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11 December 2019

Edna O’Brien: “Some men like fairly trivial women”

The 88-year-old writer on truth-telling, the Irish backstop and the elusive “love object” that has haunted her life.

By Kate Mossman

Edna O’Brien’s local shopping spot, Walton Street in Chelsea, is known for two things: a bombing in 1975, when the IRA unit known as the Balcombe Street Gang threw an explosive through the window of a restaurant, killing two people, shortly before the siege that ended their campaign; then years later, when the street had come up in the world, it was the address of Zamira Hajiyeva, wife of a notable Azerbaijani fraudster. In 2018 she became the first person in the UK to be issued with an unexplained wealth order, after she spent £16.3m pounds at Harrods, five minutes’ walk away, using 54 different credit cards.

When O’Brien moved in nearby, in 1985, there were bakers and grocers on the street. Now, the shops are “silly”– Italian beauty supplies, and not one but two outlets specialising in children’s furniture. She had just published a collection of short stories called A Fanatic Heart, most of them narrated by a young Irish girl. One features Eily, a doomed town beauty, a character whom the New York Times described as O’Brien at her best: “a breathless transparent one, bound for sex trouble”. Next, she published Vanishing Ireland in conjunction with the photographer Richard Fitzgerald: 104 photos of crofts and other evocative emblems of the country that banned her first few books. In the mid-Eighties, O’Brien was in a lyrical period, before she turned her eye to Ireland’s current affairs, interviewing the militant Dominic “Mad Dog” McGlinchey as research for her 1994 novel The House of Splendid Isolation, and profiling Gerry Adams, whom she compared – not to a deputy headmaster, as Alan Partridge did – but to a monk from another century, transcribing the gospels into Gaelic. Adams’s hero, he told her, was Nelson Mandela. At the Sinn Féin conference in 1998, he would describe the Balcombe Street Gang, soon to be released under the Good Friday Agreement, as “our Nelson Mandelas”.

She opens the door, dressed for a cocktail party in black gown and substantial silver necklace, with finely painted eyebrows, and extends a delicate hand. We are soon in the kitchen, talking about the things you might expect to discuss with someone in their ninth decade: what kind of crackers to have, and would I like some cheese, or some cake instead? “You’ll have to take the tray, as I need to hold on up the stairs.”

The twist into the politics of the Troubles was met with controversy, but so was her recent novel, which follows one of the hundreds of young Nigerian women captured by terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014: its title, Girl, is a bald echo of the novel The Country Girls, which made her famous a bewildering 59 years ago. “I had to forgo all my existing props,” she says. “Ireland, landscape, nature, love – that old chestnut – and lyricism.” The only book I recall from the thousands packed in her three-storey house, laid out on the table in the downstairs workroom or crammed in the wall-to-wall book shelves upstairs, is an Arden edition of King Lear, one of five she owns but struggles to locate: each time she wants to read it, she has to go out and buy a fresh one. Lear’s bare language influenced Girl. When she received the proof at the start of this year, she apparently thought: “Jesus, this is a clanger. Get out the Bible. Get out Euripides. The Greeks are masters at concision, raw, deep.” She sent the proof back with a coloured Post-It on every page.

Girl has been generally well-reviewed, “but then there’s a thing called sales,” she whispers, “and I don’t think this book is selling much. I don’t hear anything about it! I daren’t ask, having caused them so much trouble! I think the story might be a little sad – triste. You know, people think, ‘Well, life is depressing enough!’”

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It is unusual to find a writer of 88 embarking on a dramatic change of style and taking pains to justify it, but O’Brien still cares what people think. The week we met, she’d won the David Cohen Prize for Literature, a major recognition of a lifetime’s work which has, for other winners, been followed by a Nobel Prize. But she is still stung by a New Yorker profile from October in which, over the course of 10,000 words, the staff writer Ian Parker took the decision to put under the microscope the colourful, heightened way she has told her life story. O’Brien remembered a preacher denouncing the provocative (some said “filthy”) The Country Girls in the pulpit of the church near her home in Tuamgraney, then burning it: Parker said no one in the village recalled the same. And her relationship with her mother may not have been as hostile as she’s made out, he suggested – Lena O’Brien speaks affectionately in much of their correspondence…

“I don’t understand it,” she says, brows knitted, looking at me as though for answers. “Oh, but it hurt me very much. I cannot but think there was a deliberation of malice in it? He seemed very mild and a little vague, and I did not for a moment think it was going to turn out like this. He was here for four days! I had him four whole days.”

In O’Brien’s bathroom, on a little shelf, is a discarded bracelet with a silver crucifix attached. On the way up the raspberry-coloured stairs there are two striking black and white photos of her sons in their twenties, taken by a photographer she collared when he came to shoot her for an interview. They look almost Chekovian, like their father, the writer Ernest Gébler. Carlo, now 65 and a writer, is the elder; Sasha, an architect, she hoped would be a girl, and talked to him in the womb, telling him he was one – until he came out a boy and she gave him that unisex name. Her sons have an “almost maternal” style of parenting, she thinks. Last week, she saw her grandson Oscar running his hands through Sasha’s hair. She asked him if he’d massage her head too, and the child replied, “Only if you let me see your belly.”

At the top of the stairs is a sitting room where a fire casts its shadows and a cinnamon smell sends the setting back a century or so. She sits perfectly erect, and the sight of her reminds me of something she said about love, talking to Russell Harty on the  1970s ITV arts show Aquarius. Fixing him in the eye, she said that several men had told her they wouldn’t marry a girl for whom their heart truly shivered – “for whom I sat on the edge of my chair when I was with her. That kind of woman is not for marrying.”


O’Brien has rented this house since she gave up her previous one at 10 Carlyle Square, just off King’s Road, which she’d bought with the £39,000 she received for writing the script for a 1972 film called Zee & Co, starring Michael Caine and Elizabeth Taylor. That place, like her Putney pile before it, was the site of famous parties, until money troubles, and a more abstract sense that things were coming to an end. One night, she dreamed she poured goose fat over her dinner guests. “It was my own kitchen in the dream, but with some worrying alterations – bells and signs, like a hospital kitchen. And long tables, lots of tables. There’s a wonderful line that Yeats quotes: ‘In dreams begin responsibilities’. When I wakened from the dream, I thought, the parties have to stop, and they did.”

In 1964 she had fled her ten-year marriage to Gébler, ending a life that was silent, “spartan” and one of “surveillance”. The ensuing sociability also marked a creative change. “I had, from childhood, and from the sort of mythological tales that I’ve read, an innate sense of feast and banquet,” she says. “I had this wonderful table – tables seem to feature a lot in my life – with knots and marks. That tree had had a life. And I dolled it up. And I began to circulate a bit more…”

Men flocked to her. There were some in particular who helped her get her social life together – the stills photographer Sam Shaw, who “brought some notables” to the house; and the theatre designer Sean Kenny, who was dismissive of her at first, telling her “writing is bullshit”.

“I was very struck on him,” she says. “He liked younger blondes, and they were all identical, and all a little bit trivial. Men sometimes like fairly trivial women – they’re not threatened. They do! You know, the kind of men who called their dogs Kafka and things like that.”

Sean Kenny knew a lot of people, so O’Brien didn’t need to send out invitations, and her soirees became “as regular as football, only with more alcohol involved”. It is strange to imagine these men busying themselves with her domestic affairs: the film director Roger Vadim, whose wives included Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda, was “brilliant, helping, active, in the kitchen, and would discuss what I would wear”. She wasn’t in love with him – just as she doesn’t seem to have been in love with Marlon Brando, or Richard Burton, or most of the A-listers who fluttered about her. In fact, she spent a lot of time, she told Russell Harty, in the company of “ideal, non-existent male soulmates”. The question of the Love Object, as she calls it, is still a subject of intellectual fascination for her. Even Sean Connery didn’t make the cut.

“It’s very hard to get this Love Object, even bodily,” she says, plucking the air with her fingers. “Because one’s influences as a child are so muddled. I mean, Heathcliff would have been an influence in my childhood, the very name. And I’m sorry to sound extremely bonkers, but Jesus Christ was an influence. So there was Catholic imagery, Gothic imagery and wildness all lumped in with a great mind, and good looks – I should have mentioned the good looks. Now, that’s a tall order in life. It’s unrealisable.”

She seems to have been most seduced by complexity. The cult psychiatrist RD Laing, whom she saw as a patient, “engrossed” her: “If they’re of any interest, man or woman, they’re complex, because they’ve many facets, their minds move. And he was, for the most part, silent, but he would talk to himself sometimes, and there was something magnetising, if one were to go to him.” She met Gébler, who later became resentful of his younger wife’s talent and success, when she was 23, sitting amid a group of men engaged in “hi-falutin” talk in a pub on Henry Street in Dublin. They soon eloped. He had “a very graven face, a remarkable face”; he was also “complex and wounded, and a writer when I was a would-be writer: I never made any secret of it.”

O’Brien said, not so long ago, that the presence of a male author at a party still seemed to be “cultural Viagra” for people and the same didn’t go for a female one. Her cultivation of male mentors – Philip Roth, Samuel Beckett – combined with her talent for exploring the inner life of women suggests that the real action, for her, came less in the romantic relationship and more in the friction of the intellectual exchange. She had an affair with John Freeman, who edited the New Statesman in the early 1960s and was also known for his challenging Face To Face interviews on the BBC. “He was indeed a flame, yes,” she says, looking slightly surprised, though Freeman is widely thought to be the subject of her short story “The Love Object”. “He seemed rather cool. He interviewed me on television. He had a severity, but he wasn’t a snob and he wasn’t a bluffer of any kind. He was quite a formidable man, but admirable.”

“He was helpful in the kitchen”: Edna O’Brien with the film director Roger Vadim in 1969​. Credit: Bryan Jobson/ANL/Shutterstock 

The night before we met, O’Brien filled my dreams: at one point she was sitting with her feet up, tended to by many; and at another, she told me politely, “no politics questions, please”. In the event she cannot prevent herself from talking about the upcoming election – though her voice drops even lower than usual, and her forehead creases as if to say: if I speak this very quietly, maybe it is not true.

