BOOKS OF BLOOD AND COCHINEAL

Her first novel, The Country Girls, was published back in 1960, but veteran literary seductress Edna O'Brien is still revelling in sex, guilt and the squelchiness of the body
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Since I was on my way to the airport later in the day, I arrived on Edna O'Brien's doorstep in Knightsbridge carrying a black bag. She politely suppressed a shriek when she saw it. "Don't worry," I said, "I haven't come to stay for the weekend."

"No, no," she said, steadying herself against the door frame. She is a volatile creature, easily alarmed and aroused: an Aeolian harp of a woman through whom emotion sends shocks and surges of energy. The ruffles on her blouse gradually sank back to rest. "It's just that it's so like a doctor's bag." Her grey eyes travelled appraisingly down her long, sinuous body; she gave herself a comforting hug with her tentacular arms, and patted her tiny tummy beneath its layer of silk. "Am I - do you think I look pregnant?"

Fumbling for my notebook in that ominous bag, I did feel as if I were about to produce an obstetric kit. A conversation with Edna O'Brien is an intimate operation - although it is she who performs the surgery on herself, without benefit of anaesthesia. A lapsed Catholic, she has not outgrown the candour of the confessional. "The last time I went to confession was in Rome," she told me. "I didn't mind blurting out all my sins, because it was in a foreign language." Nevertheless, she absolved herself, giggling as she dabbed a sign of the cross on her bare neck and pale chest.

"You can ask me anything," she said, shuddering deliciously at the prospect, as I brought forth a pen rather than a set of forceps. In fact she is someone who tells all without being asked, and during lulls in the storm of words, her body does the talking. She has the most loquacious hands I have ever seen. Wrapped around her as if they belonged to someone else, they propelled her across the room in a giddy waltz: she happened to be telling me about a scene at a ball in the film script she is currently writing, about Yeats's infatuation with his muse, Maud Gonne.

At other times in our talk, they built stone walls to illustrate how paragraphs are assembled, climbed ladders when she described her literary ambition, concussed an invisible punching bag as she raged against reviewers, and administered a drubbing to their owner's back to vouch for her dedication to the task of writing: "I lash myself!" They are hands which have grown elegantly, prayerfully thin from being wrung; they are also - as I realised while surrendering to their entreaties - experts at manipulation.

Her skin hardly suffices to contain her secrets. That impromptu question about the phantom pregnancy brought to the surface all the anxieties and passions which drive her to write. She once worked as a publisher's reader; she assigns the same job to her heroine in Time and Tide, who thinks of the advice she gives to aspiring novelists as a form of midwifery. "Write your guts," Nell tells them. Edna has indefatigably written hers, ever since the cheeky, bawdy pubescence of The Country Girls in 1960.

Each book is a birth; evisceration occurs regularly. She did take a decade off, returning with The High Road in 1988. Her extended sabbatical was devoted to research: "Oh, I was in love, I lost my house, my heart got broken," she summarised, and her hands fanned a dim, remembered blaze. "I feel fiercer now," she said, "and tenderer, too," her voice managing to modulate in an instant from leonine growling to a feline purr.

Her recent work has a new boldness and amplitude, combining the primeval battles of Celtic myth with contemporary political antagonisms. House of Splendid Isolation, published in 1994, was a wildly rhapsodic Gothic novel about the IRA; now in Down by the River she deals with another contemporary Irish war - the battle between ovaries and rosaries, paganism and Puritanism. "My son Sasha told me that I have to do one more, to complete the trilogy. But how can I? I'm empty, I'm empty!" Letting out a wail, she drummed on her temporarily vacant tummy.

I tried, choosing my words with discretion, to reassure her that it would not long lie fallow. "Oh," she said, clutching my shoulders and tickling my ear with a zephyr from County Clare, "do you think so? You know that lovely phrase of Yeats - he says someone is 'rammed with being'. That's what I want. To be full of blood again, to be rammed with being!"

That fruitful state is the subject of Down by the River, an angry, violent yet startlingly beautiful book. A teenage girl is raped by her father; guarding her secret in shame and confusion, she runs away to London for an abortion, but is hauled back to Dublin and held hostage while lawyers deliberate over the child stirring within her. The novel is bound to cause a fuss, but its partisanship matters less than its lyrical empathy. No one since D H Lawrence has written so well about events inside the body. This has always been the squelchy, murky O'Brien terrain. Her house - small and snug, crammed with her being and the votive icons and sentimental trophies from which she cannot be separated - seems somehow uterine. Its walls are red. Above the sitting-room mantel, keeping company with a postcard of Yeats, hangs a painting by Russell Drysdale of an Australian aboriginal, whose skin is the colour of dried blood. Downstairs is a painting of a woman in a nightdress, foetally curled on the floor. Robert Graves insisted that this be covered up during his visits.

