Towards the end of Edna O'Brien's memoir, she recalls the urban foxes who stalked her Knightsbridge home. "If I don't sleep, I get a bit unhinged. And sometimes if you're unslept, you can write very well." We sit in the first-floor front room of her book-crammed, picture-strewn house, a short stroll from Harrods but – with every shelf and wall a shrine to the writer's vocation – a galaxy away in style. When I collect a mug of tea from the kitchen, her friend Samuel Beckett (in one of John Minihan's aquiline photographs) skewers me with his gaze. As she sat up into the early hours, those keening foxes of SW3 triggered a snowfall (another abiding image) of intense memories. "Key moments of my life, which were very rich but very upsetting, all came back to me, rather like looking at lantern-slides. It was like an ongoing flashback."
So those vixen cries helped to frame and fix the episodes of rapture and anguish, of terror and exaltation, which ripple through Country Girl (Faber & Faber, £20). Her autobiography does more than recount the path-breaking life of a pioneer of Irish literature, and of women's fiction, who not only reflected change in her native land but helped to drive it forward. It is, above all, a portrait of the artist – and a record of her struggle to remain one, ever since the young pharmacist from rural County Clare, then miserably married and exiled in suburban Wimbledon, read TS Eliot's Introducing James Joyce and found that it lit a flame in her.
As she talks, a chunky turquoise necklace setting off the simple earth tones of her outfit, that famous ageless beauty and charismatic charm light up the room on a gloomy afternoon. Yet she turned to the memoir precisely because she feared that the icon would forever hide the artist. "People have tended to trivialise me," she worries, "my hair, my love affairs… I said to Ed Victor [her agent], 'When I'm dead, I don't want this misrepresentation'. And he said, 'I think you have only one recourse, which is to write your memoir'." Coming home in the taxi, "filled with a kind of spontaneous enthusiasm," she thought, "'Oh, Edna, it's going to be a joy to write!' Well, that was precipitous. It was very hard to write, for many reasons. What I found very painful was not merely to have to try to remember my early life but to re-immerse myself in it, to find my grandmother's kitchen; to be there."
O'Brien has moved a long way from her grandmother's kitchen in the Clare countryside of the 1930s, and the almost medieval way of life that Country Girl evokes with a lyrical ecstasy tinged by unappeasable hurt. A family which had lost wealth and position; a bleak, dank house; a hard-drinking father and sternly disapproving mother: Edna picked up a tough hand, but played it with endless gusto. "The jump between what I lived and the me you're looking at here is like centuries, not 80 years," she says. "And yet – I would like to emphasise this – it was rich in many ways. It was rich in emotion… and – strangely enough, although we had no books – it was rich in language. Language was not corporate then. It was individual."
As she revisited these Drewsboro years, "The pain, as they say, beamed in. It would have to. And, coinciding with the pain... grief and anger. That one allowed oneself to be bullied in all sorts of ways – religious, romantic. All aspects were open for scrutiny and adjudication. Many women growing up in Ireland in the Thirties and Forties would be subject to that." Language, and great books, held out the promise of liberation. For all the harsh measures and closed minds of the Sisters of Mercy at school, the blank page thrilled her. "So there was in me this fervour to write."
In 1960 The Country Girls, her debut novel of convent pupils growing up and cutting loose, set off a tsunami of scandal, outrage and – finally – open debate in Ireland that would end with the downfall of censors and banners. The book was not only prohibited for its frankness (as later novels would be) and denounced from pulpits but burned, in her home village of Tuamgraney, by the parish priest. As she wrote the novel – marooned in south London with a volatile, fearsome husband, the writer Ernest Gébler, and two vulnerable sons, Carlo and Sasha – did she sniff the storm to come, or even stir it up?
"I've been sometimes asked if I was being provocative... Not in the least. Actually, I'd have gone under a blanket if I'd anticipated this." Early warning shots, from a nun and her own mother, did cross her bows. "There were those little earth tremors before Vesuvius erupted." Then the hurricane hit. "Although I was very frightened, all I wanted to do was, not so much ignore it, as put it aside and write another book. Not to prove myself to them, but to prove myself to myself, and to make sure they hadn't killed me off."
They hadn't. The public damnation felt like "a wake-up, but it didn't alter what I would write next. And when I look back on it, I think, they couldn't help it. That's how society was then. Everything hinged around obedience, piety, purity." The two further volumes of the Country Girls trilogy soon followed, then four more acclaimed books by 1970, a flow not even dammed by her break-up with Gébler, a melodramatic flight from home, and the brutal custody battle that he waged, and lost.
Not a straightforward confession or a chronicle, Country Girl is composed with the same linguistic finesse, and subtle sense of shape, as her novels. "In a way a book has to have the variation of music," O'Brien says. First comes "the lyrical, then the worldly, then a different kind of lyricism… the elegy that age brings." In its middle passage through London's Swinging Sixties and years of spotlit celebrity, the memoir might easily have dipped into a name-dropping roster of A-list pals. She befriends Jackie Onassis and Richard Burton; Marlon Brando and Sean Connery. Paul McCartney makes up a bedtime song to sing to her boys. In bed in Paris after a nasty encounter with an oyster, the first three chums who climb the stairs to visit are Marguerite Duras, Peter Brook and Samuel Beckett.
The theatre designer Sean Kenny, then her partner, she sees as the "fulcrum" of a hectic social life that revolved around Saturday-night parties at their home. He was "a wonderful and magnetic person. But how Judy Garland could come to be in my room – admittedly, she only stayed about three minutes – still remains mystery to me."
What redeems these sections is the picture of a serious writer in search both of the emotional sustenance that her work needed, and the space and peace to undertake it. "Although I was thrilled to have a little bit of attention and to go to the White House, I also knew that I had to come home and write." She quotes her beloved JM Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrows: "'All a person needs is a safe and splendid place'… splendid, in that it was imaginatively nourishing. The old imagination is not a weakling, but it can get thrown off course." Once, seeking that nourishment, she took LSD with the anti-psychiatrist RD Laing (on the morning after a dinner with Sean Connery). "It was very alarming for me but I think, on reflection, it probably enabled that mad mind of mine to delve a bit deeper into things."
The pursuit of love also fed the writer, even as it flayed the woman. "I am a romantic in a way, but I actually think that as a writer I'm a realist." In any case, realism trumps romance in her raw accounts of waiting, hoping, yearning. As for the bliss of love fulfilled, she treats that as beyond words: "it's like catching thistledown or sunbeams". Absence and heartache fuel the storyteller. "I have been in love, and it hasn't all been on paper. But I also – without my being aware of it, because our unconscious is a big number – I was also preserving my own acre of privacy for writing, because if I couldn't write, I think I would go mad. It means that much to me." Besides, "what matters about a love affair is not the name of this man or that man. What matters is the emotional intensity of the journey."
At its finale, the book looks back not in anger but in wonderment. O'Brien misses "the particular poetic-ness that was in Ireland" in her near-medieval girlhood. Back then, "Young children would recite WB Yeats, and now it's written on a tea-cloth." Hence the writer by vocation must go back to her night-time desk, keeping the language alive (she has a "little seedling" of a novel sprouting just now). Those fox-cries of imagination are calling again – even though they have their downside. "That chapter was a godsend," says this most realistic of Irish romantics, "but the foxes were a big nuisance."
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