Edna's allure still endures
Gifted novelist or just literary femme fatale? For over half a century Edna O'Brien has been admired, slighted, lauded and condemned. Now, nearly 82, she's about to publish her memoirs -- the love affairs, the many controversies, the famous friends (she knew everyone from Jackie Kennedy and Richard Burton to Princess Margaret), the endless parties, champagne and first nights. Emily Hourican chronicles the adventures of the enduring Edna
EDNA O'BRIEN claims to pay no attention to the myth that surrounds her. She insists: "I deliberately keep myself unaware of my public persona. To write is hard enough." And yet every time she opens her mouth, to speak in that immediately identifiable lilt, she seems to add a small nugget to the myth, feeding the flames just a little more. Sometimes it's a little detail of how she works -- writing longhand, in violet ink, into a notebook -- sometimes a hint about a celebrity friend (Robert Mitchum: "He was also a wild man. I'm leaving it at that"), or a poignant recollection of her Co Clare childhood. Her sentences are long, complicated, full of sub-clauses, deviations and subtle qualifications. Her voice rises and dips, thrillingly, at strategic points, interspersed with careful pauses. The whole effect could be awful, just too impossibly contrived, but it's not. It works. It is very Edna.
For more than 50 years, since the publication of The Country Girls in 1960, Edna O'Brien has been admired, slighted, lauded and condemned. The conversation about whether she is a gifted novelist or just a literary femme fatale has gone on and on. Now, nearly 82, with her memoirs about to be published, the conversation is going to be revived again, this time on her own terms.
This will be her account of all the years, all the love affairs (not as many as rumoured), the many controversies, the famous friends (she knows -- and knew -- everyone, from Jackie Kennedy and Richard Burton to Princess Margaret), the endless parties, champagne and first nights. And every morning, up and at her desk, writing, in defiance of all the rest.
Alas, she is unlikely to name many names -- the affairs with prominent men, from politicians to other writers, will perhaps be mined for experience, but will not be sullied by too much fact -- or tell celebrity anecdotes for the hell of it. But given that she always swore she would never even go this far, these memoirs are likely to give a little more dimension to the fabulous, forceful construct that is Edna O'Brien.
From the appearance of The Country Girls -- written in three weeks, for the sum of £50, at the suggestion of publisher Ian Hamilton, for whom Edna was writing reader's reports and with whom she has several times found it necessary to deny she had an affair -- the central fact of Edna's beauty has been as much a part of her story as her writing.
The high cheekbones, romantic mouth and elegant neck, all framed by the vital, flame-coloured hair that stands out around her face like the plumage of an exotic bird, have long distorted a full understanding of her personality and literary talent. All that banning (maybe even burning) of the book, the feud with her parents and exile from Ireland, the famous lovers, were infinitely more titillating and dramatic because of the many photographs of her, by Bill Brandt and Snowdon among others, looking fey and prophetic, that accompanied the accounts.
And in part, this is her fault. "I suppose I am a bit bohemian," she has said, "but I've always regarded being bohemian not as being scruffy, but having a bit of style."
The art with which she has constructed her persona -- layer upon layer of atmospheric detail, including the hand-written manuscripts, velvet cloaks and fur trims, reckless extravagance, the regular facials with Cherry Coogan, ex-wife of Tim Pat, at the Shelbourne Hotel while in Dublin -- and her resolute refusal to indulge in cynicism of any kind, mean that it can be easy to ridicule her as a triumph of style over substance.
But -- and it's a big but -- beyond, or rather behind all of that, her work tells its own tale. Not everything she has written has hit the mark, but at its best, O'Brien's writing is sensitive, perceptive, intelligent and original. She has been dismissed as "a minor novelist" many times, mocked for her heightened, lyrical prose style and accused of being out of touch with modern Ireland, and yet, a recent study put The Country Girls in the top 20 best-selling Irish books of the century, alongside Joyce, Beckett, Wilde and Synge. Those who read the trilogy now do so not for the titillation of its sexual content (don't bother, there really isn't any), but for its insights into the psyche of Irish women. And they are not disappointed. And even those who were content to dismiss her found themselves caught unawares by the shimmering observations of the most recent collection of stories, Saints and Sinners.
Edna was 30 when The Country Girls came out, and one of her party pieces is that she can still recite the opening paragraph, word-perfect after 52 years. "I was the messenger really. The words came to me, the scenes came to me," she has said. "I wasn't thinking, nor could I, or I would have written a different kind of book." The ripples caused by the book would have horrified many writers. Whether it was burnt or not is moot, it was certainly banned, along with her next six novels.
