Flann O’Brien’s Lies

Colm Tóibín

There were three cities; each of them had known a certain glory. In each of them, there was a sense that the glory was absent or ghostly, that the real world was elsewhere, that the cities in which there was excitement, or cultural completeness, or publishers and readers, were elsewhere. All three cities remained untouched by the Second World War; they were not bombed, nor were they transformed by reconstruction when the war ended. Even in the 1980s and 1990s it was possible to walk around many parts of these cities and notice that nothing much had changed for many, many decades.

These were three capital cities in which politics and culture could be best treated as a joke, or a game between dull factions, in which one faction would remain dominant in a dormant or an indecent sort of way for many years. These were difficult cities for young men with literary ambitions; they were places in which both the present and the future seemed like a hundred years of solitude. These three cities, in which three geniuses felt trapped, isolated and dismayed, made their way slowly, inevitably into the essence of the writers’ work. The cities both disabled them and gave them an immense imaginative power, poisoned them and nourished them, made their spirits playful but made two of them lock away some of their best work, allow it to gather dust.

The sense that there was no one much to read the work these writers were producing ate its way into the tone and structure of the work itself. Their books did not come from the world, their books became the world; in the beginning was the word, but there was often nothing except the word and its hollow echoes, and this gave their playful spirits an edge that was often melancholy, often manic. The fact that these cities were the capital cities of ostensibly Catholic countries did nothing to help. Yet out of the emptiness, out of the non-sacramental, at the heart of where they were, the three writers found words and literary forms, old ones and hybrid ones, fascinating. Some dream impelled them towards work, towards producing work which would eventually make them famous.

The idea for them of what lay between the old and the hybrid, however, was a problem; a great tradition in fiction in which characters had choices and chances and possessions, and destinies to fulfil, was for them a great joke, a locomotive in a siding whose engine was all rust. They began by dismantling the escape routes and then removing the wheels. For them the notion of character, and even identity, was to be undermined, or driven over. Then they set out to undermine not only choice and chance and destiny, but the idea of time and indeed space – infinity and eternity would fascinate them – and the idea of form. It was not an accident that these three men had no children, that they did not write about women, or, in the case of two of them, indulged in a rare to medium-rare misogyny. When two of them married it came as a great surprise to their friends; they seemed more at home (or more happily desperate) as uneasy bachelors than fathers or husbands. All three, indeed, if this is any of our business, may have died virgins. One of them took the view that ‘I have no ambitions and no desires. To be a poet is not my ambition, it’s my way of being alone.’

The cities in which they were alone were Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Dublin. The writers were Fernando Pessoa, born 1888, died 1935; Jorge Luis Borges, born 1899, died 1986; Flann O’Brien, born 1911, died 1966. Each of them was brought up not only in a shadow country and city, or a place that felt as though it lived now in the shade, but also with two or more languages and with an often disruptive relationship between the languages. Language for them was not nature, it was culture, it was strange and strained, it meant displacement, unsettlement. They came into manhood trapped in a sour memory of a Tower of Babel where there had once been ease. The idea of a mother tongue was a sort of joke. All three of them were, for a time, educated at home or in libraries, away from the company of other boys and the influence of teachers. They made up their own world through their dreams and their displacements. Pessoa lived in Durban in South Africa between the ages of seven and 17, returned to Lisbon speaking English better than Portuguese; he wrote poems in English. Borges had an English grandmother who lived with the family, and was brought up speaking English and Spanish; he lived in Geneva between the ages of 15 and 22, speaking English, French and Spanish. O’Brien spoke only Irish until the age of nine or ten, when he began to speak English as well; he wrote in both English and Irish.

Each of these writers made up new names for himself. Pessoa became, among others, Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos, Bernardo Soares; Borges became, among others, B. Suarez Lynch and H. Bustos Domecq; O’Brien’s real name was Brian Ó Nualláin and he also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen. All three of them at various times worked out strategies to present a fresh persona to the world as well as fiction in which they invented further personae and indeed further worlds.

