The Love Object: Selected Stories, by Edna O’Brien
These powerful, evocative short stories show O’Brien to be a master of the art and an alchemist of the reader’s soul
The Love Object. Selected Stories.
Faber & Faber
Edna O’Brien is one of those writers who are masters of the art of the short story as well as of the novel. This group includes William Trevor, John McGahern and John Updike, in contrast with, say, Alice Munro, who has concentrated exclusively on short stories, or Frank O’Connor or Mary Lavin, who wrote a few novels but were primarily short-story practitioners.
Dorothea Brande, in her classic Becoming a Writer, writes that the sort of person who likes to examine her dreams, to write about personal moments of intensity, is probably a short-story writer. If you tend to analyse many characters in depth, to seek motives, you are a novelist. There’s something to that. But O’Brien does both. Her portrayals of whole communities have as much precision as her explorations of the most delicate twists and turns of the individual human heart.
The Love Object, the title of this selection, is apt. Love is O’Brien’s abiding theme, and she maps its meanderings, its springs and eddies, its placid lakes and its tumbling waterfalls through all 31 stories in this wonderful volume. Love of daughter for mother, of pupil for teacher, of men and women, of mother for son, of nature, of beauty, even of dogs – and, above all, of place. In no instance is there anything simple or given about any of these “love affairs”: the protagonists, the lovers, are always seeking something, and usually not getting it or, if they do, losing it.
One of the most exquisite stories ever written, by anyone, The Rug catches the tone of the collection. A woman in a farmhouse receives a beautiful sheepskin rug in the post. No letter is attached, and she assumes it is a thank you present from some previous visitor to the house. The rug is laid in the front room. It brings it to life – “the room had become suddenly cosy”. For four weeks, parents and daughter spend happy hours sitting in the room, exulting in the loveliness, and pleasurably guessing at the identity of their secret benefactor.
It turns out that the rug was delivered by mistake, and the real owner comes to claim it. “‘We live and learn,’ she said, as she undid her apron strings, out of habit, and then retied them slowly and methodically, making a tighter knot.” In a few pages O’Brien evokes the character of a woman, of a household, of a way of life.
In his excellent, if too short, introduction John Banville compares O’Brien to Chekhov. Many a short-story writer is compared to Chekhov, often without much supporting evidence. But in this instance it is not a facile analogy. O’Brien has frequently acknowledged her love for Chekhov’s work, and she has learned from him. Like Chekhov she can see and describe the very finest nuances of human feeling, not just the big, strong emotions such as love and hate and envy, which are easy to splash about the canvas of fiction, but all the shadowy subtle shades of emotion that occur between the brash primary colours. “It was not love and it was not hate but something for which there is no name, because to name it would deprive it of its truth.”
And she conveys, again and again, the elusive truth using the key Chekhovian tool: the suggestive image, the half metaphor – the drape of a lace tablecloth, a glass bowl full of screws and receipts and pills, the balletic flip of a pancake on a shovel doing service as a frying pan. The taste of soft icing on a cake, or the texture of a fig. For instance, a recurring theme of the stories, the love of daughter and mother – nobody has written about this relationship like O’Brien – is captured perfectly in an inspired allusion to milk, that archetypal image of the maternal: “There were three large pans of cream put to settle in the dairy and with the tips of her fingers, Mama skimmed the cream into the jug. She did it perfectly, making sure that no milk got in. The separated milk was a bluish-white in colour, not like the butter yellow colour of the cream.” (Green Georgette). Such perfectly pitched passages, beautiful, layered with meaning and powerfully evocative, abound in these stories.
O’Brien has the finely turned sensibility of the greatest artists – there is often a Mozartian flow to her work. Precisely the right words are shaped into perfect sentences and perfect narratives, which perform their magical alchemy in the reader’s soul. There is something miraculous about it all.
But as well as forensically dissecting the hearts of individuals, O’Brien has the novelist’s sociological and anthropological edge. She writes the body and the heart, but she also writes society. Several stories, early and late, use the village, or parish, as the crucible of clashing values. A rebellious individual, usually a girl or a woman whose flaw is that she is sexually alive and attractive, is pitted against the moral and social strictures of the community. A wonderful talent O’Brien has – she shares this with Trevor – is the ability both to understand, almost empathise with the village, the chorus in these stories, while being acutely aware of its viciously dangerous flaws.
Some of her wittiest and most entertaining writing occurs when she slips deftly from the voice of her individual protagonist into the voice of the community chorus. For example, in one of her great village stories, The Widow, Bridget is a cheerful partying woman who does not live up to the local standard of decorous widowhood, so the neighbours keep a close eye on all her goings-on. There is general dismay when she purchases venetian blinds. “What is Bridget trying to hide?” But the village has its ways and means: “A child had seen her carrying in a scuttle of coal. So there was a fire in the parlour, people were heard to say.”
O’Brien achieves her funniest moments when she deploys this deliciously knowing tone. Some of her stories are hilarious – the often anthologised Irish Revel, for example – but many of the “I and the village” stories glitter with mischievous wit in a lower key. We recognise that seductive blend of intimate whispering, the odd flash of wonder followed by a critical nod, the barbed understatement: it is a tone not uncommon when women, in Ireland and no doubt elsewhere, meet for a good chat, but few have translated it so brilliantly on to the page.
That is one of O’Brien’s voices. The stories of maturity, with settings ranging from London to exotic holiday destinations, deal with adult sexual love in all its complexities, and with family matters from all angles. In the brilliant Storm, a story about a two-generation holiday where tensions erupt into a row, the unspeakable is said, then covered up by the veneer of civilised behaviour: “They have each looked into the abyss and drawn back, frightened of the primitive forces that lurk there.” O’ Brien, again and again in her stories, writes about that gap between the surface of civilised live and the primitive forces: the gap where we daren’t tread too often but which a great writer can show us.
This selection is made from six collections, published between 1968 and 2012. As well as being an intensely enjoyable book, it is a very important publication in the history of Irish literature: the selected stories of one of the major writers of our era. No information on the selection process is given, however, nor on the arrangement of the material. The stories are not chronologically presented as published – the first story is from a 1968 collection, the second from a 1982 book, the fourth from 1974, the thirteenth from 1968 again, and so on (as one finds out only by ploughing through the acknowledgments).
The arrangement is rather thematic, with tales of childhood coming first, of age at the end. While this is justifiable aesthetically and makes for a pleasantly cohesive reading experience, the more scholarly reader will have to look elsewhere to find elementary bibliographical facts. Banville’s introduction provides a profound and fascinating personal response from one of her peers, as is appropriate, but a second, more informative introduction would have enhanced the volume.
That is a reflection on the editing, not on O’ Brien or her marvellous writing. In all other ways this is an outstanding collection – a fitting monument to “one of the finest writers of our time”, as Banville points out, and a book that everyone who loves fiction will want to own. “No one before her [in Ireland] has managed to portray an utterly convincing female sensibility . . . She catches in the web of her artistry something of the essence of womanhood itself.”
That is because, not just in her subject matter but in her very style, the words she uses and the lyrical rhythm of her prose, she is totally herself.
The Love Object: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien is published by Faber and Faber, priced £20
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a writer fellow at UCD. Her latest book is The Shelter of Neighbours (2012).