Edna O’Brien


Such is the wrath of the mothers, such is the cry of the mothers, such is the lamentation of the mothers, on and on until the last day, the last bluish tinge, the pismires, the gloaming, and the dying dust.

Edna O’Brien, The Light of Evening

ednaEdna O’Brien’s new novel The Light of Evening incorporates real letters that her own driving, contentious mother wrote to her from the Irish village where O’Brien’s scandalous early work had been literally burned in the chapel yard.

So the lyrical fiction here recapitulates the passions of a lifetime: the literary exile, in the grand modern tradition of Joyce and Beckett, and the fierce tension of estrangement and attachment to O’Brien’s Irish and family roots. Much of the story is imagined in the fevered musings of Delia, the mother known as Dilly:

But her daughter, as she says, is trapped in a life of vice, beyond in England, her young sons in a Quaker school that Dilly was not consulted about, and her books that have scandalized the country, though as Sister is quick to say and the priest remarked to her, the nature sections so beautiful, so enraptured, if only she had excised the flagrant bits.

Edna O’Brien, The Light of Evening

The Light of Evening puts a seal on the conflicts that empowered O’Brien’s rebellion, starting with the famous breakthrough candor of The Country Girls, long banned in Ireland. And surely the music in this 20th book from Edna O’Brien puts the seal of immortality on one of the most admired, most productive literary lives in the English language today. From his Olympus at Yale, Harold Bloom has blessed both the life and the new book with a personal letter to O’Brien. “Joyce I think is your mother, in this book,” Professor Bloom wrote, “and the Joyce-infuenced Faulkner, your father.”

There is vindication here also of Philip Roth’s encomium: “The great Colette’s mantle has fallen to Edna O’Brien–a darker writer, more full of conflict, O’Brien nonetheless shares the earthiness, the rawness, the chiseled prose, the scars of maturity. she is a consummate stylist and, to my mind, the most gifted woman now writing fiction in English.”

We mean to talk with Edna O’Brien not only about mothers and daughters, about exile and The Light of Evening, but about Ireland then and now, and about the United States that Dilly, in the novel, sampled in the 1920’s and rejected. The Irish through the centuries have honed their backstage wits on the observation of Britain’s imperious weight in the world. What do we want this striking green-eyed sage to tell us about ourselves, our writers and politicians, our American performance at home and on the wider stage of this young global century?

Edna O’Brien

Irish novelist

Author, most recently, The Light of Evening

Rebecca Pelan

Lecturer, School of English and Drama, University College Dublin
Extra Credit Reading
John Freeman, Talking with Edna O’Brien, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 29th, 2006: “My mother hated, went to her grave, shocked, outraged, that I was a writer,” O’Brien says. “She saw that I had some gifts. She resented it and yet wanted us to be bound together. And that’s very unnerving. Rather than bury this tension, O’Brien has given her mother her wish.”Frank Wilson, blogger at books, inq and book editor for The Philadelphia Inquirier, October 15, 2006: “The greatest storytellers are those who best discern the interior dramas that human beings suffer and inflict in silence – “hearts contracting day by day,” people “visiting little malices on one another in lieu of their missed happiness.” It’s territory that Irish author Edna O’Brien knows as well as any writer alive, something abundantly demonstrated in her masterful new novel.”

Salon, Interview with Edna O’Brien, Salon.com, October 2006:

“Q:Is it better or easier to write about Ireland from outside?

A: I don’t rule out living some of the time in Ireland, but it would be in a remote place, where I would have silence and privacy. It’s important when writing to feel free, answerable to no one. The minute you feel you are answerable, you’re throttled. You can’t do it.”

Claire Dederer, The Mother Load: Edna O’Brien’s Dark Look at the Mother Daughter Bond, Slate, October 11, 2006: “Her admirers–who include Frank McCourt and Alice Munro–urge us to go slowly, to savor her writing. It’s dazzling, they say. Also, radiant. But that’s not why it took me an hour. It took me an hour because I was bored, and it was hard.”

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  • jdyer

    I read her book on James Joyce and it was first rate. I haven’t read any of her novels yet, but she is one of the modern writers I am anxious to get to at some point.

    I am looking forward to the show.

  • hurley

    Ditto to jdyer. She has the Irish gift for the perfect phrase in spades (not even a remote attempt at a pun, I promise: it would ill-become a Hurley, after all.) If memory serves — if — she also wrote a lovely reminiscence of Beckett some years back. You might ask her about him. Also for a few of her favorite titles the rest of us might not be aware of. In fact that’s a question I’d recommend Chris ask most of his guests. Who knows what treasures he might turn up.

  • jdyer

    “…she also wrote a lovely reminiscence of Beckett some years back.”

    Did she? What’s the title?

    I am actually a stronger fan of Beckett than of Joyce, though I have read and reread Ulysses a number of times.

  • hurley

    It was an article, not a book. Should be in the Guardian UK archives, though again, I might have made it up. But I don’t think so. Ditto re Beckett-Joyce.

