‘I take an Edna O’Brien into my life carelessly. And suffer ten years’

An extract from The Projectionist by Carlo Gébler, his biography and memoir of his father Ernest, which looks in detail at his troubled marriage to Edna O’Brien

I

At the start of 1965, Why Aren’t You Famous? went off to the BBC and Rediffusion and he [Ernest Gébler] turned to another piece for the BBC, Life Ever Lasting, a morality play about immortality. Being gifted with an extended lifespan, he wrote in his diary on 7 January:

“would make cowards of us all. Who, if he had extended life, even if only for three or four hundred years would dive into a rough sea to save an ordinary mortal child’s life?”

Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the plot of this play to gel, so he abandoned it and started trying to hash out the plot of a play called The Beats, but got no further with it either. On 15 January he wrote:

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“Once I deliberately made money with a commercial novel so that I could write as inner self desired. I didn’t. But now is the time I want to – to write without reference to who will buy it and read it, [but] the money is gone and I have to try to pay the rent with TV plays.”

For years now the part of his unconscious from where the work sprung had been incredibly unco-operative, but that was changing (the change was already in train, though it was far from complete) and the catalyst was economic. He needed to earn money, and his psyche, presented with an ultimatum to this effect, had been persuaded to co-operate. This change, of course, would be a struggle, and along the way he would experience many episodes of failure, and indeed he was about to experience one of these now.

He couldn’t get on with The Beats any better than he’d been able to get on with the immortality project, so he abandoned it and turned to a third television play, Where Shall I Find What Will Change My Life?, and here he made much better progress because, unlike the previous two ideas, this one mixed his own difficult experience and wish-fulfilment.

Where Shall I Find What Will Change My Life? told the story of Sidney Lucas, the pessimistic and manic-depressive author of a single, and slated, novel, who has produced nothing for years though the greatest sex novel in the history of publishing is locked inside his head. Only his paragon wife, Tessa, who exhorts, entreats and coerces (at one point she locks him in the kitchen to write) is on hand to help, and in the end, for this is a fairy tale, success catches up with Sidney, though not at all in the way he expects. The story, obviously, sprang from my father’s own writer’s block, and offers his fantasy answer to his problem: the good wife who saves her author husband, which was what he never had, and for which this would compensate somehow.

By Sunday 24 January he had the plot organised, and he was now able to start writing in earnest. But his marital resentments were ever present, always simmering, perpetually aggravating. On 29 January he wrote:

“As a writer: write a novel eight times over. Take endless pains over your craft: be a perfectionist [just as you would] adjust your car engine. But concerning my life I am apparently careless. I take pot luck. I take an Edna O’Brien into my life carelessly. And suffer ten years.”

II

In early February, a letter addressed to my mother arrived from Howard B Gotlieb, director of special collections at the Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University, requesting manuscript material from her. Here was another opportunity to cause pain with a letter, an experience he had enjoyed once already. In reply, he:

“Forged a letter to Howard B. Gotlieb of Boston Universities Libraries [sic] – as if from Edna O’Brien pleading she is too modest to contribute to [a] reference library! [Instead] I had her recommend me and my works for the library.”

This piece of epistolary mischief-making then gave him the idea for another stroke – one that would punish Leatrice this time. He wrote to her ‘saying am depositing all correspondence on her and me for use of students’ and then asked if she had ‘any final letter or comment on her infamous conduct re her son’s parenthood which she might like to have included’? Naturally, he did not mention the university; he didn’t want her writing to them.

Not long after, he got yet another opportunity for this kind of troublemaking. He received a letter from a London theatre producer addressed to my mother indicating the company’s interest in making her novel The Lonely Girl into a musical. He wrote back, styling himself Edward Cresset of The Authors’ Representation Company, and regretting that the novel was unavailable, but suggesting that Ernest Gébler’s novel The Love Investigator would make a much better musical. Deep down in his psyche he knew that his forgeries were wrong, so to soothe his conscience he told himself that they were justifiable acts of retribution. As he wrote in his diary, his justification for these actions was that ‘The unscrupulous deserve to be treated unscrupulously.’

By Sunday 7 February, he noted, he had ‘Heard nothing from BBC or Rediffusion yet about [Why Aren’t You Famous? ],’ and was ‘On page 30 of [Where Shall I Find What Will Change My Life? ].’ In March, Where Shall I Find What Will Change My Life? was done, and went off to Granada in Manchester. On the last Sunday of the month he went for a tramp, as he put it, after dark on Cannon Hill Common, as the pale green feathers of the budding chestnut trees were ‘seen more easily … by the light of the green sodium street lighting.’

He was worried about money (‘Have only four hundred pounds left in cash’), but this did not prevent him from going to the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank on 1 April to hear the London Philharmonic under Christoph von Dohnányi play Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It was a ‘moving, rich and vital performance,’ but he was saddened by the realisation as he listened that Mahler ‘could not seem to sort it all out, could not weed out all the worthless bits and pieces.’

