This autumn season is something more akin to late springtide in the brilliant career of Edna O’Brien, described by her American peer Philip Roth as the greatest living woman writing in English.
In September, O’Brien was honoured as a Saoithe of Aosdána, Ireland’s highest literary accolade, but not only that: President Michael D Higgins made an official apology for the pious, envious scorn often heaped on O’Brien by her native land, and the banning of her books. He praised her as a “fearless teller of truth” who, he said, had continued to write “undaunted, sometimes by culpable incomprehension, authoritarian hostility and sometimes downright malice”.
Later this month, O’Brien publishes her first novel in a decade, at the age of 84. Roth calls it “her masterpiece”, and The Little Red Chairs is just that: a devastating but characteristically insightful, artfully written setting of a fugitive war criminal in rural Ireland, and exploration of his sway over, and way with, a woman, Fidelma McBride, O’Brien’s most cogent heroine to date. In conversation, O’Brien called the fugitive “a composite of generic, warring despots”, but the resemblance to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžic is as perceptive as it is terrifying. (A declared interest: I acted as a kind of consultant in the research behind this portrayal.)
O’Brien is possessed of – as very many who meet her agree – a quietly electrifying charisma, apparently frail but indomitable. Writing for this newspaper, Rachel Cooke described her appearance at a public event as “queenly and beautiful”, then “just as mesmerising” in her home, “resplendent in velvet, fur at her cuffs, her face immaculately made up” – that’s Edna all right, elegant and radiant, mischievous and passionate, with the perception of a scalpel edge.
She was born in 1930 in Tuamgraney, County Clare, to parents from backgrounds so different that she wrote: “I sometimes attribute my two conflicting selves to my contrasting grandparents, the one a lady, the other a peasant.” Her mother – from a poor family that had crossed from the west of Ireland – had worked in America, whence gifts and visitors would occasionally arrive.
O’Brien’s autobiography – Country Girl, published in 2012 – describes her childhood as “at once beautiful and frightening, tender and savage”. Before schooling, one of her household duties was to keep watch for marauding tinkers coming up the field.
O’Brien’s childhood was defined by an intense relationship with her mother, who kept precarious peace in a home of “semi-grandeur”. Young Edna would repair to the surrounding fields to write, her first experience of sex being with a Roland, as she recalls, “in a siding, by a galvanised door”.
She fled to Dublin, to work in a chemist’s shop, and became enthralled by the world of the Abbey Theatre – all of it utterly at odds with the prevailing piety. Among the early ruptures with her roots was an argument over Sean O’Casey’s autobiography, which her mother threatened to burn. O’Brien discovered Joyce and a world of “Dublin stories”, of which “so many hinged on poverty and exile”.
She married – “too precipitously”, she says – the writer Ernest Gébler, with whom she moved to London in 1958. O’Brien bore Gébler two sons, Carlo and Sasha (to whom she remains devoted) and began her first and great novel, The Country Girls, “in exile”. “That is the mystery about writing,” she would claim, “it comes out of afflictions, out of the gouged times when the heart is cut open.”
The dichotomy between the book’s success in England (winning the Kingsley Amis award) and its prohibition in Ireland etched the course of O’Brien’s life. On the one hand, she was burned and banned, her mother mortified and embarrassed by it, and dismissed by LP Hartley on television as writing about nymphomaniacs. But with the two subsequent novels in the Country Girls trilogy came a life at the heart of 60s London, won the hard way for O’Brien as she left Gébler, penniless, living in lodgings and fighting for custody of her sons.
O’Brien triumphed and captured hearts, with her enigmatic personality and the quality of her work. Her parties, for a brief, giddy period, were a Saturday night feature and visitors included Sean Kenny, Marianne Faithful, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Diane Cilento, Jane Fonda, Roger Vadim and many others. “I was excited by this galaxy of visitors,” says O’Brien, “but I was never carried away” – and this is entirely believable when one meets her now; it is impossible to imagine O’Brien suffering a fool.
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