"We all begin inside," Edna said. "It's a great mystery. We have no knowledge of it, or we dodge that knowledge." A character in Girls in their Married Bliss speculates about this ulterior realm, likening a woman to "the inside of a kitten's mouth". (I felt an involuntary shiver when I read this: wait a minute, aren't there teeth in there?) In Time and Tide Nell reflects on birth, when "the dark moist hush of an insideness is exchanged for the vast inhospitability of a creaking world": that first homesick cry is our initiation into death. To exchange the dark moist hush of ancestral Ireland, with its "soft unruly underlay of bog", for inhospitable England is just as traumatic. The rending passage down the canal, or across the channel, are allied in Edna's perfervid imagination. Her aim is to reverse the rite of passage which ejects us into reality. "To go in, within," as she puts it in House of Splendid Isolation, "is the bloodiest journey of all." Explaining her sympathy for the aggrieved, demented father in Down By The River, she said: "To see right into someone - ah when that happens, you love the person no matter what - even if they've killed." Her eyes X-rayed me as she said this; I was relieved when they misted over.

To be rammed with being is not always pleasant. Objects intromitted by O'Brien heroines, with or without their consent, include a bayonet, a bone shoe-horn, a wire coathanger, and of course, a bouquet of flowers. In the new book, the girl's father ravages her with a broomstick. The source was Edna's childhood memory of the sweeper's brush poking into her family's sooty chimney. The writer's job, as Edna sees it, is to experience the sensations of others and, like the saints or martyrs of the church she abandoned, to endure their agonies. Her empathy extends to those violated bricks - "Yes, yes, I identified with that chimney!"

Human sexuality is thwarted by guilt, assailed by religious dogma and legal interdictions. Nature conducts its business with less fuss: among the most remarkable passages in the novel are two scenes of copulation and nativity in the barnyard (see extracts). "I saw the fertilisation," said Edna. Her hands guided the stallion's haunches into position, adjusting the cupola (a baroque image which suggests that the Irish are Italians adrift, stranded beside the chilly Atlantic). "Who do you think could have illustrated that scene?" she asked me, and before I could answer, she spelled the name of her chosen collaborator in a teasing, reverent whisper: "P-I-C-A ... though of course, Picasso would have made it a bull. And I watched a foal being born too. Nature is so unsinful, unpunishing, so silent and true to itself. The total ..." Her hands, scooping air and pressing it to her, supplied the absent noun. Then she began to make slithery motions up and down her chest. "The moisture of it!" she explained.

Although those serpentine hands do the writing, they take their orders from the rest of Edna's body. "When I was a girl, words used to fly out of me, like petals - whoo, whoo!" Her hands sketched a hurricane in a rose garden. "Now I have more control. But sometimes it happens at such a high pitch that it's physically dangerous. I wrote the event" - the act of incest, which she won't directly name - "in a Paris hotel, and it was like an LSD flash, a trip. The miscarrying scene came to me in Dublin, like a visitation - though that's not what the Pope would have called it. I was unprepared. I had no paper, I had to scribble it on bus tickets. It somehow eked itself through me." Her hands dabbled in her entrails. "Afterwards, I was exhausted, I couldn't get up. Have you ever seen a water diviner? Suddenly the rod becomes a serpent, twisting and writhing. I'd say I was a word diviner." She became one and began to jangle alarmingly.

The pleasure of getting a passage right resembles delivery. "There's the odd time when you just know no other word would do. It's like watching a racehorse, or a whippet hound. They're on their feet, and they're off." She clicked her fingers, and her hands ran the race. But before the sentences streak on their way, there are more plodding labours to perform. "I'm a dray horse. Why do people think I have a glamorous life?" Early Edna was cast as a Sixties dolly girl, synonymous with hedonistic capers and interchangeable with the character played by Elizabeth Taylor in the film of her novel Zee & Co. "Glamour! I go to give a reading or a lecture, and at the end there's a glass of bad wine and a cheque for fifty quid. Actually I spend my day reading Marcus Aurelius, the Bible, Rilke and Faulkner, and I struggle to write well. I don't gallivant. I lead a secluded life."

Back to the convent from which she had once been so keen to get herself expelled?

"That's right," cried Edna, "I'm a nun!"

A Sister, I assume of the Fanatical (rather than the Sacred) Heart. "Writing is my sacrament," she nodded. Yet her vocation is impious, infidel. "I have always thought that there was a criminality to the act. It's my religious upbringing, we were told that the word was God. The crime is that I might be dishonouring God. And my mother had a detestation of literature, she'd allow no books in the house. Maybe she'd been Molly Bloom in a previous life and was doing penance! Anyway, she thought the written word sinful. So I, who worshipped my mother, chose the occupation that most offended her." Words for Edna are potions, spells, which is why she utters them - lowering her voice at you - with such holy dread.

