Mother, Life, Landscape, and the Connection

Irish author Edna O'Brien, who recently won the PEN/Nabokov lifetime award for "breaking down social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond."

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
March 8, 2018

In February of this year, globally-renowned Irish author Edna O’Brien was named as the winner of the PEN/Nabokov award for achievement in international literature. Today, on International Women’s Day, we celebrate this seminally feminist voice in modern Irish culture, and look back on Patricia Harty’s 2007 interview with O’Brien, where they talked writing, family, and more.

Plus, read an excerpt from The Light of Evening below. 

Irish America.
(February / March 2007)

“A writer’s life is like an athlete’s life. You train every day of your life and even then it may not be as good as one had hoped,” says Edna O’Brien, who has written 20 books. Her latest, The Light of Evening, tells the story of Eleanora, a famous Irish author, and her relationship with her mother, Dilly. Part memoir, part imagination, the book is based on O’Brien’s relationship with her own mother, whose real letters to O’Brien are used in the book. The Light of Evening is a beautiful work. To quote Frank McCourt, “each page is so seductive, so dazzling, you won’t want to leave it.”

Like all of O’Brien’s books, it is set in Ireland. “Like Joyce she has lived in exile but never forgotten a single thing,” said Professor Declan Kiberd of the UCD School of English and Drama, which awarded O’Brien the Ulysses Medal in June, 2006.

Born in Tuamgraney, County Clare, O’Brien moved to London in 1954 with her husband, the Czech/Irish writer Ernest Gebler and two sons. Divorced in 1964, she stayed in London, where she lives to this day. Her “voluntary exile” was due in part to the furor over her first book, The Country Girls, published in 1960. Part of a trilogy of novels which also includes The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964), the books trace the lives of two Irish women, Kate and Baba, whose Catholic upbringing comes in conflict with their sexual awakening. The books were banned and even burned in Ireland. The brouhaha caused great shame to O’Brien’s family, particularly her mother, Lena, who was suspicious of anything to do with books. Hurt but undaunted, O’Brien continued to address the mores of Irish society in such works as A Pagan Place (1971), Down by the River (1997), and In the Forest (2002) which is based on the murder of a young mother in County Clare.

I caught up with O’Brien in San Francisco on December 9. She was in the final stages of a book tour that included Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and St. Paul, Minnesota, where 1,000 people filled the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater to see her. Our interview took place in the Getty mansion (Gordon and Ann Getty are friends of longstanding), where she was recuperating from a foot operation and working on a new play for the San Francisco based Magic Theatre, which enjoyed great success with her play Triptych in 2004.

Has your relationship with Ireland changed, now that the country itself has changed?

I feel more welcomed as a writer in America than I do in England and to a greater extent, than I do in Ireland, although Ireland has softened towards me at last [laughs].

I think that it’s inevitable. First of all, we ourselves change and our relationships, whether with a country or a person, change. I think we become more, forgive the word, philosophical about our own plight contrasted with the carnage, upheavals and barbarity of the big wide world.

When you were writing The Country Girls did you think it was going to cause the furor it did?

No. I would never have finished it if I thought that. In fact, I thought nothing. I used to read manuscripts for publishers and I was a little over ambitious in my evaluations and so was given a commission of fifty pounds to write The Country Girls, half from the publisher in England, Hutchinson, and half from Knopf in the United Sates.

I was young, married with two children and I spent the money on practical things. I bought a sewing machine, which I thought would please the person I was married to. We had come to live in London – way, way out in the suburbs. I didn’t know anyone. It was so alien. I wrote The Country Girls in less than three weeks. If I had even thought ‘What will my mother think?’ ‘What will the nuns think?’ ‘What will anyone think?’ I would have been stricken.

Isn’t it difficult to balance the human need for affection and appreciation and the life of a writer, which can be lonely?

It is very hard, and that is why I say from my own experience and from reading the diaries of writers; writing is the loneliest occupation on earth.

Flaubert’s mother said that his love of words had hardened his heart. And it might seem, to some extent it is true that the writer, in this case me, has hardened my heart to the extent that I will recede from life, cut myself off and go into solitary to write a book.

