Not telling

Maureen O’Connor
Country Girl: A Memoir, by Edna O’Brien, Faber and Faber, 339 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0571269433

Bodies, corporate and corporeal, have given Edna O’Brien trouble all her life. According to Country Girl, a contributing factor in the disintegration of her marriage to Ernest Gébler was his obsessive and controlling attitude towards food: “a favourite book of his was The Culture of the Abdomen by Mr Hornibrook, from which he would read passages at random”. In a subtle moment of comic relief that briefly ventilates the increasingly airless domestic atmosphere she is describing, O’Brien quotes a passage from Hornibrook that includes this lurid, almost gothic warning: “And remember that all the time this lagging tenant of the bowel is retained the conditions favouring evil are at work: heat, moisture, nitrogenous refuse, darkness and micro-organisms.”

O’Brien’s underappreciated but pervasive humour is frequently scatological, drawing attention to what Mikhail Bakhtin called the “material bodily lower stratum”. In The Country Girls (1960), her first novel, a moment that inspires laughter between Kate and her mother is their memory of the latter being surprised by a man on a bicycle when she is peeing in a ditch; he collides with her, and his front tyre ends up between her legs. In the memoir, O’Brien recalls her own mother smelling the chair seats after male visitors to the house, “to see if they had farted”. In his theory of the carnivalesque and the grotesque body, Bakhtin argues that degradation, the downward dynamic central to folk humour, is ultimately regenerative, as it “digs a bodily grave for a new birth”. O’Brien often reverses this trajectory. Her recent memoir rarely features the scene of writing, but one early instance figures it as an inverse birth: “I would go out the fields to write. The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough, because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back in the maw of my mother.” The eponymous protagonist of Murphy, by O’Brien’s friend Samuel Beckett, finds little to recommend the post-natal state endured “from the moment of his being strangled into a state of respiration”. Similarly, in a 1978 interview in The Guardian, O’Brien claimed not to have recovered from the experience of her own birth. Perhaps she was in part responding to a review, written two years earlier by John Broderick for The Critic, of her first memoir, Mother Ireland: “Not content with boring everybody with the very ordinary experience of poor little me, she is now evidently preparing to regale us with her pre-natal experience also.”

Childbirth is not a source of O’Brien’s comedy; rather, it is frequently depicted as brutal, abject, even tragic. Among the horrors of the LSD trip described in Country Girl is her conviction that her waters have broken (though she is not pregnant) and are ceaselessly cascading from her. A more memorably gruesome scene occurs in the 1978 short story “A Rose in the Heart of New York”. A woman gives birth, the midwife informs the drinking husband and cronies in the kitchen, and the men rush upstairs at the news: “The father waved a strip of pink flesh on a fork that he was carrying and remarked on its being unappetising. […] The mother felt green and disgusted and asked them to leave her alone.” Once they are gone, the midwife begins “stitching down the line of torn flesh that was gaping and coated with blood”.

The memoir reveals an origin of this scene when O’Brien tells the story she has heard of her own birth: “My father and his brother Jack were downstairs drinking, and on being told the good news they staggered up, bringing strips of goose they had just cooked.” An ambivalent relationship between decay and creation, between the physical body (human and non-human) and the body of work distinguishes O’Brien’s memoir from its prologue, which opens with an account of a visit to a National Health clinic where the writer is told that “with regard to your hearing you are a broken piano” and she is given a pair of hearing aids she will not use. She returns home from receiving this dispiriting news and is comforted and energised by the sights and sounds of her waiting garden. She turns to a Ballymaloe cookery book for further comfort and for reassurance of her abiding vitality, finding the recipes as evocative as “any poem or fragment of prose can be”, the descriptions of food visceral and nourishing to the senses, as palpably expressive of the yearning, undeniable body, as the thickly impastoed brush strokes of a Jack Yeats painting. She decides to make bread - significantly, Irish soda bread - and the smell inspires her: “it was an old smell, the begetter of many a memory, and so on that day in August, in my seventy-eighth year, I sat down to begin the memoir which I swore I would never write”.