As spring rolled on, hay fever descended, and his left ear, damaged when he won the half-mile swimming race in Bray before the war, required syringing. Thereafter, nearly all the entries for several months concerned first the afflictions of hay fever (a new affliction, it would dog him for the rest of his life, and he would fill his diaries with notes about it), and then the bronchitis and catarrh that followed.

At the end of May he was still waiting for decisions on Why Aren’t You Famous? and Where Shall I Find What Will Change My Life? This uncertainty roused his ancient resentments, or perhaps his way to cope was to vent these. On 14 June he wrote:

“Bernard Shaw & Lenin both had cultivated mothers who played the piano. I had a mother who spent her energies ‘fighting for her rights’ for herself, usually by yelling. Did Shaw or Lenin’s mother ever yell about their ‘rights’? They are the two men I hold in the highest respect.”

In June he went to Ireland with Jane for a camping holiday, and on 24 June they visited Church Villa, the house where he lived as a boy in Tramore. He and Jane got into the crumbling old house (it was owned by a Waterford solicitor who used it for summer holidays), and ‘From the middle upper window we watched the churchyard for ghosts.’ Seeing the old house left him ‘sad for days,’ he wrote.

III

He came back from holiday at the end of July. August is a Wicked Month (styled ‘August is a Pissy Month’ in his diary) was already out in the US and was enjoying pre-publication publicity in the British papers in anticipation of its publication in Britain in October. He collected some US reviews as well as some pieces from the British press, and stuck these in the diary (he did so love to collect materials that would rouse his ire) and tried to push on with a novel (this was Jane’s idea) about his second marriage.

As summer edged into autumn he was banging out treatments for television plays at £25 a time, and his bitterness was rising. His diary entry for Friday 1 October was typical:

“Sash ill in Putney. Carlo phoned – neither had been to school – so I do not see them from Wednesday to Monday, unless I go down and face unpleasantness.

He did indeed go to Putney to visit:

“Carlo plainly lying. Neither are sick. A dog has been got. Carlo wearing expensive teenage pointed fashionable shoes, in which he looks silly. The campaign to subvert them, to claim them entirely and make them punch-bags for her sick, empty loveless life continue[S]. What can I do to stop them being turned into mother smothered homosexuals? Her relentless brainwashing on them is having its result – I am the enemy. They obviously accept that I am to be circumvented, lied to. (Children she didn’t want, children she fought against having. Children she hardly ever changed a napkin [for] or fed. For three months after Carlo was born she wouldn’t hold the child in her arms. And she hated Sasha too - until they grew up a bit, became ‘little men’, became something to love her.)”

At the start of October, Granada bought Where Shall I Find What Will Change My Life? for £600 for inclusion in the season they were planning, Scenes of Married Life, which would examine modern marriage, but the pleasure of this success was negated by August is a Wicked Month, which he read shortly after and which, predictably, appalled him. On 12 October he wrote:

“Her novel ‘August’ etc: there seems to be nothing left in her slobbering mind to write about. Rather than give up she is ready to debase and befoul herself in public. The picture is as horrifying as a moronic woman screeching for attention in a market place and failing to get attention, raising her skirts and exhibiting her diseased sexual quarters. The raging vanity is turning into raging rage.”

These appalling feelings were so powerful that confiding he had them in his diary was not enough. He needed to purge them, and he now did so in a lengthy letter that he wrote to my mother shortly thereafter. This document traced the trajectory of their relationship from start to finish. This material was hurtful, but not so novel. He was the long-suffering dupe and she was the malign traducer, which was how he’d always seen things. On top of that, though (and as he argued the inevitable consequence of what he had seen), were the new rules for his sons when they were with her in Putney that he demanded she would observe. For instance, we were not to be driven around in any car by anyone. We were not to be bathed by anyone. And we were not to be in her study when she was writing – or as he put it, his sons were to be ‘preserved from the Krafft-Ebing taint of her perverted writing by permanent exclusion from the room where she wrote’. Even by my father’s standards this last was a strange assertion. Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) was renowned for his explorations of sexual difference, particularly homosexuality, which was why my father, certain that my brother and I would be made homosexual by our mother’s regime, threw his name in. However, Krafft-Ebing thought that homosexuality originated during the foetal stage of gestation; nowhere in his work does he suggest that proximity to a writer could have a similar effect, so this conceit makes no sense. Accuracy was not the ambition here; compliance was. He wanted his new rules to be obeyed. If they were not, he concluded, then he would abort the informal custody arrangement whereby we alternated between their houses and he would take us to New Zealand and she would never see us again. Ever.