  • hurley
  • jdyer

    Thanks, I just downloaded it. Will take it to sea with me.

  • peggy sue

    There is a review of The Light of Evening in this weeks Sunday NYT Book Review.


    Not quite as generous in praise as the comments above: here’s a quote…

    From her first novel, “The Country Girls” (1960), onward, she has had the nerve to look unflinchingly into the eyes of passion; if it’s possible to accuse the result of being faux-Joycean, empurpled, it’s also possible to feel, more often than is comfortable, that with her breathless force she truly conveys the destabilizing agitation some call romance.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “empurpled” before. I’m not quite sure what it means.

  • jdyer

    This beautifully written sentence captures the essence of Beckett’s art:

    “Much is made of Beckett’s despairingness, his Cartesian soul nailed to its Cartesian cross, yet he is not a depressing writer, not depressing in the way Henri de Montherlant or Thomas Bernhard can be, because, as with Shakespeare, his darkest words are shot through with beauty and astonishment, his impassioned keenings the best witness that there is to the human plaint, his disgusts brimful with exhilaration. He was a maniac who managed with consummate skill to convert that mania into lasting poetry.”

    I would only add that as in Shakespeare’s work even in its expression of the darkest despair there is in Beckett also a comedic sense which like a sunray cuts through the gloom and makes us observe with the Stratford poet that as long as one can say that this is the worse, then it’s not the worse.

    I can’t remember Shakespeare’s exact quote, but I have always felt that the sentiment was the source of his deep understanding of the human comedy.

    The same is true with Beckett who rephrases Shakespeare’s lines in his magnificent, “I can’t go on, I will go on.”

    I also very much agree with O”Brien’s view that Henri de Montherlant or Thomas Bernhard are thoroughly depressing. They are also a couple of reactionary writers who are unreadable.

  • peggy sue

    Credit: The review mentioned above in the NYT is by ERICA WAGNER.

  • jdyer

    I would like to know what how O’Brien’s reads Philip Roth. Dies she see him as a comic writer or as a tragic one who only came into his own in his latest novels?

  • jdyer


    I would like to know how O’Brien’s reads Philip Roth. Does she see him as a comic writer or as a tragic one who only came into his own only in his latest novels?

    btw: I first became aware of Edna O’Brien’s writing through Philip Roth.

  • Peggy Sue @ work

    to answer my own question I went to Dictionary.com…



    adj : excessively elaborate or showily expressed; “a writer of empurpled literature”; “many purple passages”; “speech embellished with classical quotations”; “an over-embellished story of the fish that got away” [syn: embellished, over-embellished, purple] n : a chromatic color between red and blue [syn: purple, purpleness]

  • jdyer

    Peggy Sue, I meant to answer your question but got derailed by work.

    I haven’t read any fiction by O’Brien yet, but juding from work on Joyce and Beckett I have a problem visualizing her as a writer of purple prose. If she does deploy emotionally tinged descrpitive passages she is probably being ironic or describing event from a character’s point of view.

  • jdyer

    Here is an interesting quote from The Atlantic:

    “After reading Wild Decembers Philip Roth told O’Brien that although he’d always thought of her as being like that other “passionate” literary lady, Collette, he’d changed his mind. “You’re not like Collette after all,” he’d decided. “You’re more like Faulkner.” As it turns out, William Faulkner is second only to James Joyce in O’Brien’s personal pantheon; Wild Decembers has in it echoes of both writers.”


    This is quite an endorsement.

  • jdyer

    Great show.

    I loved O’Brien’s passion for her work and Chris’ passion about literature.

    I would love to hear more programs on literature, of all kinds: poetry, fiction, drama.

  • peggy sue

    The Light of Evening arrived at the bookstore where I work today and I managed to steal into a few pages. I found them not so purple but multi-colored with a sheen with perhaps some lurking violet laced shadows.

    I am listening to the show now with great appreciation. Thanks!

    I too love the literature programs.

  • jdyer

    I loved O’Brien’s invocation of Wordsworth.

    Yes, all introspective art is emotion recollected. Wordsworth said tranquility but I believe that he also meant distance in time and space, or at least in isolation.

    Joyce used to say that while he physically left Dublin it was always alive in his mind. He also wrote that if Dublin were to be destroyed it could be reconstruced from his work.

  • jds

    Serendipity at its best. I happened to recently pick up a copy of O’Brien’s Joyce bio at my favorite second-hand book store, and immensely enjoyed her cystalline clarity and incandescent sensibility. Her prose is so shiney, i can clearly see my reflection in it. And then i bopped on to this site tonight because I was googling to find out more about her, and was terriby unaware of her former literary output. And how on earth, could she have been born some 10 years before I was??!! I relish te prospect of reading her work.

    This was my favorite blog experience ever. Thanks for sharing the exchange from a week ago.

  • Hi , I am looking for an email address for Edna O’ Brien the author…I want to make contact with this lovely lady.

    I would be very greatful if you could forward on her email address please. Thank You. Marie Fitzpatrick.

  • This lovely lady, was way a head of her time… And she was punished in the past for being real.