Borges was acutely conscious that the world he and Flann O’Brien came from, the narrow, isolated and hybrid culture which gave rise to them and in which they struggled, was both restricting and liberating. In a lecture from 1951 called ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, he discussed the energy and sense of innovation that came from the margins. He believed, he wrote, that the Argentine tradition ‘is the whole of Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to this tradition, a greater right than that which the inhabitants of one Western nation or another may have.’ He went on to consider an essay by Thorstein Veblen on ‘the intellectual pre-eminence of Jews in Western culture’. Veblen wondered, Borges wrote,

if this pre-eminence authorises us to posit an innate Jewish superiority and answers that it does not; he says that Jews are prominent in Western culture because they act within that culture and at the same time do not feel bound to it by any special devotion; therefore, he says, it will always be easier for a Jew than a non-Jew to make innovations in Western culture.

Borges then considered the position of Irish writers in this context. ‘We can say the same of the Irish in English culture,’ he wrote.

Where the Irish are concerned, we have no reason to suppose that the profusion of Irish names in British literature and philosophy is due to any social pre-eminence, because many of these illustrious Irishmen (Shaw, Berkeley, Swift) were the descendants of Englishmen, men with no Celtic blood; nevertheless, the fact of feeling themselves to be Irish, to be different, was enough to enable them to make innovations in English culture. I believe that the Argentines, and South Americans in general, are in an analogous situation; we can take on all the European subjects, take them on without superstition and with an irreverence that can have, and already has had, fortunate consequences.

The theory that modernism in literature was the invention of writers who were Irish or Jewish or South American (or indeed homosexuals or expatriates) did not begin as a theory, but as a practice; it did not begin as a plan, it began as though by necessity, because for many writers there seemed to be no choice. The tone of Borges’s early stories and O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, arose in the way an oasis, and the vegetation around it, will spring up only in a desert. An oasis will not appear in a fertile plain. It is impossible to write fiction filled with choices and chances and continuities in a society where these things are thinly spread. In a society where there is no body of readers, it is not easy to write with a reader in mind, a reader who wants a story in which time is represented in a straight line and in which characters are filled with feelings and longings, and in which plot satisfies some large set of rules which insist on completion, and in which words represent what the dictionary states they represent, and in which language is natural and part of a shared culture. It is much easier to make a story or a novel in which the reader is already built-in and which wrong-foots or even usurps the idea of reading. While novelists who wrote in formed, settled and multi-layered societies held a mirror up to those societies in all their variety or to the vicissitudes of the human heart, Borges and O’Brien and Pessoa held instead a mirage up to an oasis, the strange place they came from which gave them their first taste of thirst. It is not an accident or a mere whim on the part of writers that there is no Irish novel that ends in a wedding. For O’Brien, it was not even a question of how to end or begin a novel, it was a question of an urgent need to put the kibosh on the novel’s pained demands, put the tricks the novelist uses out of their misery by exposing them and all their messy entrails.

As they worked, a spectre haunted both Borges and O’Brien, the spectre of a man who had faced the problem of setting a novel in a society which did not have the possibility of progress, or where a young person could not easily face his or her destiny without many obstacles, some of them comic, others to do with race rather than class, or violence rather than love. The spectre of a man who had used silence, exile and cunning as a way of dealing with social paralysis and national demands. They were both haunted by the spectre of James Joyce. Borges was, he proudly wrote in 1925, ‘the first traveller from the Hispanic world to set foot upon the shores of Ulysses’. But this is not entirely true. Instead he was, as he admitted, one of the first of the hordes who had read the novel, but not personally. ‘I confess,’ he wrote, ‘that I have not cleared a path through all seven hundred pages. I confess to having examined only bits and pieces, and yet I know what it is, with that bold and legitimate certainty with which we assert our knowledge of a city, without ever having been rewarded with the intimacy of all the many streets it includes.’ Since he never wrote anything long himself, perhaps he can be forgiven for never reading anything long either. And he was writing only three years after the publication of Ulysses. He knew what he was looking for when he read certain chapters of the book – a way of breaking with standard narrative in fiction, a subject which would preoccupy him greatly all his life. He saw this as part of an Irish tradition, mentioning Swift and Sterne and Shaw. ‘James Joyce is Irish,’ he wrote.