I know it is only a book and yet it is everything to me when I am doing it. Ironically, when it is done it’s over for me. I have no guarantee when I finish something that I will ever write something else, nor have I the comforting notion of resting on my laurels. Each new book is another journey into the tunnel, and that is painful.

It sounds like you approach each new work with trepidation.

I do. Great fear. The fear of doing it. The fear that even if one does it, it won’t realize itself as perfectly as it must. The fear of what people will say, and inevitably critics get out their knives and other implements of torture.

The Light of Evening is as close to a memoir as you have written.

It’s part memoir, part fiction, part journal and hopefully the wings of imagination. I wanted to make it a novel because a memoir would have limited me to reality. By choosing it to be a work of fiction I could start with a frosted morning in Rusheen in County Clare with the crow – in mythology the crow or raven is the warning emblem of death – and the mother Dilly talking back to it.

‘Will you pipe down out of that,’ Dilly says. ‘I said will you pipe down outta that,’ Dilly says.

I know the book by heart, God help me.

Had I been writing a memoir I could not have matched landscape, emotion and narrative and not felt free to invent, reorganize, conjecture and get inside the psyche of the characters. Also the shifts in time were essential for me. There is the Brooklyn part and the County Clare part and the London part. The mother’s present time, the mother’s past, the mother and daughter conjunction together, the daughter’s marriage, the mother’s letters and the mother’s death. It’s like five different stories, and not every reader wants that. Readers want things a little bit easier.

You use some of your mother’s actual letters in the book. They are wonderful and rather Joycean in their stream of consciousness.

They are. They are pitch-perfect. Bulletins about her life. The dogs, the crops, the cattle, the paraffin heater conking out, crows in the chimney, and the hidden agenda not to let me get away.

Did your mother want you back?

My mother always wanted me back, back, back there. Yet my sister Patricia, who lives in South Africa and who responded warmly to the book, was surprised by it because hers was a different experience of our mother.

Why do you think your relationship with your mother was different from your sister’s?

I think that is true for everyone, the parents are perceived differently by each child and internalized differently. Moreover, memory plays its own tricks. My mother was very, very attached to me. I was the last child, as the others had gone away to school, and I identified with her totally. For example, these few lines from the book – ‘When she coughed blood we stared down at it together, down into the well of the kitchen sink. . . Death for her meant death for us both. . . Thinking that if I picked primroses and put them in a jam jar to cheer her up that she would not die.’

It seems childish, but I always wanted to save her, to make her happier. When the time came to break away I could not do it completely. I both did and didn’t.

She was not happy that you were a writer.

She disapproved of writing and feared the written word, feared that its essence was sinful – she might have had a point! She would have liked me to have been a receptionist in a hotel, something more genteel and wholesome. And yet as you can see from her letters, she was a born writer herself, she had an enormous gift and power. She was powerful as a person but she was also powerful as a writer. So the irony is that friends say my mother made me a writer, and I don’t dispute it. Yet it was something that caused her a lot of suffering and shame, because with the first book, The Country Girls, everybody was in an uproar in County Clare, and indeed in the country at large.

There was the banning and the scalding exchange of letters between Archbishop McQuaid and Charlie Haughey who was minister of culture at that time, saying the book shouldn’t be let in the hands of any decent family. It was daft, daft [laughs].

Do you feel like you got to know your mother as a young woman in Brooklyn through writing this book?

Not really, I had to make it up. I went up and down streets in Brooklyn, went to chapels and graveyards – I was surprised to see that one can still buy a plot in Greenwood Cemetery. I traipsed hither and thither to try and get a sense of the place. I would look down and see Walt Whitman’s spires and say to myself, I cannot do this. I don’t know how.

I had great help from two women, two absolute stalwarts in the Brooklyn Public Library. I read the newspapers from that time, and some of the girls’ magazines, to get the flavor of what life was like for a young woman with not much money working in a big house in Brooklyn. Then for the big house [in the book] I went up to Prospect Park, because my mother had worked there. Those mansions, with a tall flight of steps, foot scrapers and bay windows, are still there and in the kitchens, the speakers by which the maids in their quarters could be summoned by the mistress for her morning breakfast or hot water for her footbath.

