No joy in slight here

The great Irish novelist Flann O’Brien’s debut, <em>At Swim-Two-Birds</em>, should have sealed his r

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 Ghost in 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".

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 "Ó Nualláin".

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 At Swim as "a belly-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".

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. The book is at once an existential whodunnit, an absurdist work of science fiction, a post-colonial allegory and a dark, Menippean satire. In its philosophical scope and comic vision, it is funnier than Joyce and bleaker than Beckett and is now considered one of the first - and finest - examples of postmodernist literature. Longman, however, rejected it: "We realise the author's ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this novel he is more so." Disheartened and embarrassed, O'Nolan pretended to have lost the manuscript and The Third Policeman remained unpublished until 1967, a year after his death.

His third novel, An Béal Bocht - from the Irish phrase "putting on the poor mouth", meaning to exaggerate one's misery - was written in Gaelic and first appeared in 1941. O'Nolan refused to render it into English, insisting that the intertextual playfulness of the work made it untranslatable. Linguistically accomplished and brutally funny, An Béal Bocht is a celebration of the Irish language and a ritual slaying of the nation's sacred cows. As O'Nolan wrote in a letter to the playwright Sean O'Casey (who praised the book lavishly), "It is an honest attempt to get under the skin of a certain type of 'Gael' . . . who [is] ignorant of everything, including the Irish language."

By 1941, O'Nolan had written three of the most innovative novels in the Irish canon, yet had received little public acclaim. At Swim-Two-Birds was still out of print; The Third Policeman remained unpublished; An Béal Bocht, by virtue of its Gaelic mode, was marginalised as inaccessible (it was eventually translated as The Poor Mouth in 1973). This lack of exposure, together with O'Nolan's deepening alcoholism, adversely affected the quality of his later novels The Hard Life (1961) and The Dalkey Archive (1964), which most Flanneurs regard as inferior stuff.

But while O'Nolan floundered as O'Brien, his alter ego Myles na gCopaleen was flourishing. His satirical column in the Irish Times, Cruiskeen Lawn ("full jug"), appeared several times a week, almost without interruption, from 1940 to 1966. Of the seven anthologies of Mylesiana available today - the finest of which is The Best of Myles - none fully captures the anarchic spirit of the enterprise (Myles frequently transgressed the boundaries of his column to comment on neighbouring items). As the modern successor to Jonathan Swift, Myles writes comic anecdotes that are invariably underpinned by his acid deconstructions of the established order.

Over its 26-year history, the column became a collective monologue of what O'Nolan called the "Plain People of Ireland": a mosaic portrait of the country's everyday madness. Some critics now regard it as his magnum opus.

In 1943, Time magazine published a profile of O'Nolan entitled "Éire's columnist". Elusive as ever, he compounded the myth of the author by fabricating a fake biography for himself. The profile does, however, convey the subversive energy of his writings:

Erudite, ironic, he devotes many a column to the hilarious, systematic destruction of literary clichés, to parodies of Éire's leprechaun literature and the red-taped verbiage of government service . . . He is an unsparing, beloved critic of devotees of Irish, who overuse Éire's national tongue; a subtler critic of the clerics, who are not unaware of his innuendo.

O'Nolan died of cancer on 1 April 1966. In recent years, critics have gradually acknowledged him as a writer of international importance. With conferences as far afield as Singapore and Vienna this year to mark his centenary and several scholarly publications in the pipeline, the view of O'Nolan as a "lesser Joyce" is likely to change. As Anthony Burgess once remarked, "If we don't cherish the work of Flann O'Brien, we are stupid fools who don't deserve to have great men. Flann O'Brien is a very great man."

Keith Hopper teaches literature and film studies at Oxford University. He is the author of "Flann O'Brien: a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-modernist" (Cork University Press, £35)

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy