Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Hilary Mantel’s imagination

What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible.

Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws. To some, if it is fiction, anything is permitted. To others, wanton invention when facts are to be found, or, worse, contradiction of well-known facts, is a horror: a violation of an implicit contract with the reader, and a betrayal of the people written about. Ironically, it is when those stricter standards of truth are applied that historical fiction looks most like lying.

It is, in some ways, a humble form. There are limits to the writer’s authority. She cannot know her character completely. She has no power to alter his world or postpone his death. But in other ways it is not humble at all: she presumes to know the secrets of the dead and the mechanics of history.

The reputation of historical fiction is unstable. In the thirties, the Marxist literary critic György Lukács argued that early historical novels like those by Scott, Balzac, and Tolstoy showed that man’s nature was not fixed but transformed over time; thus, they showed that revolution was possible and, in doing so, made it more likely. But these days the historical novel is not quite respectable. It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance. It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes.

The past, in fiction, has more prestige than the future, but, as with the future, its prestige declines with its distance from the present. Novels about the past hundred years or so are all right, but once you go beyond the First World War, once you leave indoor plumbing and move into crinolines and wigs, your genre status deteriorates very quickly. A book jacket depicting Henry VIII, or a queen wearing pearls, is off-putting to a certain sort of reader. Why would a writer write about the distant past, that reader might wonder, if not to escape the realist discipline imposed by familiarity? If not to flee to a world blurry enough so that men can behave like Vikings and not seem ridiculous, and ladies can be ladies without being pathetic? And if a writer writes about historically significant people then she is forced into a respectful posture that depreciates her status still further, since it has become one of the hallmarks of literary fiction that its authors regard their characters with something between affectionate condescension and total contempt.

These, then, are some of the obstacles that the serious novelist must consider in deciding to leave the safe precincts of the present and venture into the past.

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Monday, 21 July 2014

Biography and Fiction: Somerset Maugham and Of Human Bondage

Familiarity with the life of an author enriches the experience of reading his or her work. It not only influences the way fiction is understood, it also boosts enjoyment. The text remains the same, its intrinsic aesthetic qualities remain the same; what changes is the reception. Additional layers of interpretation open themselves up, the reader is more sympathetic. Biography obviously doesn't replace close reading, but it provides alternate possibilities, new, otherwise inconceivable modes of appreciation. One particularly enjoyable game is to compare and contrast the real life with the fictional. Somerset Maugham provides a good example. He had an affair with Gwendolyn Maud Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, got her pregnant, did the 'right' thing, married her, went through a messy divorce 10 years later, and hated her for the rest of his life.
I have fond memories of reading A Writer's Notebook some 25 years ago. Great work, I thought at the time, pity about all the misogyny. It was laced with this kind of arsenic: "The usual result of a man's cohabitation with a woman, however sanctioned by society, is to make him a little more petty, a little meaner than he would otherwise have been." And the cryptic: "People continually ruin their lives by persisting in actions against which their sensations rebel." The prescient: "When a woman of 40 tells a man that she's old enough to be his mother, his only safety lies in immediate flight. She'll either marry him or drag him through the divorce court." And the downright chauvinistic: "The three duties of woman. The first is to be pretty, the second is to be well-dressed, and the third is never to contradict."
These niceties were written between 1896 and 1900, when Maugham was in his early 20s, and already the ripe old cynic. Perhaps it all began because of this: "Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother."
Maugham didn't meet Syrie until 1913, and stepped into a real mess when he did. He was still in love with another woman, actress Ethelwyn Sylvia (Sue) Jones. Syrie was a divorcee married to Henry Wellcome, a Wisconsin-born pharmaceutical tycoon, and involved with another Wisconsin tycoon, Gordon Selfridge, of department store fame. Despite all this traffic she declared her love for Maugham, and suggested at the time that they have a child together. Maugham passively concurred; she got pregnant. As biographer Jeffrey Meyers has it, Maugham was shocked and uneasy about the whole situation: "...[he] hoped to be kind, firm and just. If that led to a break with Syrie, he would have no regrets."
When Wellcome's hired detective found proof of her adultery, Syrie tried to kill herself by swallowing pills. Wellcome named Maugham in the divorce suit. Maugham's friend, noted lawyer Sir George Lewis, told him he'd be a mug to save her. Meyers quotes him as saying (in Living With a Writer): "You're cruelly trapped and you'd be a fool to marry her."
In a letter to Syrie written in the 1920s and published in 1962, Maugham says: "I married you because I was prepared to pay for my folly and selfishness, and I married you because I thought it the best thing for your happiness and for Elizabeth's welfare, but I did not marry you because I loved you, and you were only too well aware of that." Meyers suggests that Maugham married Syrie out of a strange mixture of compassion, guilt and self-sacrifice. He really loved men but tried to love women, fighting his deepest sexual feelings. Syrie knew of his homosexuality. In fact there is suggestion that she used it to blackmail him into marriage.
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Sunday, 20 July 2014

