For a woman once famous for her parties, the public fanfare for Edna O'Brien's 90th will be muted. On Tuesday evening, she will preside over a guest list of ghosts. TS Eliot will be there, as will James Joyce, and Edna will take their hands and dance - or 'leap' as she puts it - through a talk, which will be beamed to an online audience around the world.
In spirit it will be light years from her legendary soirées of old, where Marlon Brando or Samuel Beckett might drop in, but, in one way, this bijou gathering makes perfect sense. Men - her father, her husband, her lovers - disappointed her, but, like reliable godparents, Joyce and Eliot were there at the crossroads of Edna's life.
The former was an obsession, and, later, a subject, whose journey from childlike tenderness to doubt and rebellion mirrored her own. The latter's dream-like writings and acute biography inspired her to become a writer herself.
That the evening will be marked by a performance is strangely fitting too. More than any other novelist, there has always been a theatrical streak in Edna. Her persona is actressy, her voice a duchess drawl shot through with Irish brogue. Her readings are dramatic events where she holds audiences rapt. And why not, at this great age, stand alone, once more, on the stage? Despite her penchant for parties, she always felt lonely during them, even when they were her own, she once remarked.
The very last word of her 2012 memoir, Country Girl, is 'banquet' and the notions of sensuality and fantasy it suggests sustained her through the famished bleakness of her early life in Tuamgraney, County Clare. "One part of my childhood was poor but another was to do with feasts and they were regal and kingly or queenly," she once said. "They were mythology and poetry and my own little inner dreams and concoction."
Her father was a drinker and a gambler and there were, "money troubles, drink troubles, all sorts of troubles". The family lived at Dewsborough, a country hall, and she recalls "relics of riches" and semi grandeur but her father had to give away some of the fields to pay his debts and her mother "worked like a demon: feeding animals, carrying buckets".
She boarded at the Convent of Mercy in Loughrea, County Galway and "rebelled against a coercive religion", but, with hindsight, she understood that the barrenness of it all was what stirred her writer's soul. "What I did not know was that the homeland was the font from which to draw stories and drama," she later wrote. "I now realise that if I had grown up in a city, I would not have had such a legacy. That landscape with its beauty and its hardships, its harvests and its hungers was central to my thinking and sensibility."
She trained as a pharmacist in Dublin, and fell for an older man, Ernest Gébler, an Irish writer of Czech-Jewish origin. She was 22, he was 38, and already had a son, and seemed impressively urbane and cultural to her. In 1958, Gébler, pursuing his own writing career, moved the family to London, where O'Brien found herself stranded in suburbia with their own two young children, Carlo and Sasha. It was there, in the hours between dropping them at school and picking them up again, that she began writing. In a burst of energy, The Country Girls came to her, the book "wrote itself", she later said, in just a few weeks.
To see it written about now, you might almost think it was a political screed, but in fact it was what its author called more of "a little elegy, a love song to my native land", plainly but gorgeously written. There was "Kate, the obedient one, the incurable romantic, and Baba, her alter ego, determined to smash the conventions and defy the strictures of church, priests, nuns and parenthood," she later wrote. "I was, in a sense, both of those girls, though I kept the rebellious side of my nature a secret. My crime, however, did catch up with me."
There were ripples of chauvinism when the novel was published, in 1960. LP Hartley called Baba and Kate, a pair of nymphomaniacs - but such sniping was only further evidence of the nerve the two girls had touched. There were already great Irish female writers like Kate O'Brien and Elizabeth Bowen but neither, Edna noted, "had written anything that so offended the sensibilities of the people". Edna's own mother was appalled and they waged a private battle over the book, which was soon banned.
And yet even this was not quite a cross to bear. Edna would later note that Patrick Kavanagh, for one, was jealous that she had managed to provoke the censor so brilliantly. "To be banned is a hot ticket to fame and recognition," she later said, adding, "exile and separation were essential for me".