I loved the dinner scene.

People, including a critic in the Irish Times, have remarked that it has echoes of the Christmas dinner in Portrait of the Artist, and to tell you the truth, I read Joyce’s exquisite scene many times. It’s the same idea of pending jubilation, then things going suddenly wrong. Christmases are like that. They bring out old sores, grudges and unfinished business. It starts off so well, but by the time Christmas dinner arrives – that artificial four hours – the protagonists are either drunk, tired or belligerent.

With this particular book do you remember the day the idea came to you, or had it been haunting you for years?

I remember the day and the moment exactly. I was being driven to Chichester to do a reading and quite spontaneously I got out my notebook and began what would become the Journal section of the novel: the daughter’s dream, or perhaps nightmare, that her sick mother is recalling her and she is refusing to go, dreading what it might lead to. That was the little seed from which I started.

My mother always saw herself as my overseer in everything, but particularly in the romantic and sexual realm.

What we forget is that our mothers are also daughters. My mother had her own disappointments, her own thwarted aspirations and possibly her own bruised heart. What I wanted in the novel was to try and imagine her as her herself, the young Lena in all the vertigo of youth, setting out for America and envisaging big things.

Emily Dickinson writes about the mind having many chambers, and in one of the chambers of my mind, my mother Lena is permanently there.

So you started with the journal, which actually appears quite late in the book. How did you arrive at the beginning, the prologue?

I was with a cousin of mine up the mountains in Middleline in County Clare where my mother came from, and from an old stationery box he produced this photograph of my mother with her mother. It told a story. My mother’s mother, gaunt and mystical, looked like Maud Gonne. She was a country woman, knew hardship of every kind on this mountain farm, which wasn’t even a farm, just a few fields, and yet she was absolutely beautiful and patrician.

The photo is in sepia, the daughter in a white dress, and the mother seated on a kitchen chair, which they obviously brought out for the occasion. It was essential for me to have chanced upon it.

Joyce said that for his art he always got what he needed – and that photograph was certainly an inspiration to me.

It was a scalding hot day and I had gone to the heritage museum to do research, and then I went and got a little lesson from a woman who had an old-fashioned Singer sewing machine, again to recapture the 1920s, and afterwards, sitting with my cousin, he tumbled out the contents of an old box and all its memorabilia.

Was it a difficult task pulling all the different strands, or scenes as you call them, together?

Yes. It took a lot of doing, organizing the various material.

Writing the journal was the exhilarating bit; weaving the many stories was much harder, but the real challenge was to try and get the emotional entanglement between mother and daughter in all its variations. The reactions to the book have been varied, but Richard Eyre, introducing me at the 92nd Street Y in New York, said that for him it was a book of rage and reconciliation. I would like to think it is the story of two women, mother and daughter, inextricably bound up.

You write all your books in longhand.

I write and rewrite and then I dictate. It’s all quite unnerving. What I feel about writing by hand – I may have a few soul mates in this – is that there is a connection between mind and heart and hand and the sequence of the words themselves. I feel that a typewriter or a word processor would be an artificial barrier, would stymie the flow between conscious and unconscious. It is not a fashionable or a practical view, but then, I have never prided myself on being practical.

Do you have another book in mind?

In some fugitive way, perhaps I do. I shall call it Boglands. It would be a collage of my country, our country, down the centuries, witnessed or told by a spirit woman. More torture.

You talk of your mother not wanting you to have a successful romantic life. Do you think there was an element of the disappointed romantic about her?

I’m not sure my mother was an utter romantic. That’s where she and I probably differed. I am an incurable romantic. I can say that my mother’s life was not so rosy. She married my father, who was very well off, only to find that the money got frittered away. My father’s family – him, his three brothers and a sister who lived in Boston and apparently was the first woman to drive a car in Boston – had inherited legacies. Their uncles were priests in Lowell, Massachusetts who had patented a famous medicine called Fr. John’s medicine, which was a roaring success with the laity. It was probably cod liver oil with a few added ingredients, but it sold like a bomb.