The Irish have always been famous for being the iconoclasts of the British Isles. Less sensitive to verbal decorum than their detested lords, less inclined to pour their eyes upon the smooth moon or to decipher the impermanence of rivers in long free-verse laments, they made deep incursions into the territory of English letters, pruning all rhetorical exuberance with frank impiety.

He needed Joyce to be Irish; he needed a mentor to be remote from the centre and thus to be a writer who would, by necessity, break moulds; it could somehow justify Argentina and its terrible distance from where life or letters began.

Flann O’Brien’s newspaper column was called ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’; it was written for the Irish Times between 1940 and his death in 1966. In it there are nearly a hundred references to Joyce. As a student at University College Dublin, where Joyce had also gone, O’Brien was given a copy of Ulysses by a poet called Donagh MacDonagh, otherwise known as the national orphan, since his father, Thomas MacDonagh, had been executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Rebellion. Later O’Brien paid a visit to Joyce’s father, then living in Drumcondra, where the best English is spoken, who was partly bedridden and expressed the view that his son James should have pursued a singing career. Towards the end of his life O’Brien told an interviewer that Joyce was ‘not a shrine at which to kneel, though a man to be praised’, also referring to him as a ‘toucher’ and a man who used to ‘bum off people’. Then he went on: ‘I met him in Paris several times. He was a morose, completely self-contained little man. I was curious about him. I admired certain aspects of his work.’ He told another interviewer that he had letters from Joyce, ‘who asked me some years ago to make some confidential inquiries on business and related matters … I don’t think it would be proper to exhibit them publicly.’

The statement that he had met Joyce several times in Paris was completely untrue. O’Brien never in his life met Joyce; nor did he ever receive any letters from Joyce. Instead, naturally, he maintained an uneasy relationship with him, since Joyce was the figure to whom he was most compared and who had mattered to him enormously when he began as a writer, and thus the figure whom he most wanted to get rid of, shrug off, half dismiss, or insist on having had intimacy with, and mislead interviewers about. That is, after all, what interviewers are for. That is also why we have lies (‘lying is simply the soul’s ideal language,’ Pessoa wrote); lies are more honest ways of telling the truth, especially if you are a novelist in Dublin and your first book, which was a masterpiece, sold only 244 copies before the warehouse where the rest were kept was destroyed by a German bomb 18 months after its publication. Under these circumstances, the truth is never easy.

When At Swim-Two-Birds was published in 1939, O’Brien discovered that a friend, who knew Joyce, was travelling to Paris. He went to the boat with his friend and at the gangway shyly handed him a copy of his book and asked him to deliver it to Joyce. It was inscribed: ‘To James Joyce from the author Brian O’Nolan with plenty of what’s on page 305.’ On page 305, the phrase ‘diffidence of the author’ was underlined. When Joyce was told about the book, he remarked that Samuel Beckett had already read it and had praised it very highly. When he then read the book, which was the last novel he read in his life, Joyce said: ‘That’s a real writer, with a true comic spirit. A really funny book.’ He spoke to a French critic about having it reviewed.

O’Brien remained grateful enough to Joyce to bite his hand at regular intervals over the next three and a half decades. Beckett remembered meeting O’Brien in Dublin and telling him again that Joyce had read his book and liked it. In 1967, when asked about O’Brien’s reply, Beckett remarked that it was best forgotten, but he told the novelist Aidan Higgins what O’Brien had said with what Higgins called ‘emphatic distaste’. O’Brien, aware presumably that Joyce’s wife had been a maid in a hotel, had called Joyce ‘that refurbisher of skivvies’ stories’. As O’Brien’s biographer Anthony Cronin rightly pointed out, ‘it is charitable to assume that O’Nolan had already begun to hear too much about Joyce’s influence on his book from his readers in Dublin, whether friends or enemies.’ In 1961 O’Brien wrote to his editor: ‘If I hear that word Joyce again, I will surely froth at the gob.’ In his column he often referred to ‘poor Joyce’ or ‘poor Jimmy Joyce’, and on the 50th anniversary of Bloomsday he wrote that Joyce’s few ‘sallies at Greek are wrong, and his few attempts at a Gaelic phrase absolutely monstrous’. Nonetheless, in a later column he praised Ulysses and insisted that for an understanding of the book all that was needed was ‘intelligence, maturity and some knowledge of life as well as letters’.

