Entertainment Books

Sunday 17 November 2019

Edna's passions: the literati, the film stars and the nun

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

I most recently saw Edna O'Brien at a celebratory dinner at the Irish Embassy in London, and although now almost 82, she remains as glamorous and as striking as she appears on the front cover of her new memoir Country Girl -- which she always said she would never write.

But wiser counsels -- and possibly the continuing need to earn -- persuaded her to do so, and we should be grateful, because it is, in its many parts, full of the O'Brien enchantments: the lushness about nature; the delicate balance of rapture and rupture in recapturing the experience of love; the feminine eye for clothes; the true ear for a story; the sharpness of specific recollections.

Some of the memories recounted will seem familiar because they already appear in her fiction, but they are still worth recalling in the original, and she does so with beguiling lucidity.

There is a passage about her ardent, adolescent experience of falling in love with a nun -- "in a manner no different, no less rapturous, from the successive loves which I would conceive for men down the years".

She has previously written about this episode in a short story, but it loses none of its clarity and poignancy in the re-telling. O'Brien is an author with her own unique voice, and yet she allows the reader to fill in the spaces of the unvoiced: it is evident that the nun struggles not to respond to these smouldering schoolgirl looks, and finally, brusquely overcomes the temptation.

Edna retains masterly powers of description -- and the episode in which her family, including a brother portrayed as bullying and domineering (with whom there was a subsequent quarrel over a family will), attempt to abduct her, to prevent her living with the older, married, cosmopolitan Ernest Gebler -- reappears here as memoir, where first it was told as narrative in The Country Girls.

The family, in the novel, can be read as brutal, rough peasants standing in the way of a daughter's right to liberty, but more subtly, in retrospect, we can see that her parents were naively trying to protect the young Edna from a disastrous marriage, as it indeed turned out to be.

If the folks in Co Clare thought Edna's early novels "scandalous", Gebler -- rife with writerly jealousy -- compared her, ludicrously, with Krafft-Ebing, of the weird fetishisms. There is a chillingly accurate account of the court case in which she finally won custody of their two sons.

In the Edna O'Brien story, we see the artist's vocation burning a trail to her destiny. She had to leave provincial Ireland, and even literary Dublin: she had to contract a marriage which would bring her into a milieu which would provide literary connections, and help her publish.

And although she goes through a few wretched years as a housewife in Putney, soon she is big on the literary scene and her career is launched.

Suddenly, it seems, she knows everyone in that 1960s London: Paul McCartney, Lord Snowdon, the writers Len Deighton and Francis Wyndham (who greatly encouraged her work), Irish theatre designer Sean Kenny (with whom there is an affair), Richard Burton, the psychiatrist Ronnie Laing (with whom there is experimental LSD-taking), Sean Connery, Maggie Smith; and then Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Harold Pinter, the Oliviers and Marlon Brando, with whom she passed a chaste night, and Robert Mitchum, with whom she passed a carnal one.

She had a house in Carlyle Square which was often filled with the great names, from Harold Wilson to Ingrid Bergman.

Edna, in her prime, led a fabulous life, and she manages to recount it with wonder, the names never sounding like name-dropping. Her love affairs are described with emotional truth, but never with explicitness. Two men only identified as "Jay" and "Lochinvar" are recalled as great loves. Touchingly, she yearned for a baby in her 40s, but it was not to be.

Her experiences in New York were glittering with celebrities -- historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Al Pacino, Norman Mailer -- and with a rewarding, and vivid, friendship with Jacqueline Onassis.

Jackie told Edna that she was one of the three people in the world she loved most -- quite something -- and Edna captures the enigma, the feminine mystery, and the powerful sense of entitlement of the lady's character. Yet Edna's head is never turned: whether happy or unhappy, the artist in her keeps her rooted.

There are some piquant revelations: Charles Haughey, then Minister for Justice, emerges unedifyingly, calling Edna's first novel "filth" mainly, it seems, to curry favour with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid; while a priest, Father Peter Connolly, is Edna's literary champion against a raft of womenfolk who think her a hussy.

There is an affecting passage towards the end where she intends suicide, but is saved by a serendipitous fax sent by her son Sasha.

She is on weaker ground when she reflects on matters of history, politics, or indeed economics, on which, by her own admission, she has little authority. She can be slapdash on history which she has not researched.

She repeats, twice, the myth that the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 was fought over partition: but it was the Oath of Allegiance that most divided Free Stater and Republican, not Northern Ireland.

Her social history isn't always reliable -- she claims that Irishwomen didn't smoke in the 1930s, but the women's magazines of the time feature lipsticky cigarette ads, and my mother's Galway cronies all smoked from the 1920s.

I would have added little points of information to some of her vignettes: Jeanne Campbell, the journalist, wasn't just Norman Mailer's wife -- she was Lord Beaverbrook's grand-daughter, a meaningful dynastic connection; the beautiful colleen wearing a veil on the pink Irish 10-shilling note was Lady Lavery, who was madly in love with Michael Collins.

But a novelist of Edna's sure touch may be as wise to withhold information as to provide it, and the entire narrative leaves you with an enchanted feeling of having been drawn into a life of great internal richness.

Edna O'Brien, Country Girl: A Memoir, Faber and Faber, €26.40.

Edna O'Brien will be interviewed by RTÉ arts presenter Sean Rocks on Sunday, Oct 14, at 7.30pm at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire. For tickets, tel: 01 231 2929

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