Last exit to nowhere: the lost world of Stefan Zweig

In his memoir The World of Yesterday, which he finished revising not long before he took his own life, Stefan Zweig described the Europe that he and his generation had lost:
When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-year-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanency, and the State itself was the chief guarantor of this stability . . . In this vast empire everything stood firmly and immovably in its appointed place, and at its head was the aged emperor; and were he to die, one knew (or believed) another would come to take his place, and nothing would change in the well-regulated order. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, of revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason.
Born in 1881 into a prosperous Jewish family and becoming one of the most successful writers of his time, widely travelled and acquainted with practically everyone who mattered in European culture and politics, Zweig saw the disaster that had befallen the continent from a standpoint of self-confessed privilege. The blemishes of the old order – entrenched inequalities, the dilapidated state of large parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the pervasive prejudice that allowed a virulent anti-Semite to become mayor of Vienna – are scarcely visible in the picture he conjured up thousands of miles away from anywhere he could call home. Yet Zweig was right in fearing that the ramshackle Habsburg realm embodied a kind of freedom that would not be seen again in much of Europe for generations.
The rise of Nazism ended his career as a European writer, destroyed most of his wealth and left him in a state of permanent flight. He began by moving to Britain, settling for a time in Bath, where he was baffled and infuriated by the stolid confidence that Hitler would not prevail. Fearing imminent invasion, he moved on to New York after the fall of France. Leaving America after Pearl Harbor, he ended up in Brazil, where he committed suicide in a pact with his second wife, Lotte, in February 1942, only days after he heard of the fall of Singapore.
Once dismissed by many as a second-rate author whose work hardly counts as literature, attacked for his lack of forthrightness in confronting the Nazi threat, a target of envy on account of his inherited wealth and popular acclaim, Zweig is enjoying an unexpected revival. In addition to the publication in English of many of his works by Pushkin Books and New York Review Books over the past several years, two films inspired by Zweig’s fiction have appeared in the past months. Wes Anderson’s dazzling Grand Budapest Hotel presents a Europe in which comic-opera political thuggery and a daily struggle for survival are intertwined, while Patrice Leconte’s A Promise (based on Zweig’s posthumously published novella Journey into the Past) explores desire, memory and separation in a romance derailed by the First World War.
Zweig is one of the most complex and problematic literary casualties of Europe’s descent into barbarism after the First World War. He evaded recognising the irreducible evil of Nazism, and then panicked too easily and too often. Capable of striking generosity, he could also be mean and petty. Complaining of the demands on his time made by other European refugees and refusing to make common cause with the struggles of his fellow Jews, he seems to have wanted to remain aloof from the human experience of which he could not help being a part. His work lacks the biting ferocity, as well as the tender lyricism, that infuses the writings of Joseph Roth – a friend whom Zweig supported financially for many years, surely knowing that Roth was by far the better writer. There was something contorted and unresolved in Zweig’s character, a kind of obliquity and impenetrable reserve that prevented him from being truly admired by his contemporaries, and which clouds his reputation to this day.
The peculiar mix of denial and foreboding with which he approached the catastrophe of his time may also be what draws us to Zweig today. Our leaders insist that nothing like the debacle that befell Europe between the wars could ever happen again, and every shade of respectable opinion echoes their denial. With all that we know of what it meant, how could anything like fascism return to power in Europe? How could there be war and dictatorship in Europe’s heartlands? The possibility of another European debacle is dismissed as unthinkable. But the renewed interest in Zweig tells a different story. Whether or not they realise or admit it, there are many who fear that Zweig’s fractured and de-civilised Europe belongs not only in the world of yesterday. There is a growing suspicion that the security we have come to take for granted may be passing away, and it may be this as much as the rediscovery of the merits of his work that is leading so many to turn to him.
Zweig’s recessive personality exposes some of the limitations of biography. Oliver Matuschek’s Three Lives: a Biography of Stefan Zweig (2006, published in English in 2011), translated from the German by Allan Blunden, is a clear and readable account of the three phases of Zweig’s life – his early years, his rise to fame as a European man of letters and his later life on the run. There are some faults in it. Lotte, the young Jewish refugee from Silesia who became his loving companion and was with him to the end, appears as little more than an amanuensis. At the same time Matuschek fails to capture the intense sense of dislocation that accompanied the writer wherever he went. It’s not easy to see how any biography of a conventional kind could track Zweig’s inner life as he made his wary way through the world.
A different approach to understanding Zweig has long been needed, and now at last we have it. George Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile (out now in the US and published in the UK by Granta in November) is a departure not only in the study of Zweig, but in the art of telling a life. Combining memories of his own family’s experience of emigration with travels to places in which the novelist lived and conversations with some who knew him, Prochnik’s brilliantly accomplished and genre-bending book allows access to Zweig in a way that until now seemed impossible. At the heart of his life was an experience of exile all the more harrowing because it contradicted what he most deeply believed in: “absolute freedom to choose among nations, to feel oneself a guest everywhere”. This freedom to shape one’s identity was an attribute of humanity itself, he liked to think. But when the rise of Nazism drove him out of Europe, he discovered that human identity is more commonly fated than chosen – an unsettling realisation, as the consequences of being defined by others have rarely been benign and in Zweig’s time could very easily be lethal.
In the course of his wanderings Zweig’s image of himself was destroyed, and eventually he belonged nowhere on earth. The eclipse of his fame meant more than a material loss to him. He disdained celebrity; but popular success secured him a place in the world, without which he could hardly live. During a sojourn in London in 1937, he gave one of the BBC’s first television interviews, a deferential affair during which he let it be known that he had come to Britain – which later granted him citizenship – on account of its good libraries and because the people didn’t bother him much. By the time he arrived in New York, he had begun to suffer the fall into anonymity that is the exile’s normal condition. As Prochnik writes: “Now, with the advent of Hitler, success, his surprise guest, had begun making motions to leave. To New York City’s conductors, waiters and porters, Zweig was invisible. To women, he was an ageing unknown with fear in his eyes and a thick accent on his moustache-smudged lips. US authorities did not defer to his name, let alone the sight of his face. Who exactly was he now?”
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Saturday, 19 July 2014

