‘They ran that woman out of County Clare,’ said one of the plain people of the West of Ireland, following the notoriety caused by Edna O’Brien’s fine first novel, The Country Girls, published in 1960. The notoriety was echoed in England: the last of England’s eminent Edwardian novelists, L.P. Hartley, described the novel, she has recalled, as ‘the skittish story of two Irish nymphomaniacs’. She was not, in fact, driven from any of Ireland’s counties. She would have left anyway, even if her native land had become less hot for her, with its jeers and holy sighs, and restaurant shouts from literati: ‘Sleeping with Provos!’ Edna O’Brien is of stern stuff. The ‘questionable’ motto of the O’Briens, as she reports it, ‘Might before right’, doesn’t entirely fail to fit her. She can seem, and sound, vulnerable, but is also mighty. Edna the Brave, like a figure from Ossian. The holy ones did not drive her out. Nor did they stop her from being, in her own fashion, holy herself. She left for Dublin and then, in 1958, for London, with later descents on New York.
She has led, she thinks, a divided life, and the division of her life into successive places is distinctly mirrored in the instalments of this memoir. Her life is palpable in her fiction, and her fiction is palpable in the memoir, as the titling of her first and latest books starkly indicates. It proceeds, dartingly and elliptically, by episodes and anecdotes, and those stories told to her by others about themselves are almost as frequent as those in which she remains centre-stage. She loves stories, as much as she loves words. Well known for that.
County Clare featured her mother and father and siblings of various visibilities, harboured in a ghostly farmhouse next door to an ancestral ruin that belonged to her mother’s family, a higher stock. Her father was a drinker and a threat. To this parental disparity of rank and merit is attributed the two selves she claims for herself. She returns to this duality throughout the book, and it can sometimes seem an aspect of her romantic credentials.
The romance is one of affliction, actual, performed, burlesqued. She moves in a landscape of suffering souls and lamenting women. There came a day when feminists and academics were ‘tearing into me for my supine, woebegone inclinations’. Supine in bed with her mother, we ‘pressed the cold metal crucifix along our bodies and to our lips, reciting the prayer of Christ at Calvary, “They have pierced my hands and feet, they have numbered all my bones.” We were all lonely in that house, lonely and sometimes at loggerheads.’ One night, in the room next door, her father’s, flames broke out. Among his burning blankets her father slept on regardless, and combustibles were thrown out of the window. Calvary, then Hell.
She did well at her convent school. But ‘the world with all its sins and guile and blandishments was beckoning.’ ‘Gallivanting’ was beckoning. Peter Abelard, as she calls a lay admirer, an inaugural married man, landed her in one of love’s many fiascos. She went off to Dublin, where she apprenticed herself to a pharmacist and to the literary community, where more denigrators were awaiting her, honing their traditional hard words. She was pinned between McDaid’s acerbic pub and Archbishop McQuaid’s poison pen, but makes a considerable satirical success of the scene. ‘Alan C. Breeze had returned from England with a set of false teeth, which he claimed to have belonged to T.S. Eliot.’ The better to bite her with, no doubt.
A married woman, she then went off to London, which owned a little Dublin of its own as far as hard words were concerned. She had suddenly run away with handsome, forbidding Ernest Gébler, the son of a Czech expatriate, a masterful, touchy man who gave her a hard time in his own more exotic vein, the hard time administered by husbands and rivals.
Two sons were born. The couple came apart. It must have been galling to witness the flutter of cheques from film companies, dispatched to his wife. When she left the manuscript of The Country Girls for him to look at, she received the response: ‘You can write and I will never forgive you.’ Can this be verbatim? Well, writers do like hyperbole and paradox.
Edna O’Brien certainly did. She went on to be a fluent and flourishing writer of stories (see ‘The Creature’) which indulged on occasion in a high style of sentiment and fancy. She was a popular, controversial presence in London. Those who shared her passion for costume, and who met her at parties in the early days, deemed her to be dressed in bare feet and a heather skirt: the complete colleen. The colleen was eventually subsumed in a star who seemed to get steadily younger with the years, and has now become the most glittering granny to entrust herself to London parties and launches. And she was a good writer. It was too much for some.
The lovers who would let her down are disguised by imaginary names: ‘Lochinvar’ is spied by a woman friend who catches him ‘running a comb through his hair as he passed a mirror in the hallway’. He wasn’t her only vexatious companion. A co-star is Peter Langan of Odin’s restaurant, the most famously bilious of many famously bilious restaurateurs. ‘You aul whore you, you can’t write,’ he informs her, reminding her ‘of how Anthony Burgess had slated me, had said that after Joyce and Yeats and Co, after the giants, came “the little people”, such as me’. Sean Kenny, the silent theatre designer, another compatriot, might have challenged him, but was now gone, having foreseen his death.
