At last, O'Brien has her country under her spell
Edna O'Brien's love of Ireland is finally being reciprocated, but it's been a long, hard road from when her work was banned, writes Ed Vulliamy
This autumn season is something more akin to late springtide in the brilliant career of Edna O'Brien, described by her American peer Philip Roth as the "greatest living woman writing in English".
Last month, O'Brien was honoured as a Saoithe of Aosdana, Ireland's highest literary accolade, but not only that: President Michael D Higgins made an official apology for the pious, envious scorn often heaped on O'Brien by her native land, and the banning of her books. He praised her as a "fearless teller of truth" who, he said, had continued to write "undaunted, sometimes by culpable incomprehension, authoritarian hostility and sometimes downright malice".
Later this month, O'Brien publishes her first novel in a decade, at the age of 84. Roth calls it "her masterpiece", and The Little Red Chairs is just that: a devastating but characteristically insightful, artfully written setting of a fugitive war criminal in rural Ireland, and exploration of his sway over, and way with, a woman, Fidelma McBride, O'Brien's most cogent heroine to date. In conversation, O'Brien called the fugitive "a composite of generic, warring despots", but the resemblance to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is as perceptive as it is terrifying.
O'Brien is possessed of - as very many who meet her agree - a quietly electrifying charisma, apparently frail but indomitable. Writing for this newspaper, Rachel Cooke described her appearance at a public event as "queenly and beautiful", then "just as mesmerising" in her home, "resplendent in velvet, fur at her cuffs, her face immaculately made up" - that's Edna all right, elegant and radiant, mischievous and passionate, with the perception of a scalpel edge.
She was born in 1930 in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, to parents from backgrounds so different that she wrote: "I sometimes attribute my two conflicting selves to my contrasting grandparents, the one a lady, the other a peasant." Her mother - from a poor family that had crossed from the west of Ireland - had worked in America, whence gifts and visitors would occasionally arrive.
O'Brien's autobiography - Country Girl, published in 2012 - describes her childhood as "at once beautiful and frightening, tender and savage". Before schooling, one of her household duties was to keep watch for marauding tinkers coming up the field.
O'Brien's childhood was defined by an intense relationship with her mother, who kept precarious peace in a home of "semi-grandeur". Young Edna would repair to the surrounding fields to write, her first experience of sex being with a Roland, as she recalls, "in a siding, by a galvanised door".
She fled to Dublin, to work in a chemist's shop, and became enthralled by the world of the Abbey Theatre - all of it utterly at odds with the prevailing piety. Among the early ruptures with her roots was an argument over Sean O'Casey's autobiography, which her mother threatened to burn.
O'Brien discovered Joyce and a world of "Dublin stories", of which "so many hinged on poverty and exile".
She married - "too precipitously", she says - the writer Ernest Gebler, with whom she moved to London in 1958. O'Brien bore Gebler two sons, Carlo and Sasha (to whom she remains devoted) and began her first and great novel, The Country Girls, "in exile". "That is the mystery about writing," she would claim, "it comes out of afflictions, out of the gouged times when the heart is cut open."
The dichotomy between the book's success in England (winning the Kingsley Amis award) and its prohibition in Ireland etched the course of O'Brien's life. On the one hand, she was burned and banned, her mother mortified and embarrassed by it, and dismissed by LP Hartley on television as writing about nymphomaniacs.
But with the two subsequent novels in the Country Girls trilogy came a life at the heart of 60s London, won the hard way for O'Brien as she left Gebler, penniless, living in lodgings and fighting for custody of her sons.
O'Brien triumphed and captured hearts, with her enigmatic personality and the quality of her work. Her parties, for a brief, giddy period, were a Saturday night feature and visitors included Sean Kenny, Marianne Faithful, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Diane Cilento, Jane Fonda, Roger Vadim and many others. "I was excited by this galaxy of visitors," says O'Brien, "but I was never carried away" - and this is entirely believable when one meets her now; it is impossible to imagine Edna O'Brien suffering a fool.
