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3.7 out of 5 stars
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Published in 1939, the same year that James Joyce published Finnegan's Wake, this novel was lauded in its day by Joyce himself, Samuel Beckett, and Graham Greene. A wild concoction involving a completely disjointed narrative, multiple points of view, farce, satire, and parody, this "novel" offers any student of Irish literature unlimited subject matter--and equally unlimited laughs. In this unique experiment with point of view, author Brian O'Nolan has used a pseudonym, Flann O'Brien, to tell the story of the novelist/student N, who tells his own story at the same time that he is writing a book about an invented novelist (Trellis), who is himself developing another story, while Tracy, still another author, tells a cowboy story and appears in the previous narratives.
Believing that characters should be born fully adult, one of the writers tries to keep them all together--in this case, at the Red Swan Hotel--so that he can keep track of them and keep them sober while he plans the narrative and writes and rewrites the beginning and ending of the novel. But even when the primary writer stops writing to go out with his friends, the characters of the other (invented) fictional writers continue to live on in the narrative and comment on writing. Before long, the reader is treated to essays on the nature of books vs. plays, polemics about the evils of drink, parodies of folk tales and ballads, a breathless wild west tale starring an Irish cowboy, the legends of Ireland, catalogues of sins, tales of magic and the supernatural, almanacs of folk wisdom and the cures for physical ills, and even the account of a trial--and that's just for starters.
Totally unique, O'Brien's creation defies the conventions, both of its day and of the present, and even the most jaded reader will be astonished at the unexpected twists the narrative takes. Steeped in the traditions of the Irish story-teller, O'Brien keeps those traditions alive by creating multiple narrators to tell multiple stories simultaneously, while also skewering the very traditions of which he--and they--are a part.
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on 26 August 2012
This is a funny, brilliant book so I have to give it 5 stars; I can't add any more to what has already been said about its greatness. I was looking forward to re-reading it after twenty years but found the Kindle edition riddled with typos and missing full stops. It's obvious that no serious effort was made to proofread the transfer from print to digital, (rather counter-intuitive of the publisher wishing to promote the book as a 'classic'). This poorly edited text does disservice to the reputation of such a scrupulous writer.

I'm appalled at the cynicism of charging one pound more than the paperback for this shoddy Kindle version.
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on 22 August 2015
(Kindle version) A wonderful book, destroyed by many typos. How much effort does it take to proof-read a book before releasing it on Kindle.

That Amazon is happy to release such sub-standard content is indicative of contempt for customers.
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on 16 June 2009
At Swim-Two-Birds is one of the great comic novels. O'Brien's language is flawless, his imagination strange and vivid and his dialogue both convincing and hilarious. O'Brien's individual style is clear from the first sentence of the book: "Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensory perception and retreated into the privacy of my mind, my face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression."
The first time I read At Swim I knew from this first sentence that this was a book for me. O'Brien is exact in his choice of words and there is a deliberately absurd formality to his style which has often been copied, but he is the one true master of the style.

One of the greatest sources of humour in the novel is the dialogue between the narrator, a rather indolent university student, and the uncle with whom he lodges. The uncle's character is a brilliantly-observed satire on the Catholic middle-class in Ireland, pious and ignorant, close-minded and hectoring, whose colloquial speech-patterns are drawn from reality, still recognisable 70 years after the book's original publication. The narrator is taciturn and reserved, an intellectual character, fond of puns, porter, betting and quiet contemplation(" a contemplative life has always been suitable to my disposition" he says, in defense of his habit of spending entire days in bed rather than attending classes). Thus, the scene is set for constant conflict between these two characters.

Meanwhile, the narrator is writing a novel. The main character of this novel, Trellis, is also writing a novel. Generous excerpts from both the narrator's novel and Trellis's novel are included. Later, the characters from Trellis's novel come to life and seek revenge on their creator. It is these elements that have led to At Swim being considered a classic of post-modernism.

