Edna O'Brien: 'I wanted to write about all the horror in the world'
Edna O'Brien's new novel, which has just been shortlisted for Irish Book of the Year, is about how we can still be seduced by evil people. Our reporter meets her
'It's amazing how a book comes to one," Edna O'Brien tells me with a twinkle in her eye. "They were filming a documentary about my life, and I was in the garden of the Merrion hotel in Dublin, with its wonderful statue of James Joyce. The director Charlie McCarthy and I were talking, and he said, 'What are you writing next?' Well, I said, there's a bit of a hiatus there, a bit of a dry well. He said, 'Tolstoy said there are only two great stories in the world. A Man on a Journey, or A Stranger Comes to Town.' And at that moment I thought, I've got it. I'm going to bring a stranger with a past - not just a romantic stranger, but a stranger with a political past - to a small Irish town."
We're drinking tea by the blazing fire in the living room of O'Brien's wonderfully eclectic Knightsbridge home, and discussing The Little Red Chairs, O'Brien's 21st book, and her first novel in a decade. Not that she's been idle in the meantime - her collection Saints and Sinners won the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and her memoir, Country Girl, was published in 2012 to high acclaim. In it she laid bare her remarkable legend: her convent education and journey from a small village in the west of Ireland to marriage (to Ernest Gebler, a novelist twice her age whom she met at 18) and divorce (10 years later; he proved jealous of her success), and the heady haze of parties in Sixties London: Paul McCartney strumming the guitar by her sons' bedsides, acid-taking with her analyst, RD Laing, dinner at the White House with Jack Nicholson and Hillary Clinton, the evening when her son arrived home from university to find a policeman outside and his mother in the front room, dancing with the British prime minister, Harold Wilson.
Marlon Brando, pushing her on the swings the morning after a party, once asked her a question of import: "Are you a great writer?" O'Brien's answer proved prescient: "I intend to be."
Once dismissed as a "bargain basement Molly Bloom" and scorned on television by LP Hartley for writing about "nymphomaniacs", O'Brien - warm, charismatic, elegant in black velvet and beautiful at 84 - has cemented her place as the doyenne of Irish literature. Philip Roth has described her as the greatest living woman writing in English; The Little Red Chairs, he claims, is her masterpiece. It is certainly a rejoinder to Norman Mailer, who once accused her of being "too interior": while set partly in rural Ireland, its focus is international, and utterly contemporary.
The book starts with Vladimir Dragan walking into a pub in Cloonoila, a village 70 miles outside Galway, where people "crave scandal as if it were nectar". He is - or professes to be - a sex therapist, a poet from Montenegro, a charismatic Christ-like figure offering New Age healing to allay the most repressed desires.
The priests are shocked; the women are intrigued. Soon one of them, Fidelma McBride, falls pregnant. But Vlad is not what he seems: he is a Balkan war criminal in hiding, bearing a strong resemblance to Radovan Karadzic, so-called, by some Western media, the "Butcher of Bosnia", who remains in detention, accused of crimes committed during the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-96). His shamanistic cover blown, Vlad is hauled back to The Hague to stand trial. Distraught, Fidelma moves to south London and finds a job as a night cleaner, living and working alongside refugees from all over the world. "Many had fled horror," writes O'Brien, "countries they could never go back to, while still others yearned for home."
"I felt that I should try and write something that touched, however peripherally, on the horror that is our world today," says O'Brien, who is not usually thought of as a political writer, and whose social commentary up to now has focused on Ireland.
"Every night I watch Channel 4 News, and I think two things. I think how impotent I feel, and I think how lucky I am. Look at Syria now: it's one mass ruin. Hundreds of thousands fleeing, and where to go? What road to take? I wanted to tell a story that was rooted for me in place - Ireland, England and then The Hague - and at the same time that took in something of the suffering and the violations and the monstrousness of what is happening in the world."
O'Brien's sensational debut, The Country Girls (1960), was written in three weeks; its frank depiction of young female sexuality appalled the censorious and inspired public burnings of the book in Ireland. Subsequent novels - The Girl with Green Eyes, Girls in Their Married Bliss, August is a Wicked Month - further explored themes of gender relations, often from the point of view of women whose romantic expectations are cruelly dashed. In a way, The Little Red Chairs is a romance of this kind - the story of a woman who falls for the wrong man - but the stakes are extreme: Fidelma must grapple with her abiding attraction to the charming Vlad, suddenly revealed as a mass murderer. Why choose to write about a character with such a paradoxical duality at his core?
"Throughout history," says O'Brien, "you read of Hitler's great affection for his dogs, of the wives of Hitler's cohort all besotted by him. Stalin, too, could totally magnetise people when he wanted to, and would suddenly ask someone up to dance and make her feel so important, and that same night order some executions. But I would like to know, and I've had the woman Fidelma ask the character Vlad: did he ever feel? Was he ever innocent? And when they were making love, was murder on his mind? Macbeth knows what he has done, that's why he's hallucinating and seeing daggers. That's Shakespeare's greatness: he brought to the mind of the mad killer that element of awareness, fear, chastisement. The character of Vlad is the terrifying strength of someone who has done incalculable harm to thousands of people, yet still gets up in the morning and eats breakfast."
The narrative is harrowing, yet it is full of lyrical language and moving touches of the everyday.
"One couldn't write a whole book without having the human quotidian," O'Brien smiles. "Falling in love, falling out of love, the little malices in the village, the humble Christmas parties at the refugee centre. It's just a bit of the world, really, as I see it. I had a difficult time doing it, because I had to reach further both into myself and out into the world to make it work. Let's have this theme that's important, political, but let's have it from the inside, because otherwise it doesn't ring true. The outer story has to have an inner resonance for me, a note of music inside."
The resonance, for O'Brien, lies in her own life. "I have an interest in, and a great abiding fear of, tyranny," she explains, "and especially male tyranny. And I don't like doctrine, whoever writes it. I want human beings, in all their variableness. I don't want 'he's the baddie, she's the goodie'; I wanted it to be more rounded and capacious."
The Little Red Chairs (named in homage to an installation commemorating the victims of the Siege of Sarajevo) has taken four years to write, and is, she says, the hardest thing she's done.
"Not that you do it consciously, but with each book the bar is set higher, because the experience of writing the previous books, and reading all the time while writing, has made one more severe with the self, and more aware, and more determined."
She reread JM Coetzee's Disgrace four times before beginning writing; research also took her to The Hague, where she witnessed tribunals, and a refugee centre in Paddington, where she heard devastating stories - of escapes from war, torture, rape - which "seemed to me to be utter poetic truth".
O'Brien writes daily, longhand, as she always has, in violet ink "like Virginia Woolf", and reworks her text relentlessly. One horrific scene at the novel's centre took "four or five months" to get right: "I have said it before: I go to my grave looking for the word."
O'Brien hopes to write another novel, but, she laughs infectiously, "they ain't buzzing in my ears!" Plans are afoot for a film of The Little Red Chairs, and she spent August in Massachusetts, rehearsing a stage adaptation of The Country Girls, complete with songs. She didn't reread her novel before writing this.
"What you write when you're 25 and what you write when you're almost 85 is different," she says.
"I think, I hope, I've kept that youngness, that wildness, that curiosity, that hunger - but maybe with a bit of added gravity here and there. A bit of added consequence."