Edna O’Brien’s ‘Country Girl’, a memoir, was published in London last year as a ‘major literary event.’
I came across it while browsing shelves of Wellington’s Central Library. It had a red ‘Bestsellers; Charges Apply’ banner affixed to it, just above Edna’s eyes, photograph of her younger self gracing the front cover.
I cannot really tell why I took it with me, ‘charges apply’ and all. Was it because of the photograph showing her dragging on a cigarette, or this passage from the book’s Prologue; ‘ I thought of life’s many bounties – to have known the extremities of joy and sorrow, love, crossed love and unrequited love, success and failure, fame and slaughter, to have read in the newspapers that as a writer I was pas my sell-by date, and moreover a ‘bargain basement Molly Bloom’, yet, regardless, to go on writing and reading, to be lucky enough to be able to immerse myself in those two intensities that have buttressed my whole life.’
Whatever it was, glued me to the book for days. Conveniently, after my recent trip to South Island to visit my daughter, full-blown flue descended upon me commanding me to stay quarantined at home.
You could not wish for an environment more conducive to reading and writing, while temperatures are nearing zero, snow is falling in record quantities and winds of up to 200 km/hour are pounding my city … yes this is the winter in NZ! At the time of writing many power lines are down and numerous households are without power. Hopefully to be restored in a few days.
So here I am wrapped in my favorite blanket, cup of tea in hand, to tell you a story about a writer and a woman – Edna O’Brien – the way I experienced it.
Edna O’Brien was born in Ireland in 1930, has published over twenty works of fiction since her first brilliant novel ‘The Country Girls’ and has received numerous awards. Colum McCann wrote that ‘Edna O’Brien has, for a half-century, been the advanced scout for the Irish imagination. She has consistently been at the necessary edge of who we are.’
Reading her memoir is to come face to face with life so rich and so full that makes one dizzy. Vertigoes feelings arouse primarily for two reasons; the mastery of language, (it has been some time since I was compelled to copy whole passages into my notebook longhand), and braveness of heart.
Edna O’Brien is a first and foremost a brave woman. Everything else, her writing, her life, sprouts from that fact.
In her memoir, which she once swore never to write, but nevertheless sat down to write it at the age of seventy-eight, she recasts her life from Drewsboro, the house in which she was born and raised in the west of Ireland, to the glitz and glamour of swinging sixties and countless celebrities she met and sometimes befriended along the way, with equal depth and honesty.
While reading about endless parties and luncheons with the likes of Jackie Onassis, Hilary Clinton, Princess Margaret, Samuel Backett, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, (how I envy her for meeting those guys!), and many, many others, is certainly enchanting since it is described with the utmost care and in brilliantly poetic language, it is the voice of Edna O’Brien who fought to escape convent education first, and disastrous marriage second, that speaks to me the most. Voice of a young woman very much alone as a wife, as a mother, and especially as a writer.
Her early novels were often burned and banned in her native Ireland for their portrayal of young women who longed to escape confines of small towns and early marriages. They craved freedom, including sexual freedom. Some of the early critics of her work wrote that ‘her talent resided in her knickers.’
Raised in a religious family, she was sent to a convent school at a young age from her village which she later described as; ‘enclosed, fervid, and bigoted.’
During her convent school years, O’Brien made every effort to finish it as early as possible and escape to Dublin where she worked in a drugstore while studying at the Pharmaceutical College at night. During that time she started to read widely and asked herself; ‘Why could life not be lived at that same pitch? Why was it only in books that I could find the utter outlet for my emotions?’ I asked myself similar questions while dragging myself through the Law School.
In an attempt to escape both drudgery of an ordinary life and strictness of her family, she married much older man, a writer Ernest Gebler, with whom she will have two sons. However, when she showed him her first, novel, written during ‘stolen moments’, he read it and then said to her; ‘You can write and I will never forgive you.’ While they soon divorced, O’Brien will have to fight a bitter battle for the custody of her two boys, which she eventually won.
While she never re-married, she was involved in several long relationships to which she refers only briefly in her memoir. However, she is honest about the ‘high trapeze at the commencement of love,’ and the ‘surprise meetings, cancelled meetings, devouring jealousies, the rapture and the ruptures of an affair.’ Things got messy. I lack the cunning and the dissimulation’, she says, ‘necessary for a normal affair.’ That, I understand with a painful clarity!
As she wrote at the very beginning of her memoir: ‘All the others have died. I am there to answer for my crimes. It makes no difference that my interrogators are all dead.’ It sent shivers of recognition through the full length of my spine.
At the ripe age of 82 Edna O’Brien remains as brave, and as inspirational as ever.