The discreet allusion to Proust’s madeleine is intentional, if somewhat misleading. The tea-soaked madeleine crumbs sent a shudder through Proust’s body, ignited his senses, and triggered the involuntary memory that inspired À la recherche du temps perdu. Like Proust’s novel, O’Brien’s memoir tracks the development of a creative temperament, but the stimulation of O’Brien’s powers of recall via the chemical senses is anything but involuntary. In interviews she has revealed the rather more prosaic story of having been persuaded to write the memoir by her agent in the back of a taxi. The bread-baking scene is a deliberately Proustian mechanism, the canny device of a hardworking writer producing to a schedule. Throughout O’Brien’s career, the practicalities have kept pace with artistic passions in stimulating her literary output. She is, finally, the country girl of the memoir’s title, reared in conditions that have left their mark. Despite the many descriptions of her over the years as delicate, romantic, and “fey”, what is most striking when meeting Edna O’Brien in person is not her glamour or her considerable charm, which are expected, but her solid country woman physicality.

In an unpublished letter to her son, the writer Carlo Gébler (undated, but evidently written in the late nineties), O’Brien tells him, “You have no idea, nor could you have, of the physical, sexual, emotional butchery I experienced throughout my whole childhood. Among other things, it gave me a terror of birth and all things pertaining to the body.” Along the top of the letter runs a self-deprecating parenthetical note under the heading “In Sunny Aran”: “[I got into the sea and swam 5 strokes].” In many an interview, O’Brien has admitted to being a physical coward, numbering among her terrors dogs and water. Her female characters also typically fear water, a fear sometimes dramatically justified, beginning with the death of Kate’s mother by drowning in The Country Girls, a destiny Kate will share, as revealed in the trilogy’s epilogue.

Many women in O’Brien’s fiction are so alienated from their own bodies as to find breasts and breastfeeding a source of unease. For example, the narrator of the story “The Love Object” admits to being “squeamish” about her nipples, while Kate in Girl with Green Eyes, the unnamed mother in A Pagan Place, and Dilly in The Light of Evening all find breastfeeding revolting. Despite the historical tendency to reduce O’Brien’s fiction to uncomplicated autobiography - inaugurated by her husband’s well-publicised denial of the originality of her first novel - this attitude towards the body that O’Brien diagnoses is more than personal. Christianity’s distrust of the body is intensified in Catholic Ireland, which Cheryl Herr has described as “desomatised”: “Ireland has literally eroded, in the sphere of representations that constitute social identity, a comfortable sense of the body.” Recent feminist reassessments of O’Brien note the discrepancy between the novelist’s reputation for frivolously titillating themes and the serious social critique she actually undertakes. The series of Penguin paperback editions of her novels from the late 1960s and into the ’70s, featuring Barry Lategan’s photographs of female breasts and haunches, may appear to instantiate this ironic distance between cover and content, but women’s fragmented, alienated experience of embodiment is central to O’Brien’s work. Mary Gordon observed in a 1990 live interview with O’Brien at the Irish Cultural Centre in New York, that she combines “a fastidious ear with a voluptuous eye”, and “brought the body into literature in a new way”. She goes on to credit O’Brien with having “extended our ideas of womanhood … from the inevitability of the body to the openness of dreams”. In the same interview, O’Brien slightly and slyly undermines this latter claim, coming back to the inevitable body, or at least the inevitable Irishness of her own body, when she compares poetry to caviar: “It’s not something you can eat all the time”, an observation she qualifies by adding: “I’m not mad about caviar; I’m mad about potatoes.”

Irishness is something imbibed, conjured from a Ballymaloe cookbook, and is also a wound on the body. The “Visitors” chapter of the memoir concludes with a Joycean family gathering. As in the Christmas dinner of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, at this Christmas card party young Edna has her “first glimpse of feuding over politics”. A row rages and order is only barely “restored by one or two reasonable people resorting to clichés about the terrible dark times Ireland has been through”; “It was borne into me at that very young age that I came from a fierce people and that the wounds of history were very raw and vivid as the pictures on the packs of cards that had been flung down.”

Novelist Anne Enright’s insightful and appreciative review of Country Girl in The Guardian admires O’Brien’s raw and vivid pictures of “the perfect object, perfectly recalled”, the way in which she “knows the precise emotional weight of objects”, especially those from her childhood, all “remembered with great particularity”. One moment from the memoir in which the object not only focuses emotion, but also grounds in bodily sensation and wounding the self’s persistence through time, occurs when an infected dog bite needs to be lanced in very young Edna’s neck (she estimates her age to have been about four). The scene is horrific, with several men holding the little girl down and clamping her mouth closed with rough-skinned, tobacco-reeking hands. She is convinced she is being beheaded. Afterwards, she is given her sister’s coveted rosary beads to hold as a reward: “Ever after, in fearful times, I had to hold on to something, anything, to defer annihilation.” Sensitive and detailed recreation of the material world, a “great particularity”, creates the lush lyricism that readers, including all but the most begrudging of her detractors, have consistently acknowledged distinguishes her work. This memoir is no exception, especially in the early sections set in rural Co Clare. Details of landscape in particular, are identified as inspirational from her first childish ambitions to write. She recalls studying nature as a child “so that I could submit pieces to the local weekly newspaper. There was an anonymous scribe, of whom I was jealous, who wrote articles about storms and seabirds and shelving sea-cliffs”. It is in fields and bogs that her first efforts at writing take place, not at desk or table. The moving recollection of her dear friend Beckett closes with an observation that could be applied to herself: “he could not have written of the ditches and the daisies and the ruinstrewn land unless he had loved it with such a beautiful, sad and imperishable loneliness”.

