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Last week I heard these words in a BBC Dateline/London segment, which a friend taped and later showed to me. What a delight to see clips of Edna in her youth and through her eighth decade, and to listen to her speak in so many different settings. I deeply admire this fearless writer, who calls reading and writing the "two intensities that have buttressed her whole life."

Both of her recent novels (The Little Red Chairs in 2015, and Girl, in 2019) involved extensive research and travel for an aging writer. The truth is that I was hesitant to read Girl. How could O'Brien write a novel without Ireland and the Irish? The protagonist in The Little Red Chairs, leaves Ireland for London, and later travels to the Hague. But Girl is set in Nigeria.

I questioned how O'Brien, the Irish country girl, the mother of two sons, the swinging London resident, the NYC sophisticate, could take on Africa? How could she make her main character one of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014? I feared that O'Brien could not pull it off. But she has. And being a fearless writer, Edna ignored the current cultural climate in book publishing. Which is that an author of a literary work must not write stories about those whose race, ethnicity, sex, nationality, and class differ from the writer's. O'Brien ignored this myopic claim. She assumed the voice of Maryam, a girl who escapes from Boko Haram.

I have read the novel only once and have nothing intelligent to say after one read of anything worth reading! Yet I will return to Girl at the end of many Monday postings on Edna O'Brien. My class on her begins on October 8, with her memoir, Country Girl, which includes the following song sung by Paul McCartney to Edna's sons one late evening in their London home. "Oh Edna O'Brien/ She ain't lying/ You gotta listen/ To what she gotta say/ For Edna O'Brien/ She'll have you sighing/ She'll have you crying/ She'll blow your mind away." One son slept through McCartney singing and playing the guitar. The next day he would not believe his brother that one of the Beatles had been in their bedroom!

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The three books were Edna O'Brien's trilogy, "The Country Girls" that gave voice about a "previously muzzled generation of Irish women." The first novel, published in 1960, took O'Brien three weeks to write. Whether that's Irish blarney I don't know. But ten years earlier Edna had left rural County Clare for Dublin, with its beckoning "sins and guile and blandishments." There she made an important literary discovery, as recounted in her 2012 memoir: "Country Girl."

"Dublin was a more trusting town in 1950, and secondhand books would be left on the trestle tables outside the shops...On Bachelor's Walk I found a slim volume called "Introducing James Joyce" by T.S. Eliot....I bought it for four pence and carried it with me I could read it at will and copy out the sentences, luminous and labyrinthine. It was when I copied them out that I began to realize how great they were, the short flawless snatches of dialogue, lush descriptions of corpses...of sea and sea stones... then the extraordinary ascensions, in which worlds within worlds unfolded."

I first read O'Brien's trilogy fifty years ago but would have missed the significance of Baba Brennan chastising her good friend, Cait Brady in this way. "Will you for Chrissake stop asking fellas if they read James Joyce Dubliners. They're not interested. They're out for the night. Eat and drink all you can and leave James Joyce to blow his own trumpet." Ironically, that is what Edna (Cait-Kate) did in 1999. She wrote "James Joyce: A Life" : a 178 page book of lucid, engaging prose about the author whose linguistic brilliance she loved from the day she bought T.S. Eliot's book on Joyce in Dublin.

Now, Edna O'Brien is 89. And in over 60 years of holding a pen (she does not type or use a computer), she has written 23 novels, 4 nonfiction, and five dramas. Her memoir, begun at age 78, ends in her London home, upstairs where the room is "full of light, like a room readying itself for a last banquet." What literary sustenance has O'Brien offered the reading public since 2012? Two more novels! And both novels required extensive research and travel: "The Little Red Chairs" (2015), and the 2019 "Girl", set in Nigeria. Edna's remarkable life, to be continued.

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This professor sought to know his students' thoughts during our three-hour class each Monday night during my final semester at USC. The course was the modern British novel, and the first writer we read was the Irishman James Joyce! His country, however, had gained independence from Britain in 1922, with Joyce's major literary works published after that. I see the irony now, which missed me then!

For the second class we were assigned to read, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Enchanted with this novel, I read it twice and carefully. Or so I thought. That night in class, I felt the silent bleat of despair during Dr. Coanda's lecture: Jungian archetypes, Celtic mythology, Irish history, the country's Catholicism, Joyce's post-modern literary structure, and much more. Ignorant me, about to graduate, a bloody know-nothing; and like Portrait's protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, I felt sick at heart.

Those were the days of academic formality. One addressed a professor as Doctor, adding his name. (No female professor for me at USC except Health, a PE requirement of freshman year). And back then, no "Hey, Gail, how's it goin' today?" such as I heard from students at American University over two decades ago. Yet that winter night in 1965, I remembered a passage in Portrait, one I had underlined, when Stephen Dedalus says: "The tragic emotion is a face looking two ways, toward terror and towards pity." That evening self-pity overrode terror. I stayed after class and walked to Dr. Coanda's desk, where he was gathering his papers and books. He was the youngest English professor I had taken a class from at USC. Looking at me with kind eyes, he listened to my dolorous, plaintive, woebegone words. By then I had learned to cover insecure moments with verbiage.

What Dr. Coanda told me that night I took to heart. He had completed his doctorate and begun teaching before anything began to make much sense. Before then his mind had been a jumble of fragments and abstractions. So yes, he knew exactly how I felt. And he could only encourage me to make learning my quest. Read the best literature, along with history, philosophy, mythology, religion. Do not overlook art and music. Your quest, he told me, will be one of continual revelation, a process less analytical than mystical. He used this word, and he often said it in class, along with… "Connect, only connect." That semester I would read this phrase in E.M. Forster's Passage to India, long before it became a New Age cliché.

Fragments of knowledge forming patterns, and patterns drawing parallels. Maybe this is obvious, but it had not been obvious to me after four years of college. That semester I read writers I continue to love: D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, George Orwell. In our final paper the assignment was to select four novels from the course and to explore the archetype of head and heart. Dr. Coanda wanted to know what connections we found, as that would be of keen interest to him. It did not occur to me until the 1970s when I read Virginia Woolf, that no female writer had been included in the course. Once again it is that story of time and place, on which I seem to be harping lately.

For decades I schlepped that long paper on Portrait, Sons and Lovers, Passage to India, and Lord of the Flies with me while living in foreign lands. Last year I finally tossed more than a hundred files from the years of teaching, including my typed notes from the modern British novel and my final essay. Those pieces of paper were not needed to remember Dr. Coanda, whose name resounds forever in my head and heart.

Next week: I will begin a month of postings on Edna O'Brien for my October RILL class.


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