How Edna O’Brien found sanctuary among Jewish-American writers

Repudiated in Ireland, the author found a receptive audience among writers such as Bellow, Roth and Mailer

‘Though now rightly celebrated in Ireland, for many decades it was in America, among Jewish-American authors, that O’Brien found a writerly community that embraced a fellow outsider.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

‘Though now rightly celebrated in Ireland, for many decades it was in America, among Jewish-American authors, that O’Brien found a writerly community that embraced a fellow outsider.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Edna O’Brien, whose new novel Girl is published next month by Faber, makes no secret of her love of Irish literature. Yet her collected papers, held between UCD and Emory University, Atlanta, also illuminate her life-long engagement with the culture and literature of America.

The dazzling pre-eminence of James Joyce-“in the constellation of geniuses, he is the blinding light”-no longer obscures the place of American writers in O’Brien’s personal pantheon. As she writes in one of her archived speeches, “A lot of people crowd inside one poor head”.

O’Brien has always been fascinated by the United States. She inherited this preoccupation from her mother, who worked as a maid in Brooklyn in the early 1920s and “hankered for her times in America and the style she had”. Returning Yank relatives brought treasured trinkets and provided the adolescent O’Brien with “signals of an outside, cosmopolitan world, a world I longed to enter”.

Neither was she bolstered by more established, male, Irish writers and critics, who wrote her off as a scribbler of vapid romance

In the poor, conservative, Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s, America was shorthand for freedom, as seen in her transatlantic novel The Light of Evening (2006): “There was always so much talk about America, every young person with the itch to go”.

In 1958, O’Brien emigrated not to America but to London, where she wrote The Country Girls (1960), her tale of two Irish girls-the idealistic Caithleen and blasphemous Baba-as they negotiate the conformity and misogyny of mid-century Ireland. Her honesty saw her attacked by the Church and banned by the state: “I had offended several fashions. I offended the Catholic Church. I betrayed Irish womanhood… I betrayed my own community by writing about their world.”

Neither was she bolstered by more established, male, Irish writers and critics, who wrote her off as a scribbler of vapid romance. The (now little remembered) novelist John Broderick dubbed her a “bargain basement Molly Bloom” before scolding the “silly… reviewers and critics in England and America” for taking her seriously.

All the while, her books secretly circulated Ireland, entering ports and crossing the border in the suitcases of returning emigrants, to be hidden in cupboards and passed furtively to friends-not unlike the samizdat literature of the Soviet Union.

Repudiated in Ireland, O’Brien was feted by her American contemporaries, and in particularly the rising cadre of Jewish-American writers

In America, however, O’Brien received a more open welcome, with a book deal from Knopf and the appearance in the New Yorker of her short story “Irish Revel”, a rewriting of James Joyce’s “The Dead”. Like so many Irish writers suppressed at home, O’Brien found her first receptive audience across the Atlantic.

Repudiated in Ireland, O’Brien was feted by her American contemporaries, and in particularly the rising cadre of Jewish-American writers, who commended The Country Girls and its successors The Lonely Girl and Girls in their Married Bliss. Joseph Heller, author of the Second World War satire Catch 22 (1961), wrote to O’Brien to praise The Lonely Girl as “a beautiful, sincere, and refreshing novel, I enjoyed its candor and humorous vitality from beginning to end”.

Bernard Malamud, whose astonishing short story collection The Magic Barrel (1958) gave mythic significance to the Jewish immigrant experience, hailed her fiction as “fresh, strong, full of human things”. And O’Brien reciprocated, applauding his 1957 novel The Assistant as “wonderfully compassionate” and favourably reviewing his 1961 novel A New Life for the Evening Standard.

Saul Bellow was another fan. He met O’Brien at a New York party in 1965, later writing to her to express a writerly affinity: “There seems to be only one significant thing for me-for the likes of us-and it hasn’t a great deal to do with parties…. I took a great liking to you. I think you are a lovely woman”. Photograph: Dominique Nabokov / Liaison Agency
Saul Bellow was another fan. He met O’Brien at a New York party in 1965, later writing to her to express a writerly affinity. Photograph: Dominique Nabokov/Liaison Agency

Saul Bellow was another fan. He met O’Brien at a New York party in 1965, later writing to her to express a writerly affinity: “There seems to be only one significant thing for me-for the likes of us-and it hasn’t a great deal to do with parties…. I took a great liking to you. I think you are a lovely woman”. His Joycean novel Herzog (1964) tells the story of an alienated Jewish-American academic who attempts to find his place in the world by penning unsent letters to dead relatives, politicians, and philosophers.

