on 12 June 2011
The whole and deepest meaning of the novel is provided bY the last sentence of it/ "There [in the lavatory of a pub], everything inside me [Finbarr] came up in a tidal surge of vomit."
Buy why does Finbarr need to vomit at the end of the story? Because the story is about the hard life and vomiting is trendy in that kind of life.
Hard the life is when the two brothers aged 5 and 11 lose their mother to some sickness. Hard it is to be adopted in a way by some distant uncle, Mr. Collopy. He is a decent man but he shows no love to anyone: he has only a rather cold and distant interest in others and life that cannot be specified. He is living on a decent income but no one knows what it is, except the fact that it is investment.
Hard life is when the two brothers are separated by being sent to two different schools managed by some Catholic priests and Jesuits known as the Christian Brothers, though what they learn or teach according to which side we stand on, does not seem very relevant in this life since they never speak of it.
Hard is this life when Finbarr's elder brother, Manus, becomes an adventurous entrepreneur who starts his successful life of wrapping up people in some opaque unconsciousness, in a bag of flour or potatoes as for that, to get their money with tight-rope walking and by selling a distant learning course on tight-rope walking for one, which ends in an accidental quasi-death, and many other subjects later.
Hard is this life when Finbarr's elder brother runs away to London, to escape an investigation and to create the London University Academy, a mail order business in distant learning in any subject that may count on its side a few fools and clients.
Hard is the life when Finbarr's elder brother is very successful in his shady business while Finbarr is still dependent and does not want to do anything in particular, except lie in bed, drink stout, smoke butts and dream of the pleasure some effort might bring. But he seems to be naturally born tired. So even such pleasures are too tiring, hence tiresome.
Hard is this life when the daughter of Mr. Collopy, Annie, has spent her whole life looking after her sick and dying stepmother, then her sick and dying father and then her cousins, with no words of thanks or whatever from anyone of them, except a lifelong pension after Mr. Collopy's death.
Life is hard when Manus, the elder brother, sends a charlatan's drug to cure Mr. Collopy's rheumatism, and Mr. Collopy ends up swelling like a balloon - though a lot heavier than one such air light item - and will accidentally die of that overweight.
Hard is life when they have the opportunity to be received by the Pope for a private talk and it ends up in shame and rejection, which will eventually cause Mr. Collopy's death and burial in Rome.
Hard is life when Finbarr gets £500 from Mr. Collopy's will, and most of the heritage goes into a fund that is building three rest houses for who knows who. But Manus suggests to his brother that he should marry his cousin Annie who is at least 20 years older than he is, just for the inheritance not to get squandered.
When Finbarr reaches that point he only can drink a ball or half-ball of malt whiskey and then go to the lavatory and vomit it all.
Yes life is hard after all when there is no moral objective in it.
In fact the book is entirely sarcastic and humorous, if not satirical because everything is so banal, ordinary, shallow, aimless that we can only think too much is too much. Each fact is trite but the accumulation of such meaningless and insignificant events sounds like a systematic denunciation of life without a target, an aim and a destination, if not an end in one word. Then due to that lack of an end to this life, it becomes endless finality-missing survival, in one word "the hard life". The targeted end of a life without an end is well worth vomiting all you can vomit in the lavatory of some pub. Imagine the gnats and flies you can find in such a garden of pleasure and you will have the whole picture in one sentence.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
on 28 December 2014
While I understand that 'At Swim-Two-Birds' is Flann O'Brien's classic in the rivalling James Joyce competition. However, I found this peculiarly obscure book to be perhaps the most meaningful and definitely the funniest of his oeuvre. Theology, entrepreneurialism and drinking all have their place in this short novel of inspiring dialogue. An Irish joy.