Edna O’Brien: ‘I would die now if tomorrow morning I could not write’
In advance of publication of her new book The Love Object, a 500-page retrospective of stories, Edna O’Brien looks back on life, loves, and her passion for writing
Edna O'Brien: `I remember being very hurt and often furious as well as hurt, absolutely livid, with the audacity and covert jealousy of some reviewers'. Photograph: Frank Miller
‘Irish Revel” is the first story in a big, bold new collection of Edna O’Brien’s short stories, and 50 years after she wrote it, her account of 17-year-old Mary’s invitation to her first party, where she turns out to have been summoned as an unpaid skivvy, remains one of the best. Mary sets out on her bicycle, bursting with romantic expectation, and returns from the pub next morning bereft, having spent the night with furniture stacked against the door to avoid being raped.
Unlike Mary, O’Brien never lived on a mountain. “We lived down from the mountain,” she says. “That is not to say we were very well off, not by the time I came, but our house was a little grander, while not being really grand.”
But she spent summer holidays with her grandmother up the mountain, lonely and spartan weeks she didn’t enjoy at all, and knew the disdain with which the “mountainy” people of western Ireland were regarded by the richer, more worldly inhabitants of the bigger farms and towns.
Like Mary, O’Brien yearned to get away (“to stay in a hotel and have breakfast in bed”, as the girl in one of her novels puts it). Unlike Mary, and the women in most of her stories, O’Brien did escape, first to a job behind the counter of a pharmacy in Dublin and then, as the runaway bride of the writer Ernest Gébler, to London.
There she wrote her first, famous novel about her childhood, The Country Girls, in a blast of nostalgia and relief at all she had left behind. Written in the first person and widely admired for its sauce – among other escapades, Caithleen and Baba get themselves thrown out of their convent school for writing a dirty note – the book was banned and burned in Ireland. O’Brien has since published 30 more books – mostly fiction, but also plays, biographies and a memoir. Now she has gathered together a career’s worth of stories in a 500-page retrospective called The Love Object.
O’Brien’s novels have been divided into phases: the early, autobiographical books about women’s struggles and desires; the later state-of-the-nation works about Irish history and politics. Her stories don’t really fit this template, so the new book demands we reconsider O’Brien, and stakes a claim for her work overall, a claim backed by John Banville in an introduction that compares her to Henry James.
“Somehow there was the perception, which is completely off the wall, that I had this gilded, adulterous life moving from one affair or soiree to another. Well, you can’t write all these books and rear children and earn your living and have a gilded life,” she says, spitting out the word “soiree” as if it disgusts her. “You can’t work on a book one day a week. It’s like a toddler off out into the street: you can’t find it again. So in that sense, I am possessed.”
Standing in the doorway of her study, she rubs her fingers together as you might over a piece of fabric, or when making pastry. “It’s very hard to get the truth in it, and the sheen on it,” she says. But if her private life after her brief and unhappy marriage ended was never the sex and champagne binge of legend, it is no surprise her parties are a source of fascination. For a time, O’Brien supped with Hollywood royalty – Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, even Judy Garland passed through her sitting room – and for all her evasions (“it still baffles me how I came to know all these people,” she wrote in her memoir Country Girl), she is proud of how far her talent, ambition and all-round attractiveness took her. And why not? The new book is dedicated to Philip Roth “in long friendship”. Her memoir describes her delight, while staying with Harold Pinter in Dorset not long before he died, at being kissed by another visitor: Jude Law.
Along with some teaching in New York, O’Brien has always supported herself by writing, and I meet her in the Knightsbridge house around the corner from Harrods that she has rented for nearly 30 years. She lost two previous homes. Selling number 10 Carlyle Square in Chelsea was a personal tragedy she has blamed on “love, generosity, the pipe dream” – another way of saying she forgot to take care of practicalities, so consumed was she by one of her affairs. More recently, she sold at a loss the house her architect son, Sasha, built for her in Donegal. Her experiment in homecoming was ended by the antagonism of her neighbours who didn’t want a famous writer in their midst, and the fact that she found she was unable to write there.
She says she is “a bit pathological” about noise, needing silence to concentrate (she abandoned a flat where a dog barked incessantly in the communal garden), but feels less lonely in the city. Her house is cluttered with books and papers: pages of notes, a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, her own work in progress piled up on a table. Technology is a struggle: “My emails are legendary. They’re so illiterate – not deliberately, but like moments out of Finnegans Wake: you can’t make anything out!” She does not drive, and swims with armbands.