Tuesday 13 November 2018

Books: The ugly side of Mr Gentleman

Biography: The Projectionist - the Story of Ernest Gebler, Carlo Gébler, New Island, hdbk, 424 pages, €24.99

Suburban myth: A young Carlo Gebler is swung around by his mother, Edna O'Brien, while his father Ernest has his younger brother, Sasha, on his back.
Suburban myth: A young Carlo Gebler is swung around by his mother, Edna O'Brien, while his father Ernest has his younger brother, Sasha, on his back.
Carlo Gebler
The Projectionist by Carlo Gebler

Tanya Sweeney

Our reviewer on Carlo Gébler's revelations about how his father stole Edna O'Brien's letters and even claimed he wrote her early novels

In the first author's note of The Projectionist lies the most ominous of starts: "Readers should bear in mind that had the subject been given a choice he would never have allowed the writer to tell his story."

Further compounding the intrigue, it transpires that the subject and writer are father and son. Ernest Gébler, the Emmy award-winning writer and husband to writer Edna O'Brien, was one branch on a knotted, sprawling and highly complicated family tree. Though as the memoir/biography by his son Carlo attests, being described as 'husband to Edna O'Brien' would likely have incensed the man.

Carlo Gébler has already written of his tumultuous relationship with his father in 2001's Father & I. Happening across Ernest's Autobiog - 'hundreds of pages of notes and letters that has to be assembled and burnished and turned into the book he has worked out in his head' - Carlo set about pulling it into a cohesive shape, albeit with one caveat: the truth would out. As such, chaos and drama is entwined both in the history of Ernest Gébler and Edna O'Brien's marriage, and Carlo's retelling of it.

"His desire, bordering on the fanatical, to replace facts with poisonous fantasies was the mainspring of his Autobiog project," writes Carlo.

At the beginning of The Projectionist, there is an infograph of the Gébler family tree, and rarely has one been needed more. Born in Bohemia to a Czech father and a Tipperary mother, Ernest's father, Adolf, went on to helm one of Ireland's best-known literary families. But behind the suburban front doors of Cabra, Rathgar and Putney lay complexity, drama and elusiveness to rival a Greek tragedy.

"His (Ernest's) story had many elements but one primary, overarching theme: the damage mothers and wives did to their sons by separating them from their fathers," writes Carlo.

Of all the chapters in Ernest's life, his marriage to O'Brien has proven to be the most enduring and compelling.

"The trouble with (his version of events) was that he did not write my mother's books, and my brother and I weren't lured away - we wanted to leave," writes Carlo. Even the retelling of how Edna O'Brien and Ernest Gébler met is under contention: Ernest's version notes how, as a trainee chemist on Cabra Road, O'Brien dispensed medicine for his ailing father, Adolf, and drove the sick man mad with requests to meet his son, the great author.

Carlo's understanding of the event is different: by 1952, O'Brien was already working as a columnist and trainee chemist, and met Ernest in a bar on Henry Street though a mutual friend, the Radio Éireann presenter Rudy Jones.

The pair married in Blanchardstown two years later, much against her parents' wishes. And as O'Brien's stature as a writer grew slowly but inexorably, Ernest Gébler is reported to have said: "You can write and I will never forgive you." As Edna hit a creative purple patch after writing her first and second novels The Country Girls and The Lonely Girl, Ernest grew even more resentful. Further aiding and abetting the tension, it was believed that Edna based the deceitful character, Mr Gentleman, in The Country Girls on her husband.

"Smart girls like Edna marry older, kind men because they get more of everything that way: more spoiling, more care, more indulgence. They know what they are doing," Ernest wrote in his 1962 desk diary.

It was one thing to simmer within the pages of a personal journal, quite another to meddle in his wife's professional successes. Referring to his father's actions as a 'piece of epistolary mischief-making', Carlo recalls how his father responded to a letter that Edna received from Howard B Gottlieb at Boston University, requesting manuscript material for a special collections library. Unbeknownst to her, Ernest wrote back, declining on the grounds that 'she is too modest to contribute'. Writing as Edna, he recommended his own works for the library.

The Machiavellian antics didn't end here: elsewhere, Ernest intercepted a letter from a London theatre producer who indicated interest in turning The Lonely Girl into a musical. "He wrote back, regretting that the novel was unavailable, but suggesting that Ernest Gébler's novel The Love Investigator would make a much better musical," recalls Carlo. Later, he made false claiims to industry figureheads that he had in fact written Edna's early novels. "He felt in some way the acclaim should be pointed towards him and that he was the person who helped her to become the writer she became. Later on he came to believe that he had himself actually written the books," Carlo recounted in the RTÉ documentary, Flesh and Blood.

O'Brien went on to have her own say in her own memoir, 2012's Country Girl and recounted the marriage as pockmarked with bitterness and oppression. Isolated in suburban London and stuck in what had become a mostly loveless, imbalanced marriage, writing became her all.

Ultimately, The Projectionist recounts a man depressed over his own sense of failure in life. Withholding affection from his own sons, the pain and suffering and misery from generations past loomed large in his life.

Ernest died of Alzheimer's disease in 1998: "The atrophy of his brain was one long, unceasing terrible process," says Carlo. He sent dozens of letters to Edna before his death: "As the time draws near I get more impatient to be with you," he wrote in 1989. "I am looking forward to taking you out and about this splendid coast."

"He had left the world he knew and gone to an alternative world where everything that had gone wrong could now be put right," writes Carlo.

All in all, a poignant endnote to a complicated and compelling life.

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