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

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Literary Fiction | Non Fiction

By Jo Nestor

This is a deceptively slim volume of work by Maureen O’Connor – lecturer in the School of English, University College Cork – about Edna O’Brien’s vast contribution to modern literature. Part of this deception includes small typeface and narrow line-spacing, enabling the entire book, cover to cover, to hold more than this reader/reviewer might otherwise have imagined. O’Connor tells us that O’Brien’s work has been translated into at least twenty-five languages, to date, and includes eighteen novels, eight short story collections, and a number of well-received poems and plays. It felt like I was tucking into an appetiser on an unfamiliar menu, only to find I had, in fact, selected a satisfying main course choice.

There are, however, one or three things you should know about me and Edna O’Brien:

1) I read this book as a writer, not an academic, but with a personal interest in O’Brien, and I learned a phenomenal amount of information.

2) I have read only one of O’Brien’s books.

3) Although I’ve never met O’Brien, we have someone in common, about which more later.

The book is divided into six succinctly titled chapters, each of which does exactly what it metaphorically says on the tin: Anti-Oedipal Desires; The Liberating Sadomasochism of Things; The Ungrammatical Sublime; Otherworldly Possessions; Myth and Mutilation; Disorder, Dirt, and Death. Each chapter is, effectively, a mini-thesis about that facet of O’Brien’s writing. Much of it is theoretical and academic in style; not light reading per se. Nonetheless, literary academics and researchers alike, I urge you: put this book at the top of your reading pile, for reasons of validity and necessity.

Once I started reading, so began my note-taking. Safe to say, I defaced my review copy with pencil marks and margin commentary, ranging from sentences to acronyms – SWN (‘say what now?’), and the ubiquitous, WTF. Buckle up, because I have a lot to say about this book.

Despite being largely academic in approach (the Preface and Acknowledgements fills four pages), it was an inspiring pleasure to read the Introduction. O’Connor’s writing about O’Brien is approachable, captivating, engaging, enticing and informative, but littered with footnotes, which I chose to ignore – I could check them out by referring to the final third of the book. (Yes, that’s correct: the final third of the book is devoted to footnotes, references and bibliography.)

O’Connor’s Introduction is imperative, not only because it lays out the structure of the book, but also because it’s peppered with a balance of perspective to illustrate the indisputable power of Edna O’Brien’s writing. So powerful, in fact, as to evoke polarised criticism, in particular from men: Archbishop John Charles McQuaid called O’Brien, ‘a renegade, and a dirty one…’; an explicit death threat from Kevin Myers, hostility from Nick Hornby; and yet, warm supportive encouragement from Colm McCann, Benedict Kiely, Kingsley Amis and Seamus Heaney. I found it fascinating to read, too, that Philip Roth was, ‘her long-time close friend and confidant’, a man not known for his kindness towards women. According to O’Connor, O’Brien garners more general positive support, however, from fellow women writers like Alice Munro and Nuala O’Faolain, and she is positively championed by Anne Enright, inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction, 2015.

One entire page lists some of O’Brien’s major literary awards, spanning decades between 1970 – Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award – and 2021, when she was awarded France’s highest literary distinction, commander in the Ordre des Artes and [et?] Lettres. As early as 1973, O’Brien was invited to judge the Man Booker Prize, none of which happened by chance. Her husband said, as recently as 1988, that he had, ‘…held her hand, and taught her the ABC of narrative.’ Yikes … in the margin I’ve noted: ‘Generational misogyny, God help her.’

Faced with relentless critical backlash, then, and outright attempts to discredit her writing, it’s telling that O’Connor quotes what O’Brien told Stuart Wavell in an article for The Guardian (January 25th 1980), ‘People review me rather than my book.’ This is one of my takeaways from this book, and what I’ve come to admire about O’Brien: being consistently authentic, and brave, and for pursuing her writing craft on her own terms. Don’t be tempted, then, to skip the Introduction – it offers essential groundwork for the rest of the book.

With my writer’s hat snug on my head, I wonder who among us creatives does not include ‘baggage’ in their work? Rhetorical question, sure, and before reading this book, I already knew that O’Brien has written about her demons, including many autobiographical themes, from the get-go. Bear in mind that her writing career began in the late 1950s, a time when her courage (I don’t use that word lightly), to remain authentic to writing about what she knew, drew contemporary critique ranging from vitriol to adulation. In this book, O’Connor writes,

“…of her own father, O’Brien has said, ‘he murdered in me each and all of my tiniest inclinations, so that I walked with a stoop, thought with dread.’”

In the margin, I’ve pencilled: ‘And then she married a misogynist!’ Ernest Gébler’s apparent raison d’être was to publically denigrate his wife’s writing competence at every opportunity, asserting that, ‘her talent resided in her knickers’. O’Connor tells us that his revelatory reaction, according to O’Brien, towards the manuscript of her first published novel, The Country Girls, was to say, ‘You can write and I will never forgive you.’

