Recognition at last: Edna O'Brien and the best revenge
Since The Country Girls was first published in 1960, Edna O'Brien has been banned, vilified, sneered at and adored. Almost 85, she has produced what may be her masterpiece, and is finally being recognised as she deserves. But is it too little, too late?
What must it be like to be Edna O'Brien, whose life has been as full of drama and excitement and difficulty as a novel; one far less restrained than those she writes herself? The combination of her beauty and talent, the fierce determination with which she has always served that talent, and a redoubtable refusal to keep the peace at any cost have seen her embroiled in so many scenes throughout her 85 years, from the shocker-that-will-not-die of her marriage to Ernest Gebler, to her time as poster child of the Swinging Sixties, entertaining Princess Margaret, Marlon Brando (who pushed her on a swing), Paul McCartney (who walked her home from a party and sang to her two sons), Robert Mitchum (with whom she had a one-night stand), Jackie Kennedy (who called Edna "one of the three people on the planet whom she loved most") and many more. And through it all, a work rate that has seen her produce nearly 40 books, including novels, plays, poetry, biography and short story collections.
"I'm always working," she tells me, "and if I'm not working, I'm very anxious about it. I feel, 'Have I lost it? Will it come back?' That's the truth."
She turns 85 next month, and is still radiantly beautiful. It's not the kind of beauty that needs to be looked at twice; it is obvious, splendid, from her shiny coppery hair to her pale, translucent skin. Most of all it's the eyes, though, a clear, unclouded green, bright and inquisitive, without the film that age usually brings. We are sitting in the garden of the Merrion Hotel. Every once in a while a staff member passes by about their business, wheeling or carrying something, and Edna waves at them, kindly, regally. She is entirely queenly. "Hello, how are you?" she calls to a waitress, blowing a kiss, then to me: "They're all lovely here. Oh, I could live here. Writer in residence. I could read the odd poem, to rather restless people of an evening."
It's very Edna - that beguiling mix of vulnerability, conviction and self-deprecation; a little bit "old woman of the roads", a little bit royalty-in-exile - and very charming. Her sentences meander, full of diversions and sub-clauses, but eventually returning to the point she wants to make. And, just when you despair altogether of getting anything out of her except rather abstract literary analysis, she suddenly undercuts it all with a flash of wit, or self-mockery, even faint malice, that is irresistible.
"I wanted to write something as a witness," she says of her latest book, her 18th novel, The Little Red Chairs. "I am merely a witness, the way you are, the way we all are, to some of the more urgent and pressing and fearful things that are happening in the world. The only way I could do it was to make it a personal story between a man and a woman, and from that there spirals out the other issues and concerns in the world."
The idea for the story came to her in this very garden, around five years ago, when director Charlie McCarthy reminded her of a Tolstoy quote: "All great literature is one of two stories; A Man Goes On A Journey or A Stranger Comes To Town."
"Probably 'twas already waiting in me, or I wouldn't, couldn't have grasped at it," she says to me now.
And so she has written the story of a stranger coming to a small, fictional Co Sligo town called Cloonoila. There is a touch of Synge's Playboy to his arrival, a touch of fairytale and a touch of recognition - Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic, accused of the worst genocide of that whole, bloody Yugoslav war, taking on the persona of an alternative medicine practitioner while on the run. Soon Cloonoila is in a tizzy about this mysterious, charismatic man, and none more so than Fidelma, the town beauty, who longs for a child. She gets pregnant by the stranger, in what seems a miracle, until the day he gets dragged off a bus bound for a poetry reading at the foot of Ben Bulben and is revealed as a war criminal, the Beast of Bosnia, responsible for the murder, torture and displacement of countless thousands. Like jackals following the scent of carrion, some of his former comrades arrive, too late to find the healer, but in time to most brutally assault Fidelma in a scene that, Edna says, took her six months to write.
"What's left out is as important; you're not putting the kitchen sink in. You select what is necessary," she says. It was "the hardest book for me to write".
"They're all hard," she says. "Somehow, it's a long journey." A journey, in her case, goaded on by fear. Fear of what? "That you might not bring it off. That you would fail. That you've blown it."
She hasn't blown it. The book may deal with 'big' themes, of war, displacement, trauma, but her style is smooth and skimming, moving the story forward at a confident speed, dipping every now and again deep below the surface in one swift, elegant movement. It is a book both shocking and moving, I say to her.