At Swim-Two-Birds is not perfect. It is certainly disjointed. Ultimately, only about a third of the novel is devoted to the surface narrative, which is unfortunate as these scenes are comic perfection, every one. The rest is more hit-and-miss but still features many moments of true inspiration, meaning that this is one of the very few novels of sustained comic brilliance that one can hope to come across. I have found that it is not a novel to be read just once, either, and now, several years after I first read it, I find myself often drawn back to the fathomless wells of its comic invention.

Postscript: O'Brien was never this funny in a novel again, in my view, but some of his journalism(originally published in the Irish Times under the name Myles na Gopaleen) attains lofty heights of crazed comic genius, especially that collected in the "The Best of Myles" collection.
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on 10 February 2013
I bough this by accident, whilst trying to get At swim two boys. I don't regret my mistake however, as it is a good book. It took me a little while to get into it, and I had to reread the first 50 pages, but well worth it.
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on 21 April 2001
Nature of this review: unsolicited, impertinent, self aggrandising.
Nature of the reviewer: benign, well lubricated, an admirer of our English tongue, part Irish and cursed thereby to all the ills of that unhappy and rain-sodden race, including the following: unreasoning pride; pathological loquacity associated with but not inseparable from a fondness for porter; a predilection for exaggeration (the mundane being otherwise intolerable); an inability to take anything seriously. Conclusion of the foregoing. At Swim-Two-Birds is unquestionably the best book on my shelves, constructed by one of the finest authors who ever graced the world. Mr O'Brien has exploded all the absurd and deceitful conventions of the fictioneer and put the pieces back together in a confection which must, from time to time, if you have any sense of humour whatsoever, have you laughing out loud. He wipes the ground with such pretenders to the throne of absurdity as Monsieur Alfred Jarry, and even with worthier contenders such as the excellent, late, and much lamented Mr B.S. Johnson. Be warned: if you read this, you will NOT be the same again.
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on 11 December 2000
Quite simply, the funniest and cleverest book ever written. After the first glimpse, it takes at least three years to stop trying to write and talk O'Brienese.
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O'Brien was heavily influenced by James Joyce, and it shows in this book. If you enjoy Joyce you will undoubtedly enjoy this, as it is more of the same stream of consciousness, intellectual in jokes and Irishness that has made Joyce so popular. One thing to be said in O'Brien's favour is that his work is more comprehensible than say Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake.

I think this kind of literature is a very marmite experience. You either love it or hate it. Me, I hate it. I see how clever it is, but that doesn't make it something I would want to read in my leisure time. It's too much like hard work. Yes it is funny at times, but there's only so many jokes about puke and cowboys I can take in one short novella, and the intertextuality, the reliance on knowledge of Irish mythology and geography all make it exhausting and frustrating. You read the book only to think that if you had only read another ten before you started this one, it would all make more sense and be way more funny. As it is, it's too late. I'm never going back.
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on 2 December 2015
Just reread this wonderful book, this time on my Kindle. I had forgotten what an amazing work it is. However, I have to say that the editing of this Kindle version is lamentable - it is full of typos. Admittedly, proofing such a text, so full of puns and allusions and Irishisms, would not be straightforward, but this is probably the worst Kindle editing I have come across.
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on 18 February 2012
The book itself is great. It's funny, witty, fast paced and I'm learning a lot about Irish culture. It makes me think of A Portrait of the Artist by Joyce, but more accessible and with better jokes.

The Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Version, however, leaves a lot to be desired. It would appear that the publishers have used optical character recognition on a scan of a typescript, judging by the amount of typographic errors there are in this edition. One irritation is the constant rendering of the word "the" as "die", another is missing punctuation, and there are numerous examples of "ri" being rendered as "n" and entire words being misread by the OCR.

If this had been a free download from Project Gutenburg or something, I would have lived with it. But this is an official Kindle version from the publisher of the book that I paid only a couple of pounds less for than I would have paid for a print copy of a book.

Editing standards for Kindle versions of books should be as high as they are for print versions. Otherwise it just looks like publishers cashing in by doing very little work to create an alternative version of a book.

My advice would be to buy the print version of this book, unless you're willing to put up with typos.
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