In an essay in 1951, O’Brien displayed his passionate lifelong ambiguous feelings about Ulysses and its author, the man who, unlike O’Brien, had escaped. ‘Perhaps the true fascination of Joyce lies in his secretiveness, his ambiguity (his polyguity perhaps?), his leg-pulling, his dishonesties, his technical skill, his attraction for Americans.’ He went on to say that Joyce’s revolt against Irish Catholicism, while ‘noble in itself, carried him away’. And then he wrote about one of the aspects of Joyce that mattered to him most, his ‘capacity for humour’. ‘Humour,’ he wrote,

the handmaid of sorrow and fear, creeps out endlessly in all Joyce’s work. He uses the thing, in the same way as Shakespeare does but less formally, to attenuate the fear of those who have belief and who genuinely think that they will be in hell or in heaven shortly, and possibly very shortly. With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humour needs this background urgency.

In his last novel, The Dalkey Archive, O’Brien sought to bring Joyce back to life, finding him work as a barman in Dalkey. ‘I’ve had it in for that bugger for a long time,’ he wrote to his editor in London.

In an interview – and, according to Anthony Cronin, often in conversation – O’Brien cited a particular passage in Ulysses which gave him immense pleasure and he knew by heart. It occurs when the caretaker of Glasnevin cemetery tells the mourners at Paddy Dignam’s funeral about the two drunks who arrived at the cemetery looking for the grave of their friend Terence Mulcahy from the Coombe. Having blundered about in the fog, the two drunks finally found the grave and were able to make out the name of their deceased friend inscribed on the headstone. Then they looked at the statue over the grave, a statue of Jesus. Having gazed at it for a while, one of the drunks commented: ‘Not a bloody bit like the man. That’s not Mulcahy, whoever done it.’

This type of humour, irreverence moving towards the blasphemous, two men managing to undermine art and death and holiness in one sharp, dry and strangely poetic comment, made its way into At Swim-Two-Birds. It was not as though it was stolen from Joyce and Joyce alone; it was the sort of humour that belonged to the city. The story of the two drunks was the sort of tale that lived a long and oft-told life in the streets and pubs of Dublin. Joyce had adapted it for his own peculiar use, and now O’Brien adapted it to his. Many of the jokes in Ulysses are told by people who know that they are jokes (most of the time – they are too smart for things to be otherwise); but in a story in Dubliners such as ‘Grace’ the jokes arise because the reader knows they are jokes but the characters in the story don’t, they are too foolish for that. In one passage in ‘Grace’, the men are sitting around the bed of one of their friends when Mr Power remarks of Pope Leo XIII:

‘I often heard he was one of the most intellectual men in Europe. I mean apart from his being Pope.’

‘So he was,’ said Mr Cunningham, ‘if not the most so. His motto, you know, as Pope, was Lux upon Lux – Light upon Light.’

‘No, no,’ said Mr Fogarty eagerly. ‘I think you’re wrong there. It was Lux in Tenebris, I think – Light in Darkness.’

‘Oh yes,’ said Mr McCoy, ‘Tenebrae.’

‘Allow me,’ said Mr Cunningham positively, ‘it was Lux upon Lux. And Pius IX, his predecessor’s motto, was Crux upon Crux, that is, Cross upon Cross – to show the difference between their two pontificates.’