"I'm very glad and delighted," she responds. "A shocking book without being moving, or a book that was just moving, wouldn't be enough. There's plenty of moving books out at the moment. They're very boring, because they're very identical and a little bit self- absorbed."
The book may tell the story of an affair between a man and a woman, and the conse- quences of that, but the motivation is very evidently a deep anger, at the world as we have made it.
"Finally, I suppose the ultimate theme is about the search for home, of the wanderers, the lost, the dispossessed, and how that yearning and gulf in people's lives is caused by those who make war. The damage they do to human life is incalculable. God made the world, we used to be told, in the seven days of creation. Well, mankind has gone a very long way towards destroying and undermining that."
For those who have accused Edna of, among many other things, being too interior and personal a writer, this is a book to magnificently answer the charges. It is deeply political, although without losing sight of the intimate, and hailed by Philip Roth, a long-time fan, as "her masterpiece". So far, I say, the reviews concur.
"Have there been a lot of reviews?" she asks - disingenuously, as it turns out, as she seems to be very well drilled on who has written what: "The London Independent, that was a good one, the Irish Independent was a bit nasty. There was a brilliant one in the Financial Times."
Do you read the reviews, I ask? "I do and I don't," is the answer. "Someone mentions it to one, and then I think, I say, 'look, is it bearable? Am I gonna get crucified?' I don't wanna get crucified. I've been crucified, often."
Indeed she has. Ever since her first novel, The Country Girls, she has been denounced, sneered at and reviled as literary femme fatale rather than a writer of talent. The first books, the trilogy that made up The Country Girls, were banned for being too racy, too sexual, but the criticism didn't stop there. Later, she got into trouble for her portrait of an IRA man in House of Splendid Isolation, then for fictionalising the X Case in Down By The River, and the tragic murders of Imelda Riney and her four-year-old son Liam in In The Forest. For some, Edna could do nothing right.
But there have always been champions too, and gradually, recently, a discreet shift has occurred, perhaps beginning with the Lifetime Achievement Award conferred on her in 2009 at the Irish Book Awards, culminating in being made a Saoi of Aosdana in September.
So, is the recognition now enough? Or too little too late? "I'm getting less slaughtered, which is a help," she says with spirit. "It is late. I'll be 85. It's been slow coming. I think if I was a man, honestly, I wouldn't have had as hard a time. If I had been a man, nobody would have said then that I shouldn't have written In The Forest. Why shouldn't I? I have drawn attention to subjects that aren't always palatable in this country. Why shouldn't I write about the X Case? Why shouldn't I write about the IRA? Why shouldn't I write about a triple murder in a forest? Many people personally gave me a real dressing-down. No mention of the effort it took from me to do these things. I had to go mad to go into the forest; it isn't a picnic."
Of the criticism over the years, she says honestly: "Of course I mind. I'm very aware." Then she quotes, deliberately, with a certain delight, a line from Beckett's Malone Dies: "Let me say before I go any further that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell and in the ex- ecrable generations to come an honoured name." But, she insists, "it hasn't made me bitter or stop writing, but I am aware of it".
Despite the provocation, and the hurt, Edna has never engaged with her critics, remaining aloof from the fray. "Do you know what? It would waste my time," she says. "And it's what people want, to some extent. They'd love one of these back-and-forth, to-and-fro little battles. They'd adore it. But no way. That doesn't mean I'm not incensed by some of the things, but I'm not going to waste my time. Or waste the particular thing in me that wants to create. You'd get exhausted from it, and demeaned. There's a sign on mugs that people give one another - 'Keep Calm and Carry On'." She laughs.
That Edna O'Brien, a most Irish writer, is quoting what is essentially the motto of the British Empire, is telling, I think, of her particular kind of duality - Irish, obsessed with Ireland, but having lived in London now for some 60 years. Born and brought up in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, within sight of the much grander house where her father's family had lived before his gambling and drinking reduced their circumstances dramatically, it was, by her account, an unhappy childhood, largely because of her father's drinking and the unpredictable violence that went with that. Edna was an anxious, fearful child, the youngest, who had sworn an impossible task to herself: to be her mother's champion. "I was her little protectress when there were rows or scenes," she has said. It was a devotion that was to have repercussions. "She felt, with cause, because I was so very close to her, that she owned me." Her mother ended all her letters to Edna with the hope that they would be buried in the same grave. "But I want my own grave," Edna once responded, adding: "My son Sasha says it's the only piece of property I'll ever own."
