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Passion's Progress

Edna O'Brien talks about her admiration for Joyce, the importance of myth, and how her new book, Wild Decembers -- in which heartache is prefigured by a tractor -- fits in with her own "inner gnaw"

April 20, 2000

It has been said that growing up in Ireland one learns sin from the priests, Latin from the nuns, and passion from Edna O'Brien. Indeed, O'Brien's first three novels, published in the 1960s (and repackaged as a trilogy, The Country Girls, in 1986), were so brazenly "passionate" that they and six of her subsequent works were banned in Ireland. It was because of this that O'Brien left her homeland for London, where she has lived ever since. She never stopped turning to Ireland to find fodder for her stories, however, and her nearly twenty novels and numerous plays chronicle an evolving Ireland and the passions therein.

In her recent trilogy of novels about modern Ireland, O'Brien's characteristic focus on romantic passions has expanded to include wider social, political, moral, and spiritual concerns. Following House of Splendid Isolation (1994), set amidst the IRA struggles, and Down by the River (1997), about the abortion controversy known in Ireland as the "X trial," comes the newly released Wild Decembers, a lush and melancholy tale about a mountain and the ancestral animosities of its inhabitants. Some critics have accused O'Brien of representing Ireland as being anything but modern, yet it may be the agelessness of the passions she writes about -- the vagaries of the heart, as she calls them in this interview -- and the timeless way she renders them, that inspire the complaint.
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After reading Wild Decembers Philip Roth told O'Brien that although he'd always thought of her as being like that other "passionate" literary lady, Collette, he'd changed his mind. "You're not like Collette after all," he'd decided. "You're more like Faulkner." As it turns out, William Faulkner is second only to James Joyce in O'Brien's personal pantheon; Wild Decembers has in it echoes of both writers. One need go no further than the novel's opening lines to see the evidence:
Cloontha it is called -- a locality within the bending of an arm. A few scattered houses, the old fort, lime-dank and jabbery and from the great whoosing belly of the lake between grassland and callow land a road, sluicing the little fortresses of ash and elder, a crooked road to the mouth of the mountain. Fields that mean more than fields, more than life and more than death too.
Last year saw the publication of O'Brien's James Joyce, a short biography in the Penguin Lives series. More an homage to the writer than a traditional biography, the book captures the spirit of the series. O'Brien has said that she finds reading -- never mind writing -- traditional biographies akin to "dragging wardrobes across rooms," but that if given the chance she'd gladly write a Penguin Lives biography of William Faulkner, too.

O'Brien spoke recently from London with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.

Edna O'Brien    

Wild Decembers was inspired by a real story. How did the actual event take the shape of fiction in your mind?

I learnt of a story wherein man A shot man B, who had left some farm machinery in man A's yard. Its presence there became threatening. The denoument happened after many months of rancor. What I wanted to see unfolding in Wild Decembers was the progress of the hostilities. I thought of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and how for him all enmity, all danger, was embodied in the whale. For Joseph, one of the characters in my book, the hatred is twofold -- it is about land and about sex. But as with any novel there had to be the twists and turns, friendship, little betrayals leading to greater ones, and the inevitable climax.

Was it difficult to stay with the story?

Finding a story and staying with it is always the most difficult thing. I picked that story because it corresponded to something inside myself. I wouldn't have been able to write it if it hadn't. But I could readily picture the situation of the mountain -- not where the story actually happened, but where I pictured it happening -- in my mind. I thought that if along with the rivalry between the two men I put a woman -- a very shy, but very intense woman -- then there was a scenario that suited me.

I hear a lot of stories in Ireland, and I read the newspapers. Emile Zola, Gustave Flaubert, the Goncourt brothers -- they were always reading the papers, especially the court reports, to find ideas for their work. But you have to pick a story that fits in with your own inner gnaw.

Could you talk about the role of the past in the lives of your characters?

We are each of us the result of our past. This is not a question of nostalgia or looking backwards, it is the emotional, political, cultural, and spiritual effects on us of both our subjective and ancestral experience. For the characters in Wild Decembers the holding on to land is as vital as the holding on to life. They are interchangeable. Ireland was conquered for hundreds of years, and having been deprived of their lands, and kicked from their small cottages, people have an inherited fear of being dispossessed.

The novel's absence of contemporary references gives it a timeless, almost historical feel. Was this your intent?

Yes, it is intended to have a timeless feel. I wanted to write a story that involved living, breathing, contemporary people but at the same time a story that has the permanence of myth. William Faulkner is a hero of mine and one of the things I most love about his fiction is the imbuing of the every day with the lastingness of myth.

Some critics have complained that your Ireland is yesterday's Ireland. What is your response?

Those critics who are under the impression that my novels are yesterday's Ireland might like to visit the law courts throughout the country where land feuds are being fought; or talk to IRA prisoners, and ex-prisoners, and follow the heated debate and indoctrination of pro-life groups, both in Dublin and in the country. I did a lot of research for that trilogy. I visited people who kill, solicitors, barristers, lunatics, doctors, psychiatrists -- the whole kaboodle. I spend a lot of time in Ireland and it is really immaterial whether I write my books in County Clare or Vladivostok.

