Category: Archive

Edna O’Brien remains a country chronicler

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

She is still beautiful, almost alarmingly so. Nearly 40 years ago, when her first books, "The Country Girls," "The Lonely Girl," and "Girls in Their Married Bliss," banned in her native Ireland and widely read elsewhere, Edna O’Brien was an easily recognized feature of the British television talk show circuit.

There she was, seemingly everywhere, always articulate, her richly expressive face and auburn hair framed by huge, broad-brimmed hats suitable for garden parties in London’s posh suburbs.

Soon, with the coming of the next few books, the elegant native of Tuamgraney, Co. Clare, began to be taken seriously and recognized as the deeply gifted writer she always was, appreciated even in the stubbornly anti-Irish Britain to which she had relocated in 1959.

O’Brien’s new novel, "Wild Decembers," is her 22nd book, and that’s not counting "The Girl With Green Eyes," a subsequent publication of her second book, which had debuted as "The Lonely Girl" in 1962.

The three "Girls" novels, concerning two young female friends coming to maturity in what the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature calls "a puritanical and hypocritical Ireland," were banned under the terms of the Censorship of Publications Act, which had come into being in 1929. Her first six books, in fact, were all banned.

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O’Brien got into trouble again in 1976 with the appearance of "Mother Ireland," seen in some quarters as a memoir, a view with which the author disagrees, and in others as a unique kind of iconoclastic travelogue. However, it was classified, the book, published with extraordinary photographs by Fergus Bourke, was thought of by many readers, and a lot of people who never bothered to sample it, as being intolerably critical of Ireland and the Irish.

Sitting in her midtown hotel room after a whirlwind coast-to-coast tour on behalf of "Wild Decembers," dressed in a sheer silk blouse of light ivory and a dark skirt, O’Brien seemed slightly weary, not surprising, perhaps, following yet another fast trip with cities melting facelessly into one another in a haze of planes to be caught and appointments to be kept.

She’d been in New York briefly 12 days earlier, and now she was back, not chained to an itinerary prepared by a publisher’s press office, and free to spend a few days doing what she pleased, one item of which was the current Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s "A Moon For The Misbegotten," an experience to which she was looking forward with obvious eagerness.

Asked if, living in London for so long, she had to make special effort to keep abreast of the changing Ireland, she produced a graceful answer, suited to a question she’s clearly been asked before. "The countryside doesn’t change all that much," she said, "and that’s basically what I write about."

True enough, basically, and certainly so in the case of the new book, which concerns, for the most part, conflict between the members of two families who have lived for generations on adjacent mountaintop farms in the West of Ireland, not all that far from a made-up town the author has named Cloontha.

Trilogy completed

"Wild Decembers" is, in O’Brien’s mind, the final part of a trilogy, the first and second segments of which are "House of Splendid Isolation," published in 1994, and "Down by the River," which appeared in 1997. O’Brien, who is as precise in her speech as she is in her prose, admits candidly that the new book was germinated, as were the others, by an actual event.

"It’s set in the middle to late ’70s," she said, "which is when the tractors came to even the most rural parts of Ireland. The trigger for the new book was the actual story of a man, not in County Clare, but in Galway, and what happened when another man left a digger in his yard. They were friendly at first, and then less so, and then they became enemies. It ended in a murder, and that was reported in the papers a few years back. So that was sort of the trigger, but you can’t write about something that you just read about in a newspaper unless it corresponds to something inside you, the story and the passions. And, as you well know, there are reports in the courts in Ennis, in Galway, everywhere, really, of feuds about land. And then, of course, you hear a story, and you take it in, and then, many years later, it becomes a novel."

The middle book in the trilogy touches on the famous "X case," in which a young Irish girl journeyed to England in search of an abortion. "The book isn’t based on the case," O’Brien is quick to state. "It was an urban story, and a friend of the father was involved, and mine is a totally different story, except for the girl going to England."

"Down by the River," as might be expected, was another occasion on which she heard from a large number of her readers. "I got a lot of feedback," she said. "I got some anger, but actually, some wonderful letters, too. . . . People wrote and said how thankful they were that the story had been told, but they would be maybe afraid to sign. You know, people get very frightened."

O’Brien seems endlessly aware of the differences, including the tensions, that sometimes mark country people and put them in contrast to people from the city. "In my books," she said, "when my girls go to the city, they take aspects of the country with them. Cities like Dublin and Galway are changed, in part because of the tourists, but you don’t change the soul of a place. But everyone with any intelligence at all reassesses the places they know as time passes."

Psychic landscape

The writer, unsurprisingly, brings a novelist’s eye to bear on her journeying around America, even on a harried book tour, changing venues on an almost daily basis.

"What I like about the book tour is that you go to some quite lonely places," she said. "I went to a place called Bellingham, 10 miles from the Canadian border, in the State of Washington. Driving through the countryside, you can’t help but wonder, "Now, who will want to come and hear an Irish writer?" And they were packed in this bookshop, and that’s very heartening. I think America is brilliant that way, and again, it’s not just the city, and the flash of cosmopolitan or chic readers. It’s people out there in lonely places, who still want to hear a story, and who don’t see a great divergence between their landscape, their psychic landscape, and what they read. There are certain stories that belong anywhere. They may be set in a certain place, but they still have a relevance for people in Seattle or Bellingham."

O’Brien admits to being proud of the trilogy completed by "Wild Decembers." "I’m equally not ashamed at all of ‘The Country Girls’ trilogy," she said. No stranger to self-criticism, she does look askance at one novel she wrote about a decade ago, "The High Road."

"I didn’t really bring it off," she said with refreshing candor, "because I set it in a place I didn’t know, and it didn’t realize itself." She has a kind of rule of thumb when it comes to assessing past work.

"Regarding the life of a book," she said, "you ought to be able to go back and open it at any page, and say, ‘Yes, that’s OK. Those words are the right words.’ That’s very important, not that I go back much, but now and then, maybe somebody asks me for a copy of a certain book, and I look at it."

O’Brien’s actual method of writing might surprise some of her readers. For one thing, she appears to have committed large sections of her work to memory, and can summon long passages up at will. She has an explanation.

"I rewrite dozens of times," she said, "and I write out loud. I say the words. I write by hand, no computer or anything. That wouldn’t be any good for me. It wouldn’t work."

She thinks it’s clear when writers don’t read their work to themselves. "It’s easy to tell," she said, "Because the writing doesn’t have an inner rhythm. I’d bet Hemingway did it, and I would think Joyce did, too."

One review of "Wild Decembers" compared Edna O’Brien to James Joyce, to Dylan Thomas, and to Gerard Manley Hopkins. O’Brien doesn’t object, nor should she.

"I don’t mind," she said, with a musical laugh and no hint of affectation, "so long as one is in good company. No, I don’t mind at all."

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