Edna O’Brien: Literature Against Loneliness

We sat in the jeep because, as he said, we were in no hurry to get home. We didn’t talk about family things, his wife or my ex-husband, my mother or his mother, possibly fearing that it would open up old wounds. There had been so many differences between the two families — over greyhounds, over horses, over some rotten bag of seed potatoes — and always with money at the root of it. My father, in his wild tempers, would claim that my mother’s father had not paid her dowry and would go to his house in the dead of night, shouting up at a window to demand it. Instead we talked of dogs.

From the story “Old Wounds,” by Enda O’Brien, in her new collection, Saints and Sinners.

Edna O’Brien is my fair embodiment of a writer’s gifts and the pleasures of reading. She is a lyrical realist, never far from the melancholy of Irish drinkers and suffering survivors of Irish pasts. Her eye and ear miss nothing, but they are not unforgiving. Her prose, as Philip Roth once remarked, is “like a piece of fine meshwork, a net of perfectly observed sensuous details that enables you to contain all the longing and pain and remorse that surge through the fiction.” Her air in conversation seems to say: no palaver, but we can talk about anything.

Edna O’Brien made her reputation detailing the rueful fates of women, in love and life, and not just in the rural West of Ireland, where she grew up. In Saints and Sinners the most memorably sympathetic figures are menfolk of her generation — like Rafferty in the story “Shovel Kings.” He has been digging “the blue clay of London” for electrical cables — and drinking a bit at Biddy Mullugan’s pub in North London — through the half century that Edna O’Brien, too, has been living in exile in England. “Biddy’s was popular,” Rafferty explains, “because they gave five millimeters extra on a small whiskey or vodka. Pondering this for a moment, he said that with drink the possibilities were endless, you could do anything, or thought you could. Moreover, time got swallowed up, or more accurately, as he put it, got lost.” Rafferty becomes a composite picture of the brutal wear and tear on Irish manhood in Edna O’Brien’s time.

‘Mind yourself.’ Those were the last words Rafferty said to me. He did not shake hands, and, as on the first morning, he raised his calloused right hand in a valediction that bespoke courtesy and finality. He had cut me out, the way he had cut his mother out, and those few who were dear to him, not from a hardness of heart, but from a heart that was immeasurably broken.

Under the pavement were the lines of cable that linked the lights of the great streets and the lesser streets of London, as far distant as Kent. I thought of the Shovel Kings, and their names suddenly materialized before me, as in a litany — Haulie, Murphy, Moleskin Muggavin, Turnip O’Mara, Whiskey Tipp, Oranmore Joe, Teaboy Teddy, Paddy Pancake, Accordion Bill, Rafferty, and countless others, gone to dust.

From “Shovel Kings,” in Saints and Sinners.

President Obama was in Ireland, tipping a jar of Guiness, when Edna O’Brien and I recorded our gab in the Boston Athenaeum. Her conversation is at once spontaneous and considered. She is one of those people who likes to interview the interviewer. I’m mystified by the memory of the last time I saw her: after our radio gig, Edna O’Brien in a taxicab got me to sing a Christian communion song that I’d learned to love at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston. The refrain is “One day when I was lost, He died upon the cross. I know it was the blood for me.” What I cannot remember is how or why she provoked me to sing, but it sounded right to her — not least because “I love to hear people sing.”

I am curious about people. That’s why I don’t like social life so much. Social life, people put on masks, it’s hypocrisy, it’s not like a real conversation, like used to happen in Russian fiction, in trains: a man would meet a person in a train and they would talk. I like to hear about people’s lives, not just because I want to write about it, which has to be confessed, but because it’s lonely on earth, really, and two things make it less lonely. One is literature, which we have to try and save in this wicked and worried and crazy world. The other is meeting or talking with someone who actually, even for an hour, kind of enchants you. I don’t even mind if people tell me total lies. So long as there is that connectedness, with the imagination, and with the heart, and with what’s deepest in people. You don’t get that much. You get this regularized language, everything is so uniform. The individuality is getting lost.