It is easy to find a sociological or historical root for this sort of comedy in a city where many could not afford an education; where many, because of the Church, knew the rudiments of Latin, enough to sound as if they knew more; in a city where, more important, no one knew their place; where no one much had money; where the status offered by class was not respected; where the upper classes were mocked and despised rather than respected; where book-learning or knowledge of the intricacies of the Catholic religion suggested the beginnings of respectability; where swagger and mockery and half-informed wisdoms wandered hand-in-hand as a way of amusing and entertaining the rest of us.

In his novel, O’Brien adapted some of the systems Joyce had put to good use in Ulysses, such as the dry, official language of the newspaper report, full of pompous fact, carried too far or reduced to absurdity: ‘We are in a position to announce that a happy event has taken place at the Red Swan Hotel, where the proprietor, Mr Dermot Trellis, has succeeded in encompassing the birth of a man called Furriskey.’ Or the use of questions and answers soon afterwards, which reflects the shaping system of the Ithaca chapter in Ulysses.

In what manner was he born?

He woke as if from sleep.

His sensations?

Bewilderment, perplexity.

So, too, there are echoes from ‘The Dead’, from the scene when Freddy Mallins insists that a negro chieftain singing at the Gaiety Theatre has one of the finest tenor voices he’s ever heard, in the account in At Swim-Two-Birds of Sergeant Craddock, the best man in Ireland at the long jump:

That was always one thing, said Shanahan wisely, that the Irish race was always noted for, one place where the world had to give us best. With all his faults and by God he has plenty, the Irishman can jump. By God, he can jump. That’s the one thing the Irish race is honoured for no matter where it goes or where you find it – jumping. The world looks up to us there.

The discussion of the mottoes of the pope in ‘Grace’, filled with confident learning and complete nonsense, has echoes also in the scene in At Swim-Two-Birds where the characters discuss the fiddle. Mr Lamont says: ‘The fiddle is the man for me … look at the masterpieces of musical art you have on the fiddle! Did you ever hear the immortal strains of the Crutch Sonata now, the whole four strings playing there together, with plenty of plucking and scales and runs and a lilt that would make you tap the shoe-leather off your foot?’ They go on to discuss the piano and Furriskey announces: ‘You have only half the story when you say piano … and half the notes as well. The word is pianofurty … The furty stands for the deep notes on your left-hand side. Piano, of course, means our friends on the right.’ From there, our wits go on to discuss the Emperor Nero:

The biggest ruffian of the lot … Now that fellow was a thorough bags, say what you like … When the city of Rome … the holy city and the centre and the heart of the Catholic world was a mass of flames, with people roasting there in the streets by the God Almighty dozen, here is my man as cool as you please in his palace with his fiddle at his jaw. There were people there … roasting … alive … not a dozen yards from his door, men, women and children getting the worst death of the bloody lot, Holy God can you imagine it … Oh he was a terrible drink of water.

So, too, the use of giant figures in At Swim-Two-Birds echoes moments in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses, as indeed does the use of lists for comic effect.

Joyce’s centre of paralysis in Dubliners, filled with dampness and melancholy, becomes O’Brien’s centre of pure, bloody-minded, deliberate, proud and oddly frenetic inertia. The only things that move are imaginative constructs and language; most of the rest of the world can stay in bed or talk in clichés. At Swim-Two-Birds takes elements from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – the student as artist, for example. Both books include the lazy student at the same university, with the same sort of friends; and both include his life with a verbose older relative (the father’s job in A Portrait was ‘something in a distillery’ and the uncle’s job in At Swim-Two-Birds was ‘holder of Guinness clerkship the third class’).

Ulysses and At Swim-Two-Birds also had in common a general interest in exalting the inconsequential, letting it loose for a page or more, as you might let a stray dog loose, for no clear purpose other than to cause pure amusement or bewilderment in the reader or havoc in the narrative. Both books also took on the business of myth and set about dismantling it and mocking it. Thus the Odyssey was reduced in Ulysses to a day’s perambulations in a half-baked city, its hero Bloom made, in a feat of genius, both anti-heroic and oddly heroic at the same time, both small in his gestures and circumstances and oddly large in the quality of what he notices and remembers, his imaginative footprint in the world more real and powerful than any mythological hero. In At Swim-Two-Birds, ancient Irish mythology and the way it has been translated into English (by people who barely knew how to speak Irish) is mocked, allowed to make a nuisance of itself as it flies like Sweeney from place to place. It is allowed to lift the novel from any possibility of realism, but it is mocked nonetheless for its own dull foolishness and the cliché-ridden terms in which it was rendered into English by such as Standish O’Grady, Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde, who became president of Ireland at the time the book was being completed.