Like recipes, words also encode sensations. Before meeting her, I had made a Proustian meal of one of her favourites, "cochineal". It took me by surprise in an early novel, Casualties of Peace. The neurotic heroine Willa sends a telegraph begging for love, which contains the word "sluice" - another inalienably Edna-ish term, hinting at internal gushes of irrigation. The dozy girl on the phone asks Willa to spell it. She does so, promptly reciting a list of words which might be Edna's litany: "S for sin, L for loving, U for union, I for icicle, C for cochineal, E for Enigma." The word recurs at a wedding in House of Splendid Isolation, where the names of the bride and groom are twined together in cochineal on the icing of a plum cake. It has its latest walk-on in Down by the River, where the skins of postulant nuns are like dog-roses, sometimes flushed as if suffused by cochineal.

The word induced in me a tremor like those which regularly ricochet through Edna's teetering, overwrought body. It was a reminiscence of childhood. I used to have aunties who coloured their cakes with cochineal, a vivid scarlet ink kept in a phial like medicine and squeezed out through a dropper. As a boy, I found the word itself as sinister and alluring as the fluid. It got its name, I discovered, from an insect which grazes on Mexican cacti. The body of the coccus cacti was dried, then pulverised. Somehow its lurid dust liquefied in the bottle, like a Neapolitan miracle. Whatever the taste, it made those cakes seem both exotic and wickedly transgressive, like eating ladybirds.

"Ah, cochineal!" gasped Edna, when I asked her about her addiction. "Yes, it's what I have instead of Proust's madeleine. And it comes from my mother - my whole life and being are so intermixed with hers." She illustrated my point manually: her cupped hands seemed to be supporting swollen breasts. "It's also because I'm so terrified of blood, of the flow of it. I'm not afraid of a red rose, but the liquid! If you were to cut yourself open now ..." Her hands fluttered round her head like a flock of starlings, as I imagined myself turned inside out, soaking into her amber rug, blotting the crimson walls of her sitting room.

She gripped the sofa to ground the frightened birds, and I gathered up my innards. "I must have been three years old when it happened. One day, I saw my mother using a drop of the cochineal to turn the white icing red on a cake she'd made, and it was like ..."

The pause and the superstitiously lowered volume gave notice of the sacrilege. "It was like," she concluded, "a transubstantiation. Suddenly blood became harmless."

My own innocent memory could hardly equal this exorcism, triumphantly appropriating the gore of Catholic iconography.

"And the insects?" I asked. "Did you know about them?"

"Oh yes. The torture, the torment, all to make that colour!" Her fists pummelled a colony of cocci into powder on her coffee table.

The vocabulary of Down by the River is a stained-glass window, irradiating a humdrum world. In the weedy bog where the heroine's father defiles her, shoots are "surgent", flowers sport their "full regalia", with the foxglove "lordliest of all". A blarneying rustic in The Country Girls declares that "many Irish people are royalty and unaware of it". In the contemporary republic, language retains its regal pomp, its lofty circumstantial decorum. Has any writer since Shakespeare ever dared to call the sun "glorious"? Edna does so, fully aware that glory refers to aureoles and haloes; and - sacramental and sacrilegious at once - she makes its light show up "the dirt on all the window panes" and the murk of the incestuous household. Nor did she modestly dismiss the allusion to Shakespeare as an accident, which an English writer would have done. "Tis a pity," she mused, "that we can't claim Shakespeare for ourselves. Had he not perhaps an Irish mother?" Certainly, thanks to a recessive gene in the language, he has an Irish descendent.

"Yes, I'm ambitious, and proud of it," she said, pugnaciously planting her hands on her hips. At the end of Down by the River, she measures herself against another literary progenitor, James Joyce. Literature arrived in her life like an advent when, working in a chemist's shop at the age of 19, she paid fourpence for an introductory selection from Joyce edited by T S Eliot. She showed me the book, re-read to the point of flimsy extinction, with her own grateful inscription in what she calls "my Madame Bovary-coloured ink": Edna's pens, like her veins, are purple torrents. The new novel finishes by bravely and triumphantly varying Joyce's superb account of the snowfall at the end of Dubliners.

"He wouldn't be cross with me," she insisted with a wily, insinuating grin. "Oh, no, he'd give me a kiss, don't you think?"

"Yes," I said, "yes, oh yes, he would, yes ..." as eagerly affirmative as Molly Bloom.