It's true that your recent trilogy on modern Ireland doesn't acknowledge the country's current economic boom. Why is that?

Yes, there is an economic boom, but it is not something that I have wished to write about; indeed it seems to be more the prerogative of journalism than imaginative fiction. The boom doesn't eliminate the actual stories that have happened.

Everyone writes differently. Take three American writers -- Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, let's say. Lewis would have concerned himself with the boom; Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath about poverty and uprootedness; and Faulkner's concerns were the old troubles, as he called them, the boiling blood and the bitter land. It isn't that money isn't important, it's that there is a still more primal theme to be explored -- the vagaries of the human heart. I wish I could have written "The Great Gatsby of Connemara," but I couldn't. The landscape is different.

I was struck by a line from a newspaper clipping in Down by the River that reads, " ... shock is palpable as this dark and terrible story unfolds and has put the hurt into the land itself...." The idea of the land absorbing a girl's plight -- I couldn't see that being written in America.

I think in this case one could certainly say that the girl's plight was felt in the collective psyche of the people. The thing about a small country is that everything -- for better or for worse -- is made personal. During the X case, which Down by the River was triggered by, the country was up in arms. People were marching pro-life and pro-choice to the government buildings; people who knew each other were haranguing each other bitterly. It was as if it was their daughter who was on trial.

Mary and Breege -- the young heroines of your two most recent novels -- are rendered temporarily mute by their anguish. Why did you decide that they both should lose their voices?

The enormity of their respective fates coupled with guilt has rendered them mute. They are afraid. By being mute they hope that for a time at least their crime will not be made known.

It seemed to me that their muteness was more helpless than willful; a remark on language's limits. Or language's inability, sometimes, to describe personal experience.

When something unspeakable happens to someone, especially in a very crushing environment where they're in fear for their lives, the only protection is not to speak. If you don't speak you can't be accused of the crime. It's beyond helplessness, desperation. They see no way out.

Anatole Broyard wrote, in a 1986 review of The Country Girls Trilogy, "Just as women used to have hope chests, Edna O'Brien has a hopelessness chest, where she treasures up material for her novels. In the early books, the hopelessness is bitter and destructive; in her middle and late period, it is flailing and ironical." How would you characterize this hopelessness now?

I disagree about my hopelessness. My characters are sad at times, bruised and battered by their circumstances, but they do survive and emerge stronger. I suppose he might have said the same about Kafka's characters, or Gogol's. It is a limitation to confuse the author with the material. But I will go on record as admitting to having a fairly dark sensibility.

You have said that your long-ago introduction to James Joyce's work was nothing short of revelation; indeed, he has been a great influence to you throughout your writing career. In your recent Penguin Lives biography of him you pay homage to this influence. What was it like to delve so deeply into the source of your inspiration? Did it change your relationship with Joyce?

To live with the work and the letters of James Joyce was an enormous privilege and a daunting education. Yes, I came to admire Joyce even more because he never ceased working, those words and the transubstantiation of words obsessed him. He was a broken man at the end of his life, unaware that Ulysses would be the number one book of the twentieth century and, for that matter, the twenty-first.

In the biography you made mention of, but did not explore, "Writers and their mothers -- the uncharted deep." Could you expand on that here?

I think it is too vast a subject to explore. One could write a whole essay about it. Two examples of artists who had a profound symbiosis with their mothers are Joyce and Proust. When Joyce's mother appeared in his fiction it was always in an ashen and punitive disguise. "With thy bitter milk thou has suckled me," Stephen Dedalus says, in A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. Proust was different -- a little more loving, perhaps, than Joyce. My own mother has had a profound effect on me as a writer.

For a long while your fiction drew upon the personal experiences of women. Your recent trilogy has as its sources broader social concerns -- the IRA, abortion laws, land ownership. What accounts for this shift?

A writer's journey is a graph. I started with the things I knew -- convent girls, family, etc. -- but as I became a little more confident I applied myself to venturing into the outer world and, I hope, integrating it with a corresponding inner world. I was given enormous help by friends and acquaintances in Ireland for my researches. But the imaginative thrust has to come from inside oneself and this is as much a mystery to me as it might be to anyone else. Writers are driven by their unconscious. It is as unpredictable as dreaming.

Over time your sentences have become more lyrical, your descriptions more lush. How has this come about?

Yes, some descriptions are more lyrical but that is at given moments and for a particular reason. The prologue to Down by the River, which some pusilanimous English critics took exception to, was deliberate. I wanted nature to be bursting forth, to be giving birth in order to foreshadow what would happen to that young child.

Now that you've closed a trilogy, what comes next?

I wish I knew.

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More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Katie Bolick is an editor of Atlantic Unbound. Her most recent interview was with Nadine Gordimer.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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