go through the world, what do we carry with us? I don’t mean our material possessions, the actual things that are the lumber of our lives. Rather, if we strip away the wallpaper of all our tangible accoutrements, what’s written on the bare plaster of – for want of a better word – our souls? In our essential aloneness and nakedness what resources can we call upon to sustain us as we face what William Meredith calls life’s “sensual astonishments”? These happen with “the whole galaxy gaping there” beside us and “the centuries whining like gnats,” emphasizing at every turn the contingency and brevity of life; the fact that – to use O’Brien’s epigraph again – “All things go out and give place one to another.” (I’m quoting from Meredith’s “Accidents of Birth,” a poem I’d inscribe in its entirety on any bare plaster surfaces I decided to write on now.)
I can give no clear or convincing answer here, since I place no trust in those dogmatic certainties with which some people seek to shore up their lives, making them proof against the terrors and delights of existence. It’s more a case of falling back on the mosaic of who I am, and knowing that many of the tiles in it have been shaped and coloured by what I’ve read – even if I can’t specify exactly how, book by book, this shaping influence has happened. All I can say is that some aspects of some books – and At Swim-Two-Birds is one of them – feel as if they’ve got under my skin to the plaster of the psyche-soul and became a part of me.
If I was redecorating my house today and stripped the wallpaper off, I know I would be minded to write another constellation of word-clusters on the walls. My repertoire of fragments known by heart has expanded since I lived in Wales. The literary fingerprints I’d leave would show a different spoor of words, a denser veining of reading paths followed and landmarks that have struck me as I paced them. But I know that any tattooing of the fibre of my current house that I might do today, although it would have a different store of possibilities to draw on, would still prominently feature “When a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed. . . .” Why should that be, particularly now, when the book has slipped a notch in my estimation? In part because this nugget of prose still retains its own intrinsic lyrical appeal; in part because – no matter how much I think of it in isolation – it’s embedded in At Swim-Two-Birds and comes trailing filaments steeped in a flavour I once savoured and seasoned with all sorts of memories.
When I summon this piece of wordy ballast from the psyche and say it to myself, I’m reminded of fingering an appealing shell or pebble found on a beach and put for safekeeping in a pocket, a keepsake of the world, heavy with the weight of associations it’s imbued with, associations that recall the landscape, weather, moment of its finding. Not only does this little word-cluster come smudged with traces of the riotous imaginative world of O’Brien’s book, but clinging to it like barnacles or streamers of stubborn seaweed are aspects of my own life that have become entangled with the book. Saying it brings back to mind the long-haired nineteen-year-old wandering around Belfast’s bookshops, the “earnest inquirer after truth” using O’Brien’s words to begin a lecture series, the fifty-nine-year-old writer attempting to bring into focus the way At Swim Two Birds has acted – still acts – on the “growth and vital complication” of his identity. However unlikely a lifebelt it may seem, “When a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed. . .” gives me a sense of buoyancy in life’s waters. I hope I will carry it with me until the fabric of my mind perishes and I am claimed, as we all are claimed, by the serial enigma of the dark that surrounds us.
Notes on the text
Tempting though it was to imitate O’Brien’s practice of interrupting the flow of what he’s writing with various notes and asides included in the text – or, looking to his other great comic novel, The Third Policeman, to conduct a subsidiary narrative via lengthy, tongue-in-cheek footnotes – I suspect that what would be tolerated, if not applauded, in a writer of his stature would elicit a rather different reaction if indulged in by a mere (re)reader of his work. That being the case, I have shepherded together the few additional comments I wished to make into this single endnote:
The description of At Swim-Two-Birds as “a novel within a novel within a novel” is given on the dust-jacket of the Hart-Davis MacGibbon edition, first published in 1960. On O’Brien’s suggested alternative title of “Sweeney in the Trees,” see Eva Wäppling, Four Irish Legendary Figures in At-Swim-Two-Birds: a Study of Flann O’Brien’s use of Finn, Suibhne, the Pooka, and the Good Fairy, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Uppsala: 1984, p.17. Wäppling also notes (p.19) that O’Brien originally wrote At Swim Two Birds thus, without hyphens, but that his publisher, Longmans, preferred them to be put in. Seamus Heaney’s Sweeney Astray (Faber, London: 1984) provides a modern translation of Buile Suibhne, the medieval text that describes Sweeney’s tribulations. The poem traditionally spoken by Sweeney when he reaches Swim-Two-Birds appears on pp.18-20 in Heaney’s rendering. Note that O’Brien’s and Heaney’s spellings of Sweeny/Sweeney take different views on the presence of an e before the y. In his “Cruiskeen Lawn” column in the Irish Times – written under his Myles na Gopaleen pseudonym, O’Brien quipped that Adolf Hitler loathed At Swim-Two-Birds so much “that he started World War II in order to torpedo it” but that “in a grim irony not without charm, the book survived the war while Hitler did not.” See Ann Clissmann, Flann O’Brien: A Critical Introduction to his Writings, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin: 1975, pp.78-79. For the extracts quoted from O’Brien’s letter to Tim O’Keefe see Wäppling, op.cit., p.20. In describing myself as “an earnest enquirer after truth” I’m referring to the terms of Lord Gifford’s Will (1885) which govern both the lectureships and fellowships that bear his name. They stipulate that appointees “shall be subject to no test of any kind,” except that they be “true thinkers, sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth.” For the book based on my lectures – and featuring Cipher – see In the Hall of Mirrors: Problems of Commitment in a Religiously Plural World (Mowbray, Oxford: 1986). A revised and expanded version – in which At Swim-Two-Birds still features – appeared in 2000 as Religious Pluralism: a Metaphorical Approach (Davies Group, Aurora).