The book left a deep mark on O’Brien, as she wrote to Bellow: “I derive such sustenance from Herzog that I can’t understand how I managed (life wise) before I read it…. Every time I buy myself a copy I find I’m giving it away because I want other people to read it and so I buy another.” Its effects can be felt in the epistolary nature of her 1966 novel Casualties of Peace: “The letters saved her. They were at once her consolation and her nourishment, through the letters she pleaded her cause and though never posted they absorbed the juice of sorrow”.

Around this same time, O’Brien met Norman Mailer, author of The Naked and the Dead (1948) and one of the proponents of New Journalism. In their correspondence, Mailer advised O’Brien on Joan of Arc, a figure both novelists wished to write about (sadly in O’Brien’s case, and perhaps happily in Mailer’s, nothing came of these projects). Later he gave her a tour of his native Brooklyn while she researched the setting of The Light of Evening.

In 1968, O’Brien befriended J.D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye (1951) so strongly influenced The Country Girls Trilogy, particularly in Baba’s sharp eye for social hypocrisy and “phonies”. He was especially struck by her short story collection, The Love Object (1968). Recently, O’Brien recalled giving Salinger, who had Irish as well as Jewish heritage, a piece of Irish lace as a memento before “he started to withdraw completely”.

Portrait of American author Norman Mailer, 1975. Photograph: Arthur Schatz/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Portrait of American author Norman Mailer, 1975. Photograph: Arthur Schatz/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

In the 1969, O’Brien was introduced to Philip Roth, who rose to fame on the back of his scandalous, confessional novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)-like The Country Girls, banned in Ireland. They became friends in London over the 1970s through their shared love of authors such as Joyce and William Faulkner.

Annoyed by reviews that scorned his friend as a writer narrowly concerned with sex and the self- accusations he also faced-Roth wrote a foreword to O’Brien’s 1984 short story anthology A Fanatic Heart to counter them: “Many [of the stories here] are love stories, among them eerily intimate stories relating to sexual love, and these are what people chiefly associate with Edna O’Brien. But her range is wider than that and there is an acute, sometimes searing, social awareness”.

In the early 1970s, the Yiddish short story writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (who would, like Bellow, win the Nobel Prize for Literature), wrote to O’Brien from America as “one of the many admirers you have in this country”. He was moved by her 1969 novel A Pagan Place: “I think we both have in common the fact that we are rooted in the soil and culture of our people. Most of modern writers are rootless and they consider it being ‘cosmopolitan’”.

O’Brien also met the Russian Jewish poet Joseph Brodsky, then in exile in America: “Brodsky was a brilliant, bristling man…. He has a liking for the ballad ‘The Night Before Larry was Stretched’ which Brendan Behan had sung to him.” Like O’Brien, Behan was drawn towards New York’s Jewish writers, once quipping: “Other people have a nationality. The Irish and Jews have a psychosis”.

Throughout her career, O’Brien’s has been inspired by and in turn inspired writers of the margins

From the mid-1970s on, a younger and more diverse generation of Jewish-American writers began to look to O’Brien, with Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying (1974), seeing her as a model for upsetting the “male literary establishment”. One of Fear of Flying’s chapters bears an epigraph taken from Girls in their Married Bliss: “The vote… means nothing to women. We should be armed”. O’Brien also encouraged many aspiring writers through her teaching at City College of New York, New York University, and Bard College.

For example, the Jewish-African-American novelist Walter Mosley credits O’Brien with steering him towards the literary “riches” of his hybrid identity. More recently, Lev Raphael, one the first writers to openly address the intersection between Jewish and gay identity in Dancing on Tisha B’av (1990), has written admiringly of O’Brien’s book Wild Decembers (1999), while the second-generation Holocaust survivor and novelist, Melvin Jules Bukiet, has praised Down by the River (1996), as an “angry, grief-stricken book”.

Throughout her career, O’Brien’s has been inspired by and in turn inspired writers of the margins. In one of her notebooks held at UCD, she inscribed a quotation from Bellow: “What seems to be lacking is a firm sense of a common cause, a coherent community, a genuine purpose in life”. Though now rightly celebrated in Ireland, for many decades it was in America, among Jewish-American authors, that O’Brien found a writerly community that embraced a fellow outsider.

Dan O’Brien’s book Fine Meshwork: Edna O’Brien, Philip Roth, and Jewish-Irish Literature can be ordered now on Amazon and through the website of Syracuse University Press.

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