Mary Costello on the twinkle in Edna O’Brien’s eye

Edna O’Brien told the audience gathered for the Frank O’Connor Award ceremony at the Metropole Hotel in Cork last night that she had gone to Mass yesterday morning. Maybe she goes every Sunday, or maybe this was a once-off and she was praying to win. She was her usual eloquent self as she accepted the award for her short story collection, Saints and Sinners, graciously showing concern for the other five nominees, Colm Tóibín and Yiyun Li among them, but admitted to being delighted for herself. She is not accustomed to winning awards, she said, so she has no qualms about winning this one. Writing is her fortress and, the award (worth €35,000) will allow her to continue to write with ease.

Edna always mesmerises. She has a presence, a touching vulnerability. When she says she did “a little pondering” I know that one minute of an Edna ponder is worth an hour of most others’. She is in person, like her writing, open and trusting, searingly honest, gleeful, mischievous too. At a National Library lecture on Yeats a couple of years ago she briefly alluded to his Steinach procedure, saying he became the “gland old man of letters” and then flashed us a gamey little wink. On Saturday night she read a story called Old Wounds from the collection to an audience enthralled by her vibrant theatrical delivery. She’s 80 now, still tall and elegant, needing a little assistance but with the same twinkle in her eye. The festival director, Pat Cotter, looking boyish in her presence, linked her tenderly onto the stage, and for the duration of the story, stood behind her with his hands on the back of her seat, very still, meek, cherubic. 

Edna has always written about men and women, love, and Ireland – Ireland is her matrix, she says. The passion and yearning, the confrontations, the failures of love are her literary landscape. Philip Roth once described her as the most gifted woman writing fiction in English. She’s in the process of writing her memoirs now. She has written well over 20 books, novels, short story collections, biographies – the marvellous collection of stories, A Fanatic Heart, is an ideal starting point for new readers. When she writes on the work of other writers like Joyce, Yeats, Byron, her narrative is never dry or academic but personal, dynamic, quivering with that Edna passion. 

In an interview in The Irish Times in 2009 she said she still needs to work very hard to earn a living. Last night in her acceptance speech she intimated that this prize will give her the financial space to finish the memoirs. It was a poignant moment. In my seat I felt a sudden outrage. Though internationally well-known she had been neglected by the literary establishment here until fairly recently. And to the best of my knowledge [up to that date] RTE has never broadcast a full-length in-depth profile on Edna – like the wonderful and deserving documentary on McGahern, John McGahern – A Private World, broadcast in 2006. We’ve had glimpses, but never the full treatment. I want to see Edna in her London home among her books, at her desk, in her garden, musing about life and literature. I want to see her walk up that avenue near Tuamgreaney and touch the trees and the memories, and visit the churchyard in Scariff where her book was burned. I think all the women in Ireland might turn out to greet her there. 

One day a couple of summers ago I took my mother and my aunt – country girls themselves in the late fifties – on what Edna might call “a little spin” around Connemara. I’d been rereading the trilogy and as we drove along I started to recount funny little scenes for them – like Baba’s story of the Ballinasloe woman’s love-making dilemma, or Kate’s mortification when Eugene drops her off in her new coat and shouts out of the car window after her: “Your old bottom’s getting fat”. With the women laughing and me still gushing in the cafe at Kylemore Abbey I pulled the book out of my bag and there, between mouthfuls of laughter and cake, I read them that great runaway scene where Kate makes her escape after being held under house arrest by her father…

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