One night in their [her sons’] bedroom with all their clutter and paraphernalia, painted soldiers laid out on trays for battle yet to be, Paul McCartney entered.
This is just one of the wonderful examples of understated prose found in Edna O’Brien‘s memoir The Country Girl, published last year. Many lesser writers would have changed the order of words in the anecdote to put the emphasis on McCartney rather than banal domestic details. But such was Edna’s life while in Swinging Sixties London; a life so replete with encounters with the great and the good that she can treat individual episodes with nonchalance.
There are many examples of this nature in the middle of the book as famous names from stage, screen and the literary world flit into her world and onto the pages. She cooks dinner for Len Deighton, Richard Burton recites Shakespeare in her kitchen, Lee Marvin is a guest at her son’s birthday party and she dances with the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The names are not there to impress. These people were simply part of an ever-extending circle of friends and acquaintances who gravitated to her home in Chelsea and more particularly gravitate to this vivacious young woman from southern Ireland. A party girl she may have been but The Country Girl is no kiss and tell memoir. In fact she is remarkably silent on the identity of some of the men who played a part in her life, including someone who seemed to have been an eminent British politician.
The memoir is instead a warm and frank account of a life that was anything but carefree. O’Brien’s early years in County Clare, Ireland were lived in fear of a father who had drunk away the family’s wealth and in the stultifying atmosphere of a strict Catholic community serviced by the church and 27 pubs but no library. “There was only one book in the village apart from the Bible — du Maurier’s Rebecca,” she told an audience at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival. “We used to share it around but you only got one or two pages at a time and they didn’t always come in the right order.”
It wasn’t until she broke away and moved to Dublin to work as an assistant in a pharmacist’s shop that she discovered literature along with pierced earrings and men. Finding T. S. Eliot’s “Introducing James Joyce” in a quayside stall marked the beginning of what she calls the “two intensities” of her life — writing and reading. Freedom came at a price — her family tried to kidnap her when they learned of her affair with a married man, forcing the pair to flee the country. In London, married to a poet and the mother of two boys, she began to write. The Country Girls was completed in just three weeks. Her tale of two girls who leave their small Irish village and convent education for the bright lights of Dublin met with critical acclaim everywhere except in Ireland and by everyone except her mother and her husband.
In Ireland it was considered immoral and its publication banned. “Filth” proclaimed the Archbishop and the Minister of Justice. Even the local postmistress in her home village weighed in – she should be made to run naked through the street as a punishment she claimed. O’Brien was summoned to a public meeting in Limerick to defend her book against accusations that it was little more than hard-core pornography.
Her husband’s response was more personal:
Yes he had to concede that despite everything, I had done it, and then he said something that was the death-knell of the already-ailing marriage —You can write and I will never forgive you.
What follows is one of the darkest periods of Edna O’Brien’s life. Separated from her children, she finds herself portrayed in a custody battle as a harlot, the writer of obnoxious and obscene literature and an uncaring mother.
Country Girl was a book O’Brien swore she would never write. She did so at the age of 78 in order to set the record straight about this and other episodes in her life including a published interview with Gerry Adams the Sinn Fein leader which led to accusations she was promoting the cause of the IRA.
There is a sense though there is much more to this memoir than simply recording the truth for posterity. There is a sense that in turning to the past, she found a reconciliation not just with the land of her birth, the land that never rated her as greatly as Joyce or Yeats and fought her attempts to build a home on its shores, but with herself. After a return visit to her childhood home that is now in ruins behind a screen of ivy and bramble she reflects on
“… for ever the need to go back,the way animals do, the way elephants trudge thousands of miles to return to where the elephant whisperer has lived. We go back for the whisper.”
Elegaic, moving and funny. A perfect example of how memoirs should be written.