"When The Country Girls was published in 1960, things were different in every aspect of life in Ireland," Edna tells the Sunday Independent by email. "Sexual desire, as such, was not what offended, mostly. The outrage was that a young woman had shown some daring and put it in print. In fact, when my subsequent book, The Lonely Girl, was published, the opinion was that The Country Girls was a prayer book in comparison. The anger was to do with audacity, a perceived notion, which was untrue, that I had betrayed my country by writing it."
She continued to write, "… not to prove myself to them [her critics], but to prove myself to myself, and to make sure they hadn't killed me off". Her marriage did not survive, however. Gébler was jealous of her talent, telling her he would "never forgive" her for being able to write. There was a protracted custody battle for their children and a three-year legal battle in which supposedly outrageous passages from her novel, August Is A Wicked Month, were quoted as evidence of her character.
"Women, married or unmarried, were subordinate in every way, and not just sexually," she says now.
"Fifty-five years ago, I wrote another story called A Scandalous Woman, which was about what used to be called 'a fallen woman'. The shame, for that girl, and the punishments meted upon her were such that eventually I wrote these lines - 'I'd thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder and a land of strange, beautiful, and sacrificial women.'"
Did she ever feel that relationships stymied her creativity? "Ah, love! Of course it consumed my time, my nerves, the longing for the rainbow, but I would not say that it harmed my writing," she responds. "It interrupted writing but I think it deepened it because love does that."
Her reputation and her talent combined to make her a crossover star, feted far beyond the literary world. She threw parties where the likes of Brando, Judy Garland and Robert Mitchum were in attendance (in her memoir she writes that she and Mitchum "danced all the way up to the bedroom... with all the shyness of besotted strangers in syrupy songs").
She befriended Jackie Onassis and Richard Burton, and wrote a screenplay for director John Huston. Paul McCartney once made up a bedtime song to sing to her boys. In bed in Paris, after a nasty bout of food poisoning, the first three friends who climbed the stairs to visit were Marguerite Duras, director Peter Brook and Samuel Beckett.
She once took LSD with the psychiatrist RD Laing. "It was very alarming for me but I think, on reflection, it probably enabled that mad mind of mine to delve a bit deeper into things," she recalled.
In the 1990s that delving prompted her to move away from writing about women and love and towards state-of-the-nation novels. In preparing to write House of Splendid Isolation, which involves a terrorist who goes on the run, she visited Dominic "Mad Dog" McGlinchey, an IRA man, and she wrote a warm profile of Gerry Adams for The New York Times, describing him as "a lithe, handsome man, with a native formality".
In 1997 she published Down By The River, a fictionalised rendering of the X Case, in which a teenage rape victim is denied the right to travel abroad to have an abortion. This was followed by 2002's In The Forest, which drew on the story of Brendan O'Donnell, a mentally ill Clare man who abducted and murdered Imelda Riney, her three-year-old son, Liam, and a priest, Father Joseph Walsh. At the time, the criticism she received at home was in contrast to the praise from foreign reviewers. Fintan O'Toole, in the Irish Times, wrote that the book was "arguably an aesthetic as well as a moral mistake".
And yet, by then, such criticism had none of the force of the opprobrium of old. If you live long enough, Quentin Crisp observed, you inevitably move from the outskirts of respectability to the very heart of society. She's seen it herself: "You ask me about the changes that have happened. Yes, there is no censorship of books; there is a plethora of writing by both men and women, a renaissance you could call it. Ulysses is no longer banned and more so, in the streets of Dublin, Leopold Bloom's more wayward musings are etched on copper plates, which are embedded in the pavement."
Like many Irish matriarchs, Edna provokes strong feelings of protectiveness. We feel slighted on her behalf when she is analysed by outsiders or overlooked by the Booker list. When she was profiled by the New Yorker last year, the piece, which questioned the mythology that surrounds her, all but caused a diplomatic incident.
The national press rushed to defend her honour - the Irish Times called it "an astonishing hatchet job". And yet some of their criticisms seemed not so much untrue, as beside the point. Who cares, for instance, if the received narrative of struggle against public opprobrium was a little impressionistic? An American author might pedantically quibble with facts but we, who lived through that suffocating theocracy, know it hardly makes a difference if the books were literally burned. You didn't need to be prosecuted in the Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s to feel like a criminal, and you didn't need a pyre to understand that certain art was taboo.
