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 • January 18, 2011

Lydia Davis: Miniatures from a Mind on Fire

Lydia Davis keeps popping up in conversation as a favorite writer of our favorite writers — Rae Armantrout, the Pulitzer poet, among them, and the novelist Robert Coover. Dan Chiasson makes her Collected Stories “one ...

Lydia Davis keeps popping up in conversation as a favorite writer of our favorite writers — Rae Armantrout, the Pulitzer poet, among them, and the novelist Robert Coover. Dan Chiasson makes her Collected Stories “one of the great books in recent literature, equal parts horse sense and heartache.” David Shields‘ demand in Reality Hunger for aphorism, personal urgency, and “an explosion on every page,” is always satisfied in a Lydia Davis story, whether it’s short or very short or just a sentence or two. So finally, we are hearing Ms. Davis beautifully honed prose in her own voice, and engaging with her on how she writes it: suddenly sometimes, but also waiting patiently a year or two for the shape (and punctuation) of a last line, as in “Head, Heart,” in its entirety here:

Head, Heart

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

As Paul Harding, of Tinkers fame, was formed in part by the drum patterns of Elvin Jones, Lydia Davis seems to have been influenced by the sleek wit of pianist Glenn Gould and the architecture of Johann Sebastian Bach. Ms. Davis — often hard to distinguish from the narrative voice in her stories — grew up idolizing Glenn Gould and “working as hard at the piano as any professional, partly to avoid doing other things that were harder, but partly for the pleasure of it.”

The narrator that’s so intriguing in many of these nearly 200 Collected Stories is, like the author, a professor whose father was a professor. She’s a bookish New York woman who thinks of herself (we don’t) as “prim.” She is in and out of the City — to lonely weekend places, to France for long stays — without ever having to tell you what city. She’s been married, and she’s brought up a son. “My husband” in these stories is a man now married to someone else. Our narrator is a woman who “always needed to have a love even if it was a complicated love.” She fantasizes about marrying a cowboy — “I imagined that maybe a cowboy would help me stop thinking so much.” But she goes on writing endlessly about her own mental process. She is not a great housekeeper in town or country. She drinks a bit, and sees a shrink. But always she is pursuing her own non-stop line of questions and answers on her own: what can she learn, for example, about giving her son something like the care she devotes to her century-old dictionary? “… I consider its age. I treat it with respect. I stop and think before I use it. I know its limitations… I leave it alone a good deal of the time.” She wonders if memories, to be happy, must be recalled happily by the other people in the picture.

I blurt out unwisely that I read these stories asking: “is this the way chicks’ minds work?” But it’s not chicks, of course. It’s writers with minds on fire and a gift for sentences that go off like little rockets. Lydia Davis writes in the company that includes Montaigne, Emerson, Proust, Beckett, Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Parker. She also reads wonderfully.