Nuala O’Faolain, ‘Edna O’Brien’, in Ireland Today (Sept. 1983)

Details: Nuala O’Faolain, ‘Edna O’Brien’, in Ireland Today [Irish na Roinne Gnothai Eachtracha/Bulletin of the Dept. of Foreign Affairs], No. 1,0001 (Sept. 1983), pp.10-13.

Edna O’Brien has had a more immediate and sustained impact on her native audience than any other Irish writer of the twentieth century. Since her first novel The Country Girls was published in 1960 her name has been synonymous with a near-artless kind of subversive candour. Her themes were at that time scandalous in social terms. Her style was blatantly simple. The entire public both wanted to read her and could read her. And she had access to that public from the very beginning: she had been well served by vigorous publishers and her paperback firm, Penguin, has one of the best distribution networks in the country. One or two of her books will be found on the shelves of even the smallest and most remote newsagents shops in Ireland. She personally a very beautiful and original woman, often seen on television. For all these reasons she is domestically famous Ireland in a way that her great contemporary, Samuel Beckett, is not, and in a way that readily confuses the author with the fictioi The inhibitions of Ireland in the early 1960s which led to some of her books being banned by the Irish Censorship Board, have long since been diffused. But her fearless recounting of a woman’s experience has remained central both to her reputation and [10] to her work.

She has attracted very little academic or even critical attention, even though she herself has been a most persistent stylistic experimenter. She has moved from a headstrong, detail-on-detail narrative to sustained monologue, as in Night (1972). The whole of A Pagan Place (1970) is written in the second person singular,

At school girls looked at you and nudged each other. You were an aunt now. You thought it a disgraceful thing to be. The teacher made a point of being nice to you ...

Here the device is meant to conjure the adult’s excavation of memory. But is also implies a split consciousness, which she tried to articulate through dual narrators in Girls in their Married Bliss and in Casualties of Peace (1966).

Leaving aside her rather naive dealings with structure, a critic might well look at her remarkable descriptive accomplishments. She is a mistress of smell and feel and colour. Her reconstitution of a child’s eye is extraordinary, and sustains her one minor masterpiece, A Pagan Place. She has a great gift, when writing in an Irish setting, for the flavour and pace of colloquial speech.

Any of these approaches will carry the interested reader some distance. But they evade the obvious. Edna O’Brien is a writer with one theme, women who love and suffer. She writes to write about this theme. She published nine novels and three collections of short stories between 1960 and 1978. As a whole they explore one exceptionally narrow theme, but explore it exceptionally deeply. Any fiction is reduced by being discussed in terms of theme only: nevertheless that approach is closest to her own intentions.

Almost quarter of a century later The Country Girls is still a quintessentially youthful book, fresh, charming and acute. The heroine, Caithleen, loves her mother passionately, fears her drunken father, and puts her trust in the older, foreign man who does not turn up at the rendezvous where she waits in the rain to run away with him. Caithleen has one friend, Baba, who makes up in reckless energy for the heroine’s passive and melancholy nature. This structure, where a soft girl is surrounded by stronger characters, and above all by men who victimise her, is amazingly tenacious in Edna O’Brien’s work. Over and over the heroine commits herself to single-minded dependence on a man, usually older and usually foreign. Over and over his betrayal of the woman is the plot of her life and of the book. Only the details vary.

One can take it that some personal event is at the heart of this recurring trauma. Edna O’Brien is not a writer within a conscious literature. She owes nothing to any predecessor or to any tradition. Her books are evidently the product of experience, an experience so tragic that each book inevitably works its way towards a reenactment.

In her second and third novels the heroine becomes even more embattled. In Girl with Green Eyes the foreigner is called Eugene Gaillard (Edna O’Brien’s husband’s name was Ernest Gebler). He dazzles Kate,
seduces her and fails to love her. He despises her peasant world and he makes her feel despicable. Baba takes her off to London. Until the last moment, on the boat preparing to leave Dublin, she expects him to come for her but he does not.

In the next novel they have married and are living in the English countryside. But Kate has not escaped from victimisation. Frozen by her husband’s contempt, she looks for love elsewhere. Eugene takes a terrible revenge. He takes away her little son and she knows that the separation will be permanent. Kate, in reaction to this loss and to the universal pain she perceives in fecundity, has herself sterilized. Baba comes to see her and is chilled,

to see Kate like that, all the expected responses were missing, the guilt and doubt and sadnesses, she was looking at someone of whom too much had been cut away. Some important region that they both knew nothing about.