One Sunday in Berkeley Square, after a lunch with Marlon Brando, they took a stroll and he asked "Are you a great writer?" O'Brien replied: "I don't know, but I intend to be." But she was, and is.
The extent of the Irish domination of literature in English during the 20th century - per capita - is staggering. From a country of its size, consider: Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Stoker, Wilde, Beckett, Synge, O'Casey, Butler, Flann O'Brien, Heaney, Trevor - and it continues in Mahon, Banville, McGahern and Toibin. It is right to see Edna O'Brien in this heritage, and integral to it.
Through the 1980s and 90s her writing gathered critical mass towards a core of novels that established her genius, including Down by the River, Wild Decembers and In the Forest. Novels and stories that brought that untranslatable German word Stimmung into an Irish human and natural landscape; novels of atmosphere, imagination, virulence and often (as in The Little Red Chairs) unbearably intimate violence. There are books that explored and empathised with the feelings of women.
One of her most powerful novels, which occasioned much hostility, this time in England, was House of Splendid Isolation, about a runaway IRA gunman and the woman at whose house he arrives one night in pursuit of shelter.
Edna O'Brien remembers, as a child, heated debate at home over the treaty that divided families and Ireland in every sense, after years of strife and the Easter Rising of 1916. Although she left Ireland (as so many did, including Joyce, Beckett and O'Casey), Ireland never left her, nor did the Troubles.
She has been accused of "sleeping with the Provos", but this is nonsense.
O'Brien's relationships - and they are intense - are with a great variety of people of differing political proclivities, but most of all with words. She borrows from Beckett to say: "Words were my only love and not many."
She understands why young Catholic men fought for the IRA, explores their loyalty, their conviction and their part in that "dirty war", rendered in precise and vivid prose.
But perhaps her most visceral relationship, as President Higgins reminded us, is with Ireland herself.
Criticism of O'Brien's work has been robust and sometimes repellent, focussing on what has been called her "stage Irish persona". In an essay titled The Whores on the Half Doors, Benedict Kiely defended her writing, while pointing out O'Brien's complex relationship with her own country. In her book Mother Ireland, O'Brien described Ireland as "a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot and of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare".
Her particular feminism, while offending some, was not forged from philosophical doctrine, but from the realistic observations of the men and women around her. "Ours indeed was a land of shame," she wrote, "a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women."
O'Brien's autobiography has an unforgettable scene. Beckett visits her hotel room in Paris not long after O'Brien has taken LSD with the radical psychiatrist RD Laing, whose patient she was. When Beckett arrives, she is still in an aftermath of the "weird visitations" that ensued.
Beckett takes a miniature whiskey from the mini-bar and talks about "home", recalling the barbaric treatment meted out to Joyce and others, and asking whether O'Brien's intention to be buried there was in pursuit of "a perpetual dose of disgust". This from a man, as she noted, who had written more lovingly of the ditches and the daisies and the ruinstrewn land "with a beautiful and imperishable loneliness".
One wonders whether O'Brien was speaking also for herself. She did return to Ireland to live, in a remote cottage on the Donegal coast, but came back to London after the splendid though extreme isolation was brought into sharp relief by a health emergency. She now lives in a rented house in Chelsea, one of the few of its kind in a street otherwise rendered plush by money. Her home is a dusty jewel-box in which the precious stones are books and pages annotated in the margins, poems discussed over good wine after climbing the creaky stairs.
Here, The Little Red Chairs was written, commencing in rural Ireland in the new times of immigration from eastern Europe and the arrival of a hero, given almost biblical importance, with no knowledge whatsoever of his recent wartime past. It is also the first great work of fiction to explore the new underworld of migrant labour in bulimically rich London, meticulously researched from the inside.
How remarkable that all this should be captured by a woman in her mid-80s who was told by an NHS nurse that her hearing was akin to a "broken piano", but who was then - as she says - "to go on writing and reading... those two intensities that have buttressed my whole life".