Edna O’Brien, for whom the word “redoubtable” may well have been coined, has lived a long and quite remarkable life. Now 82 years old, the author of more than two dozen books, she has at last turned to the story of her own life in this memoir, though of course her life has been the raw material for much of the fiction — much of which is entirely extraordinary — she has written since the publication of her first novel, “The Country Girls,” in 1960. The first couple of hundred pages of “Country Girl” are wonderful, the second 150 rather less so, but anyone who knows and loves her work, as I do, will want to read it from start to finish.
She grew up in Drewsboro, a hamlet in western Ireland due south of Galway that she thought “the loveliest, leafiest place in the whole world.” She was in her late teens when she left it for good, but “I knew that I would always come back to Drewsboro and yet that I would never come back entirely.” Her family once had money and position, but by the time of her birth in 1930 all of that was gone and life was difficult, all the more so because her father was distant and often drunk. Her mother, whom she adored — “I used to promise to die at the very instant she did” — struggled to keep the family afloat and to pass along the old verities of religious faith:
“There were morning prayers, evening prayers, vespers, supplications, contritions, psalms, and versicals. There were exhortations about pride, vanity, filthy pleasures, the deformity of our sins being so very great they could not be fully comprehended by human understanding. The flames of Hell seemed as real as the turf burning in the fire. Sometimes, if a sod fell out, my mother would catch it with her bare hand to test her strength for the future and possible flames of eternity. Hell was far more real to us than Heaven. Heaven was golden and vaporish.”
To this day O’Brien keeps those old prayer books “on my bookshelves in London, and sometimes I take one down and realize how thoroughly they informed my thinking and even my dreams,” but she was born to rebel against the strait-laced morality of old Ireland and to succumb, like Anna Karenina, “to the diabolical and enchanting lures of illicit love.” She lost her virginity to a bumpkin Romeo “in his navy blazer and open shirt, bell-bottom trousers, and hair slicked back with Brylcreem,” and though the experience does not seem to have been especially pleasant, it set her on the road out of Drewsboro: “The world with all its sins and guile and blandishments was beckoning.”
On “a Saturday night in the late 1940s,” accompanied by her sister Eileen and two girlfriends, she made her way to Dublin, which she found “enthralling.” She got work at a pharmacy, but the urge to write had bitten her in Drewsboro — “I would go out to the fields to write. The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough, because I wanted to get inside them” — and in Dublin the rich Irish literary tradition began to make itself known to her. She frequented the city’s bookstores and outdoor stalls: “Dublin was a more trusting town in 1950, and secondhand books would be left on trestle tables outside the shop, with canvas awning to keep off the downpours.” She found “a slim volume called ‘Introducing James Joyce,’ by T.S. Eliot,” from which “a sentence shot up at me: ‘All blessed themselves and Mr Dedalus with a sigh of pleasure lifted from the dish the heavy cover pearled around the edge with glistening drops.’ ” Suddenly her life changed:
“I realized that it could have been a Christmas dinner in our house or many a house in Ireland, maybe not with the same erudition but with the same bitterness that split people and made them spiteful and unforgiving. I bought it for fourpence and carried it with me everywhere, including to pharmacy lectures, so that I could read it at will and copy out the sentences, luminous and labyrinthine as they were. It was when I copied them that I began to realize how great they were, the short, flawless snatches of dialogue, lush descriptions of corpses and steers and pigs and kine, of sea and sea stones, and then the extraordinary ascensions, in which worlds within worlds unfolded.”
In Dublin she met a decidedly minor writer named Ernest Gebler, “handsome beyond words, sallow-faced, with dark brown eyes and granite features,” who reminded her of “a German actor, Conrad Veidt.” Why she fell in love with him remains unclear, apparently as much to her as to the reader, but she did. He wrote and insisted that she sign a letter to her parents, “an ugly letter, unsparing of them in every way,” and when she signed it “I knew that, by going from them to him, I had burnt my boats.” They had two sons, to whom she was and is devoted, but the marriage was a disaster. Gebler “had to be right about everything, and if he was crossed, a look of hatred came into his eyes, but to be crossed by me, a literary flibbertigibbet, was ridiculous, believing as he did that he owned me.”
In three weeks she wrote “The Country Girls.” Gebler read it. “Yes, he had to concede that despite everything, I had done it, and then he said something that was the death knell of the already ailing marriage — ‘You can write and I will never forgive you.’ It was as if by writing it I had taken the ground from under his feet: I had sabotaged his inner belief in himself, and I could not completely blame him. In the six years since I had met him . . . something had changed in me and he had played an important part in that change, and now I was poised for flight.” A nasty divorce and a nasty fight over custody ensued, but O’Brien was free to lead her own life and to write her own books.
“The Country Girls” caused a furor that “took me by surprise.” A sympathetic and, by the standards of the day, candid examination of the emotional and amatory lives of Irish women, it got generally admiring reviews in the press, but “in her letters my mother spoke of the shock, the hurt, and the disgust that neighbors felt.” The “postmistress, who happened to be Protestant, told my father that a fitting punishment would be for me to be kicked naked through the town,” while the Catholic and political hierarchy agreed “that the book was filth and should not be allowed inside any decent home.” It was the first of many storms that have made life a bumpy if exhilarating ride for O’Brien, who realized from a “very young age that I came from fierce people and that the wounds of history were . . . raw and vivid,” and who has devoted her life to writing about those people and their place.
Outside small-town Ireland the book brought her more approval than scorn, and in time she became something of a celebrity. During the Swinging ’60s she knew just about everyone who was anyone, and though she protests that “it baffles me how I came to know all these people,” much of her memoir from this point on is a chronicle of names and faces who need no introduction, though they certainly will a couple of decades down the road. It is amusing to be told that she slept with Robert Mitchum and quite enjoyed herself, and since famous people tend to hang out with other famous people the appearance of tabloid-quality names in their memoirs probably can’t be avoided, but Edna O’Brien is first and foremost a writer, and the presence here of the likes of Marianne Faithfull, Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda grates more than it illuminates. In the end, though, O’Brien returns to her true self and her indelible Irishness, the elements that have drawn readers to her work for more than half a century and will continue to do so for many years hence.
By Edna O’Brien
Little, Brown. 357 pp. $27.99