In hindsight, it all seems inevitable that the likes of Edna, or indeed John McGahern, would triumph in the end but, at the time, their writing took real courage.
Would her original brand of iconoclasm be possible today? She thinks not, but says that doesn't mean all conclusions are foregone. "As for today's reading climate, people are not shocked by sexual revelation but as authors we must keep our troth of the quality of the language itself, we must work at the words and open our minds and vision to other worlds and other realities."
In old age she has continued to write. A decade ago, at 80, she took a plane to Nigeria, her sleeves stuffed with cash, to research what would become Girl, the story of a young woman who is kidnapped by Jihadi fighters in north-eastern Nigeria. There were murmurings about the writer straying so far outside her own milieu, but the book was a critical success and it perhaps emboldened her to keep going.
"I often remind myself of WB Yeats's quote which applies to young and old, men and women - 'Irish poets, learn your trade'. We have to go deep, deeper, and reread the great books that inspired us and enabled us to feel because feeling is the pulse that sustains us."
She once said of herself: "I live on expectation more than anything else. Of what I could become." A few days shy of 90, is this still what sustains her?
"As for 'becoming'," she answers, "I have just finished the TS Eliot lecture, which was both a great and gruelling writing experience. But yes, to borrow from Molly Bloom, yes, I do want to write one more thing, maybe two! Writing is what I live for, it is also what I live on, and there is no golden goose."
Edna O'Brien will deliver The TS Eliot lecture 2020 on her 90th birthday, Dec 15 at 7.30pm on the Abbey Theatre's YouTube channel. Viewing is free. Available for one month only. https://www.youtube.com/user/AbbeyTheatre
Christine Dwyer Hickey
"For anyone interested in books or even - God forbid - in becoming a writer, [Edna is] a role model. When I was a teenager, we had other female Irish writers of course, and, much as we admired their work… well, let's just say, O'Brien was different. I have to confess I was a little daunted to discover that my novel Tatty was to follow The Country Girls as Dublin One City One Book choice for 2020. Her work is never less than courageous. She brings life to the smallest scene with her use of language and her innate understanding of what it is to be human. I first read The Country Girls in the 1970s and have never eaten a boiled egg since without thinking of Caithleen and the pullet's egg she eats for breakfast. And any time I swim in a pool, the short story, Paradise, comes into my head. The description of light and water and the anguish of a young woman caught in a rich man's world - I remember it as if it were a memory of my own. This, I believe, is the mark of an exceptional writer."
"In 1960, Edna O'Brien published The Country Girls, and Irish literature was dragged howling into modernity. But modernity quickly becomes the past too, and her real permanence is the high excellence of the books themselves. She's been a vaccine against many Irish ills. If she began writing over 60 years ago, we are only beginning to catch up with her now. There is a formidable core of deep seriousness. It is where her originality and great formal power is contained. You read Edna O'Brien's work with delight - her recent book Girl with awe and wonder - because she is a magisterial guide to the writer's art. She has never for a moment rested on her laurels. She is always essentially young, in the sense she is always testing herself. Last time I met her, she had been through a gruelling illness. She didn't need to talk about that. She had a new book coming out. The battle lay just ahead. It is a lesson in the endurance of magnificence."
"Edna O'Brien has been an inspiration to generations of Irish writers and readers, the very model of a writerly life lived with courage, commitment and passion. I was fortunate to first read her when I was a young teenager falling in love with books and to come to understand very quickly the voice her work was giving to Irish women in particular. Edna's work shattered silences, broke open new ground, stirred deep recognitions, as it still does. Her sentences are beautiful, her stories need telling, and her artist's heart is mighty, still defiant and strong. At a gala evening in the Gaiety Theatre a few years ago, put together by her friends, I was privileged to be MC and to witness, from that stage, the extraordinary waves of applause and sheer love for Edna, a champion, a legend, a fighter. Writing is why she was put here, and how fabulous for all of us that she still rages and writes, still sets out the words, one after the other, finding beauty."