Edna O’Brien with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athenaeum, May 24, 2011.

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  • Ohhhhh. It’s heavenly to hear her talk, and think. Thank you.

  • Comment on current ROS interview with Edna O’Brien
    (“Literature Against Loneliness”):
    A Polish writer once said:
    “The purpose of Polish art is to reopen old wounds so they might heal rightly for the first time.”
    I’m reminded of this dictum on the art/wound/healing nexus when listening to the ROS interview with Edna O’Brien where she discusses “Old Wounds.”
    If you think of writers of the caliber of Edna O’Brien as being in a similar “place,” her writings become more of her own homespun “balm in Gilead.”
    Wounds are of course personal, physical, familial, national, symbolic, fusions.
    The context for this Polish “apercu” on art and wounds and healing processes is given here:
    Landscape After Battle (1970)
    Director: Andrzej Wajda
    Film opens with the mad rush of haphazard freedom as the concentration camps are liberated. Men are trying to grab food, change clothes, bury their tormentors they find alive. Then they are herded into other camps as the Allies try to devise policy to control the situation. A young poet who cannot quite find himself in this new situation, meets a headstrong Jewish young girl who wants him to run off with her, to the West. He cannot cope with her growing demands for affection, while still harboring the hatred for the Germans and disdain for his fellow men who quickly revert to petty enmities.
    In the DVD version of that classic of Polish cinema, Wajda’s “Landscape after Battle,” there’s a “Special Features” interview with one of the participants who mentions the Polish writer Melchior Wankowicz who supposedly says somewhere that the purpose of Polish art is to reopen old wounds so they might heal rightly for the first time.
    Bruno Bettelheim, himself a Jewish camp survivor, speaks of “symbolic wounds.”
    Melchior Wańkowicz (10 January 1892 – 10 September 1974) was a Polish writer, journalist and publisher. He is most famous for his reporting for the Polish Armed Forces in the West during World War II and writing a book about the battle of Monte Cassino.

  • Potter

    She’s beautiful! First her picture above: the red lips, the auburn hair. Then her strong soft voice which comes straight out of her heart and a sharp analytic philosophic mind. This line she reads- one of the many images she paints with words here- which sort of goes- “she’s walking home….. dew on the grass there’s cows wheezing on the grass, the cows munching and wheezing” … for me is somehow hilarious.

    I love entering the conversation as a listener. It is lonely on Earth and we need to connect. and let what comes out come out.

    About literature- what she says about James Joyce- the difficulty of Ulysses, a mountain, a galaxy. but to open it up anywhere and just read.

    About Ireland now : “grass and weeds growing out of the steps” “shock and shame… let down by God and Mammon”.

    I have the other conversation from 2006.

    Thank you for this gift.

  • Potter

    Well I just bought her book- but I also listened to the 2006 program which is the first link here from Chris . I had it already and so listened to that one too. It came just in time into my life ( as often happens if I stay tuned in). So for one penny (!!) on Amazon I just ordered that one as well. Give me the time to sit with these please! To anyone so interested – I recommend that 06 interview about her mother. I was also gratified to hear that Joyce’s portrait has such an effect on her. (Me too.)

    Thank you so much … again.

    “The very place I run from is also the source of my fertility”

    “Fear drives out love…. doesn’t kill it.. but puts it in a back room of the mind”

    (So grateful for that.)

  • Alice Copeland Brown

    Excuse my histrionics, but you may have saved a few lives with these conversations. To be brainwashed 24/7 by the networks and newspapers is almost more than I can bear. No wonder Goering was able to win the minds and hearts of the German people for Hitler. How long can we withstand the lies shouted from a thousand throats, seen on millions of screens?

    I used to think that money spent on a campaign couldn’t make a difference when voters knew the truth. But if all we’re allowed to read/hear are sound bites/petty and nonsensical, how can anyone make a rational choice? And just by the way, Dems and repulsicans are NOT the same in lying quotients.

    Thanks for all you do.

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