But it is too easy to make these connections between Joyce and O’Brien and too easy also to misread O’Brien’s regular assaults on Joyce as an aspect of his bitterness or his Dublin wit. In fact, At Swim-Two-Birds can be read as an assault on Joyce’s ambitions, an attempt by a talented young writer to destroy Joyce’s synthesising process, to dismantle the great controlling ambition and mapped-out plenitude of Ulysses. The aim of Joyce’s book was not to destroy the novel but to re-create it and make it larger, more inclusive, more faithful to life and life’s complexities. The aim of At Swim-Two-Birds was to lose control, to take the pieces and refuse to reconcile them, to insist that it was too late for such trickery. O’Brien refused to believe that the writer re-creates the world, but instead he set out to show that the world re-creates the writer, and that both the writer and the world are, or might be, a set of illusions, highly implausible, not even worth mistrusting, and that all we have fully to mistrust are pages and the words on them. His radical mistrust has a way of making the book seem at times desperate, melancholy, unsatisfactory, incomplete, a piece of juvenilia. The critic Bernard Benstock, for one, feels that it displays ‘a serious lack of commitment in any direction’ on the author’s part and what he called, without it seems any irony, ‘an irony without a centre of gravity’.

The story of At Swim-Two-Birds is simple. An undergraduate at University College Dublin who lives with his uncle is writing a novel about a novelist called Dermot Trellis (O’Brien’s contempt for artifice, or his faith in it, may be adduced from the fact that the table he used for the purpose of writing his book was made partly from a piece of garden trellising) whose characters come to life and have to be accommodated in his hotel. When he is asleep (and both he and the author – the student, that is – spend a great deal of time in bed; Trellis is often drugged by his own characters) the characters come to life and he has no control over them. The characters include some cowboys left over from a Western novel, some Dublin characters, some figures from Irish mythology – including Mad Sweeney, whose lyrics have a spare, melancholy and at times startling beauty as they appear on the page (at other times, there is a terrible banality about the poetry in the book) – and Trellis’s son Orlick, who is also writing a novel about his father. Eventually, part of Trellis’s novel is burned by a servant and Trellis is put on trial by the characters; in any case the characters who emerged from those pages are no longer, by the end of the book, alive, and Orlick’s novel within the novel his father is writing within the novel the student is writing within the novel Flann O’Brien is writing also comes to an end. This end is a great loss for literature, rivalled only perhaps by the burning of the library of Alexandria or the arrival of the man from Porlock.

In an essay on At Swim-Two-Birds, John Cronin quotes a crucial passage in Henry James’s ‘The Art of Fiction’ in an effort to find a context for the offences the book commits against both art and, indeed, fiction. James wrote:

Certain accomplished novelists have a habit of giving themselves away which must often bring tears to the eyes of people who take their fiction seriously. I was lately struck, in reading over many pages of Anthony Trollope, with his want of discretion in this particular. In a digression, a parenthesis or an aside, he concedes to the reader that he and his trusting friend are only ‘making believe’. He admits that the events he narrates have not really happened, and that he can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best. Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I confess, a terrible crime … It implies that the novelist is less occupied in looking for the truth … than the historian, and in doing so it deprives him at a stroke of all his standing room.

