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Edna O’Brien and the Art of Fiction by Maureen O’Connor

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Edna O'Brien

By Maureen O'Connor

Edna O’Brien, who will be celebrating her 91st birthday before the end of 2021, is enjoying a cultural renaissance. In just the last five years, she has received numerous exceptional honours: the Irish Francophonie Ambassadors Literary Award (2017); the PEN/Nabokov International Award for a lifetime’s achievement in literature (2018); the Order of the British Empire for her services to literature (2018);  the Prix Femina Special, a prestigious French literary award, for the novel Girl (2019);  the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award (2019); the David Cohen Prize for Literature, considered the British/Irish equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Literature (2019); and France’s highest literary distinction honouring a lifetime’s work, the Ordre des Artes et Lettres (2021). She delivered the 2020 T. S. Eliot lecture, and, in 2021, a portrait of the novelist by painter Olin Davidson was installed at the Irish Embassy in London. I say “renaissance,” because only a small number of scholars are aware of the breadth of O’Brien’s international reputation—her work has been translated into at least twenty-five languages—and the astonishing scope of her output. Some of this has to do with the shifting nature of both her critical reception and her subject matter, as well as her longevity. The era of her greatest fame—or, perhaps, notoriety—ended roughly thirty years ago, so that it is necessary to be reminded of her one-time seeming cultural ubiquity in the United Kingdom. For example, O’Brien co-starred with Patrick McGoohan and Lee Van Cleef in the forgotten 1979 movie The Hard Way, and appeared as herself in the first episode of the 1986 BBC television series based on Fay Weldon’s novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. In this period, she was such a popular chat show guest that, on the publication of Time and Tide in 1992, Nick Hornby could sneer, “television studio sofas everywhere are probably being prepared for the imminent arrival of the O’Brien bottom.” Years of celebrity, however, had little impact on her impressive productivity. In addition to the numerous works of fiction for which she is best known (to date, eighteen novels and eight short-story collections), she has written several successful children’s books, as well as plays, teleplays, screenplays, and a volume of poetry. Her nonfiction books include biographies of writers Lord Byron and James Joyce, Mother Ireland (a memoir/social history of Ireland, originally published with photographs by Fergus Bourke), Country Girl: A Memoir, books on Irish legend and myth, and the rarely discussed Arabian Days, published in 1978, a foresightful travelogue about Abu Dhabi, illustrated with photographs by Gerard Klijn.

O’Brien’s last two novels, The Little Red Chairs (2015) and Girl (2019) are striking testimonials to her artistic integrity, her unwavering determination to challenge herself and stake out new territory. In these novels she inhabits experiences and sensibilities far removed from her own, exhibiting vast and intense powers of sympathy. Girl explores, in yet another agonizing variety, O’Brien’s most enduring theme: the struggle for women to realize full personhood under patriarchal domination. These novels’ distinctive formal dislocations, the multiplicity of voices and points of view, belie her career-long reputation as a writer of lush, excessively lyrical prose, often sloppily constructed. In fact, from early in her career, she has undertaken formal experimentation, as in A Pagan Place (1970) and Night (1972), in which reality exceeds traditionally “tidy” modes of articulation for women’s experience. The kind of textual dissonance that distinguishes O’Brien’s literary practice provokes self-consciousness in the reader by bringing a text’s textuality to our attention. Her prose can potentially destabilize the normative dynamic and distance “proper” to the relationship between author, character, and reader, the language sometimes straining the limits of the representable as it collapses points of view and confuses narratorial perspective, at the same encouraging a recursive rather than linear reading practice. Unlike the case of her predecessor James Joyce, whose flouting of grammar signals his genius and originality, O’Brien’s apparent ignorance of those same rules has signified personal and professional failure. As I have argued, however, the novelist’s purported stylistic deficiencies can be read as defiance of formal authority and its determinate structures

It is in this context that I have written Edna O’Brien and the Art of Fiction, only the third monograph on O’Brien, the first being Grace Eckley’s 1974 volume, followed nearly 30 years later by Amanda Greenwood’s work in 2003. Following Greenwood’s model of updating critical readings of O’Brien’s fiction, incorporating, for example, theories of intertextuality and gender, I offer new readings of the work, applying approaches such as ecocriticism, ecofeminism, posthumanism, and feminist new materialism. As the international reputation of contemporary Irish women writers has grown substantially in the twenty-first century, it is vital to remind readers of an important foremother. The list of writers, male and female, who have credited O’Brien with granting them a freedom to tackle difficult subjects and expose the raw and painful elements of the Irish experience, is a long one. That freedom that was not widely available to writers across class and gender before she led the way, beginning with the Country Girls trilogy. Some significant names include Colum McCann, Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride, Martina Devlin, June Caldwell, Anne Enright, Frank McGuinness, Dermot Bolger, Catherine Dunne, Alan McMonagle, Louise O’Neill, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Sean O’Reilly, Danielle McLaughlin, Claire Keegan, and Louise Nealon. Every one of the writers has testified in one way or another to the crucial, enabling legacy of O’Brien’s work. O’Brien has not only written about controversial subjects in her fiction and withstood the ensuing critical attacks. Despite her erstwhile reputation for writing disposable women’s romance fiction, she has been serious from the first, involved since the 1960s in campaigns, for example, against the atom bomb, the Vietnam war, and the treatment of republican prisoners during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. She has provided an example for Irish writers of standing up for artistic integrity while granting a voice to the voiceless, and linking the cultural to the political.

(c) Maureen O’Connor

About Edna O’Brien and the Art of Fiction:

Since the appearance of her first novel, The Country Girls, in 1960—a book that undermined the nation’s ideal of innocent and pious Irish girlhood­—Edna O’Brien has provoked controversy in her native Ireland and abroad. Indeed, several of her early novels were condemned by church authorities and banned by the Irish government for their frank portrayals of sexual matters and the inner lives of women. Now an internationally acclaimed writer, O’Brien must be critically reassessed for a twenty-first century audience. Edna O’Brien and the Art of Fiction provides an urgent retrospective consideration of one of the English-speaking world’s best-selling and most prolific contemporary authors. Drawing on O’Brien’s fiction as well as archival material, and applying new theoretical approaches—including ecocritical and feminist new materialist readings—this study considers the pioneering and enduring ways O’Brien represents women’s experience, family relationships, the natural world, sex, creativity, and death, and her work’s long anticipation of contemporary movements such as #metoo.

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About the author

MAUREEN O’CONNOR lectures in English at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland. She is the author of The Female and the Species: The Animal in Irish Women’s Writing and co-editor of Edna O’Brien: New Critical Perspectives, Wild Colonial Girl: Essays on Edna O’Brien, and Ireland and India: Colonies, Culture, and Empire.

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