This is the week of Bloomsday (June 16), the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is celebrated with scholarly symposia, cultural gatherings and an effusion of finger waving from academics who admonish us for not having enriched our meager minds with the master’s difficult but incandescent prose. Balderdash. This summer, instead of slogging through all 250,000 words of Ulysses (as well as the shelf-cracking row of books you’ll need to decipher it), read Ireland’s other modernist prose stylist and genius storyteller: Edna O’Brien.
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The author of more than 20 novels, short stories and plays for stage and screen, O’Brien has had a prolific career spanning nearly 50 years. She has been described as possessing “the soul of Molly Bloom and the skills of Virginia Woolf,” and heralded as “the most gifted woman now writing fiction in English” by none other than Philip Roth. She has received countless accolades, yet remains one of Ireland’s most misunderstood writers. Shortly after the release of her critical study of James Joyce in 1999, one reviewer sniffed, “All Edna O’Brien’s effort proves is that lightweight novelists should stick to what they do best.”
O’Brien’s relationship with Ireland has always been a cantankerous one. Her first novel, The Country Girls, written in 1959 during a three-week frenzy, was condemned by the minister of culture as a “smear on Irish womanhood.” The book, which deals with the sexual awakening of a young woman from a small village in west Ireland, was promptly banned. As were her next eight novels.
The problem? O’Brien writes about sex and its repercussions in a way that is graphic, frank and utterly unheard of in conservative, “priest-plagued” Ireland. Her first three novels follow the adventures of Caithleen and Baba as they flee their convent school in rural Ireland, find considerably older husbands in Dublin, and confront their failed marriages in London. Along the way, the girls conceive out of wedlock, have extramarital affairs and contract venereal disease. In O’Brien’s village in County Clare, copies of her book that had been smuggled past the censors were burned in the town square.
What fueled the ire of O’Brien’s critics was that she herself was a young adventuress from the west, who fled Scarriff and its “five streetlamps,” married the writer Ernest Gebler and escaped to London. Her husband’s counterpart in the trilogy is Eugene Gaillard, and his final message to Caithleen is, “Old men and young girls are all right in books but not anywhere else.” O’Brien’s marriage to Gebler was dissolved in 1964. Draw your own conclusions.
Petrol-packing priests weren’t the only ones to conflate the narrator with the author. Because of their autobiographical underpinnings, critics and reviewers were quick to associate O’Brien with the wild Irish colleens of her novels. Her good looks encouraged these stereotypical assessments. As recently as 1994, a reviewer saw fit to mention her “flame-red hair, milky skin and mesmerizing green-flecked eyes.” O’Brien’s eyes are blue, but after the film version of The Lonely Girl was released as Girl With Green Eyes, audiences were increasingly unable and/or unwilling to distinguish her from her heroines. She was a woman writer who wrote passionately of the passions of women. Put another piece of turf on the fire and cue the harp music.
Strangely, this recklessly romantic view of O’Brien persisted even when it no longer accurately applied to her work. O’Brien continued to write about sex, but her vision grew darker and darker. A young girl seduced by a priest is coerced into oral copulation; a woman’s affair with a young girl while on holiday ends when the object of her affection is killed by a jealous husband; a girl of 14 seeks an abortion after being raped by her father. Bisexuality, masturbation and sadism abound. There is no dark place O’Brien is unwilling to go. Feminists love her, for they see her work as a challenge to the authority of patriarchal power structures so prevalent in colonized countries; in O’Brien’s milieu, however, a woman’s battle for autonomy over her body may be fierce, but she seldom wins.
“Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare,” O’Brien declares in the opening to Mother Ireland, an autobiographical homage to her homeland. Shortly after its publication, Mother O’Brien passed away. A severe and intensely prideful woman, she despised the fact that her daughter was a writer, and never forgave her for bringing shame to Scarriff.
“Writers and their mothers — the uncharted deep.” The line appears in O’Brien’s short, intimate book on James Joyce, but in her most recent novel, The Light of Evening, published in late 2006, O’Brien attempts to do just that. The book opens with an elderly woman in a hospital bed, awaiting a visit from her daughter, an established writer who lives in London. The story shifts back and forth between the two women, investigating crucial moments in lives marred by conflict. The daughter is always on the move, restlessly searching for something missing in herself in the company of others. In contrast, her mother holes up in a once-proud mansion and watches it slide into ruin.
When the daughter finally arrives at the hospital, the reunion proves short-lived and abruptly ends in disappointment and dismay. The daughter inadvertently leaves a journal behind and her mother explores its devastating contents, wondering whether the scenes are for a work in progress or confessions of her daughter’s true feelings.
The Light of Evening is a modernist portmanteau of letters, journal entries and stream-of-consciousness recollections from the mother’s youthful adventures in 1920s New York to the daughter’s travels in Europe during the ’60s. It is divided into eight parts that make vast, nonlinear leaps across time and space — much like the memory of an old woman. While the material is among her most autobiographical since the Country Girls trilogy, stylistically, it’s O’Brien’s most challenging work to date.
O’Brien began experimenting with narrative forms in the ’70s, and as she became more proficient, she tackled more difficult material, and in Ireland that means politics. She took on the Troubles with the tale of an I.R.A. provo on the run (another book that features an old woman alone in a big house), a land dispute that stirs up “ancestral animosities” and ends in bloodshed, and a brutal triple homicide based on a real murder case in the west of Ireland. With these novels, O’Brien demonstrates that sex was not the subject of her earlier work but the mechanism through which her characters’ struggles were expressed, much like the role of violence in the work of William Faulkner.
In many ways, O’Brien’s tour de force calls to mind Faulkner’s masterwork, Light in August, with its mad old woman alone in a house whose decay mirrors her dementia. If the mother in The Light of Evening represents Faulkner, then the daughter symbolizes Joyce, who was summoned out of exile to visit his mother on her deathbed and famously refused to pray for her.
Those are the depths. One can only hope that O’Brien will continue to chart them and that more readers will embark on the journey.
Five by O'Brien
Casualties of Peace (1966): O’Brien expands on the gothic aspects of her previous novels with a grim fairy tale of modern love. With scenes of physical and psychological torture set in a Swiss dungeon, we’re a long way from County Clare.
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Night (1972): Dismissed as “one long act of public literary masturbation,” but if Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf had a daughter, she would sound like Mary Hooligan, the protagonist of O’Brien’s most experimental novel.
A Fanatic Heart (1985): Between 1974 and 1990, O’Brien published five collections of short stories. A Fanatic Heart assembles 29 of O’Brien’s favorites, including many that were first published in The New Yorker.
House of Splendid Isolation (1994): The widow of a man killed by the I.R.A. confronts her past when a terrorist takes her hostage. O’Brien’s penetrating prose and masterful use of multiple points of view will keep you guessing.
In the Forest (2002): In a story based on shocking real events, O’Brien takes her readers into the mind of a deranged killer. Dark, harrowing, gorgeous writing that implicates us all in the depravity of the human condition.