Edna O'Brien: 'A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood'

Fifty years after leaving County Clare for London, the doyenne of Irish fiction Edna O'Brien is still preoccupied with the land of her birth. Starting with her sensational 1960 debut, The Country Girls, her novels about sex and religion quickly brought fame and notoriety. On the eve of a new short-story collection, she talks about love, exile – and why, at 80, she's still a party girl

I cannot speak for custom, and its effect on her variety, but I will say this for Edna O'Brien: age cannot wither her. Last summer, I was invited to a book party at the somewhat unlikely venue of Mahiki, the Sloane nightclub much frequented by Prince Harry, Kate Middleton et al. All around me were the usual suspects: novelists, publishing people, lots of journalists. It was fun, but noisy, and crowded, and you had to move carefully in order not to spill your cocktail. It was just as I was embarking on a dangerous manoeuvre from bar to banquette that I caught sight of her: the woman who, when I was 13, was my favourite writer (I was in love with the heroines of The Country Girls, Baba and Kate: their rebellion spoke to something in me just as, years before, it had spoken to something in my mother, whose copy of the novel I had nicked). I stopped dead in my tracks. Wow. What a sight. Standing straight-backed at the edge of the room, O'Brien, queenly and beautiful, brought to mind nothing so much as a glorious boat, coming slowly in to port: the elegant prow of her nose, the blown sails of her hair, the leaden anchor of her evening bag, hanging over a crooked arm. Her skin was pale and almost completely unlined, and she wore an expression of purest interest, as if to say: is this where they launch books now? When I got home, I looked her up on the internet. According to what I read, she would turn 80 in just a few months' time.

Today, at home in Knightsbridge, she is just as mesmerising. It's as if she has cast a spell on me. Partly, it's her house, which has a dark, fairytale quality. O'Brien has lived here for many years: far longer, I'm guessing, than her neighbours, with the result that her home now stands in striking contrast to their boring Farrow & Balled places. It has a hunkered look, forced to play its game of odd one out, and a strange exterior passage – like the entries you get between Yorkshire terraces – that takes you to the front door. Inside, the blood-red stairs are so gloomy and narrow, and the rooms so crammed with books, that it seems almost to pulsate, like an artery. As for O'Brien herself, she is resplendent in velvet, fur at her cuffs, her face immaculately made up, the powder and paint working as a perfect foil for her preternaturally shiny eyes (which are not, as people tend to assume, green, but dark grey; I suppose this mistake is down to the fact that The Country Girls's sequel was called Girl With Green Eyes). But it's the way she speaks that is really extraordinary. Although she left Ireland more than half a century ago, apparently, it never left her. Her voice is deep and sibilant, and it makes you think of the rills and the rivers of Clare, the county where she grew up.
O'Brien is about to publish Saints and Sinners, a collection of short stories that is her 21st work of fiction (she is also the author of three works of non-fiction and five plays. It's a shimmering book – lyric, but highly controlled – and it will perhaps confound some of those critics (her thin-skinned countrymen, mostly) who think she is obsessed with an Ireland that no longer exists. Yes, there are drinkers here, and homesick men who must make their living digging London roads, and a released Republican prisoner. But there is also a pungent whiff of the harsh, money-obsessed Ireland that grew up in the years before the crash – the Ireland where, as she puts it, 'people took their helicopter to lunch only four miles away'. When she started writing, Ireland's deepest and darkest passions were obscured from view by its airless relationship with the Catholic church. No longer. The question now is: with the church so disgraced, and so abandoned, what will fill the space it leaves behind?

"Someone said to me in Dublin: masses are down, confessions are down, but funerals are up!" She laughs. "Religion. You see, I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening, and all pervasive. I'm glad it has gone. But when you remove spirituality, or the quest for it, from people's lives, you remove something very precious. Ireland is more secular, but it went to their heads: a kind of hedonism. They're free, yes, but questions come with freedom. What about conscience? Conscience is an essential thing." She didn't see the crash coming, but she knew no good could come of the boom. "It generated an ethos of envy. I'll never forget walking along by St Stephen's Green [Dublin]. There was a big hoarding with an advert on it for a motor car. 'Enjoy the begrudgery,' said the slogan. It was very cynical, but very true. Not a healthy sign."

But why is her pre-eminent subject still, after all these years, Ireland, when she does not live there, and once could not wait to escape it? She has the skill to write about anything. 'Flannery O'Connor said: if you're going to write, you'd better come from somewhere. I feel that. A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood; all one's associations and feelings are steeped in it. When you're young, everything is seen in wonder and detail. I don't see it as a limitation. So long as the words and the story spring from a true place, that's all that counts.' Besides, she still visits often, for all that she no longer has a house there (the place in Donegal that her architect son, Sasha, built for her proved to be inimical to writing. 'I couldn't write a line there. It was beautiful, but as I said to him: these rooms are too big to write in'). Ireland is a country of ghost settlements, these days, she says. 'All those buildings that went up like mushrooms in the damp and the rain. Now they're sitting empty, their windows chalked up.' Nevertheless, she is glad of it. You might even say that she needs it. 'Yes, I'm very thankful for Ireland,' she says, pressing a hand to her breast bone. 'It stirs things up in me. It gives me so much.'

