MEMOIR: MARY ROBINSONreviews Country Girl: A Memoir By Edna O'Brien Faber and Faber, 352pp. £20
WHEN AN ACCLAIMED writer and flamboyant character such as Edna O’Brien pens a memoir, we have the delicious prospect of reading the story of a life well lived, well told.
O’Brien brings the reader on a journey that begins with a young girl’s childhood in a small rural community in the Co Clare of the 1930s and 1940s, a period and place in her life that would provide a rich source of material for her writing. Her family had the trappings of wealth, living in a large house with a gate lodge and avenue, but money was scarce. Her mother, a devout Catholic, had an air of glamour about her, having lived in the US for a time before getting married. Her father’s alcoholism had its destabilising effects.
Already we are shown glimpses of the embryonic writer: “I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough, because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of my mother.” Hers was not a home that encouraged literary aspirations, however. “Paper never refused ink,” she tells us, was one of her mother’s more sarcastic sayings.
After convent school and the move to Dublin, where she worked in a chemist’s shop while studying pharmacy, there follows a heart-rending account of breaking with her parents to elope with the writer Ernest Gébler, a divorcee many years her senior, only to find herself a young mother of two boys, Carlo and Sasha, trapped in a loveless marriage.
The family moved to London in the late 1950s – arriving at Waterloo Station, which she found to be “grimy and sooted, the waddle of the pigeons so ungainly, not supple like birds at home” – and she has lived there ever since, except for a relatively brief sojourn in Co Donegal in her later years.
In London she found “both the freedom and the incentive to write” her sensational debut, The Country Girls. “My novel,” she says, “was completed in three weeks. It had written itself and I was merely the messenger . . . The words tumbled out, like the oats on threshing day that tumble down the shaft, the hard pellets of oats funnelled into bags and the chaff flying everywhere, getting into the men’s eyes and their having to shout to be heard above the noise of the machine.”
While The Country Girls, published in 1960, was well received in Britain and the United States, the reaction to it (and to a number of her subsequent novels) in conservative, Catholic Ireland was to ban it as “filth”, candidly tackling, as it did, those taboo subjects of female sexuality and desire. I can remember, as a teenager, reading, hidden under a false cover, a dog-eared copy of The Country Girls that one of my schoolfriends had managed to get a hold of and passed around among us, and being astonished that she would write these things, and somehow grateful for the insights and revelations the book held.
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.
While Country Girl is a terrific, gripping read, I did find myself becoming irritated from time to time at the level of name-dropping going on, sometimes, it seemed, just for its own sake, as if O’Brien felt the need to legitimise herself by showing how well connected she was. That said, any time I would get annoyed at these indulgences, I would almost immediately be seduced again by her exquisite use of language and wonderful capacity to write a beautiful paragraph, as where (to pick one almost at random) O’Brien admits to and probes the writer’s block she suffered, her flow perhaps interrupted by two particular clandestine love affairs that consumed all her energy but ended badly: “Sometimes I went to universities or colleges to speak to students, where I was supposed to be imparting nuggets of wisdom. I brought Kafka to read to them and told them how Kafka had said a book must be the axe to the frozen seas inside us. In Hull the wind from the North Sea, with a wet spray to it, plashed against the picture windows. Afterwards, in the almost empty dining room, the talk came round to the blank page and the places writers flee to in the belief that it will help them to write.”
For all her colourful persona, Edna O’Brien is a serious writer. This is evident from her treatment of Northern Ireland – “to write about the North was to enter troubled waters” – and the progression in her career to writing what are styled “state of the nation” novels.
It is easily forgotten that at the time O’Brien started out writing, very few women had established themselves as career novelists. O’Brien had to look within, to her own experience and feeling, creating a distinct style. With radical perception she wrote of her time, capturing the essence of a generation. Ireland’s initial condemnation of and sometimes ambivalence towards her have softened with the years.
Country Girl’s prologue tells of the moment when, having baked brown bread with its “old smell, the begetter of many a memory”, O’Brien sat down to begin the memoir that she swore she would never write. Perhaps now, on its publication, is the time for a proper reassessment of Edna O’Brien as one of the great creative writers of her generation.
Mary Robinson, formerly president of Ireland and United Nations commissioner for human rights, chairs the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice