Top positive review
"For all things change, making way for each other."
on 6 December 2017
The whole work is like a performance of verbal pyrotechnics and techniques, highlighting the opposition between conformity and individuality, as O’Brien snatches verbal gems from the air. The novel is about procedures of life and its habits, and art, with its purchase on the unconscious, minting highly-wrought coinage of rich verbal textures, set in divergent frames, which overlap and intermingle.Figures from Irish folklore vie with real life figures, O’Brien affectionately sends up the Irish, in their life and story-telling rituals, their belief-systems and their spirit.Born a native Irish speaker, English being his 2nd language, what he brings to English is a new form of writing, with a nod to Joyce, telling a mixture of tall tales, with satire, surrealistic humour, and a delight in lists and descriptive flourishes of such poetic intensity and density, they lift you out of your life.
At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) was O’Brien’s 1st and major novel, recognised in some circles as a masterpiece in direct descent from Joyce’s Ulysses. It is a massively ambitious work which combines naturalistic and fantastic elements. The narrator, a young Dublin student, conveys different versions of reality, from the ‘realistic’ presentation of his own everyday circumstances to an account of the Irish folk hero Finn MacCool in a ‘novel-within-a-novel’ by one ‘Dermot Trellis.’ A further layer of farce enters the novel in the representation of Irish folklore. Like Ulysses to which it owes much but by no means all of its narrative energy, the novel may also be read as a sustained exploration of the fictional process. To describe the novel is a bit like explaining joke without telling it.
A man of personas and pseudonyms, he escaped from his hard life as breadwinner to a large family and work in the civil service, into pubs, drinking and writing novels of striking idiosyncrasy, as if he was regaling a set of drinking companions, to go one better, to tell a more way-out story. From 1940 he contributed a column to the Irish Times under the pseudonym ‘Myles na Gopaleen’ in which he constantly argued against the use of clichés about Ireland. A collection The Best of Myles was published in 1968.