‘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.
Does she have a method when she writes? “I have to read something astonishing beforehand. Very often it is a poem, or it can be a scene from Shakespeare that is absolutely dynamic and contagious in that it gives one a longing to write something that isn’t totally a dud.”
She breaks off to fetch her diary from a desk, and reads aloud a few lines by Ezra Pound. “I write with a pen, by hand. Of course I make endless cups of rooibos tea. Then I write a paragraph and read it aloud to see if it stands up in any way. Usually, out of 10 lines there might be three words that are OK. So it’s a question of rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. I do not call it a labour of love; I call it a labour of semi-madness. Then I keep with it, go for a little walk. It’s getting a little harder for me now, harder on the eyes. I’m 82 this Christmas. I work for five or six hours each day but my achievements in those hours are not great. If we’re going to measure it in pounds, shillings and pence, it’s more pence than shillings.”
O’Brien was the youngest of four children born to farmers in Tuamgraney, County Clare, and this household, the neighbours, surrounding countryside and town with its 27 pubs never let her go. “It’s not describing a field or a gate or a bog or an avenue; it’s the emotional association with those places that makes a line come true or alive,” she says. Most of all she was drawn to her mother: “Everything about her intrigued me: her body, her being, her pink corset.”
But the rhythm of life was beaten out by her father’s cycles of bingeing and remorse, as he left the work to hired help and spent the family’s remaining money on drink and horses. “Those two old chestnuts, parents, come up again and again,” she says. “We are to a great extent unconsciously ruled by our first experiences. Sometimes we hide the fact and sometimes we fight it; the only thing we can do in order to emerge from it is to admit it. So I admit my mother within me, the mother who wrote me hundreds of letters, all of which, in their own way, and ironically for a woman who mistrusted the written word – especially my written words – was a born writer. They’re little masterpieces, my mother’s letters.”
O’Brien broke with her parents when she ran off with Gébler, sending a letter from the Isle of Man where her father pursued the couple in a fury. She was 23 and pregnant when they married. Gébler, who had already been left by one wife, was nearly 40. He envied O’Brien’s success from the start, and the marriage was a disaster. In her memoir, she describes him grabbing her throat in a row before she left him in 1962.
Reconciled with her parents, she went on taking her two sons on holiday to Ireland. But the family remained a tangle, and a grim scene followed her mother’s death, when the family home, which Edna believed was meant for her, went instead to her brother.
Meanwhile, her romantic life followed its own turbulent cycle. She never remarried but became deeply attached to a married man thought to have been a senior politician. In her memoir she called him Lochinvar; his real name remains unknown: “I think everyone has the right to a secret and that’s mine,” she says now. I understood the last page of her memoir to confess she is still in love with one of them, but she quibbles with my choice of words when I say so, and quotes back at me the phrase she used: her love “had not died, and so it lived on and on, in that dark suck of secrecy”.
O’Brien’s memoir also reveals that around 20 years ago, in a hotel in Singapore, she planned to kill herself. “I was all askew,” she says. “I was rather frail for a while.” Around the same time, she was rushed to hospital after her appendix burst. Years before, she had tried psychoanalysis with RD Laing. She took him figs; he gave her LSD. Now she sought out another analyst, Alexander Newman, who “helped bring me back together again”.
But he could not shield her from her critics. A profile of Gerry Adams she wrote for the New York Times in 1994 saw her insulted in public – “I was asked am I a groupie? I’m nobody’s groupie” – while Edward Pearce, writing in this newspaper in the same year, called her “the Barbara Cartland of long-distance republicanism”, an epithet she shows no sign of forgetting.
“I remember being very hurt and often furious as well as hurt, absolutely livid, with the audacity and covert jealousy of some reviewers,” she says. “Of course every writer has been attacked and every writer thinks it’s unfair, but I remember being absolutely heartbroken when Down by the River came out. It’s a story of incest and was triggered by the Miss X case [a court ruled that a teenager who had been raped could not travel to the UK for an abortion]. It’s a very serious book which began in a deliberately lyrical style, and most critics savaged the book for that lyricism.”