An interview with Amit Chaudhuri on Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was India's most famous modern poet and is one of its greatest cultural icons. Born in 1861, Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1913, which brought him international fame. But while the Western world forgot Tagore soon after the Nobel, his reputation continued to grow in India and in Bangladesh, which was once part of his native state of Bengal.

Tagore was born into a large, unorthodox Hindu Bengali family composed of entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists—he was the youngest of 13 surviving children. Rabindranath's father, Debendranath, was a religious reformer, and one of the founding members of the Hindu reformist movement the Brahmo Samaj. Rabindranath Tagore was a polymath, prolific across many artistic and intellectual forms: a poet, composer of songs, essayist, playwright, short story writer, novelist, and, later in his life, a painter. He travelled widely and met and corresponded with artists, intellectuals, and political figures such as Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Bertrand Russell, Woodrow Wilson, Benito Mussolini, Albert Einstein, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Gandhi. He established a university with a new educational system in the small town of Santiniketan in West Bengal, which produced such renowned alumni as the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Tagore is best known in Bengal as a poet and a composer of songs—having contributed more than two thousand songs to the Bengali canon—and in India, more broadly, as a nationalist figure; he wrote both the Indian and the Bangladeshi national anthems. He died in 1941.

I spoke to Amit Chaudhuri, novelist, critic, and musician, in London. Chaudhuri's book On Tagore: Reading the Poet Today was published by Peter Lang in 2013.

—Prithvi Varatharajan


Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and this led to widespread but fleeting international fame. Tell me the story of the boom and bust of Tagore's reputation in the West.

Tagore was very precocious and began to write early on. He produced a very interesting work by the time he was fifteen, pretending to be a poet from medieval times. And by the time he was seventeen or eighteen he was quite acknowledged within Bengal as a poet to watch, and was in fact singled out for praise by the first great Indian novelist in Bengal, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. But he was also reviled and criticised by Bengalis because of the change of tone that his work represented. So he became quite withdrawn from Calcutta literary life—in many ways he was alienated from it.

The painter William Rothenstein was actually a friend of the Tagore family and ran into Rabindranath about twenty years later—it must have been in 1910. He was speaking to Abanindranath Tagore [Rabindranath's nephew] when he noticed this person in the room who wasn't saying very much, and he asked Abanindranath who this very quiet man was and found out it was Rabindranath, who had this high reputation as a poet. Tagore gave Rothenstein his translations of his own songs—translations that would comprise the Gitanjali—when he travelled to London in 1912. For whatever reason, Rothenstein was completely won over by them, and introduced Tagore to people like Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats, who themselves occupied a cusp in their particular literary history. So they projected many of the things they wanted from a poem or a poet onto Tagore and his work, and he and his poems became very famous because of Pound and Yeats's championing.

At Pound's insistence Harriet Monroe published some of the poems in Poetry (Chicago). And there we see Tagore's transition to international fame and celebrity such as, I think, no poet had had before. I mean there were celebrated poets before like Byron and others, who were known to a wider public than poets usually are, but Tagore became well-known not just in the English-speaking world and in India: he became a celebrated figure in Japan, China, and in Europe. He then received the Nobel Prize in 1913 and soon after that Pound and Yeats began to look at the poems and Tagore in a different way.

Pound lost interest in him and thought that something had gone wrong with the writing after the Nobel Prize, the writing that was then being disseminated. And you know, Yeats said things like, "Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English. Nobody can write with music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought." So there was this kind of disenchantment, and then disenchantment leading to a gradual apathy, a lack of interest—although Tagore continued to be in circulation as a public figure, as somebody who represented India, and somebody who in his long, loose robe and with his beard, began to appeal to a constituency where there was an overlap between serious culture and popular culture, and an interest within that overlap for mysticism, exotic India, and so forth. So that led to the bust, I think, that you were speaking of.

And I think the disenchantment was quite absolute—I mean, Jorge Luis Borges remarked that Tagore was "above all, a hoaxer of good faith, or, if you prefer, a Swedish invention," in reference to the Nobel, and Yeats later on called the translated work he was reading in English "sentimental rubbish." So there were some really nasty things being said. It was a complete reversal.

Yes, it was as if there had been a period of enchantment, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream. You know, Titania had fallen in love with the ass, and then had woken up horrified. But very little of it was based on actual critical knowledge, either of the work or where it had emerged from.


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Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy

These days, when we use the word “privacy,” it usually has a political meaning. We’re concerned with other people and how they might affect us. We think about how they could use information about us for their own ends, or interfere with decisions that are rightfully ours. We’re mindful of the lines that divide public life from private life. We have what you might call a citizen’s sense of privacy.
That’s an important way to think about privacy, obviously. But there are other ways. One of them is expressed very beautifully in “Mrs. Dalloway,” in a famous scene early in the book. It’s a flashback, from when Clarissa was a teen-ager. One night, she goes out for a walk with some friends: two annoying boys, Peter Walsh and Joseph Breitkopf, and a girl, Sally Seton. Sally is sexy, smart, Bohemian—possessed of “a sort of abandonment, as if she could say anything, do anything.” The boys drift ahead, lost in a boring conversation about Wagner, while the girls are left behind. “Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it.” Sally picks a flower from the urn and kisses Clarissa on the lips:
The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it—a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!
Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you’ve been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance—and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It’s hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that’s one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life’s mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life’s preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others’ prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist’s sense of privacy.
Many people accept the idea that each of us has a certain resolute innerness—a kernel of selfhood that we can’t share with others. (Levin, at the end of “Anna Karenina,” calls it his “holy of holies,” and says that, no matter how close he grows to the people around him, there will always be “the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife.”) What interested Woolf was the way that we become aware of that innerness. We come to know it best, she thought, when we’re forced, at moments of exposure, to shield it against the outside world.
There can be something enjoyable, even revelatory about that feeling of self-protection, which is why we seek out circumstances in which we can feel more acutely the contrast between the outside world and our inner selves. Woolf was fascinated by city life—by the feeling of solitude-on-display that the sidewalk encourages, and by the way that “street haunting,” as she called it, allows you to lose and then find yourself in the rhythm of urban novelty and familiarity. She was drawn to the figure of the hostess: the woman-to-be-looked-at, standing at the top of the stairs, friendly to everyone, who grows only more mysterious with her visibility. (One of the pleasures of throwing a party, Woolf showed, is that it allows you to surprise yourself: surrounded by your friends, the center of attention, you feel your separateness from the social world you have convened.) She showed how parents, friends, lovers, and spouses can become more unknowable over time, not less—there is a core to their personhood that never gives itself up. Even as they put their lives on display, she thought, artists thrive when they maintain a final redoubt of privacy—a wellspring that remains unpolluted by the world outside. “A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter,” Clarissa thinks, at the end of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Of course, it’s the chatter—the party—that helps her know that she has something to lose in the first place.
There are costs and benefits to maintaining this kind of inner privacy. About halfway through “Mrs. Dalloway,” Clarissa’s husband, Richard, decides that, during his lunch hour, he’ll buy roses for Clarissa; his plan is to walk home, hand them to her, and say, “I love you.” It’s an unusually romantic thing for him to do, but, for whatever reason, he’s overcome with the realization that it’s “a miracle he should have married Clarissa.” Richard strides into the drawing room, gives her the flowers, but then finds himself unable to say the words. He is elated, overflowing with love: “Happiness is this, is this,” he thinks. A wave of feeling is cresting inside him. But, despite his feelings, he can only speak about trivial things: lunch, that night’s party, and their daughter’s tutor. Finally, he stands up to go. Clarissa watches him. “He stood for a moment as if he were about to say something,” Woolf writes, “and she wondered what? Why? There were the roses.” As Richard takes his leave, Clarissa thinks:
There is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect … for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one’s husband, without losing one’s independence, one’s self-respect—something, after all, priceless.
It’s typical of Woolf to take a romantic scene and make it steely—that’s the price, you might say, of inner privacy. Marriage, love, and intimacy only take you so far; at the end of that path, you fall back on the austere, solitary dignity of the inner life. And yet Clarissa prefers austerity to intimacy. She thinks, from time to time, about Peter Walsh, who was in love with her, and whom she might have married instead of Richard. Peter was thoughtful, intellectual, romantic, passionate. He loved to talk, and took her thoughts seriously. He was determined to know her, soul-to-soul. To people who hold intimacy to be the highest good in a relationship, that’s a desirable thing. “But with Peter everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable,” Clarissa thinks. Years later, sitting in the park, she is still rehearsing, in her mind, the arguments she and Peter once had: “Suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say?” Richard gives her privacy, and, therefore, inner solitude; he lets her soul remain her own. Of course, he never says “I love you.” Meanwhile, Peter thinks, of Clarissa, that there has always been “this coldness, this woodenness, something very profound in her … an impenetrability. Yet Heaven knows he loved her.” (The case of Septimus Smith, which makes up roughly half of “Mrs. Dalloway,” shows the saddest consequence of inner privacy: hurt to his core, Septimus remains beyond the reach of even those who would help him.)
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Thursday, 10 July 2014

Anita Brookner has never shied from terrible truths

The Booker prize longlist is soon to be revealed. Doubtless it will be attended by the usual controversies, and these will probably be magnified when the winner is eventually announced. Controversy is the breath of life to literary prizes. Thirty years ago, for instance, a minor ruckus occurred when Anita Brookner’s novel Hotel du Lac stole the crown from J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.
Ballard’s book is certainly magnificent. Hotel du Lac is far more limited in obvious scope, being the concisely told tale of a lonely woman’s brief sojourn in a Swiss hotel. It can easily be damned with faint praise, described as clear-eyed, intelligent, exquisitely wrought: all the slightly dull literary virtues. Nevertheless, I would contend that it is one of the few Booker winners that will endure.
Indeed, Anita Brookner, who turns 86 next week, is to my mind the last great novelist of the 20th century (and, technically, the first of this century; her 25th novel, At the Hairdresser’s, was published in 2011). She belongs to a near-vanished novelistic tradition, in which the authorial voice is not – as so often nowadays – a dominating and insistent presence, but is subservient to the cause of examining the human condition. She has a style, of course, rigorous and droll and almost repressively civilised. Yet the point is not the style itself, rather what she is using it to say: the terrible truths that she is telling about love, loss, ageing, life itself. Depressing, say her critics. But then truth, as opposed to openness, is also somewhat out of fashion.
I first read Brookner about 20 years ago, and despite being too young to know just how terribly truthful she was, I fell instantly in love. I dismissed accusations that her novels repeatedly revisited the same territory, that of disappointed lives led in dim-lit mansion flats by sad spinsters in cardigans. Actually, Brookner herself has admitted that “one keeps on writing the same book over and over again”. But this is simply a product of her integrity. Like Jane Austen, she has her two inches of ivory, and she recognised that her artistic destiny was to polish it to the highest possible finish. Anyway, criticism, as she once said, is “mostly ill-founded, with a sneer behind it. Take it or leave it.”
She is an essentially autobiographical writer. Her protagonists are usually female, they are disconcertingly clever, and their controlled behaviour masks powerful romantic yearnings. They are intrigued and repelled by the kind of women who achieve conventional fulfilment, who “raise altars to themselves”, who are tricky and ruthless in the pursuit of what they want. Brookner, incidentally, is more honest about her own sex than any other novelist. She would probably be torn to shreds by the new feminists, were it not for the fact that her calm style helps to conceal her transgressions against orthodoxy.
Her first novel, A Start in Life, published in 1981 when she was 53, is the story of a young academic, Ruth Weiss, whose “life had been ruined by literature”. Ruth’s subject, Balzac, is her support but also an uncertain guide to reality. Nevertheless, she finds a measure of female contentment in Paris, before being dragged back to London by the demands of her parents, who regard her quiet choices as subsidiary to their own. Thereafter, all that is left to her are the spaces of her restless, learned mind.
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Girl Trouble - Edna O'Brien