Fame came to a head in New York, where practically everyone discussed is famous. Feeling lonely, needing a friend, she is said to have heard the bell ring and to have opened the door to Jackie Onassis, who told her at one point that Edna was ‘one of the three people on the planet whom she loved most’. Jackie’s new husband, Aristotle Onassis, is thereafter discussed. Late one night a certain film producer
was walking down Fifth Avenue with a very pretty young girl, when they chanced to meet Onassis walking the dog. They were invited up, and Jackie, who was preparing for bed, was none too cordial. To make matters worse, Ari flirted with the young girl, who was both dazzled and slightly tipsy, and the visit was cut short. The next day Jackie had a large bouquet of flowers sent to the girl, with a card bearing Onassis’s signature. The girl subsequently made a fool of herself and rang Onassis, who did not even remember her.
The luxuriance of names in the New York annals is relieved by the tart mingling and climbing stories they engender. There’s a certain theatrical agent who was a great introducer and once introduced his longtime companion, Arnold Weisberger, ‘to Arnold’s own mother’. There’s a certain maître d’, ‘erstwhile a paragon of tact’, who approached her at one of her parties and asked if a friend of his who had ‘appeared as an extra in a film with Mr Pacino’ could ‘come over and say “Hi”. I pleaded with him to wait.’
The Country Girls is beautifully and plainly written, while the new book has a more figurative bent, together with raids on the purple and the stylish. It also has a raid on Proust’s purple: ‘Marcel Proust has described bells as being “resilient and ferruginous”, but in that small room in that pension, with the pale green band of light from the clock radio, they were bold and presumptuous, punctuating the wretched hours.’ ‘Ferruginous’ appears to mean ‘rusty’, and compares with ‘fuliginous’, which, having learned that it meant ‘sooty’, I once used for literary effect: such usage is remote from the colloquial straightforwardness which is also plentiful in the new book, as in the passage it quotes about goldfish-tending from an expert on the subject, one of those people, often solitaries, from whom she takes tales. ‘Males fight. Females not fight as much,’ writes the expert. This is preferable to ‘ferruginous’.
Country Girl is an enjoyable book – stardust, idiosyncrasies and all. She is, as she confesses, over-excitable; she is also self-examining. Its sometimes confusing final pages refer to ‘the too, too solid flesh’ of Gertrude, which seems like a slip, and are especially reliant on these stories of hers. One of them has her wanting and not wanting to write a book, and seeking refuge in an inaccessible place, where she summons a Japanese masseur. To help her write the book, perhaps. Her anxious efforts to get him to the inaccessible place deliver a poignant and funny victim’s farce. There follows a further item, less relevant to the whole – a shaggy horse story, as you might call it.
One story is highly relevant to the romance of her divided victim. She rebuilds an equally remote house in Donegal (the work of her architect son Sasha); some locals set light to a corner of it. Meanwhile an Edna-like local colleen, who’d long been suspicious of her, shows up to say goodbye after Edna’s stay of several years. The girl is something of a sympathetic double, and a second is in store, when the writer makes friends with a retired nurse. A duplication of duality has occurred.
Her lonely nights in this house – not only at a time of suspicious locals but during the Troubles and their nationwide slaughters and blazes – took courage, and the book’s ending gives further evidence of this courage, in contrast with what there may be in her of the supine, accident-prone and excitable, a contrast which may supply the clearest instance of her duality. As a cradle Catholic still affected by the traditions of her community, she has seen the point of Republicanism, and of the ‘iconic and messianic’ nature of Bobby Sands’s suicide, while careful to state the cruelties committed by both sides, a staggering record when set out like this. It’s hard to imagine that ‘sleeping with Provos’ meets the case here.
It took courage, too, to disobey the Catholic hierarchy, the priesthood so outraged by her pursuit of pleasure. The absolution and reverence that came to the novelist John McGahern from the penitent monsignors who used to persecute him has yet to be granted to Edna, though I expect it will come. It may not last till the millennium, but for the time being at least, the curse of the Catholic Church no longer carries as far as it once did, and it is no longer so hostile to works of art and the imagination. When you think of the insults that were put on her – by priests as well as by bien-pensant Irish men of letters and some of Ireland’s plain people – she deserves a homage. The wild Irish girl, the alleged nymphomaniac, has on many matters been proved right, to a degree formerly and recently inconceivable in Ireland. So it’s time to look more unkindly than was once customary on the repression she suffered, on the horrors of the old theocracy and on the grotesque censorship she fell foul of. She is no saint, or icon. But she is brave, and a gifted writer.