IV

My mother took legal advice. On 26 October he received papers from her solicitor giving notice of her intention to seek full custody at a hearing in November and then to petition for divorce. This should surely not have surprised him, yet his response was bafflement shot through with self-pity. On Friday 12 November he wrote:

“In the midst of this Custody Court – Divorce Court madness. Getting statements from [the boys’] headmasters. Dealing with this sick, sickening book. So, for those years of ministering to her, for those long-suffering years, for educating her, writing the books that made her a name, treating her gently and with care, she proceeds to mean for him High Court costs that can leave him homeless and charge[s] him with being ‘a man of violent ungoverned and unstable temper who has dominated over your petitioner’ etc. […]And those boys? Have I wasted my substance on them too? Already they show signs of her witless compulsive deceit.”

On Wednesday 17 November, my brother and I were in his house in Morden. Rather in the manner of King Lear, he determined to test us, demanding that we each write a letter confirming if we wished to live with him or with her.

I wrote:

To my dear DAD,

I must admit I prefere [sic] living in Putney at the moment. But in years to come I will probly [sic] have a different attitude. I just don’t know.

Signed your loving son, Carlos xxx

My brother wrote a cleaner, leaner, braver letter:

Dear Dad,

If I had the choice I would rather for now live with mother in Putney.

Your son, Mark (Sasha)

Undeterred, he pushed on, gathering materials he could use to contest custody. On Monday 22 November he wrote:

“Have done no work since divorce and custody petition served on me. Getting affidavits signed etc., building up my defence against her claim for full custody. The nervous and emotional strain is great. The children are subverted by what she gives them anyway – endless TV in their bedroom, sweets, toys etc. – and Sash looks at me with resentment. So why not let them go to her? Because if she goes out of her squalid little mind and damages what little chance they have of a normal life, I should be to blame. Can you sacrifice your own children for a peaceful life?”

Eventually, the answer he gave himself, or seemed to give himself, perhaps because of the letters written by my brother and me, was yes – he could, as he saw it, sacrifice us. On the night before the custody hearing he pushed a note through the door of 87 Deodar Road. In this he said he couldn’t be bothered fighting her any more. He would not be in court the following day. She could have us; we were hers to destroy. But the following day, when my mother went to court, there he was with counsel ready to contest custody. So why had he put the note through her letterbox the night before? To wrong-foot her? It looks like it.

In court, my father proposed (and this is just a summary) that she was only seeking custody because of her default antagonism to men, which meant that she must oppose anything done by any man. Her petition was not rooted in real feeling, it was a gesture, and should it succeed, which he hoped it wouldn’t, the arrangement had no chance of lasting. It must collapse inevitably by her abandoning us. He also alleged she’d turn my brother and me into homosexuals, and as evidence of her pathology he invited the judge to take a look at her latest novel, August is a Wicked Month. The judge glanced at a few pages, noted that the text was unlikely to be of interest to children of nine and eleven, and after my mother had spoken briefly from the floor of the court, he made his ruling. He awarded her full custody.

V

On 3 January 1966, my father wrote a letter to his Dublin friends and sometime neighbours from Garville Avenue (they lived at 13, we had lived at 29), the novelist Val Mulkerns and her husband, Maurice Kennedy, which detailed, as he saw it, what had happened in court and the sense he made of it.

The judge in his opinion was hopeless and biased, and of course he had done what judges in English courts in such cases habitually did, awarding custody to the mother. Consequently, he had lost, but (which was his letter’s import, and a way to snatch success from the jaws of defeat), he had now come to see how that was actually for the best:

“the children are completely bought over. Total freedom to do what they like down there [in Putney], roam the streets, pounds of chocolates in the bedroom, TV in their bedroom on all day, never lift a finger or have to tie a shoelace; taught by her to lie about every smallest thing […]

“So what was I fighting for? To have unwilling lumpy boys coming here to suffer out their days of imprisonment? So that in a year or so they will turn Edna faces upon me and tell me they have never had anything from me but neglect and cruelty? (They said they wanted to live with their mother because it was nicer. Sasha, at school around the corner, for a solid fortnight while living with his mother, did not bother once to walk around the corner to see his father.) Like her they have that piece missing from their mentality that has to do with faith, conscience, family affection. They are shot through with O’Brien two-faced cunning. She deserves them to fill her empty life and it looks as if they deserve her. They are as far from my father and mother and family, our kind of feelings and inner life, as parrots or lizards.”

Finally, he told his friends, affecting stoicism shot through with forced insouciance as if to say ‘Such is life, what can you do?’, he had given up on his children until the divorce was heard, and his intention now was to use the time that had suddenly become available to write what he ought to have been writing for the past ten years. He ended the letter:

“I am working, writing, and learning to live down that horrible mistake in my life. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to have a family. Well, who knows?”

VI

To maintain paternal contact, my mother insisted that my brother and I must visit our father for a couple of hours at least once a week on a Tuesday or Thursday evening after school. Though he might not have wanted it, he got us anyway.