From Clare, Edna moved to Dublin, where she worked in a chemist shop on the Cabra Road - "I learned to make suppositories and pills and emulsions," she tells me. "I learned to cook through making these. Making emulsions is like making a Bearnaise sauce" - and met Ernest Gebler, older, divorced, already an established writer. They married, moved to London, and had two sons, Carlo and Sasha, before Edna left, later saying the marriage had become "undeviatingly punishing and grim. I had reached a situation where I would either go mad or get out". It would take her three more years to get custody of her children.
That Ernest was bitter, resentful, deeply jealous of his wife's success is undoubted - the recent publication of The Projectionist, by Carlo Gebler, an account of his father's life taken mainly from his diaries and the notes he made for his own, unwritten autobiography, shows a man eaten up with a violent misogyny. Of August Is A Wicked Month, Edna's fifth novel, Ernest wrote: "There seems to be no- thing left in her slobbering mind to write about. Rather than give up she is ready to debase and befoul herself in public. The picture is as horrifying as a moronic woman screeching for attention in a market place and failing to get attention, raising her skirts and exhibiting her diseased sexual quarters. The raging vanity is turning into raging rage." No wonder, she once said, "the vote means nothing to women. We should be armed".
There is plenty more of that sort of thing from Ernest, including vicious allegations about her capabilities as a mother and corrupt- ing influence on her children. And yet, her sons clearly do not agree. Carlo, the elder, talks about how "brilliant" a mother she was. "We were gloriously indulged," he once told me, recalling her beautiful voice and how she used to read to him and Sasha most nights.
Edna herself doesn't talk much about it - partly, I presume, she wants to forget, but also, it seems not to be in her nature to answer fire with fire. What she will say though, is telling: "You have to give your all to the writing. It's very hard to be married . . ." Then she qualifies this, saying: "Three women I know, married to very well-known writers, have said the identical phrase to me: 'I am married to one of the greatest writers in the world'. Well, fine. But if I had a husband, I don't think he'd be saying, 'I'm married to one of the greatest writers in the world'. I don't think he'd be really all that chuffed about it." She laughs a little. "Male writers are lucky. They cause less irritation and for the most part they induce less jealousy, for some reason. Women, when reviewing, are more partial to male writers. I see them at parties, they gush over them - it's cultural orgasm. Women writers don't have quite the same cachet. But I think it's changing. With this book, all the very good reviews I've had have been from women. And before, some of the most terrible reviews have been from women - Zoe Heller, Hilary Mantel, Joan Smith, oh my God . . . If I was truly sensitive, I'd have killed myself long ago!"
Then she quotes Evelyn Waugh: "When a writer is born into a family, that family is ruined." "I think it has some validity," she says. Children, she continues, "were easier than a husband. I doted on them. I had kind of a hut at the end of the garden that the man I was married to, Ernest Gebler, had fitted up. He both didn't want me to be a writer but wanted me to write, for the income. I remember it was a Saturday, and they were tapping on the window. They eventually had the brainwave that they would pen a letter - 'we are missing you'. I came out and I said, 'You're blackmailers!' But there was comedy in it and affection".
For Edna O'Brien, the writer's life is a hard one, full of loneliness, fear, compulsion and sacrifice. So has it been worth it? "Oh, yes. It's my inner life. I'd be in a lunatic asylum if I wasn't able to write. I know it. There's all this stuff, tumbling story, imagery, feeling, disturbance, milling around inside of me. What would I do with it, if I couldn't in some way? It doesn't cure you; I'm as troubled and nervy now as I was aged three, maybe more, but it's my life. It's also my bread and butter. It's not exactly a gilded life - it's hard, selling books, writing books and getting people to want to buy books, but I never will for one moment regret it. I thank God or the gods, all my life, for the gift itself and for my own perseverance."
And then, finally, the determination of her years and ambition, allied, perhaps, with the spirit of Empire: "Don't ever give up."
The Little Red Chairs, published by Faber & Faber, is out now, priced £14.99
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