In her recent memoir, Edna O’Brien recalls an early, pre-publication response to her first novel, The Country Girls. Buoyed by the enthusiastic praise she had received for the finished manuscript in the course of a celebratory dinner with her publisher, Iain Hamilton of the Hutchinson Group, and one of the manuscript’s readers, the novelist Clifford Hanley, O’Brien left a copy for her husband, writer Ernest Gébler, on their hall table. He surprised her a few mornings later “by appearing quite early in the doorway of the kitchen, the manuscript in his hand”. What she records as his reaction was one that would become general all over Ireland: “You can write and I will never forgive you.” That was in 1959, and by the end of the following year, many in Ireland would come to find the novel unforgivable, following the lead of Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, whose purity campaign had contributed to a brisk uptick in the business of the Irish Censorship Board in the 1950s. When, with the support of then government minister and moral guardian Charles Haughey, he declared O’Brien’s book a “smear on Irish womanhood”, McQuaid inaugurated a decade of controversial persecution of Irish writers, leading to, inter alia, the novelist John McGahern losing his position as a primary school teacher in 1965.
However, in the spring of 1960 when The Country Girls was first published, initial reviews and opinions in Ireland were favourable. Maurice Kennedy’s review in The Irish Times, for example, described the novel as having “a fresh dewy sincerity about it, a nice accuracy of observation and feeling … With any luck Miss O’Brien should have an immensely successful literary career.” Benedict Kiely, who saw the proofs in February of 1960, remained her staunch champion for the rest of his life. Frank McEvoy, getting ready to launch The Kilkenny Magazine with James Delahunty, wrote to O’Brien in June 1960, congratulating her on a “marvellous achievement” and asking for a chapter for his fledgling publication of the next instalment of what was already known to be the planned Country Girls trilogy. In the letter he also asks whether she expects the novel to be banned, suggesting that this would be a great boost to sales.
Banned it very soon was. The Country Girls was the first of six of O’Brien’s novels that the Irish Censorship Board would judge “indecent and obscene under section 7(a) of the Censorship of Publications Act, 1946”. It would also be banned in Australia and New Zealand, but was nevertheless enthusiastically received elsewhere in the Anglophone world. In the United States, where it was published by Knopf that same year, reviews called the book “brash and bright”, “delightful”, “charming”, introducing “a writer of zestful humour and humanity”. Even Dorothy Parker wrote a favourable notice for Esquire magazine. In the United Kingdom, especially after its second printing there by Penguin in 1962, it was received in similar terms. While O’Brien does not betray much concern about having been banned in Ireland in her correspondence with Hamilton about the future of her writing career, she was not happy with Hutchinson’s decision to issue the novel in 1960 in the experimental format of an expensive paperback rather than in hard cover, blaming this decision for a relative lack of early reviews. However, according to The Sunday Times, the novel was “a buoyantly youthful novel, with all the freshness in the world and undertones of something much more lasting”. The Evening Standard said the book offered an “excellent and highly unusual bland of bawdiness and innocence”. VS Naipaul in the New Statesman described it as “a first novel of great charm by a natural writer … fresh and lyrical and bursting with energy”, and Kingsley Amis awarded it his first-novel prize of the year.
While it was O’Brien’s first novel, it was not her first publication. McEvoy’s letter references an earlier piece by O’Brien that had appeared in The Spectator. Prior to the publication of The Country Girls, she had contributed several times to the Saturday Evening Post, beginning as early as 1955, and she was also being encouraged by Peadar O’Donnell, then editor of The Bell. It was on the strength of her “sketches”, published and unpublished, as well as the work she had been doing as a reader for Hutchison that she was offered €50 by Iain Hamilton in 1958 to write a novel. In the fifty-four years since, the novel made its author’s lasting reputation ‑ and it is the one text of O’Brien’s that makes at least some appearance in the official Irish literary canon ‑ The Country Girls has never been out of print. It usually appears as part of The Country Girls Trilogy, which was reissued with a newly written “Prologue” in 1988. The novel has continued to define O’Brien, a fact she accepts and appreciates, as is evident in the title of her 2012 memoir,Country Girl, different only in number from that of the first ground-breaking work. In 1986, she appeared on the cover of the magazine Irish America, under the title “Country Girl Revisited”. In 1989, Seamus Heaney interviewed her for the RTÉ radio programme Off the Shelf, a programme listed in the RTÉ Guide as an interview with “The Country Girl”. In 1991, the Irish Independent ran a feature entitled “Country Girl Goes Home”, reporting O’Brien’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, Galway. O’Brien revisited the text herself when she produced a stage treatment of the novel for a Red Kettle Theatre Company production that toured the country in 2012. It may still not be safe out there for the text. Some online reviews from the Gaiety production run objected to the nudity onstage.
In the “Diary” that Anne Enright regularly contributes to the London Review of Books, in March 2013 she discussed the history of Ireland’s Censorship Board, suggesting that, in the case of John McGahern and Edna O’Brien in particular, it was the people at home in rural Leitrim and Clare, the ostensible subjects of the young novelists’ early literary productions, who took most vigorous offence and umbrage at their work. McGahern’s local library board banned The Barracks, according to Enright, when the Irish Censorship Board never got around to doing so. She also claims that while “Edna O’Brien’s erstwhile neighbours might have burned copies of The Country Girls in the churchyard … up in Dublin everyone who was a reader read it without a qualm”. O’Brien continued to feel unforgiven by her home place and her own family for decades, often recalling in interviews the discovery after her mother’s death of her copy of The Country Girls (initially dedicated to her mother), with blackened passages and torn out pages, stuffed into a bolster, hidden in a shed. O’Brien’s “elopement” with a divorced “foreigner” (Gébler was Irish-born but of Czech background) in 1954 had already caused scandal; the novel was one more betrayal. As Enright mentions, it was reported that a local priest burned the book in the chapel yard soon after copies first appeared in nearby Limerick. In an interview with Julia Carlson, O’Brien relates the experience of receiving anonymous letters in response to the novel, threatening and condemnatory, including claims to have been possessed by the devil as a result of having read it. Benedict Kiely has noted: “it was not to be tolerated that a young woman educated, as we used to say, at one of the best Irish convent-schools, should come out, even in a fetching County Clare accent, with home truths or sharp statements about what we used to call sex”.
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