Among the first reviewers of Flann O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, was Jorge Luis Borges, who published “Cuando la ficción vive en la ficción” (translated as “When Fiction Lives in Fiction” by Esther Allen, in Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger) in El Hogar [Home], on June 2, 1939. The odds against an intersection of such kindred sensibilities are staggering. In 1936, Borges had taken a job as editor of the “Foreign Books and Authors” page in a Buenos Aires weekly magazine aimed, according to Weinberger, at “the Argentine middle- and upper-class housewife.” Weinberger continues:
“Although Borges was at his lightest and perhaps wittiest in El Hogar, he by no means limited the range of his subject matter, nor curtailed his habit of citing texts in various languages without a translation. It is remarkable that Borges’ page lasted for three years.”
This is roughly equivalent to Cosmopolitan devoting a page to the latest work by William H. Gass. The unlikelihood of the O’Brien/Borges convergence starts in London, where At Swim-Two-Birds had been published, selling 244 copies before Longman’s warehouse was destroyed in the blitz. Despite near-oblivion, the novel numbered among its early and enthusiastic readers James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene and S.J. Perelman.
Borges’ review amounts to a brief history of self-reflexive art, starting with the painting on a biscuit tin he remembered from childhood. The tin’s Japanese scene included a rendering of an identical tin, “and so on (at least by implication) infinitely.” He cites Bertrand Russell, Josiah Royce, Velázquez, Cervantes, The Thousand and One Nights, Shakespeare, Corneille, Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem and, finally, O’Brien’s novel, of which he writes:
“I have enumerated many verbal labyrinths, but none so complex as the recent book by Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds. 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. 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.”
Borges’ perceptiveness and prescience (he was a year or two away from writing “The Garden of Forking Paths”) are remarkable. That his sympathetic reading appears in a Buenos Aires women’s magazine is a trope worthy of At Swim-Two-Birds. How, on the eve of World War II, did this meeting of two 20th-century giants come about? And did O’Brien, far away in deepest Dublin, ever learn of Borges and his work? As The Good Fairy says in At Swim-Two-Birds, “There is no answer at all to a very good question.”