The loneliness of the long distance writer
By Des Kenny
MY MOTHER sometimes articulated a memory of a Friday evening sometime in the early 1950s when a young girl and boy entered the shop and spent the afternoon there.
Shortly after she had opened the following day, the pair reappeared. When, towards the end of the day, the girl, “who had the most beautiful auburn hair”, came to the counter to finalise her purchases, my mother, by way of pleasant conversation, asked her what she was doing with herself, the reply came without hesitation and with a great deal of conviction: “I am training to be a writer.”
Some 40 years later, driving Edna O’Brien (the girl with the flowing auburn hair) up to the Language Laboratory in NUI Galway when she had generously agreed to read one of her short stories for the Galway Echo - Galway’s Talking Newspaper for the Visually Impaired, we were discussing an article written by a prominent Irish writer which had just been published in The New York Times. When I told her that the article had created something of a stir in Irish-American and library circles over there, she commented a little sharply: “Yes, Desmond, but is it writing?”
After the reading, a magnificent and committed performance, the discussion continued on the way back to the shop and was still in full flow as we walked in the door when, suddenly, she ended it by turning to me and saying “Now Joyce! Now there’s a writer, why a page of Joyce a day is like a transfusion!”
During the 40 years between these two episodes, O’Brien made good her initial aspiration and had established herself as one of the most important and ground-breaking writers in the Irish literary pantheon. In fact, it can be argued that her first book, The Country Girls in 1960 (along with John McGahern’s first, The Barracks, in 1963) heralded the beginnings of the real Irish literary renaissance.
While both writers were forced to leave Ireland as a result of their writing, the more savage vilification was reserved for O’Brien, probably because she was a woman and her perceived cultural treachery of the status quo was deemed to be far more insidious. Indeed, in some circles, Ireland has never fully forgiven her.
Despite this, she has never wavered from or compromised what she believes to be her literary remit. When, in recent years, she was severely criticised for what was deemed to be her insensitive handling of the theme in the novel In The Forest, she referred to the Irish tendency to hide the truth, but that it was her job as a writer to expose it. She was not going to sweep the truth under the carpet.
In her memoir Country Girl, just published by Faber and Faber last month, the price that O’Brien has had to pay for her integrity as a writer becomes evident. With the straightforward prose style, the candour and honesty that have become her hallmark, O’Brien takes us through her early life in County Clare which was far from easy, the bailiffs being not unusual visitors to her home.
Her life followed the usual path of the good Catholic Irish girl of the 1930s and 1940s and she was lucky enough that her parents managed to scrape enough together to send her to boarding school in Loughrea. Sadly, she missed the much vaunted scholarship by a couple of marks and she ended up being an apprentice to a chemist in Dublin.
From here she moved further and further away from her family but it was not until the publication of The Country Girls that the break became irrevocable. Despite a failed marriage, her subsequent life in London is a glittering spectacle of parties and celebrities with everyone who was anyone attending the seemingly non-stop parties held in her house. She spends a night with Robert Mitchum, is befriended by Jacqueline Onassis, and seems to float from ritzy hotel to ritzy hotel.
As the narrative pushes towards the end, a restless uneasiness underlines the text and a curious longing for a sense of place emerges. She builds a house in Donegal hoping to find peace there but finds herself selling it within the year. This sense of restlessness grows and is replaced by something akin to loneliness and a growing awareness that her dedication to the art of writing has had its own price.
Country Girl is a courageous book. It is the work of a brave woman who despite all opposition, stayed true to her beliefs and her art and because of this has given us an important and invaluable literary legacy.