A life well lived, well told
Her parents loathed the book. In letters, her mother spoke to her of “the shock, the hurt, the disgust that neighbours felt”. O’Brien tells of how she had sent a copy of the book to her mother and later, after her mother’s death, discovered it “with offending words daubed out with black ink”. (The strong mother-daughter bond does shine through, however, as is clear from the frequent references to their enduring correspondence.)
With the success of her first novel came “the death-knell of the already ailing marriage”. “You can write,” Gébler told her, “and I will never forgive you.” They struggled on for another few years, O’Brien endorsing over to Gébler the royalty cheques she received for her work, until eventually she left him and there ensued a long and bitter (and ultimately successful) fight for custody of her children.
O’Brien is perhaps as famous for her colourful lifestyle as she is for her body of work, and we are given a flavour of the flamboyant party girl, the hostess. Here the pages are littered with the names of the rich and famous: Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon, Marianne Faithfull, Sean Connery, Diane Cilento, Jane Fonda. There is also the engaging telling of the night she spent with Robert Mitchum: “He wasn’t like a movie star at all, more like a street poet, with that hectoring charm.”
But she was perhaps not quite the libertine she is sometimes thought of as having been. For she explains – and this, I believe, goes to the heart of the woman that is Edna O’Brien – of her encounter with Richard Burton: “He could not understand why I did not want to go to the ‘bed chamber’, wanting instead to sit and talk and be mesmerised. Men for me were either lovers or brothers, the lovers were more intimidating and often unobtainable and, though I dearly wanted to, I could never combine the two qualities in the same man.”
While her writing often centres on themes of love, and loss, and the emotional fallout, her preference, it seems, as a person was to be mesmerised, entranced in conversation with exceptional people.
After a “chaste night” with Marlon Brando (“another bard . . . with an intelligence so quick and lethal, his whole being taut, like an animal, ready to spring”), “We took a stroll in Grosvenor Square before he left to go to the airport and quite unexpectedly he asked, ‘Are you a great writer?’ The question, so sudden and daunting, caught me off-guard. I did not want to boast and yet I did not want to belittle myself, so that I heard myself say, ‘I intend to be’. Nearby there were bucket swings and he sat me on one and gave me a beautiful, dizzying, headlong push to the longed-for altitudes of language.”
That admission as to the height of her ambition goes also to the heart of who O’Brien is. As her influences, she looked to the very greatest: Joyce, TS Eliot, Chekhov, Hemingway. And, drawing on her own experience of exile, she clearly had a sense of Beckett, picturing him with Synge and Jack Yeats, “men of kindred spirit, tramps of a noble scion, who literally walked the ground they would enshrine, in painting or in language”. “‘No need at all to go back,’ Beckett said, with a kind of resignation, and I knew that he could not have written of the ditches and the daisies and the ruinstrewn land unless he had loved it with such a beautiful, sad and imperishable loneliness.” It was Beckett who sat with her in a hotel room in Paris as she suffered lingering hallucinations, having, a few weeks earlier, taken LSD administered to her by RD Laing, psychiatrist to the stars of Swinging London – the ensuing trip is recalled in all its terrifying detail.