That first betrayal, when Mr Gentleman does not turn up to run away with Caithleen, is not only a theme but the theme of Edna O’Brien’s fiction. The ambience changes: from the mid-1960s onward the Kate-figure is an elegant and wealthy woman who lives in London. But she does not stop being Irish and she does not cease to suffer.

In August is a Wicked Month (1965) the heroine again has a little boy, an estranged and hostile husband and a lover. The lover is losing interest in her and the son is away on summer holidays with his father so Ellen goes to the South of France, determined on adventure. She finds it. A glamorous filmstar gathers her into his entourage and favours her.

Then her husband telephones to say that the child is dead. He was killed by a car. He is already buried. The film star helps Ellen to heal by patiently teaching her to swim. Eventually they make love and he disappears. Ellen soon discovers why: she had caught a venereal infection from him. She goes back to London, to the absence of her child and finds herself indifferent to her former lover who wants her. She blames herself,

Under the soft skin and behind the big, melting eyes, her heart was like a nutmeg. Some of it had been grated by life but the very centre never really surrendered to anyone, not to the mother who stole for her, not to the drunken father, nor to her far-seeing but poisoned husband, and not to the child in the way it should have ...

The infection is diagnosed as minor. Ellen looks forward to autumn. And there this extremely violent and unconsidered novel ends.

It would be tedious to continue to summarise, except for the interest in observing the same situation recur again and again. In the short story “How to Grow a Wisteria” the young wife is the virtual prisoner of a cold and contempuous husband. In Night (1972) the heroine has had a husband, a Dr Flaggler, who terrorised her and their son. In Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977) the heroine has had a contemptuous, despising husband who tried to take their son. In Casualties of Peace (1966) Willa has been terrorized by her icy lover, Auro, who persuades her

You would rather have a man that punished you than one who did not, because you are a woman ...

Sometimes the punishment is covert. In Paradise the unsophisticated mistress of a rich and powerful man tries to kill herself because ‘it just seemed easier, that was all, easier than the strain and the incomplete loving and the excursions that lay ahead ...’

In this world of punishment his response to her action is to coldly withdraw from her. In two of the stories in A Scandalous Woman (1976) a woman is going mad, literally, because of not being loved. In Johnny I Hardly Knew You the heroine murders her boy-lover on the one hand because he has an ugly epileptic fit, on the other, in revenge for all the men who have victimised her.

These plots, detached from their contexts, may sound like grand guignol. It is the triumph of Edna O’Brien’s fiction that she makes them seem not only important, but profoundly faithful to a logic of the emotions between men and women. One takes her on trust. The centre of each heroine, ‘the pointless purgatory that was her wont ...’ is never argued. It is the given, the basis of the fiction: never an arrived-at conclusion. The absolute and unnerving dependence of an O’Brien woman on a certain kind of love seems occasionally to have its roots in the experience of seeing a beloved mother brutalised by her marriage. But the mother always has some dignity, some gaiety. The daughter-women, alone and ostensibly desirable, have none and want none.

It is not men or a man who orchestrate this waste. It is love itself conceived as a universal force. To live for love is a compulsion that outlives the individual to whom it may be temporarily attached. Edna O’Brien’s most characteristic voice is heard in the very fine short story The Love Object (1968). This describes an impassioned affair between a television announcer, Martha, and a ‘famous’ lawyer who is happily married. After a while he leaves Martha and she reaches suicidal depths. Then her sons come home from boarding school for midterm. Unexpectedly, she, rather than her estranged husband, has to care for them. And gradually, slowly, she recovers from the affair. But as she recovers she falls in love with the memory of the lover more deeply than ever she had been while he was available to her.

Eventually they meet again and continue to meet from time to time. He means nothing to her now. But the memory of loving him passionately holds undiminished sway over her and she remains in torment. She ends the story,

I suppose you wonder why I torment myself like this with details of his presence but I need it, I cannot let go of him now, because if I did, all our happiness and my subsequent pain - I cannot vouch for his - will all have been nothing, and nothing is a dreadful thing to hang on to.

This very private vision is at the heart of Edna O’Brien’s writing. Her style is so friendly, so convinced, so urgently inviting, that the reader is drawn into giving it reality. Whatever her other accomplishments, her real appeal is to the sombre and extreme narcissism which lurks at the heart of European romanticism. Just as she came out of no tradition, she has had no followers or imitators. She is entirely unique; a lone and obsessed chronicler of the wilder shores of love.

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