Myles celebrated

Lovely celebration of Flann O’Brien by Roger Boylan.

He finished “At Swim-Two-Birds” when he was 28 and sent it off to Longmans, a London publisher, where by a rare stroke of good luck Graham Greene was reader. “I read it with continual excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage,” recalled Greene, who urged publication. From Paris, James Joyce, in a blurb written to help promote the book, pronounced its author “a real writer, with the true comic spirit.” O’Nolan was cautiously optimistic. But the cosmic balance was soon restored. War broke out and in 1940 the Luftwaffe destroyed the London warehouse in which the entire print run of the novel was stored; fewer than 250 had been sold. Then in 1941 Joyce, who had promised to help with publicity, suddenly died, along with O’Nolan’s hopes for the book. “[I]t must be a flop,” he wrote, wallowing in gloom. “I guess it is a bum book anyhow.”

In fact, it’s every bit the masterpiece Greene said it was—a thrilling mix of wild experimentation and traditional Irish storytelling. Stylistically, “At Swim-Two-Birds” runs the gamut from mock-epic … to a kind of arch naturalism… The narrative is divided into three parts, described with admiration by Jorge Luis Borges: “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 their turn write novels in which proprietor and student figure along with other writers about other novelists.” It’s an intricate puzzle played for laughs, a novel simultaneously subversive of, and reverent towards, the Irish epic tradition. It was ten years before the Luftwaffe’s draconian edits were reversed and the book was reprinted…