Trailblazing Irish novelist Edna O'Brien delivers the memoir she once believed she'd never write.
Edna O'Brien learned quite early on that writing books can be a dangerous business. She wrote her first novel, "The Country Girls," in three weeks. When it was published, in 1960, she was thirty and a sensation in literary London: its success launched her on a long career that spans over twenty books. But with fame came instant notoriety, too. "The Country Girls" was considered so risqué in her native Ireland that it was banned for a time. People in her hometown even made a show of burning it. The detractors included the head of her old convent school ("We give credence an open mind"), her then-husband ("You can write and I will never forgive you"), and even her own mother, who resented the looks she got from neighbors. Ever after, O'Brien was seen in some quarters as, in her terms, "a Jezebel."
That episode perhaps explains why she describes her new book, Country Girl: A Memoir, in the preface as "the memoir which I swore I would never write." It is a remark she does not otherwise explain. Without further context, you might want to call that a very old form of snobbery against the art of talking about oneself – or most memoirists will, anyway, and they are a sensitive bunch of late. Something more complicated is at work here. O'Brien is not afraid of putting herself in her work. She once told The Paris Review that "any book that is any good must be, to some extent, autobiographical, because one cannot and should not fabricate emotions; and although style and narrative are crucial, the bulwark, emotion, is what finally matters."
So you could say, then, that "Country Girl" is bulwarked by a certain amount of reluctance. You can see that most closely in the form of the book. Its artfulness suggests that O'Brien is still reserving judgment on the propriety of disclosing her personal life. That said, the narrator does not come across as coy or evasive. It's more a matter of structure. Everything is related in brief vignettes and anecdotes, the author preferring lyricism and metaphor to exhaustive detail. And while O'Brien moves her story through time in a broadly linear fashion, the chronology forks with regularity enough that an inattentive reader might get lost. It is a bit like being guided through a forest by someone who does not want you to remember the way out yourself.
This almost becomes a failing as O'Brien follows her own literary star as it rises, and the stories begin to get shorter, less connected to one another. Because O'Brien traveled in high-flown circles, she moves not just from place to place but from marquee name to marquee name. The regularity of such appearances rather successfully conveys the glittering distractions of success. But the parade of notables does threaten to exhaust the reader's patience. O'Brien manages to hold the court by always giving a well-chosen detail. She has Marlon Brando, for example, at her kitchen table drinking milk while she drinks wine. Norman Mailer wants to kiss her in the rain. She outlines her friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by way of a cabbie's surprise when Jackie O removes her scarf and reveals herself, or the bouquet of flowers she sends to a girl Ari Onassis had flirted with. Jackie O, she writes, "went through life veiled, and left it with her stardust intact."
But these notes on the famous are not the bulk of the book. If there is a lot of stardust in O'Brien's memoir, there is only a thin emotional veil. Which is not to say that this is, precisely, a tell-all. Of central importance, for example, is her early marriage to the Irish writer Ernest Gabler, a fastidious and manipulative man who was evidently threatened by his wife's success. Yet O'Brien has a knack for conveying the depth of his cruelty in a sentence or two. Gabler picks an early fight about a phrase in one of O'Brien's stories, where she has described a "country road tarred very blue." To him, this is an inaccurate description. "But," she writes, "in secret I clung to the blue road, knowing that somewhere in the distance, like a glacier, it would come between us." When, after their initial separation, he tricks her into bringing their children to him, she writes, "Forever after, I have associated the closing of that door with the closing of a lid on a coffin."
In fact, so traumatic is the breakup of the marriage that she briefly finds herself in despair a hotel room in Singapore with pills "in a handkerchief from long, long ago." The crisis passes, and O'Brien manages to go on writing, in the way of every writer in every writer's memoir, in which – after all – the ending is the one part we surely already know. But this one has more than enough exceptional beauty and skill to make the reader want to go on reading, too.
Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, and erstwhile lawyer whose writing has appeared at The New Yorker, Slate, The Nation, and The Awl.