Much of O’Brien’s mother-daughter characters seem to lean heavily, too, on her own personal lived familial dysfunction. Of her mother, O’Connor tells us that O’Brien recalls in her own memoir, Country Girl, that she would smell the chair of seats after male visitors to the house [had left], ‘… to see if they had farted.’ Throughout this book, details of O’Brien’s extensive canon reflect profound examples, it seems, of ‘writing what you goddam know about’, as Stephen King might say.

Castigated by, predominantly, so many men throughout her writing life, it gave me a metaphoric breather to read favourable comparisons made by O’Connor, between Edna O’Brien and John McGahern, famous Irish writer, late of my neck of the woods, Leitrim. They had much in common, these two writers, not least that they both wrote books which were banned by their native Ireland’s Censorship Board; six books in O’Brien’s case. However, she is quoted as stating, ‘I believe I was banned because I am a woman.’

O’Connor quotes Anne Enright, who suggests that,

‘… in the case of McGahern and O’Brien in particular, it was the people at home in Leitrim and Clare, respectively, the ostensible subjects of the young novelists’ early literary productions, who took most vigorous offence and umbrage to their work.’

In O’Brien’s childhood home of Tuamgraney, County Clare, the reactions were, allegedly, ‘… shock, shame, and feelings of betrayal’. And I confess to laughing out loud at this footnoted gem of an extract with regard to The Country Girls:

‘Vicious letters were written anonymously from the village to the author, one local woman claiming to have been possessed by the devil as a result of reading the novel.’

Of course, I’ve known about O’Brien’s writing since forever. But until 2013, when life threw me an extraordinary curveball, affording me unlimited time to read and write at my enforced leisure, I somehow only ever got around to reading The Little Red Chairs. This was an O’Brien best-seller, shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, 2015. I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t finish reading it, and I left it behind me in a monastery near Rome, smiling as I tucked it between religious texts. Childish, perhaps, but being very familiar with the area of Ireland that the story is set in, neither the social commentary, story-plot or characterisations rang true to me. Likewise, and now wearing my ex-Adult Educator’s hat, I disagreed with O’Brien’s depictions of an English language class, set within the story – they were inauthentic, in my opinion. Pedantic? Yes, but as a discerning reader, well, life’s too short, and an Italian monastery is one classic O’Brien novel to the good.

For further context, though, in 2002 when her book, In The Forest, was published, based on true events, I deliberately avoided it. In April 1997, Brendan O’Donnell, a young man with severe mental health issues, abducted and murdered Imelda Riney, her three-year-old son, Liam and a priest, Father Joseph Walshe, dumping their bodies in Cregg Wood, the ‘forest’ of O’Brien’s title. When I watched television news coverage of this tragedy, I recognised the pudgy moonfaced young O’Donnell. Some months before he murdered three people, he’d knocked at our front door. It was dark, my husband was away in town at a meeting, I was getting our three children ready for bed, and still, I let this stranger into our house. Why? Because he told me he was hungry and needed a cup of tea, and I took him at his word. I did this despite an intuitive gut feeling, the equivalent of several insistent fire alarm bells, thrumming my entire body. He stayed for about thirty minutes, then rose and left without saying a word. I’ve often reflected on this event, acutely aware that, when they were both murdered, Imelda Riney was the same age as me, and her son was the same age as mine. Chilling beyond words. We had something in common, Edna O’Brien and I, more than I felt comfortable with. Forgive me for not wanting to read In The Woods.

But to recap, this small book is fascinating, even if it makes theoretical and dense reading in places. Don’t let this put you off. If nothing else, I urge you to read the Introduction. You might gasp out loud, like I did. Here’s an extract to leave you with. It’s from the end of the book and in the author, Maureen O’Connor’s own words:

‘O’Brien has been “trashed” for most of her career because she has consistently, bravely, resolutely contradicted “cherished classification.” In her ninetieth year, O’Brien knows the real obscenity and the sources of the irredeemable filth of the world. She has survived years of abuse and prevailed. A scarred but unbent foremother, she will continue to be a source for a generation and inspiration for however long we continue on this botched planet.’

I’m off now to get my hands on a copy of The Country Girls to see what all the apparent unjustified fuss is about. At least the woman allegedly ‘possessed by the devil’ had actually read the book.

(c) Jo Nestor

Jo Nestor (pen-name), retired Adult Educator, now writes fulltime. She is featured in the 2021 edition of the Roscommon broadsheet, Autumn Leaves; won the Leitrim Guardian Literary Award 2020; and was long-listed in June 2020 for the FISH memoir competition. She chooses to live in hope.

Order your copy of Edna O’Brien and the Art of Fiction here.

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