Her parents were vilified locally and she became something of a national hate figure, for those who didn't immediately adore her, that is. The reaction was so extreme it would certainly have taught many to mitigate what came out of their mouths and pens, but not Edna. She was, clearly, from the start, shot through with the kind of steel that can take such excoriation. Later books -- in particular In The Field, based on the horrific murder of Imelda Riney and her four-year-old son Liam -- have, in their own way, caused just as much upset, while the balance of her own life has been as uncompromising as her writing.
She herself might insist that "I suffer from obedience," and has lamented that she isn't Baba from The Country Girls, able to tell the world to go to hell should need arise, but that's one of the paradoxes of Edna O'Brien. Because from the outside, it has always looked as if she chose her own path with deliberation, and stuck to it with determination. It's the very same paradox that allows her to sigh that all she ever wanted was a little cottage with hearth and delf, while quaffing champagne in luxury hotels.
She was brought up in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, within sight of the ruins of the large house that had belonged to her father's family. There had been money -- thanks to a cure-all elixir, Father John's Medicine, invented by a priestly relative -- but Edna's father drank and gambled it away, leaving just the house.
Then, during the Troubles, word came that the Black and Tans were to be billeted there. Rather than allow such a thing to happen, Edna's father burned it to the ground and the family moved to a smaller, though still substantial, house nearby. A lack of compromise, then, seems to run through the blood, as perhaps does extravagance.
All interviews with Edna tend to mention the lovely house in Knightsbridge, London, where she lives, its blood-red walls and many books. But, although she has lived there for many years now, the house is rented. In an interview with Miriam O'Callaghan earlier this year, she said: "I gave away my house and all I earned in prodigal parties," and later, "I live in a rented house. That is a source of anxiety. I had a beautiful house in London, and I lost it in the way many Irish people down the aeons have lost their lands and their houses, partly through their own fault. I was spendthrift. I wasn't as diligent with the words and the work as I think I now am."
In the excellent documentary, Edna O'Brien: Life, Stories, made by IceBox Films and shown on RTE earlier this year, she talks about the passion, anger and longing that still overtake her when she finds herself in the vicinity of that house, bought with the money earned from turning Zee & Co into a film with Liz Taylor, and where she lived for 15 years until forced to sell.
Her childhood home was an unhappy one. Edna's father, as well as gambling and drinking, was violent and unpredictable. The legacy of that has been fear. She recalls herself as an anxious child, and even now, claims to be more than usually fearful. "There are the obvious fears of illness, losing one's mind, debt and death," she said to Ciara Ferguson in an interview for this paper in 2006. "And I have the fears that I won't be able to write again or write a better book. I have a fear of failure, fear of treachery, fear of critics, fear of swimming, fear of driving, fear of crossing the road, oh, just about everything."
She ended on a laugh, but clearly was not joking. That fear started with her father and was compounded by the role she, the youngest child, assumed as minder of her mother. "I was her little protectress when there were rows or scenes," she has said. Clearly, an impossible task for a child confronted by an angry grown man. But the closeness to her mother -- "I would write little odes to her on the lines of her forehead," she says, movingly, in Life, Stories -- was to have repercussions. "She felt, with cause, because I was so very close to her, that she owned me." Her mother ended all her letters to Edna with the hope that they would be buried in the same grave. "But I want my own grave," Edna once responded, adding: "My son Sasha says it's the only piece of property I'll ever own."
Edna moved to London with Ernest Gebler, much older, already established as a writer, a cold and controlling man, according to Edna and the two sons they had together, Sasha and Carlo. When she showed Ernest the first draft of The Country Girls, he apparently said: "You can do it. And I will never forgive you." The marriage became "undeviatingly punishing and grim. I had reached a situation where I would either go mad or get out."
And so, after 10 years, she got out, leaving Carlo and Sasha behind. That she was able to do so -- leave two little boys with a man she herself found frightening -- is another glimpse of the steel that runs through Edna, despite the protestations of fearfulness, of painful sensitivity, of a woman eternally the giver in love.
In an interview last year, she says she still cries when she thinks of the girl she was, who married a man nearly twice her age, "stern and complicated", someone she was "quite afraid of". She didn't, she says, "have much armour". And yet she had armour enough to get away from him, finally, after an earlier, failed attempt -- in which her father and a couple of friends seemingly had a fist-fight with Gebler and JP Donleavy.
Her sons seem not to blame her for it. Carlo, the elder, talks about how "brilliant" a mother she was. "We were gloriously indulged," he told me recently, recalling her beautiful voice and how she used to read to him and Sasha most nights. Edna herself has said that she found it far easier to be a mother and writer than a wife and a writer. Once free of Ernest, and having finally, after three years, won custody of the boys, she found herself with "endless energy" -- cooking, cleaning, writing, hosting her famous Saturday night parties. She was clearly a fabulous, glamorous mother -- visiting the boys at their public school with lavish hampers -- and introducing them to the famous actors, musicians and writers who seemed to flock to her.