As Cronin pointed out, in his fiction O’Brien committed this terrible crime ‘with enormous glee again and again’. One might add that he did so with full knowledge and full consent and, even afterwards, had no firm purpose of amendment. Early in the novel, O’Brien made his intentions clear:

A satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living … The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should largely be a work of reference … A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

Having emphasised his attitude towards the art of fiction, O’Brien also needed to make clear that, even if he wished to create credible and original characters, he would not be able to. In his efforts to describe the birth of Trellis’s son, he has to let us know that words fail him, that it was ‘entirely beyond my powers. This latter statement follows my decision to abandon a passage extending over the length of 11 pages touching on the arrival of the son and his sad dialogue with his wan mother on the subject of his father, the passage being, by general agreement, a piece of undoubted mediocrity.’ O’Brien and his student novelist, and indeed Trellis, both father and son, all suggest that chess pieces, or such mechanisms in a game, would have more reality than characters in a novel: at least chess pieces are governed by rules and have an aim in life. What O’Brien calls ‘the calm sorcery of chess’ has more felt life in it than ‘the self-evident sham’ known as the novel. And chess pieces know their place. The characters in At Swim-Two-Birds do not.

In the first story of Borges’s Fictions, the narrator discovers that his friend Bioy Casares is in possession of a very special edition of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia in which God, or a printer, or indeed someone in between in the same business as gods and printers of making worlds come into being, had created a special territory called Uqbar. So, too, in one of his Irish Times columns written under the name of Myles na gCopaleen, O’Brien offered a service to readers who owned books but did not open them. For a fee, books would be handled, with passages underlined or spines damaged or words such as ‘Rubbish’ or ‘Yes, but cf Homer, Od. iii, 151’ or ‘I remember poor Joyce saying the same thing to me’ written in the margins. Or inscriptions on the title page such as ‘From your devoted friend and follower, K. Marx.’ He even offered his readers membership of the Myles na gCopaleen Book Club. ‘You join this,’ he wrote, ‘and are spared the nerve-racking bother of choosing your own books. We do the choosing for you, and, when you get the book, it is ready-rubbed, i.e. subjected free of charge to our expert handlers.’

Just as novelists of the 19th century had made a fetish of the world – of things (or words) like love, or destiny, or marriage, or money – Borges, Pessoa and O’Brien made a fetish of the book. The solitary hero of Balzac and Stendhal, the figure in Henry James confronting her destiny, Madame Bovary or David Copperfield or even Moby Dick now became the unread or the unwritten book or the newly discovered passage, or the section where the author has lost control, or given up. In Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet our hero muses: ‘Why should I care that no one reads what I write? I write to forget about life, and I publish because that’s one of the rules of the game. If tomorrow all my writings were lost, I’d be sorry, but I doubt I’d be violently and frantically sorry.’ Later, he writes: ‘Perhaps the novel is a more perfect life and reality, which God creates through us. Perhaps we live only to create it.’ Later, he refers to life as ‘the plotless novel’. Borges’s ‘The Library of Babel’ begins: ‘The universe (which others call the Library)’.

The business of the book as an object which contains the world and therefore does not require readers because it also contains its readers, since they are merely part of the world, settles ironically, mysteriously and sometimes savagely around O’Brien. Mysteriously, because one of the 244 copies which were sold of At Swim-Two-Birds before the warehouse was bombed made its way to Argentina. This was 1939. Ireland, Portugal and Argentina were about to become even more marginalised; Dublin, Lisbon and Buenos Aires were about to become even stranger. Yet two months after its publication, Borges in Buenos Aires reviewed At Swim-Two-Birds in Spanish in the magazine El Hogar. He wrote:

A student in Dublin writes a novel about the proprietor of a Dublin public house, who writes a novel about the habitués of his pub (among them, the student), who in turn write novels in which proprietor and student figure along with other writers of novels about other novelists. The book consists of the extremely diverse manuscripts of these real or imagined persons, copiously annotated by the student. At Swim-Two-Birds is not only a labyrinth: it is a discussion of the many ways to conceive of the Irish novel and a repertory of exercises in prose and verse which illustrate or parody all the styles of Ireland. The magisterial influence of Joyce (also an architect of labyrinths; also a literary Proteus) is undeniable but not disproportionate in this manifold book.

