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 • May 19, 2009

Colm Toibin: the living spell of Henry James

Colm Toibin at the James family graves: “hallowed ground” of novels, diaries, sacrifice. “It’s very rare.” Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with novelist Colm Toibin. (44 minutes, 22 mb mp3) After The Master, his ...
Colm Toibin at the James family graves: “hallowed ground” of novels, diaries, sacrifice. “It’s very rare.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with novelist Colm Toibin. (44 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

After The Master, his breakthrough meditation on Henry James, there’s no detaching the Irish novelist Colm Toibin from James’ own “dramatizations of secrecy.” Toibin’s new novel Brooklyn will remind you oddly of The Portrait of a Lady, as his modest Irish heroine, Eilis Lacey, arriving in the States from County Wexford in the early 1950s, can be read as a re-casting (in a different direction) of Isabel Archer.

I suppose I was aware that I was dealing with a young woman, as Henry James said about Isabel Archer, “confronting her destiny” but doing so almost ironically in the sense that she doesn’t really confront anything and she doesn’t really have a destiny; and that I was dealing with something that is one of those great, almost hidden subjects, oddly enough, which is the subject of Irish immigration. Though we know so much about it, we end up knowing so little about it. There are very few novels about it, for example…

The James thing was interesting to me, too, in that James deals with dramatizations of secrecy and of people having things they keep to themselves and that, if known, will be explosive. So too, in this book there are two sisters and they keep things deep in themselves. And I was interested in that dramatic power of withholding, which is something I think I learned a lot about from James — in his own life and perhaps moreso in his work.

Colm Toibin in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, May 2009.

Our fresh conversation on Brooklyn is topping up a sort of seance Colm Toibin and I enjoyed five years ago at the James family burial plot — on the fringe lawn, oddly enough, of the lesser Mount Auburn immortals. For me, nothing summons the ghost of the great Jameses, all of them, more studiously and more persuasively, than the melodious Irish voice of Colm Toibin. On Henry, for example:

You begin by admiring the work. But then I found that the life is so ambiguous and so interesting. His relationship to his family is constantly in a state of flux. He himself — in London, say — longs to go out. He longs for society; he gets an enormous number of stories from duchesses and archbishops. But he also longs to be alone. He never longs for the same thing twice. The next day he wants something else. He is a very fluid and mysterious character.

He sexuality remains mysterious. What sort of erotic life he must have had, what sort of dream life, remains entirely mysterious. It’s a pre-Freudian existence as Freud is coming into vogue. It’s a pre-Wildean existence as Wilde is coming into vogue.

He exile is also strange: the way in which he never really wrote about the English very well. His English characters don’t work for me. And yet he couldn’t write about a settled Boston. The Boston of the Metaphysical Club — that is lost on him, too.

So he realized in his last years that he could actually go and describe those Americans in Europe again — the disruptive presence of Americans whose wealth or whose ambitions would fit against an older and much more duplicitous society. He knew about duplicity, just as he knew about secrecy… His life as lived — the level of industry, the level of care taken with work, the secret suffering and also the secret glamor, the going to Italy, the living in palaces — all that is what he had.

Colm Toibin in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, 2004.