Edna O’Brien wins the ‘UK and Ireland Nobel award’ for lifetime achievement
Country Girls author receives £40,000 David Cohen prize which is seen as Nobel precursor
Edna O’Brien at her home in London in 2006. Photograph: Frank Miller
Edna O’Brien has been awarded the prestigious 2019 David Cohen Prize for Literature in London.
The £40,000 prize, awarded every two years in recognition of a living writer’s lifetime achievement in literature, has been described as the “UK and Ireland Nobel in literature”. Previous winners who went on to win the Nobel proper are Harold Pinter, VS Naipaul and Doris Lessing.
O’Brien, who turns 89 next month, has lived in the literary spotlight since her first highly successful novel, The Country Girls, was published in 1960. Girl, her 24th work of fiction, was published to acclaim this year, winning France’s Prix Femina spécial. Last year, she won the PEN/Nabokov Award For Achievement in International Literature.
O’Brien was nominated and selected by a panel of judges – Jon McGregor, David Park, Viv Groskop, Imtiaz Dharker, Kate Maltby and Zoe Strimpel – under the chair Mark Lawson.
Lawson said: “In my five experiences of chairing the David Cohen Prize, I have found that a key consideration is the graph of the author’s work. Some writers blaze early, then fade, publishing later books far below their best. In contrast, Edna O’Brien has achieved a rare arc of brilliant consistency, her literary skill, courage, and impact as apparent in a novel published as recently as September as in her first book, which appeared 60 years ago.
“Although in some ways overdue to a writer of this quality, the 2019 prize is timely because O’Brien’s primary subject has been Ireland, a country that continues to be central to our politics and culture. As it is given for lifetime achievement, the David Cohen Prize inevitably honours work of the past, but it is a particular pleasure that it goes this time to an author who is also of such present strength and significance.”
David Park said: “In winning the David Cohen Prize, Edna O’Brien adds her name to a literary roll call of honour. Both in her writing and in her life she has demonstrated a fierce commitment to truth and endless courage. The importance of her work reaches into the very way we think about women’s lives and about each other. She is a pivotal figure in the modernisation of Ireland, but her influence extends far beyond its boundaries, and in her new novel Girl, Edna O’Brien reveals a depth of compassion and a creative energy that transcends the confines of time itself.”
Viv Groskop said: “Edna O’Brien is one of the few writers who can call herself a literary giant of both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From the cultural bomb that was The Country Girls in 1960 to the impact of her most recent novel Girl in 2019 via dozens of important novels and short stories and one of the most entertaining memoirs I’ve read in a long while, the depth and breadth of her reach over the last sixty years is obvious. Long celebrated for her ability to define both what it means to be Irish and what it means to be a woman, her true achievement lies in her ability to redefine - in myriad ways and with a unique voice -- what it means to be human.”
Jon McGregor said: “Others have already spoken of Edna O’Brien’s tremendous cultural and social significance in Ireland and far beyond; let me add only that, being almost entirely new to her work, I finished each of her books wanting impatiently to read the next. A writer can challenge societal norms and interrogate form all she likes, but first she has to create an appetite for her writing, and Edna O’Brien has spent her long and fruitful career doing exactly that.”
Kate Maltby said: “One of the great joys of judging the David Cohen Prize was the opportunity to fall in love with Edna O'Brien, across the length and breadth of her extraordinary body of work. In Down By The River, she took on the voice of Miss X, the Irish child abuse victim at the centre of a high-profile abortion case; in this year's painful Girl, she gave the same voice to a young girl enslaved by Boko Haram. She is consistently on the side of women at the crux of experience where personal trauma becomes political scrutiny. And yet in books like her landmark Country Girls Trilogy, she proved she could write about women's pain while being persistently, uproariously, funny. Her social impact in Ireland, where her books were once burned, is unquestionable - but most importantly, she is simply a pleasure to read.”
Zoe Strimpel said: “It was a strong shortlist of undeniable greats, but the final decision to award the prize to Edna O’Brien felt entirely right in all senses. O’Brien represents everything the David Cohen Prize is about: her body of work is both enormous and luminous, glinting surprisingly in different angles of light, beautifully rendered, stylistically masterful and always carving out new ideas. She moves between the political, the personal and the lyrical like nobody else currently working today in Britain and Ireland.”
Imtiaz Dharker said: “This is a writer who has extended and enriched our idea of what it is to be human - and to be a woman, kicking against convention. Over a period of almost sixty years, she has brought the interior life of her characters fiercely alive, and the wonder of it is that she is still writing with the same intensity today. I thought I had the course of Edna O’Brien’s work mapped out before the judging came around, and then, towards the end of the process, another great tome dropped through the letter-box, changing the whole terrain. This prize is a celebration, not just of a lifetime’s work, but of a still-burning flame.”
Lee Brackstone, O’Brien’s editor, described her as “an artist who adheres to the now old-fashioned belief that it should be difficult by necessity to make great work”. It is, he said, “almost masochistic with Edna: if she’s feeling the pain, she’s making the art.”
O’Brien went on to present the Clarissa Luard Award to Clodagh Beresford Dunne. The award, founded by Arts Council England in memory of its literature officer, Clarissa Luard, is worth £10,000 and the winner of the David Cohen Prize for Literature nominates an emerging writer whose work they wish to support. Beresford Dunne, from Dungarvan, Co Waterford, won Irish poem of the year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards for her poem Seven Sugar Cubes.
David Cohen died in August . His daughter, Imogen Cohen, commented: “I am so proud that this prize can live on in my father’s name, and will continue to honour all the great writers who have received it.” First awarded in 1993, the prize’s former winners include V S Naipaul, Harold Pinter, William Trevor (1999), Doris Lessing, Derek Mahon (2007), Seamus Heaney (2009), Hilary Mantel, Tony Harrison, and, most recently in 2017, Tom Stoppard.