Podcast • March 17, 2014

Edna O’Brien: Literature Against Loneliness

In celebration of Saint Patrick's Day: Edna O'Brien is my fair embodiment of a writer's gifts and the pleasures of reading. 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."

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.

Podcast • November 24, 2010

James Kaplan’s Sinatra

With biographer James Kaplan, we’re listening to Frank Sinatra sing “I’ll Be Around” and realizing that, of course, he kept his word. The Voice is still a believable foghorn in the mist of “your love ...

JPBOOK1-popupWith biographer James Kaplan, we’re listening to Frank Sinatra sing “I’ll Be Around” and realizing that, of course, he kept his word. The Voice is still a believable foghorn in the mist of “your love life, your life life,” as Bono has testified. Or as Sinatra told Bono in the wee hours once in Palm Springs: “Jazz is about the moment you’re in. Being modern’s not about the future, it’s about the present.” Hearing him, Sinatra is still reliably a “modernista” (Bono’s word), a man of the now.

James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice starts with a bang in recasting the hoary legends. About Frank and the Mob, for example, Kaplan says: understand that the effect of organized crime on the psyche of young Frank began with “his own inner godfather” — that is, with his own volcanic mother Dolly, the Hoboken precinct pol, midwife and sometime abortionist, who “scared the shit outta me,” Frank said. He grew up never knowing whether his mother was going to hug him, or hit him. She became the grandma who summoned Frank’s kids with “Hey fuck-face!” It’s been said to explain Sinatra’s perfectionism, and some of his edginess on stage, that he could see in the audience thousands of versions of his mother’s face.

The other inescapable female in Sinatra’s moods and music, and all through James Kaplan’s story, is Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s second wife for scarcely two years in the early 1950s, but the muse of his singing forever after. “Ava Gardner taught Sinatra how to sing a torch song,” as the nonpareil arranger Nelson Riddle put it, and the hard lessons stuck in the famous saloon songs we are marveling at again: “A Fool to Want You,” Sinatra’s one-take obit on the Gardner affair, and “One for my Baby” and “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

We are listening to “Sweet Lorraine,” from 1946 — Sinatra more than holding his own with the astonishing Metronome All-Stars — Nat “King” Cole on the piano, Buddy Rich on drums, Coleman Hawkins on tenor, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, and from the Ellington band, saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney and trombonist Lawrence Brown. We’re struck by the mutual affinity between Sinatra and the black jazz immortals — his obsessive study of singers like Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer; his long and ecstatic attachment to Count Basie; the admiration shared among legends like Lester Young and Miles Davis. My friend Charlie Davidson, the tailor who “dressed” Miles’ band in its best-dressed days, likes to remember asking Miles: “Do you really like Frank Sinatra?” and Miles responding: “Charlie, if he had one tit, I’d marry him.”

James Kaplan’s may be the first of the many Sinatra “lives” that’s relentlessly detailed about both man and music and judicious about the mercurial mix of the two. Kaplan can hear “the smile in Sinatra’s voice” (when it’s there). And then in conversation he strikes a wonderful line about Sinatra’s peculiar accomplishment — “an almost operatic version of the blues.” Kaplan has dug deep into Sinatra’s diction and masterful phrasing, into his furious ambition and juggernaut drive, his lifelong reading habit, his mostly liberal and always serious politics, his genius intuition for the Zeitgeist. He is persuasive that Sinatra was a man apart in the entertainment industry: a driven popular performer, ever in hot pursuit of new sounds and the next hit, but whose standards in the end were not commercial. He explains why when we speak of Sinatra as the iconic and probably immortal performing artist of the American Century, we put more and more emphasis on that mysterious word: artist. Frank: The Voice extends this bountiful year in major musical biographies — of Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and now Sinatra. Not the least joy of these 700-plus pages, which close on Sinatra’s comeback with “From Here to Eternity” and the song “Young at Heart” in 1953, is that they’re just the first half of the story.