Edna O’Brien: informed by Chekhov, inspired by vulnerability
This masterful writer’s rural-Ireland background invariably emerges from her sophisticated portraits of female sensibility
Girl from Co Clare: Edna O’Brien. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/Getty
The most striking aspect of Edna O’Brien’s short stories, aside from the consistent mastery with which they are executed, is their diversity. This writer knows many worlds, and delineates them for us with deep insight, uncanny accuracy, wry fondness and, always, compassion. Although she left it early, she is never far from the world into which she was born and where she was brought up. She is one of the most sophisticated writers now at work, yet her sensibility is suffused with the light of the far west of Ireland, and again and again in these tales she returns to the lovely fields and melancholy towns of her youth.
In her “international” stories – and Henry James surely would acknowledge her as a fellow traveller – she looks with an exile’s measuring eye upon the racy thrills and false blandishments of life in society. The title piece of her new selected stories, The Love Object, one of the most celebrated of her mature short fictions, not only traces with an unflinching, almost forensic clarity the flowering and fading of a love affair but also, and as if casually, portrays the flashy, complacent world of middle-class London in the 1960s. Only a girl from Co Clare would note of her pompous lawyer lover on their first going to bed together: “Another thing he did that endeared him was to fold back the green silk bedspread, a thing I never do myself.”
Edna O’Brien began her career as a writer – and began it early – in a golden age of the Irish short story. She and near contemporaries such as John McGahern and William Trevor had as exemplars the likes of Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor, Mary Lavin and Benedict Kiely – and, of course, the James Joyce of Dubliners – yet on the evidence of the work gathered in this volume her true teacher was Chekhov, for she displays a positively Chekhovian empathy with the characters and milieus that she portrays.
The mark of genius in a writer is an ability to burrow deep into the consciousness of a disparate cast of personalities. We are familiar with Edna O’Brien as an Irish cosmopolitan, the russet-haired beauty who knows her way around not only London and New York but also the pleasure gardens and yachting harbours of Europe; the friend and confidante of the great figures of contemporary art and culture; the trailblazer who flew the nets of Catholic Ireland and made a life for herself abroad that young women, such as those so lovingly brought to life in her early Country Girls trilogy, used to, and no doubt still do, dream of.
Yet this is the same Edna O’Brien who in The Shovel Kings can portray with accuracy and aching sympathy the grindingly harsh lives of Irish navvies who dug the foundations for the rebuilding of postwar Britain.
Nor has she let slip from her artistic memory even the tiniest detail of the Ireland of those first three literally marvellous novels: The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss. One of the loveliest, funniest, most evocative and hair-raisingly accurate stories in this collection, Irish Revel, with its faint echoes of Joyce’s The Dead, conjures a world that is Ireland in the 1950s but that could also be Russia in the closing years of the 19th century, the Russia of Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov. In Mary, the central character, O’Brien catches all the innocence, longing and delicacy of a tender bloom set down unrescuably in a patch of weeds: