History is said to be written by the victors. Fiction, by contrast, is largely the work of injured bystanders.
Edna O’Brien, who retells her provocative life in “Country Girl,” represents a classic Irish case. A novelist whose promise found fulfillment in the short-story form, she had to exile herself, like Joyce and Beckett, to become herself. Mad Ireland hurt her into prose the way Auden said it had hurt Yeats into poetry.
A lush vocabulary was her revenge on her lush of a father, who remained captive to the bottle even when dry. Sentences, stylishly turned out, perked up the drabness of impecunious circumstances. Metaphor offered an outlet for emotions a respectable woman was expected to swallow; myth freed her from denying what the Catholic Church constrained and condemned.
“Country Girl,” invoking O’Brien’s first novel, “The Country Girls,” the book published in 1960 that simultaneously launched her literary career and scandalous reputation, is a memoir that reveals more through its syntax than through its story.
The almost fetishizing precision of nouns that marks the early section, set in rural County Clare, reflects a writer’s determination to establish her authority over an environment that deprived her of any growing up.
Sliding the “hasp of the gate” on her return to Drewsboro, the grand yet dilapidated house of her birth, O’Brien is brought back in time. She recalls the “amphora of artificial tea roses in yellow and red, far more beautiful than the dog roses on the briars or the devil’s pokers in the garden outside.…" She stares into the wood, the “preserve of foxes, stoats, badgers, and pine martens” and imagines her great-grandmother dressed in black for dinner, with a white lace ruff” drinking “toddies from a silver-topped horn cup that bore the questionable motto of the O’Briens — ‘Might before Right.’”
A watershed episode in her childhood is her father’s drunken rampage one night when he believed his wife to be withholding money from him. Brandishing a revolver in the direction of O’Brien and her mother, he blew a hole in the door before being taken to a monastery where “monks cared for him as he went through the ordeal of delirium tremens.”
O’Brien, communicating her relief through the rhythm of her prose, writes, “Those lulls while he was away were the happiest times in our house, my mother and I baking, cleaning windows inside and out, and once, as I remember, mastering the intricate recipe for queen of puddings….”
Books, other than “religious treasuries with soft, dimpled leather covers and gold edging to the pages,” were scarce in her home, but she would go to the fields to write, the words fueled by the landscape and spoken language surrounding her. Joyce’s “luminous and labyrinthine” writing would have to wait until she reached Dublin, but the encounter would prove to be miraculously formative.
There’s something precociously formed about O’Brien’s character. Once when an inspector was visiting her school, she was called on to recite from the New Testament. Asked if she took a great interest in Jesus, she expressed her disappointment that he “had been so curt with his mother at the Feast of Cana, when, worried about the scarcity of wine, he said, ‘It is not my business or thine.’”
O’Brien has spent her career, in effect, defending Mary’s concern. Her reputation has been built on the intensive examination of the emotional experience of women, a subject often deemed unworthy of serious literary interest by men but one that she has given majesty to through the ripe sumptuousness of her prose.
Sometimes called “the Irish Colette,” O’Brien wears “a fanatic heart” (the title of one of her brilliant short-story collections) on her sleeve. One reads her less for sense than for sensibility. Internal impressions trump external realities, a quality Norman Mailer once amicably chided her for (“You’re too interior, that’s your problem”) during one of her frequent New York sojourns. But the beauty of her style depends on its flights into blurry extremes.
“Country Girl” won’t satisfy those wanting a rigorous biographical accounting. O’Brien is better at recapturing states of feeling than she is at systematically recounting the shifting coordinates of a dizzying life. Transitions leave question marks, and the hard, lonely work of writing is partly veiled in a narrative that tries to dazzle us with glittering names (Sean Connery, Harold Pinter and Richard Burton, among others) after “The Country Girls” turns O’Brien into a seductive cause célèbre.
This is the book she wrote while trapped in an unhappy marriage with the writer Ernest Gébler, the Torvald in her Ibsenesque dollhouse in suburban London. Her life would never be the same after all hell broke loose in Ireland over her debut novel’s groundbreaking erotic candor.
Eventually, she fled her marriage, taking along her two adored sons, who after a bitter custody fight mostly stay in the background doing their homework as she entertains at home, a gay, proto-New-Agey divorcée capitalizing on her fame in the swinging ‘60s of London.
After her mother’s death, O’Brien would find her mother’s copy of “The Country Girls” hidden in a bolster case, “with offending words daubed out with black ink.” Mad Ireland strikes again.
The parties have quieted down at this point and the futile love affairs with married men appear to have subsided. Literature — her most faithful companion, her deepest faith — brings what consolation it can. She returns the favor by adding her extravagant lyricism to its trove.
Little, Brown: 357 pp., $27.99