By the time I was three or four, living on a farm in rural Ireland, I was very aware of rows over money, anxiety over money and the abiding fear of losing the place.

In the 30s there was the economic war, animals sold for next to nothing, there was no money to fertilize the fields, no machinery to work with and a sense of financial despair. Nowadays a little plot for a bungalow in County Clare is $100,000 and that’s not even with a glimpse of the Shannon.

My mother must have been disappointed at life taking a downward swoop. She had been born in the mountains, went to America, made a little bit of money, had nice clothes and trinkets and so on, and married, as she thought, into endless security. But it did not turn out like that. She was a stalwart worker. She fed calves, she fed hens, she boiled big pots of meal in the boil house and was kept going from dawn till dark. She held everything together, but I think she must have been truly exhausted, and to some extent broken. But though raised in the country, she was not a typical country woman, there was something other about her, as if perhaps she had wished for another fate, though I never asked her what that might be.

Do you think that on some level your mother was jealous of your success?

I think probably that was there. She feared that I was on the road to perdition. But she also perhaps resented my apparent success, because she would make little caustic comments such as ‘there was a photograph of you in the paper and people said you had drink taken.’ Yes, there would have been some element of jealousy because I seemed independent insofar as I was the breadwinner for myself and my children. To be frank, I would say she did not know me, she did not understand the compulsion, the necessity to write, and did not want to know that writing took one to another sphere. Beckett said in an essay on Jack Yeats that the artist who stakes his life has no country and no brother.

I think mothers identify very much with their daughters and therefore criticize their daughters more than their sons. I don’t have a daughter but I have sons. She would come to London, and in those days I gave rather lavish parties. I was head bottle washer; cooked, opened the bottles, lit the fires, answered the door, opened the champagne and the oysters, and my mother, witnessing this largesse, probably feared that I was heading downhill. The one thing in this world that I cannot bear, because I’ve had so much of it, is being controlled. People love controlling other people. I don’t even control my children. I sometimes think they control me, my follies.

Including men in relationships?

Men certainly want control and get it. But let me say, women want control also, in a more insidious way. My mother was a controller.

You are not bitter towards men.

Not at all, I love men. My experience hasn’t been all that blessed. I haven’t been in love often but when I have been, I have. I regard it as very profound and stirring and of course sometimes unrequited. Bitterness for a writer, or for anyone, is a dead end. To keep writing, one has to retain, against all the odds, some of the fervor and the innocence of childhood. Think of James Joyce, with his searing intellect, being able to write about Gertie McDowell in the Siren section of Ulysses and understanding her gushings, her longings and troubling himself to find out which exact dinky dye she used for her underwear.

I read somewhere that the first book you bought was about James Joyce.

Yes, it was a little book called Introducing James Joyce by T.S. Eliot, which included the Christmas dinner from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and one of the short stories, I think it was “Araby,” and an extract from Ulysses and an extract from “Anna Livia.” I love the “Anna Livia” section of Finnegans Wake. Anna, in all her personifications, going back to the sea, to her cold, mad feary father, knowing that for all her gifts and guile as a young woman, she will be quite forgotten. It’s ineffably beautiful.

Do you think you would have liked Joyce as a man?

I would love to have met Joyce, preferably in the evening hours when bottles were opened. He was a very cerebral man, but he was also a very witty man and undoubtedly a man of feeling. Someone once said to him, I think it was Arthur Power, that he had no feelings and Joyce smarted, his eyes filling with tears and said, ‘God, I, a man without feelings?’

You did meet Samuel Beckett. What was he like?

He was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. His intellect was formidable but his manner was genial and friendly. He was in no way boastful. I asked him on one occasion what he was writing and his reply with a shrug was, ‘Not much and anyhow what difference would it make?’ For many years it seems he felt as a writer the shadow of Joyce the master, saying in an interview that he worked from near nothing, whereas Joyce had the gift of omniscience and omnipotence. He needn’t have worried, he too is monumental.