Much more of the memoir is dedicated to the depiction of friendships than to score-settling, an impressive demonstration of temperance, considering the kind of abuse O’Brien has suffered at the hands of various authorities, the governing bodies of her native country: her own family and community, the Irish government, the Irish media, and the Catholic Church. Her erstwhile nemesis John Charles McQuaid, archbishop of Dublin from 1940 to 1972, whose purity campaign contrived to brand O’Brien a “smear on Irish womanhood” and succeeded in getting her books banned in Ireland, is reduced to a comical cameo, made to look a conceited buffoon, the posthumous subject of “a marvellous and hilarious book by John Cooney”, which has revealed, among other things McQuaid’s “penchant for sexually explicit medical manuals written in Latin”. O’Brien enumerates among McQuaid’s “accomplishments” securing the discontinuation of the sale of tampons, “as they were in danger of stimulating girls at an impressionable age”, the same kind of danger that O’Brien’s novels were thought to pose.

The deflated figure of McQuaid appears in the chapter “Big Time”, which details O’Brien’s entry into and discovery of the “enthralling” capital city, Dublin. In the first page of this section, she describes herself as “ravenous. For food. For life”. The consumption metaphor could and would be turned against O’Brien herself, however, as when an early would-be seducer assures her that “he could go through [her] like butter”. After her divorce, with two young children to support, she had to earn an independent living. We are told in the memoir that the fortune her father managed to squander had been inherited from rich uncles, ordained priests who, having emigrated to Boston, patented a medicine called “Father John’s”. As resourceful and ingeniously self-promoting as her great-uncles, beginning in the late 1960s, O’Brien crafted a persona: a dashing red-haired colleen who appeared in shampoo ads, was photographed in yoga class, judged the 1972 Miss Beautiful Eyes competition, and featured in reports of “Swinging London”; in other words, a commodity for popular consumption. This cannily ironic performance of national and gender stereotypes remains misunderstood, the fate of the Irish ironist since Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

Whatever the scandal in her own country, O’Brien’s first novels were well received abroad, especially in North America, where she has always been taken seriously as a writer of literature, but the backlash in the United Kingdom began before The Country Girls trilogy was complete, and the attacks were strikingly ad hominem, frequently including remarks on her physical appearance and derogations of her “silliness” (the adjective “silly” appears in more than one critical assessment of her work). As she has said herself, in a 1990 interview with Julie Carlson, “If you happen to have your hair done, well then you can’t be a serious writer.” Even the most positive interviews - and she has been interviewed dozens of times - cannot seem to avoid commenting on her eyes, skin, voice, hair, clothes. Now that she is in her 80s, the compulsion remains. Rachel Cooke, for example, declared last year that “age cannot wither her”, and more recently, Mary Kenny, in her review of Country Girl, has described the author as remaining “glamorous and striking”.

As with any of O’Brien’s publications, this book’s reception is as of much interest as the text itself, and the notices for the memoir have been predominantly positive, the only recurring compliant being the middle section’s “name-dropping”. (In fact, the memoir is remarkably restrained, even reticent, in its catalogue of famous people with whom O’Brien is and has been not only acquainted but on intimate terms.) Her previous book, the short-story collection of 2011, Saints and Sinners, was similarly received, a change from the decades-long trend of outraged and excoriating reaction her books have met with in some quarters, particularly amongst Irish reviewers, and the snobbish dismissal that has characterised others. As recently as 2006, for example, in a review for The Observer of the author’s last novel, The Light of Evening, Sarah Hughes compared O’Brien to “the fiddlers who clog up Dublin’s cheesier theme pubs”. In contrast, Irish reviews of Saints and Sinners were laudatory to an almost suspicious degree. They exuded a slightly desperate air, a feeling that time is running out, that reparation and expiation are overdue. Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson reviewed Country Girl for The Irish Times, a choice that might constitute a surreptitious apology on behalf of the nation for the treatment she has received from official Ireland (and, most consistently in recent years, from Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times, one of the scores that the memoir does settle). Certainly the conclusion of Robinson’s review - ‘Perhaps now, on its publication, is the time for a proper reassessment of Edna O’Brien as one of the great creative writers of her generation” - sounds like a call to her countrymen, a significant change from Kevin Myers’s claim in 1985 that he “could willingly stick a hatchet in [O’Brien’s] head only to be applauded by the nation”.

O’Brien has refused to become bitter, which means remaining vulnerable to the hurts of rejection by the place that means so much to her. The memoir tells of her one ultimately failed attempt to return to Ireland: the house she had built in Donegal in the 1990s. It is a venture of “excitements … obstacles, dramas, and melodramas”. Family and community once again unite forces against her. The search for sites is repeatedly baulked by phone calls from “a son or a daughter or a brother or a sister” who oppose every potential sale. Even once the building begins, it is routinely undone by resentful locals. The builders report that “each evening … the cement blocks they had put up were being removed, before they had hardened, and thrown down in defiance”. The house is finished, but remains cursed: too remote and isolated, unconducive to writing, ruinously expensive to maintain. She cannot return after all.

From her earliest childhood days, O’Brien has been learning to protect and defend herself. Significantly, according to the memoir, one of the few keepsakes she has from her mother is not soft, not particularly sentimental, but sharp and bladed: “scissors from the cutting room, half the size of a shears, rusted now and kept in a drawer, a prized possession”. The narrator of her 1970 novel A Pagan Place articulates a strategy for self-defence, one learned from nature: “You consulted creatures as to what you should do, asked frogs their opinion. Frogs had learned the knack of being stealthy. Frogs had very good camouflage, were the colour of surroundings.” If the memoir frustrates at times in its recessiveness and opacity, its loose and gapped associative structure, its resistance to full disclosure, or even a sustained contemplation of what it means to be a writer, the withholding is deliberate and strategic. O’Brien’s literary biographies, James Joyce (1999) and Byron in Love (2009), were not considered successful, deviating as they did from the generic demands of the biographical mode. Despite decades of accusations of excessive and inartistic reliance on autobiography, at this retrospective vantage point O’Brien’s work demonstrates a strongly held and consistent conviction that the relationship between a writer’s life and the work must remain inviolably secret, private, a closely guarded alchemical formula, whose magic will dissipate if fully exposed.

Would her memoir have been as warmly received had it been written twenty or even ten years ago? One of O’Brien’s usually reliable Irish supporters, the Northern poet Derek Mahon, when reviewing Mother Ireland for the New Statesman almost forty years ago, found it “rather insubstantial” and thought “it might have been a good idea to wait a while longer before giving us the really considered autobiography which might yet be her masterpiece”. This memoir shares the elusive, suggestively “insubstantial” quality of Mother Ireland and cannot be considered a masterpiece. Oscar Wilde claimed to put all of his genius into his life and only his talent into his work. Country Girl displays O’Brien’s talent, especially in the evocative recreation of the desperately beautiful yet hardscrabble world of mid-twentieth-century Irish rural life, but her genius has always been reserved for her works of fiction. Mother Ireland concludes by expressing a desire to “make possible the leap that would restore one to one’s original place and state of consciousness, to the radical innocence of the moment just before birth”. The pre-conscious, inarticulable realm of creation connects to origin, both the mother’s mysterious, fascinating body and the nurturing yet unforgiving mother country. The power of this connection requires that it remain unexamined. O’Brien closes the prologue to Country Girl by informing the reader that what follows is something she swore she would never write. She has been as true to that pledge as possible. Just as her “failed” literary biographies, while carefully and thoroughly researched, were finally better understood as works of imagination and sympathy rather than as strictly accurate chronological histories, so her memoir refuses to satisfy prurience or submit to the demands for interpretation, the will to know that she has resisted all her writing life, just as she has fought others’ desire for control from childhood, when she first screamed and struggled under the pressure of rough male hands. The memoir makes clear that her independence has been hard won. She remains, finally, in sole possession of herself, of her own story.

22/04/2013

Maureen O’Connor lectures in English at University College Cork. She is the co-editor of two essay collections on Edna O’Brien and is currently working on a book-length literary study of O’Brien’s fiction.

Categories