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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