Edna O'Brien was born in the village of Tuamgraney, in County Clare, and she grew up a serious little girl: anxious and sensitive. 'It was the situation,' she says. 'Money troubles, drink troubles, all sorts of troubles.' Her father was a gambler and a drinker: violent, unpredictable and thwarted. The family had once had money but now, thanks to him, it was gone. 'There were the relics of riches. It was a life full of contradictions. We had an avenue, but it was full of potholes; there was a gatehouse, but another couple lived there; we had lots of fields, but they weren't all stocked or tilled. I remember fields high with ragwort. I remember my father giving them to other people. There was a prodigality, which I regret to tell you I have inherited.' The atmosphere was further complicated by her mother, who had been to America, and returned with a little 'Yank style'. In her mother's wardrobe hung a green georgette dress, a mournful reminder of happier times (it takes a starring role in one of the new stories). But were her parents unhappy with each other, or were they each unhappy in their own separate ways? 'I hate talking about it,' she says with a sudden shudder, childlike for a moment. 'But it wasn't happy, no. People's lives were so hard. My mother worked like a demon: feeding animals, carrying buckets.'

In newspaper profile after newspaper profile, O'Brien's infamous break with her parents, and with Ireland itself, has been portrayed as the work of a moment: a point of high drama, after which there was no going back. But it was not like this, of course. 'I think my rebellion was slowly accruing. I saw so many things that I was hurt by. It wasn't just my father; many of the fathers were drinking. It wasn't as simple as carrying a placard. It was more an acorn lodged inside me.' Then again, she went into the marriage that was the cause of this estrangement somewhat unthinkingly. Was she in love with her new husband, or was he merely a means of escape? 'To tell the truth, neither. It was very hurried, and I didn't know the man very long, and it was really hastened by the fact that my family were against it. I just did that thing that Victorian novels remind us of: I went from them, to him; from one house of control, to another.'

The man – she carefully avoids using his name – was Ernest Gébler, the novelist. She met him in Dublin, where she was working as a pharmacist. She was just 18. He was nearly twice her age. Was it scary? 'Yes, very scary. It was like jumping off a moving bus. And afterwards, I had cut myself off. We were living in a very lonely place in the country.' Did she miss her family? 'I thought about them every day. But let me say this: I was also afraid of them, so I was quite glad that I'd bolted. The trouble was, I was also quite afraid of the person I'd gone to. He was older, and quite stern, and very complicated, and also a writer: as Chekhov said, writers shouldn't marry other writers.' When she thinks about the girl she was, how does she feel? 'I cry. People will say I'm being totally sentimental, but I'm not. I didn't have much armour.'

She and Ernest moved to London, and had two sons, Sasha and Carlo (now a novelist). 'It was so lonely. We lived in SW20. Sub-urb-ia. When I came 'up London' as I called it, I thought it was heaven: all sorts of shoes in the windows. I passed the Cafe Royal, and I thought: Oscar Wilde was in there. But I didn't, you know, find my feet.' Through Gébler, she met publishing people. 'The first literary party I went to, I thought: my God, this is the big time. But I couldn't really fit in. I didn't know the language, the moves.'

Two things changed this. First, she bought a book about James Joyce, with an introduction by TS Eliot, for fourpence and, learning that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was an autobiographical story, realised where she might turn, should she want to write herself: 'Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories.' Second, she started work as a reader for Hutchinson where, solely on the basis of her reports, she was commissioned, for the grand sum of £25, to write a novel. It took her just three weeks to write The Country Girls. Published in 1960, it was a huge hit in London and New York. Everyone adored her dreamy, feisty convent girls. But not in Ireland. The Irish censor was so appalled by the book that he banned it (and the same fate awaited her next six novels) – a decision that only increased the shame of her parents, who loathed it. The story goes that four copies unaccountably turned up in a shop in Limerick. One is supposed to have induc ed a seizure in a woman reader. The other three were bought by the O'Brien parish priest, who took them back to Tuamgraney, where they were publicly burned.

A decade into her marriage, O'Brien finally left Gébler. This was a risk: it took her a long time to win custody of her sons. 'I was separated from them for some years. It was terrifying. I didn't want to take them from their father utterly, I did not. That's the truth. But I wanted them with me.' Life as a single mother was hard. 'But I was able to do it. I seemed to have endless energy at the time: I could cook and clean, and write.' Nor was it easy to have relationships, not with her sons around. 'They had been through enough traumas without – knowing my taste – some new putative monster around.'