"Molly," said Edna, seizing the hint and hurling punctuation to the winds, "is the most glorious free volatile hungry shameless inquisitive aware" (here her finger shot up, signalling an unspeakable knowledge of insideness) "beyond-belief sexual and sensual creature. She knows about life's absurdity, and its breviacy." I suppose she meant brevity but she coupled it, in her cheery, profane way, with breviary. When Edna's tongue gets tangled, it produces Joycean puns. "I would love to be able to write a whole book in Molly's idiom. If an angel came down and gave me a wish, that is what I would ask for. But of course I write screams, while Molly is a shout - no, a holler. You know how Nora Barnacle reacted when someone asked if she was Molly? 'No,' she said indignantly, 'Molly's much fatter.' Well, I'd have to admit that Molly's much happier than me!" She released a whoop of hilarity.

"Now, tell me about your life," she commanded later. "Are you happy?"

I was brought up a Protestant, so confession is not my mode. "Yes," I said quickly, to change the subject.

She looked at me with a flicker of disapproval. A character in Girl with Green Eyes pities Americans, who believe that happiness is their constitutional right. How can you tell that you're alive if your heart is not being broken?

Collecting my grim black bag, I staggered outside into the glorious sun. In fact, it was raining, but Edna O'Brien's imagination inflames the world and rescinds the local weather. Romantic Ireland, despite Yeats's elegy, is not dead and gone. It survives in exile, incongruously lodged in the chintzy purlieus of Harrods.

! 'Down by the River' is published by Weidenfeld at pounds 15.99 DOWN BY THE RIVER: TWO EXTRACTS Set in Ireland, O'Brien's fifteenth novel tells the story of an abused teenager who runs away to London for an abortion and finds herself at the centre of an ideological storm Full of confusion after her father's first assault, Mary watches a mare and a stallion copulate:

"She's on, she's on ... she's casting," Eamonn shouts as water begins to gush from the mare, like a tap freed of its washer, yet the lips from which it pours are the scarlet red of freshly drawn blood, which open and close in a kind of winking frenziedne ss. He calls to the young boy to get Mike Tyson from the boil house and be quick about it or it'll be all over. There is something slow and ceremonious about the passage of the stallion across the rectangle of weeds and grass to where the mare is standing, in it the immutable ritual of courtship. "He'll be all pie to her at first ... The Latin lover," Eamonn says and the stallion, as he comes alongside her, runs his neck silkily alongside hers, lingering, then sniffs at her flank without regard to the rushing water, while at the same time the lit tle teaser is led away, her head down as if she has just disgraced herself. The white of the stallion so close to the burnished chestnut of the mare resembles the painted halves of twin centaurs. Then he mounts her, his frame like a cupola, coveringhers . It is uncannily still, no sound at all, the mare not moving, not even blin- king, merely gazing out, as if at something immemorial, even the men very still, no sound except for the prancing, a dainty prancing at that, of the hind legs of the stallion as he passes into her, his possession of her a long glide, as though being sucked hungrily and moistly by every particle of her, her eyes softly gazing and the sense now of something happening, that primal transaction of entrails and juices, the moment contained, another life beginning in the dark secret spheres of her, away from sun and sunlight, and even away from the sour ce which gave it and which is now withdrawing from her, strangely indifferent and dulled, an entity on four feet being led away. In her, something biding, immobile, a rock-like stillness. "Did you enjoy that," Eamonn says to Mary. She looks down at her shoes. She does not want him to see that she is crying. Mary's mother has just died; her father acts as midwife to their mare:

HE IS talking to the animal again, the half words, the horse words, his arm both a hearing and a listening implement and from the mare now an almost human plaint, no longer frenzied, crouched, abject, her gasps no louder than a stutter, the occasional we ak purposeless surge to rise, a mere parody of her earlier zaniness. Then she stops breathing as if it is all too much, as if she will die. Mare and foal, though of the same flesh, are warring, two warring things, not like a mother and its young, each fi ghting the other except that the foal is the stronger, her energy and her trusting prodigal now. With his free hand he massages the mare's rump to rally her, to put life back into her, for one last supreme effort, while inside something is heard, a clatt er like a chair being thrown and he waits a moment longer, all of him listening, then withdraws his hand and says, "She'll fly out, she'll fly out now." But that does not happen. Not yet. In her hastiness the mare has managed to cause the head inside to twist and what they hear are the legs, bunched up, and battering on the chest. Hearing it, he becomes alarmed, shouts to the mother to muster herself or the thing will have to be cut out o f her. Dead. With a taut and terrible delicacy, as if it is a child that he is assisting into the world, he puts his hand inside again, using his palm then as a font, for the foal to put its chin on and with his two fingers he tries to keep the nostrils open, saying the words, the same animal words, a morse. They wait, completely silent, then it is as if a feat of nature has commenced and in complete contrast to the obduracy of almost an hour, the foal begins to flow out, a long and tender swathe of wet flesh, fluid , dimensionless, with the beauty of a stream or a river and behind it the after-birth in a flurried and spongy mess and the mare's breathing starting to be normal again and his exhilaration as he tells Mary to run to the house love, for the scissors, so that he can cut the cord.

Edna O'Brien 1996

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