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that dreaming and wakefulness are the pages of a single book, and that to read them in order is to live, and to leaf through them at random, to dream. Paintings within paintings and books that branch into other books help us sense this oneness.

Thus one copy of the book lived in Buenos Aires, and maybe even another: because a friend of Borges and Bioy’s, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, who moved his literary enterprise as a poet, novelist and translator from Spanish to Italian in 1951, subsequently did the Italian translation of At Swim-Two-Birds. But no publisher in the United States would touch it. In September 1939, O’Brien wrote to William Saroyan, who admired the book:

About that book the failure of American publication comes to me as a distinct expectation. I knew all that. There is a great population in America but not enough arty-tarty screwballs to go in for stuff like that in satisfactory numbers. Joyce has the market cornered. I’m forgetting about the book. I’ve got no figures but I think it must be a flop over here too. I guess it is a bum book anyhow. I am writing a very funny book now about bicycles and policemen and I think it will be perhaps good and earn a little money quietly. If I finish it, I will instantly send you a copy and then you can pass it to Matson [Saroyan’s agent] if you think he would not take offence.

At Swim-Two-Birds was finally published in the United States by Pantheon Books in 1951 on the recommendation of James Johnson Sweeney. It was reissued in London in 1960. Slowly, it began to capture readers, who came to realise that O’Brien had managed in 1939 to produce comedy out of a set of systems which more than thirty years later many high priests and some high priestesses of post-modernism and high structuralism and deep deconstruction would win tenure for making serious.

In his book A Colder Eye, Hugh Kenner asked how O’Brien dared to try ‘to suppress his own great book’, The Third Policeman, which Kenner thought ‘a unique mature minor novel’ (whatever that is) compared to At Swim-Two-Birds, which he thought ‘a preternaturally gifted undergraduate’s jape’. The Third Policeman was written quickly after At Swim-Two-Birds. It was turned down by publishers in 1940 and did not appear in print until 1967, a year after its author’s death. ‘For a book that turns out to be about a dead man,’ Kenner wrote, ‘that has an eerie rightness.’ Once it was turned down, O’Brien spread many false rumours about it. He told one friend that it had been left on a train, another that it had been mislaid in the Dolphin Hotel in Dublin, and another that it had been blown page by page out of the car on his way to Donegal.

‘It’s possible to guess,’ Kenner wrote, ‘that he was somehow scared of it.’ O’Brien kept the typescript close by him, and mined parts of it for The Dalkey Archive, which he published in 1964. Even when he needed money and his wife pointed out to him that he had in his possession an unsold novel, he did not let anyone see it. He got on with brilliant hackwork and manic drinking. He may indeed, as Kenner says, especially before 1960, when he had a new relationship with a London publisher, have been scared of the rejected book, and have seen no reason why he should wait for it to be rejected once more, as it probably would have been. But there are other, more interesting reasons for keeping the book on a sideboard or in a drawer, gathering dust, its contents known only to the author, who was slowly moving towards death.

I remember the last house he lived in, the modern bungalow in Waltersland Road in the deep Dublin southside, how pretty and neat it all was, almost like a toy house. Anthony Cronin writes of his last year:

In Waltersland Road he had appropriated the best room in the house, one which was bright and sunny and had French doors into the garden. Into this he moved the double bed which had belonged to his mother and father and here he spent a great deal of time, sometimes writing in bed, always, except in warmest weather, with the electric fire on.

Rather than being scared by the proximity of the manuscript of The Third Policeman as he lay like Dermot Trellis in bed, the idea that the characters from The Third Policeman had moved a step further towards pure autonomy than the characters from At Swim-Two-Birds must have given him some satisfaction as an artist. It is possible that the book did not, in these moments, worry him, or scare him, but instead filled him with the same great satisfaction as silence filled Beckett and John Cage, or ideas of eternity or infinity filled Borges, as ideas of monotony and weariness filled Pessoa. O’Brien’s characters, as long as he lived, had their own life in black marks on the pages of the book; day and night they lived there, with only one another for company, redemption coming only when their creator passed into his final sleep, which he did on April Fool’s Day 1966.