JD Salinger, Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, Jane Fonda, Roger Vadim, Judy Garland, the list of those who came to Edna's parties is as glittering as it gets. "It was like a chain letter, it wasn't difficult at all," is how she describes the process of one celebrity bringing another, inviting a third and so on. Kenneth Tynan brought Princess Margaret, and was furious when Edna didn't curtsey. "Really, it's not possible if your hands are full. And also not necessary," was her mischievous comment.
The potent combination of her beauty, the banned books and condemnation from petty minds, and her air of heightened sensibility made Edna irresistible. Even Jackie Kennedy was not immune, contacting her when her play about Virginia Woolf was in rehearsal in New York. "Her mystery was that she was a mystery to herself. She was caught in the gap between ingenue and empress, between innocence and worldliness," was Edna's rather insightful interpretation of Jackie. In fact, the way in which both women naturally gravitated towards powerful, charismatic men, and were adept at charming them, showed certain similarities between them.
She has always claimed that the parties were really a Gatsby-esque attempt to please theatre designer Sean Kenny, with whom she was "very smitten. Was I in love with him? Sort of, yes. He wasn't with me. He had a troop of blonde women." She insists that, "far from basking in these parties, I was the cook. I would cook goose, turkey for them, worry about them." Truly, it's as if Edna feels that every single thing that isn't her writing needs to be somehow explained and diffused.
She cheerfully admits to terrible taste in men, saying even that, "the most magnetic person I ever met, was Marlon Brando. He was lean and brilliant, had that sort of animal quality, yet was very, very intelligent. But I've always fallen in love with bastards, and he didn't seem a bastard." She also seemed to fall for married men; on one chat show, asked to describe her ideal date, she said "to go out with the man I love, who bought me champagne, who didn't complain about the price ... and didn't tell me how much he loved his wife". A long affair with a prominent British politician during the Eighties -- she was very much in love, but it ended badly -- played havoc with her writing, slowing down her previously consistent output considerably. Whether its because she chooses impossible men, or because she feels that the life of a writer needs to be solitary, she never married again, living a life that she has often admitted is lonely. Although she draws a vital distinction between loneliness and sadness, and actual depression.
Generally, she has shown a fascination for a certain type of very masculine, charismatic but also possibly dangerous man. Dominic 'Mad Dog' McGlinchey, for example, the INLA man on whom she based the 1994 novel House of Splendid Isolation, clearly captivated her for a time. Gerry Adams, about whom she wrote a profile for the New York Times, too. This could be the writers' tendency to be mesmerised by the men of action, as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote were. Or it could just be her fatal penchant for a certain type of hard man.
Despite the famous beauty, she claims not to have been much pursued by men. "No, and that's the truth. I don't think a man ever brought me to the pictures in my life. I never had courtships. I had one or two affairs, but they were clandestine. There are women in the world who have an ability, not to say a genius, to be given things: houses, jewellery, holidays. And there are other women who seem to be eternally the givers. I don't want to sound totally defeatist, but I would think I am in the second category."
Fifty-two years is remarkable staying-power for a writer. For anyone at all really.
Now 81, Edna O'Brien is being rediscovered. Her sheer longevity and continued intellectual charisma have brought her back around into the vanguard of literary fashion so that she is admired and celebrated all over again. Her particular schtick -- the Irish Catholic childhood that meant a literal belief in hellfire and purgatory, the repression and vilification that attend any attempt to speak out; the desperate need for self-expression and commitment to personal truth, the romantic vision of Ireland -- these things have always played out better in the UK and America than at home.
And yet, dismissing O'Brien as hopelessly out of touch is to grossly underestimate her. A recent appearance on BBC2's Newsnight, discussing the demise of the Celtic Tiger, showed her to be sharp, well-informed and highly articulate, even after half a century living in London.
And, there is a hard core of literary heavyweights -- Philip Roth, Harold Pinter, Seamus Heaney -- who have always championed her talent. Not to mention the adoring readers, many of them women, for whom Edna now is just as she always was: fascinating, and brilliant. Still prolific, still brave and determined, still attending the most fabulous parties, whether it's Brian Friel's 80th in the Unicorn, or a launch at Mahiki, the Mayfair nightclub where Prince Harry and Kate Middleton hung out, Edna O'Brien is entirely true to the vision of herself she first launched upon the world.
'Country Girl' by Edna O'Brien is published by Faber & Faber later this month
Sunday Indo Living