Monday, March 17, 2008

At Swim-Two-Birds

It was delightful to pick up the Globe & Mail book section on Saturday and see a favourite and pretty obscure book suggested for St. Patrick's Day: At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien. John Brady recommends all of O'Brien's books, and calls An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), published in Irish/Gaelic only, "his funniest, I believe, and his best". But on this side of the pond most know him for his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1938):
"a riotously comic deconstruction of narrative voices and character. With three different openings, the book was a blow of savage glee aimed at the novel form. With its extensive use of Irish mythology and stories, it was also a lit firecracker rolled under the dining table of the arrivistes of the new Ireland, marinating in the leftovers of Celtic Revival, and exchanging pieties ladled from a witches' brew of Irish Catholicism and tribal nationalism."
Or as I would put it: it's quite funny. Our Library copy is a battered Penguin paperback, but I'm glad we have a copy at all. Only Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge public libraries appear to own a copy of this classic. By the way, the cover pictured above is not from the Library's edition, and it is quite a wretched looking cover, but I liked the cover blurb by Dylan Thomas: "This is just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl!"

Globe TV critic and writer John Doyle - a funny man himself - called At Swim-Two-Birds the "second-greatest Irish novel of the last century" next to Ulysses, in a glowing review of At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill. Doyle wrote that this big 2001 novel is "the great Irish gay novel".

John Doyle's 2005 memoir, A Great Feast of Light: Growing Up Irish in the Television Age is another fine choice for St. Patrick's Day reading. Doyle, born in the small Irish town of Nenagh (near Limerick) in 1957, wrote of how TV changed Ireland when he was growing up, bringing the world to isolated rural Ireland and loosening the steel grip of the Church upon the land.

At Swim-Two-Birds reviewer John Brady is the author of the Matt Minogue mystery novels. Brady is a Canadian of Irish heritage, and he sets his Minogue novels in Ireland. Matt Minogue is a detective with the Dublin Garda who readers first met in 1988's A Stone of the Heart. The Minogue mysteries are very well-written but dark looks at the new Ireland of today. About the latest, the 8th Minogue novel, Islandbridge (2005), the Globe's crime fiction reviewer, Margaret Cannon, noted: "takes his talent to new heights, and this is sure to be one of the top books of the year, must reading".


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