Review: Country Girl: A Memoir, by Edna O’Brien
Irish novelist Edna O’Brien earlier wrote a biography of James Joyce so I was curious that in this memoir Country Girl she omitted A Portrait of the Artist in her long list of acknowledgements and influences. Portrait memorably starts its history with Baby Tuckoo and Edna also begins at the beginning – early childhood in rural County Clare. This is all very proper, necessary and useful but I did not find myself page turning with any energy till about page 60, her convent teenage years when her reading and writing began to develop. Perhaps I’m a slow starter.
In Part Two she has moved to Dublin, trains as a pharmacist, meets interesting men and starts to write for money. Her sister works for a railway company and Edna is commissioned to write a women’s fashion page for their weekly magazine. Armed with this background she pesters newspaper offices with proposals for articles. She succeeds. She meets men. In the full flush of her young womanhood she garners the material that will, eventually, make her notorious in her own country. An actress friend, Nora Connolly, told me the other day that in her youth she was an avid reader of O’Brien in order to learn about sex. She was mystified by the description of feeling the man’s buttocks with the flat soles of her feet. When it happened to her she couldn’t have been better pleased with the literary insight.
The first few such encounters are predictably (reassuringly) cheesy. A crooner at the local dance hall, leaving her room unsuccessfully in bicycle clips. A married journalist did the business alfresco. Being invited to Sunday lunch with the family one might have done without. She calls him Peter Abelard, which is, of course, romantic but shows how up for everything she was. Reading Joyce and going to the theatre she auditions for Michael and Hilton (Mac Liammmoir and Edwards) at the Gate and trembles her way out of a different career.
She sketches out a portrait of postwar literary Dublin nimbly, lightly, avoiding prolixity. The backbiting jealousies of bohemian Dublin – nothing fails like success – is excellent copy. Her subjects are all desperate to get out and into the exotic wider world. This is familiar territory but a lifetime of writing, over 20 works of fiction plus the rest, has honed her skills for a job like this. She meets and, fairly quickly, marries novelist Ernie Gebler. Here I must declare an interest. My father, Desmond MacNamara, and later my mother knew Ernie well. My younger brother Oisin and I would go on family visits to the Gebler home in south London. I remember playing with her sons on the common over the road. There was a splendid stickleback stream. Over the years we would encounter Edna at various Irish cultural events in London, chat was always about family, not work.
My father kept in touch with Carlo, also a writer, by letter. Of greater relevance though was that I stayed with Ernie in Dalkey, south Dublin, on my first acting job at The Gate Theatre. The picture of Ernie that she draws, their marriage and its breakdown, is so appalling that you doubt for his sanity: the obsessive, controlling cruelty of a monstrous ego. I was his guest in Dalkey and the son of one of his best friends but his reputation went before him and you would be dull indeed if you didn’t guess at the madness that lay behind his hospitality. He had a brilliant mind but none of our family could understand how he managed to go on to marry a headmistress from the north of England who was charming, cultured, beautiful and utterly sane. It didn’t last either.
All the details of her awful marriage are true but I had only a vague notion of what happened next. Her first few books were a huge success though the residual cheques were endorsed and handed over to her husband. When out of his clutches she was propelled into a dizzying world of glitterati befriending actors like Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery, writers like Robert Graves and Harold Pinter. By the time we get to evenings in with Jackie Onassis you might suspect that the namedropping was getting out of hand but I think that would be unfair. These were the people she knew, whom she simply describes. If someone pays you a sum of money for the film rights to your book sufficient to buy a large house outright then you buy the house.
Before the big house, though, was the smaller one where her boys could be shared with her husband who pursued her with legal evil. She made money, she met everyone, the list is dazzling. The boys loved it. For several years the great and the good came to her weekly soirees. In 1970, at his insistence, she dropped acid with R. D. Laing. It all goes horribly wrong as the demons in her psyche manifest themselves in one of the worst trips I have ever read of. Her interests in astrology, touchy-feely self improvements, fasts and cures seem to embrace the irrational, the intuitive. One can’t be too surprised therefore to find that she runs out of money and has to sell the house. Her romantic attachments are dramatic though her choice of men doesn’t include lifelong companionship. Being ruled by the heart has consequences. Her life is punctuated with invitations around the world to do readings or teach. Jobs, books, travels, house moves and interesting people make for a life that most would envy.
Her gift for nature description does not desert her. I like the way she drops in words like plenary (full) or describing a vixen’s night cry as baneful (murderous). Her life has its low points of course though she can be proud of her boys. I don’t know if she ever reconciles her relationship with her husband who tried so hard to blight her life. He died with dementia in Dublin some years ago.
Buying a house in Donegal which her younger son Sacha redesigns and has built is a wonderful folie de grandeur. It’s initially perfect but you are stuck in the teeth of the Atlantic for 12 months of the year. She sells after just over a year. A comfortable place in London, in the familiar, wins out. She has lived all over, a great deal in the U.S., but she is just as tender for the back streets in London as the hedgerows of Co. Clare. Whether you like Edna O’Brien as a person or not will decide if you like this book. I have quite a lot of time for her.
Oengus MacNamara is an actor in London.