The Books Interview: A schooling for scandal

Edna O'Brien has turned from fiction to the life of that earlier Irish rebel, James Joyce. Peter Guttridge meets her
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There have already been mutterings in Irish literary circles that Edna O'Brien has had the temerity to write a biography of the Big Man, James Joyce. But even her bitterest critics must admit, however grudgingly, that in just 50,000 words she has caught him, man and writer. O'Brien has been immersed in Joyce for over 40 years. She loves language and "the stringing of language", and Joyce's has intoxicated her since, aged 19 and working in a chemist's shop, she first picked up a copy of T S Eliot's introduction to the writer outside Geo Webb's bookshop on the quays in Dublin.

It was a book that changed her life, inspiring her to leave Ireland for London to become a writer. She can quote from memory the section that enflamed her when first glancing through the book. "When I picked up that book I don't know if I'd even heard of James Joyce." She laughs. "He wasn't, so to speak, in the County Clare vernacular. But it was a consummate instruction to me because I saw some similarities. Maybe, I thought, all unhappy families are the same. I also saw that the key for me to write would be to go into my own life and to dig there."

Scarcely a day has gone by since that she has not dipped into Joyce. Love of his writing is not alone, of course, a qualification for writing the biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 12.99). But O'Brien - whose seriousness of purpose in her fiction and her life has sometimes been overshadowed by responses to her flame-haired, green-eyed beauty and gossip about her private life - approached the task scrupulously.

"The greatest source were letters, to and from Joyce. And I made use of other books about Joyce, especially Richard Ellmann's biography. And there was the work. It took a year to write but as I've always read Joyce, I like to say it took all my life."

O'Brien once said she would love to write a whole book in Molly Bloom's idiom. "But of course I write screams, while Molly is a holler". She starts the biography with a homage to Joyce's style ("Once upon a time there was a man coming down a road in Dublin and he gave himself the name of Dedalus the sorcerer..."). "I didn't want to do this whole book like that, though," she says. "I like the variety - the `plain' writing as well as the somersaults and cartwheels."

The Joyce she presents is a man who suffered much, particularly in his last years - when he was, in her view, a lost man, unable to see, trying to put words down with a crayon, his family breaking up around him.

"When I had read Ellmann I had concentrated on his halcyon time, on that daring, dauntless Joyce, writing on suitcase lids, impervious to pain, even though he had rejections. But later there was another Joyce, affected by his father's death, the world's rejection of Finnegans Wake and his daughter Lucia going over the brink into madness. I think the gravity of the man, the sadness of the man - a man who had done so much, who ended up stranded and forgotten... unable to reach a person he loved beyond words: that's Shakespearean."

Joyce could also be monstrous. "Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create?" she asks. "I believe they do. It is a paradox that while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict." Joyce was shameless when it came to sponging off people: he accepted in the equivalent of almost pounds 1 million from Harriet Shaw Weaver, then would have nothing more to do with her.

"I was a little abashed at the flagrancy with which he took advantage of people in relation to money," O'Brien says. "He was ruthless - but so was Flaubert, so was Tolstoy... Joyce had a terror about money from his earliest experience. He was - as I was and I will never forget it - in the debtors' magazine, Stubbs Gazette. So far as I was concerned, all my mother needed after that was for me to write a book!"

There are several odd points of comparison between O'Brien's and Joyce's experiences. "Joyce said that he didn't want to be a literary Jesus Christ," she says. "Well I never wanted to be a literary Mary Magdalene." O'Brien writes that Ulysses would have killed Joyce's mother had she not already died. She adds that, for families, "the writer exposes and reinforces their shame in themselves and they cannot forgive it".

"My mother thought The Country Girls was the most terrible disgrace," she recalls. "And she said the postmistress said to my father that I should have been kicked naked through the town. There had been no writing in the parish and women writers were unheard of. We talk of Mary Magdalene but it was Jezebel! It was something a young woman would not do. One tries to be understanding but it cut me."

The outcry The Country Girls caused in 1960 has never entirely died down. Although her novels are no longer banned in Ireland, as her first six books were, they can still provoke outrage. The response to her most recent, Down By The River, which focused on the anti-abortion movement in Ireland, showed that the bigotry she described still exists. House of Splendid Isolation, her 1994 novel about a friendship between an old woman and a young member of the IRA, even earned her a sneering mention in a leader in The Guardian as "the Barbara Cartland of long-distance republicanism".

"That is not a standard of criticism for a book, and I'll never forget the person who wrote it. My reply is a version of Gertrude Stein's `a work of art is a work of art is a work of art'. It has nothing whatsoever to do with whether I'm a Christian Scientist, a Scientologist or a republican.

"When ugly things are said, diminishing things, for a moment one thinks why expose one's psyche when it's going to be slashed, but it's a very brief moment. You wouldn't be a writer if you didn't have the stamina to keep going. I admire Joyce's total honesty and perseverance - he never stopped. I have that in me from my birth."

She has just completed her latest novel, Wild Decembers, to be published in October by Phoenix House, and she will have a play, Our Fathers, on at the Almeida by the end of the year. Writing, which she does in longhand, is both a torment and a necessity for her. "It is occasionally pleasurable... But going to it every day and going for a walk and coming back to it and all that old rigmarole is terrifying. Unfortunately, it gets more terrifying. I'm much more exigent now than when I began."

It remains a puzzle that, while she has a worldwide reputation, Ireland is still not won over. "Ireland is a bit hard on me. Perhaps because I don't always live there, I live in London and New York too. For me - Joyce talked about it as well - danger and conflict is at the root of literature, not safety. That means scraping away at the psyche - my own and Ireland's, because I always write about Ireland. They don't like that, I think because they feel it's a woman who has the audacity to do that. But I thank Ireland daily for what it has given me. I sometimes rebuke Ireland, but there are riches."

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