Did you always have this love of writing?

Yes. I was childishly ambitious in national school and I would write little bits of their compositions for the other girls, often rewarded with a biscuit. I always thought of writing not as an escape but as a path into another kind of universe, another mode of thought and feeling. I believed that words were of themselves animate and when grouped together, had an alchemy to them.

But there were no books in your house.

No books, just bloodstock manuals and Mrs. Beeton’s cookery book, with its sundry stains of ink and egg yolk and tea and its marvelous recipes in which abundance was all. Then there were the prayer books and the missals, in which the devotional and the erotica went hand in hand and the paeans to Christ and the martyrs were like love letters to someone known. In fact, my earliest understanding of earthly love was implicit in these soarings. Then of course there were poems that one learnt by heart and in the one school book, extracts, mostly by English authors, Charles Dickens, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt and Thackeray, all for our edification. I did as well learn and imbibe the great and fabulous myths. I might add that I learnt everything through Irish, except of course English, which maybe accounts for my style. One of the first books I read from start to finish was the short stories of Joyce.

Obviously Joyce had a very big effect on you.

Yes, Joyce is prodigious. He wrote with the genius of man and woman, his words are blazing, his fracturing and reassembling of the English language as radical in literature as the splitting of the atom was in science. But I would be unfaithful if I did not mention that Joyce has a rival in my affections. It is Chekhov. He is the exact opposite to Joyce – his stories seem not so much to be written as to be breathed onto the page. Like Shakespeare, Chekhov knew everything there is to know about the heart’s vagaries and he rendered the passion and conflict of men and women flawlessly.

Yes, I would be much lonelier on this earth without literature, and I might even have gone mad. As a last word, let me say this: Literature is the big bonanza, and writing is getting down on one’s knees each day and searching for the exact words. ♦

From The Light of Evening

The Light of Evening.
(Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

There were two men, an old man and a young man. A few stars still in the sky but pale and milky as stars are in the early hours before they slip away.

Ned, the young man, garrulous as if he were drunk, which he wasn’t.

Climbing the mountain road, a godforsaken stretch, the odd carcass of a dead animal, ruts and runnels, and in the fields of richly bronzed bracken a few scutty Christmas threes that never flourished.

They park the van by the television mast, a steel god looking down on the valley below, the cable around it juddering in the wind, the threads and messages within, passing unheard, and then a tramp over toughened heather terrain until they arrive at the boundary wall and climb it. Already feeling like felons.

Flossie knows the owner and has gone there on the quiet umpteen times to shoot woodcock and even once shot a wild turkey, which Jimmy said had come all the way from the Appalachians. Flossie was an apprentice then and Jimmy was boss. Going together, because the loveliest and most luxuriant mosses throve in that woods, so many varieties, the oak moss, the brook moss, the stair-step moss, and the green-gold moss that has no equal for color, not in any curtain, not in any carpet, not in any mountain range.

The owner, a bachelor, the last of his tribe, living alone, confining himself to kitchen, scullery, and pantry quarters, holy pictures on every wall, walls covered with Sacred Hearts and a medley of saints, a mammy’s boy who never married and who keeps a shotgun in case of trespassers, but loves his trees, loves his woodlands, and honors a covenant set down by his great-uncle, which was that no tree should ever be wantonly cut down.

Ned stands, then walks, then stands again, flabbergasted. He has seen woods, he has even worked in woods, young woods, putting down spruces and the like, but he has never set foot in a place like this, the peacefulness of it, spooky, the way the trees seem to have stood there undisturbed for generations, have a greater claim on the place than either man or woman.

For the best part of a year he has been pestering Flossie, asking when can he go with him to gather the moss to line a grave, to learn the trade and be the one to pass it on. Flossie only does it for close friends or relatives or kids crashing on their way home from discos. But each time he has been turned down, Flossie in his gruff way saying, “You see I’m not Jimmy” and nothing more. Flossie learned the art from Jimmy, who learned it from a Cornish man, and the Cornish man having got it from a Breton, and the Breton from God knows where, maybe the Appalachian Way.

With Jimmy gone, Flossie preferred going alone, gathering the moss for those creatures that have meant something to him and now for the woman he scarcely knew but had a bond with, a bond never acknowledged by him and never ever by her.

A ghostlike mist hangs over and above the trees and above that, pockets of it run and frisk about, like the Pooka man playing hide and seek.

A hush and the two men advancing into the very heart of the forest, where even Ned had the sense to pipe down. Flossie knows the trees with the best hangings, can already picture in his mind peeling back the beautiful copious strands, the green, the wetter green, and the orangey yellow, some meshy, some compact, some, even in winter, with little pinky purply flowers bedded in them. He already thinks what a beautiful sight it will make on the four walls of the woman’s grave. He has brought six black plastic bags, two for Ned and four for himself, and instructs the young boy not to rush it, the one thing he must not do is to rush it or the mosses will crumble, fall apart, and be useless. Slowly and with infinite care he begins to peel from the roots of the trees, the beech, the oak, and the elm, as Ned watches and follows, unfurling strand after strand, yet now and then Flossie has to shout, “Jesus, don’t rush it, you’re destroying it” and painstakingly they gather their crop and lay the strips along the boulders to dry off.

“’Tis a pity to be taking it,” Ned says, struck by the rich colors, now that the sun is half up.

“Ah, ’twill grow again . . . ’twill grow even better . . . that’s nature for you,” Flossie tells him.

Ned doesn’t know death, doesn’t want to know death, yet he is proud to be gathering a carpet that will be cut and trimmed and hung on lines of wire, then pegged to the grave to make it splendid. He knows their house with the rhododendrons and piles of trees around it, two avenues, the back avenue completely overgrown, a haunt for the courting couples. Once he saw the woman with a man’s hat on her, painting the bottom set of gates a silverish color.

“Was she a cousin of yours?” he asks.

“Mind your own feckin’ business,” he is told.

“Sorry, sorry,” Ned says, cowers, and after an awkward silence asks what color dead bones are and is told that they’re a dirty brown and all broken up, except for the skulls, the skulls stay intact, often three or four skulls in the same grave like they’re one family, still fighting it out.

“Did you know her?” Ned asks.

“Sort of” is the answer.

Only a kid when he saw her cross the water park and head for the river. He could tell just by the way she walked back and forth what was on her mind, pacing, not saying a word to him, eyeing him, wanting him gone out of there, to scoot it because of what she had come to do. Only a kid but he knew and he knew that she knew he knew, him standing there with the two big goose eggs that barely fitted into the palm of his hand, goose eggs that he had just stolen and she pacing and the river so wild and free and sporting, hungry for anything to be thrown into it, a stick, a rake, a person. She was white as a sheet and fuming at the gall he had by not moving off, her shoes in one hand and her stockings in the other and the waterfall a hundred yards away, sprouting a yellow-green foam. He can still see it and hear it and all else, for it was something he had never forgotten nor ever would forget, the picture had never faded, the pallor of the woman, her eyes desperate, darting, wanting him gone because of what she had come to do and without the words begging him to show her a kindness by going away. But he didn’t go because he thought he shouldn’t go. Only a kid but he knew that he must stand his ground. The roar of the water so gushing, the power of it, the thick curdling surface ready to suck anything into itself and go its willful way. He stood his ground, but he could still recall it, he with the two big white goose eggs in his hand, the one about to drop, and she with the saddest look he had ever seen and without the words imploring him to let her do what she had come to do. But he wouldn’t and he didn’t and after a long time or after what seemed a long time she walked away, away from the river and back up toward her own place, Rusheen. Not spoken of ever again. How could it. Seeing her at Mass and things over the years. He owed her the moss.

“You see I’m not Jimmy,” he said aloud, and the boy looks at him with a baleful look that is full of wonder.

The pelts of moss are drying out in the bit of sun, the sun’s warmth seeping into them, making the color to quicken. ♦

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