She says she felt murderous, but not any more. “Fashion is fashion and I have to believe in what I do and how I do it. But I also believe that time changes, perception changes. Some younger women, such as Rachel Cooke, are not as dismissive about my writing as some of the older female critics, and the male ones. I did mind terribly, but I don’t mind now, because things have bucked up a bit.”
A few years ago O'Brien moved to a new publisher, Faber, and in 2011 won the €25,000 Frank O'Connor international short story award for her first collection of stories in two decades, Saints and Sinners, beating former winner Yiyun Li and Colm Tóibín. It was her first big literary prize, setting the scene for the memoir that followed last year, and for The Love Object, which includes most of the prizewinning stories.
Mostly these stories are about Ireland; conscious that critics have attacked her limited range, she lists those set in other places. She is particularly proud of Shovel Kings, about the migration of Irish labourers to London and partly based on interviews she conducted in pubs. I like Green Georgette, which starts, like many of her Irish country stories, with an awkward social situation – a mother and daughter about to be snubbed – and explodes in a fantasy of violence and tinned peaches: “Mama said it would be an extravagance to open a tin at that hour, while promising we would have them some Sunday with an orange souffle, which she had just mastered the recipe for. Mixed in with my longing was a mounting rage. Our lives seemed so drab, so uneventful. I prayed for drastic things to occur – for the bullocks to rise up and mutiny, then gore one another, for my father to die in his sleep, for our school to catch fire, and for Mr Coughlan to take a pistol and shoot his wife, before shooting himself.”
O’Brien has kept her accent and sometimes lowers her voice to an atmospheric whisper. She can be dramatic, as when she says: “I would die now if tomorrow morning I could not write.” But she is also friendly, generous and disarmingly honest, for example about having had a story, Chekhov’s Ladies, rejected by a magazine last year. The experience shook her and afterwards she laid low and did a lot of reading. Then she began a new novel about the night economy of migrant cleaners. She expects it to take another 18 months, after which she is determined to write two plays and see them put on.
She is anxious not to appear self-aggrandising. “I don’t mean I’m gifted,” she says at one point, and apologises for comparing herself to James Joyce. But O’Brien does take herself seriously. When she refers to other writers, they are not contemporaries – whom she flatly refuses to comment on for fear of causing offence – but Beckett, Nabokov, Conrad, Tolstoy. She wrote a play about Virginia Woolf.
It sounds old-fashioned in 2013 to talk about the source of creativity as a well or a “little brazier down there at the bottom of the fire”, to refer to a work’s “inner truth” and compare the “quick shot” of a story with the “unending road” of a novel, to talk about aspiring to what Søren Kierkegaard called “purity of heart, which, according to him, is what makes one do the thing, whether it’s embroidering an altar cloth or making a creme brulee or writing a story”.
But that is how O’Brien, shaped by her early encounters with literary modernism, self-taught and without a university education, thinks about art. Banned, burned and blamed for all manner of failings, including not being feminist enough, she has remained true to her idea of what a book should be: “What I don’t want is for the imagination to have ropes around it. I want to be free. It’s hard enough to write. I’ve had the Catholic church, I’ve had my mother, I’ve had nuns and priests from the age of nought telling me what I shouldn’t do; I don’t want it!”
She says she is glad to be asked about her critics, and relishes the chance to answer back: “I don’t want to make a big deal of it, but I did get an awful lot of cudgels thrown at me down the years, and I don’t want to sound self-pitying because I’m not self-pitying, but I do think what the fuck was that about?”
Why does she think so many writers have come out of Ireland? “Desperation and a gra for the language.” The word is pronounced “graw” and she has to spell it out. “G-R-A, it’s a lovely word, it’s the Irish word for love.”
The Love Object: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien is published by Faber on October 5th.