Thursday, March 19, 2015

Quote of the Day (Novelist Edna O’Brien, on Her Relationship With Ireland)

“My relationship with Ireland is very complex. I could not live there for a variety of reasons. I felt oppressed and strangulated from an early age. That was partly to do with my parents, who were themselves products and victims of their history and culture. That is to say, alas, they were superstitious, fanatical, engulfing. At the same time they were bursting with talent—I know this from my mother’s letters, as she wrote to me almost every day. So I have to thank them for a heritage that includes talent, despair, and permanent fury. When I was a student in Dublin my mother found a book of Sean O’Casey in my suitcase and wanted to burn it! But without reading it! So they hated literature without knowing it. We know that the effect of our parents is indelible, because we internalize as a child and it remains inside us forever. Even when the parents die, you dream of them as if they were still there. Everything was an occasion for fear, religion was force-fed…. So much for the personal aspect. As for the country itself, it is no accident that almost all Irish writers leave the country. You know why? Ireland, as [James] Joyce said, eats her writers the way a sow eats her farrow. He also called it a warren of ‘prelates and kinechites.’ Of course there’s the beauty of the landscape, the poetry, the fairy tales, the vividness. I have shown my love and my entanglement with the place as much as I have shown my hatred. But they think that I have shown only my hatred.”— Edna O’Brien, “The Art of Fiction No. 82” (interview with Shusha Guppy), The Paris Review, Summer 1984

Edna O’Brien was born and lived much of her early life in County Clare, the area of rural Ireland where my father was born. Though a prolific writer of marvelous short stories, novels, plays, screenplays and biographies, she has still never achieved the major bestseller status that her books deserve. 

The issues she raises in the above quote account for much of the alienation of intellectuals from the Irish Republic for so much of its early history, as well as why the reaction against the Roman Catholic Church in the last two decades has left the nation’s citizens in dire need of spiritual sustenance, just at the moment when the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has underscored the hollow pursuit of material things.

In the late 1980s, just a few years after this interview, I saw O’Brien at a lecture and book signing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, not far from where I live in Bergen County, N.J.  It was fascinating to hear her speak of the same farm environment described vividly for years by my father, but from a far different perspective: not that of a man, but of a woman of a romantic, rebellious spirit and restless intellectual instincts that could not be satisfied on this land.

At the same time, she was profoundly aware of the power of this landscape, which has informed the bulk of what she has written since: “When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees: maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious,” she once observed.

“Maimed, stark and misshapen” describes the society, deformed by an overarching patriarchy, that pushed O’Brien into exile. Taking its cue from the Irish Censorship Board, which banned her first six novels, and her pastor, who denounced and burned the first and most notorious of them (The Country Girls), her own community turned on her in a torrent of ugly abuse and drove her away.

For most of the last 55 years, O’Brien has lived in London, as the same kind of urban expatriate to whom she alluded in the above quote, James Joyce. But unlike the author of Ulysses, she lived to see the old order brought asunder. Toward the end of her 2012 memoir, Country Girl, O’Brien, now in her seventies, beholds a new Ireland:

“The sway of the bishops and their clerics was no more….The countless revelations of beatings, hunger, chastisement, and ongoing sexual abuse were all the worse because they had been so sedulously denied with the collusion of Church and state. The anger was scalding and heartbreaking. At Easter Sunday, outside the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin, railings were draped with infants' shoes, tied in black ribbon, for all the lost childhoods, and messages on various placards revealed bitter life stories. One, referring to the millstone in St. Luke's Gospel, read 'Some Millstone. Some Neck. Jesus Wept.'”

It is inarguable that the Church hierarchy had no one but themselves to blame for the acrimony that Ms. O'Brien described. For years, their attitude toward her and too many others was unwelcoming and unforgiving. At the same time, I am afraid that now, when the Irish could use a spiritual anchor, none is left to hold onto.

Following her divorce in the early 1960s, O’Brien, with her soft, dark good looks, lived a glamorous life for awhile, in a period that led Vanity Fair Magazine to call her “The Playgirl of the Western World.” That judgment, in a way, ratifies the often pessimistic worldview she adopted in her fiction concerning the fate of women who stepped outside established lines to reach for freedom. 

For all her considerable critical success, she never became a brand-name bestselling author a la Maeve Binchy—and it is a real question how much worldly success could have compensated her for the world of hurt and alienation, much of it foisted on her by men, of her early years.


Sridhar Chandrasekaran said...

You have such an interesting blog. Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading your posts. All the best for your future blogging journey.

MikeT said...

Thank you for the kind words.