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At Swim-Two-Birds

The Madness of Sweeney, At Swim-Two-Birds, avant la lettre

brien novel book trellis

Flann O'Brien's first novel, published in 1939. Graham Greene, then a publisher's reader, recommended its acceptance, noting O'Brien's attempt ‘to present, simultaneously, as it were, all the literary traditions of Ireland’. The book is strongly informed by the author's familiarity with Gaelic literature; The Madness of Sweeney, a long Middle Irish poem whose hero is cursed with peripatetic derangement, forms a basis for one of the principal dimensions of fantasy. Pastiches of numerous modern and traditional genres are central to O'Brien's methods. The experimental character of At Swim-Two-Birds shows the influence of James Joyce, who eventually acclaimed the novel, while its fantastic aspects recall James Stephens's writing. It is considered a work of post-modernismavant la lettre for the textual reflexiveness and explication of the processes of fiction inherent in its stratified narrative: the first-person narrator is a Dublin student writing a novel in which an author named Trellis is working on a book using his technique of ‘aestho-autogamy’; by this means Trellis's characters come to life and one begins his own novel in which Trellis is entrapped as a fictional creation. This ingeniously complex plot is handled with great dexterity and provides the means by which At Swim-Two-Birds achieves its enormous diversity and great range of tones. Dylan Thomas stated in a review that the book ‘establishes Mr O'Brien in the forefront of contemporary writing’; it did not, however, command a wide readership until its re-appearance in 1960.

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