With Love and Squalor: Flann O'Brien's First Novel, at Swim-Two-Birds, Was Hailed by Jorge Luis Borges, Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene, but Sold Only 244 Copies. at Last the Rest of the World Is Catching Up

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For a growing number of readers, Flann O'Brien is the third in the trinity of modern Irish novelists: alongside James Joyce the Father and Samuel Beckett the Son, he is the Holy Ghostin the machine. When he began writing, the term "postmodernism" had yet to be coined, but O'Brien was a postmodernist at a time when it was - as he put it - "neither profitable nor popular".

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Flann O'Brien was just one of many pseudonyms used by Brian O'Nolan, who was born a century ago this October. O'Nolan grew up in County Tyrone but spent most of his life in Dublin, where he worked as a senior civil servant and a satirical columnist for the Irish Times (under the pen name Myles na gCopaleen). Behind these garrulous literary masks, the invisible author craved anonymity. The writer Brendan Behan once said that you had to look twice at O'Nolan to make sure he was there at all. He signed his name variously as "Nolan", "O'Nolan" and "O Nuallain".

Three is a magic number for O'Nolan. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, written as O'Brien in 1939, is a book about a man writing a book about a man writing a book. The nameless narrator offers the reader three different openings - about a devil; about a man born fully formed aged 25; about the Irish hero Finn MacCool - and concludes his tale with an unexpectedly chilling and grotesque coda:

  Numbers, however, will account for a great
  proportion of unbalanced and suffering
  humanity ... Well known, alas, is the case of the
  poor German who was very fond of three and who
  made each aspect of his life a thing of triads.
  He went home one evening and drank three cups of
  tea with three lumps of sugar in each cup, cut his
  jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with
  a dying hand on a picture of his wife goodbye,
  goodbye, goodbye.

Throughout the novel, O'Nolan provides parodies of canonical authors, as well as a sustained critique of realism and other forms of writing. As the scholar Anne Clissmann has recorded, "By the time the book ends, it has presented some 36 different styles and 42 extracts." In a letter to the travel writer Ethel Mannin in 1939, O'Nolan described AtSwim as "abelly-laugh or high-class literary pretentious slush, depending on how you look at it".

The publisher Longman accepted the novel on the strength of an enthusiastic report from Graham Greene, who compared it to Tristram Shandy and Ulysses: "I read it with continual excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage." Yet At Swim-Two-Birds sold only 244 copies before Longman's warehouse was destroyed during the Blitz and the novel sank into obscurity for over 20 years. As Myles na gCopaleen, O'Nolan later claimed that Hitler "loathed it so much that he started World War II in order to torpedo it".

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Several writers hailed At Swim-Two-Birds as a masterpiece. Jorge Luis Borges thought it was the most complex of all "verbal labyrinths", while Dylan Thomas said it was "just the book to give your sister, if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl". Contemporary reviewers, however, were uncomfortable with its Joycean undertones and this notion of O'Nolan as a diluted Joyce has since dogged his critical reputation. Anthony West, writing in the New Statesman (17 June 1939), complained about its Joycean "love of snot-green squalor", but conceded that it was "inspired nonsense that makes one laugh a great deal". Joyce declared O'Nolan "a real writer, with the true comic spirit".

O'Nolan completed his second novel, The Third Policeman, in 1940. In its opening pages, a nameless narrator confesses that he has murdered an old man to get the money to publish a book about an eccentric philosopher. As a consequence of his actions, the narrator is transported to a hellish parallel universe, populated by killers and madmen and patrolled by three sinister policemen. …