“If Corbyn were not leader of the Labour Party, it would have been better. He’s harmed the Labour Party: he has harmed them,” she whispers. “But I do hope they all vote Labour…” She admires Keir Starmer. And of Jo Swinson, she says “she was very unwise” to predict she would be prime minister: “A girl might say that at school to another girl in the yard. It was gung-ho. She was doing well. And she hurt herself.”

I ask her about the Irish backstop.

“The partitioning of Ireland in 1922 was a major mistake and a tragedy. People are always talking about how awful the IRA are, how they were killers: yes, they were, but they were also being killed. Mrs Thatcher despised Ireland.” When The House of Splendid Isolation was published, Norman Lamont, who disagreed with most of it, pulled out a line he admired: “How would they [the English] feel if we owned three of their shires, not even six?”

“I think the DUP were and are stonewalling,” she says, “and Sinn Féin, in my opinion, ought to have taken their seats because Northern Ireland – including Protestants – all voted to Remain.”

A positive effect of Brexit, she says jokingly, will be to restore the quality of the language. “From all of them, any regard for language does not pertain. Boris Johnson assumes that he’s literary because it appears he has read some Greeks, but he’s not. He flings them into the conversation. It actually shows him not to be educated because he would use them more wisely.”

She is concerned by the “prevailing untruth everywhere. To be so arrogant, as he and his cohorts are, I think there’ll be a price for it. There will be a price. Chicanery and bullshit, they’re in high office in every country. The leaders in Turkey, Russia, America, Poland, they are very shy with the truth. They are dictators. There’s not much we can do about it. Would you like some apricot jam with your cheese?”

It seems an enticing offer. Her voice is sounding a little weak – among various health complaints, O’Brien had shingles a while ago and at some point every day, perhaps when the light is fading, it flares up as a headache (she passes a hand over one side of her face) and she has to lie down for 15 minutes.

“I said to myself the other day, ‘Does God’ – whom I don’t often invoke – ‘Does God send us all these things in order that eventually we are willing and wishing to die?’ It does make sense. If you’d like the apricot jam, you’ll have to fetch it yourself.”

Back down the stairs, down the raspberry carpet, and past the photos of the dashing sons (“Neither Carlo or Sasha, my darling children, read their mother’s books! I say that in jest because they are very nice”). The pot of jam I present is still sealed, so she sends me back down for another. The sweetness goes well with the piquant cheese though O’Brien doesn’t eat any. It is hard to imagine her alone on the streets of Abuja last year. She went twice – first for three weeks, then for eight – and stayed in the Irish Embassy, and met the Boko Haram victims in the chaotic office of Oby Ezekwesili, the chartered accountant responsible for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

“They would come with their elders, always male, who would stand at the back, and inevitably most of them had babies, and the babies were silent as snowdrops and clad in white,” she says. She saw them with a translator; they were very abashed – “I had to be piano-piano” – and sifted through conflicting accounts of their kidnap. The New Yorker questioned her idea that the girls would have been gang-raped – though their fact checker had her on the phone for four hours, she says, “and they never queried that one”. O’Brien enlisted the journalist Sally Hayden (“a little waif and a marvel”) for extra research in Africa. On submission of the first draft, her publisher Lee Brackstone came round to see her in person: she needed to describe the birth of her protagonist’s baby in a camp in Nigeria, he said.

“I said, Lee, this is a fucking nightmare,” O’Brien says. “I had to, well, I had to live it. And I hadn’t the full detail – about the pepper poultice and the cement bags…” It took a month to write the three-page scene: It was like I was being sawn in two. I could feel the ball of its head, like a metal hoop, making up its mind to come out, but then retreating.

She’d described her own birth in the short story “A Rose in the Heart of New York”. The youngest child in her family, she once said that her own mother loved her more than was normal.

“She wasn’t expecting to have me. The child before me died, and I was conscious of some shadow of death from a very young age. The early months, or years, were very shorn, in every sense. I know that I became essential to my mother. I became her little protector, and I was attached to her, and she wanted me attached to her.”

Lena O’Brien did a lot of grunt work on the family farm (“I admire workers, and she was a worker”). With Edna at her side, she’d place day-old chicks around a circular metal lamp, which they quickly cleaved to as a surrogate mother. Her daughter’s elopement broke her heart, but not as much as the choice of a writing career – although, while her father read nothing but the racing news, Lena O’Brien was herself “a brilliant writer, a fluent writer, even though she hated the written word”. Her letters – which arrived on pink paper, with no commas, no full stops, a pure stream of consciousness – were “masterpieces”. When O’Brien left her marriage, she received one that she read under a street lamp in Albemarle Street, Mayfair.

“She asked me to promise her two things. That I would never touch an alcoholic drink as long as I lived – we lost out on that – and I would never have anything to do with any man in body or soul. That I owed it to her. So you see what I mean? The hook was primal – and it’s still there.”

You wonder whether in her mother, O’Brien had her Love Object all along. She looks tired just talking about it. “That’s why, after you go, I have to lie down for fifteen minutes,” she says. “Do you think you have enough?” 

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