But did she fall in love? Though O'Brien has never remarried, there has always been gossip in the press about her supposed affairs. There was a period when she found it difficult to write; the reason, it was suggested, was that she was involved with a high-profile politician (she was head over heels, but it ended badly). 'I suppose I have been in love,' she says. 'Not often, but most definitely deeply. Somehow, though, it never culminated in living together. When I was younger, I used to weep over it, but now I'm not so sure. I don't think I could have written so much if I were living with someone. I would have felt guilty about neglecting that person. There is a quotation – I think I got it from Yeats – that goes: 'Oh Lord, grant me an asylum for my affections.' Asylum: that's a place where one is a lunatic. Let's face it, some people – and I would include Edna O'Brien among them – have a predilection, when they fall in love, for life to be... very heightened. There's a lunacy within it...'

Wasn't she chased? O'Brien was – is – a famous beauty. '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. They are more clever at negotiating the dance of their lives. I'm not clever. I have intelligence, but that's quite a different thing.' O'Brien is writing her memoirs, something she always insisted she would never do. Is she going to name names? She flinches. 'Oh my God. I'm finding it hard [to write]. No, I don't want to drag in people's names. The point is not whether it was Tom, Dick or Harry. The point is the journey. It [her memoir] will be about extraordinary things, not every self-serving little detail.'

She won't be short of material. Her life has been extraordinary. In the 60s, for instance, she was a patient of RD Laing, the famous but controversial psychiatrist. "I met him socially, with Sean Connery," she says, almost casually. "I felt disturbed for lots of reasons, and I thought he might be able to help me. He couldn't do that – he was too mad himself – but he opened doors." Is it true that, at his urging, she took LSD? "Yes. It was terrifying. I couldn't come back."

She was also a friend of JD Salinger (Jerry, to her). 'I used to have some lovely letters from him, but I gave them to Ian Hamilton [Salinger's biographer] and never got them back.' Their first meeting took place at around the time that, as she puts it, she was 'emerging from the dungeons'; a friend used to take her to the White Elephant in London's Curzon Street, where she dined with Anthony Quinn and Sidney Poitier and all sorts of other 'glamorous' people. Someone from this set knew that O'Brien loved The Catcher in the Rye, and introduced them. 'We went on the wheel at Battersea fun fair, and we had lots of dinners together. I was very naive. I gave him an Irish linen tablecloth – that's how naive. But he was terribly pleased with it. I liked him very much. He was quite suspicious of people, even then; he had a kind of test – he wouldn't tell you what it was – but you had to pass it. But he was very funny, very alive. We only lost touch when he started to withdraw completely.'

Perhaps, too, she will write about Irish politics. As part of the research for her 1994 novel House of Splendid Isolation, which is about a terrorist who goes on the run, she visited Dominic 'Mad Dog' McGlinchey, an IRA man who claimed to have shot 30 people, in prison; she also wrote a warm profile of Gerry Adams for the New York Times and, in 1996, attended the Sinn Féin conference (predictably, an entirely baseless rumour circulated that she had romantic feelings for both these men). Unsurprisingly, these activities did not win her many friends, particularly in Ireland, where it was felt that her nationalism was naive. "Yes, I got a lot of stick," she says. "The Irish were furious with me." But she found McGlinchey, who was shot dead in 1994, to be a "grave and reflective man", and Adams to be "thoughtful about things, not bloodthirsty; I met him at a point when he was trying to rein in his army", and she was determined to say so. When Labour came to power, she contacted Blair and, later, Brown, both of whom invited her to Downing Street. What did she tell them? "Only what I felt, which is that on this side of the sea, there was only one enemy, the IRA, whereas on the other side, there were several: not just the terrorists, but the police, too, and the machinery of government. In opposition, Blair was a Pontius Pilate over Ireland; he never took it up. But what he did as prime minister was remarkable, a huge thing."

House of Splendid Isolation marked a new phase in O'Brien's career, when she turned away from women, and from love, and began writing state-of-the-nation novels. Down by the River (1996) was inspired by the 'Miss X case', in which an underage rape victim sought an abortion in England, and In the Forest (2002) by the case of Brendan O'Donnell, a disturbed young man who abducted and murdered a woman, her three-year-old son, and a priest. All three books, but particularly In the Forest, were well-received in Britain and the US, but turned her critics in Ireland apoplectic.

'They're always the worst,' she says. 'They're jealous. I don't think it's anything else. Fintan O'Toole [the Irish Times columnist] said [about In the Forest] that I was morally criminal. Of course, it would have been all right if it was a man who'd written that novel, if I had been Sebastian Barry, or Roddy Doyle, or John Banville. There are still certain no-go areas for women writers. I'm always surprised to incur such wrath. Why would someone be so savage? I suppose it is that a certain kind of writing gets under the skin.' Does it hurt her? 'If someone tries to lacerate your heart, it is very hurtful. But if I were to be struck down by what people say, I'd be a weakling, wouldn't I?' ...

Read more in Guardian


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