Edna O’Brien, the Irish writer of novels and short stories, doesn’t type. She wrote her new novel, “Girl,” which is about a Nigerian teen-ager, on loose sheets of paper, in a corner of her living room, in London, amid orchids, embroidered cushions, and a framed quote from Yeats’s “The Celtic Twilight.” Every Monday for three years, a typist who has worked with O’Brien for decades came to the house, and O’Brien dictated new pages. O’Brien, who is eighty-eight, recently told me that she may yet write “some little poem, or fragments,” but almost certainly couldn’t manage another novel. She added, “The time is getting shorter. Some melancholy—not to say fearful—thoughts crop up in my head. I saw a program last night about people in a care home, and, along with pity, I felt terrible apprehension: This is how it ends, this is how it ends.”
O’Brien’s first published story, which ran in The Saturday Evening Post, in 1955, was called “An Orphan on the Run.” Subsequent work, including “The Country Girls,” her beloved and subtly brilliant first novel, was largely about Irish women and girls also on the run; they were agitated and wronged, and, in later books, subjected to extreme violence. Her career was supported, in part, by a public persona of sociability and Irish romance. Maureen O’Connor, a professor at the University of Cork, has admiringly placed O’Brien in a tradition of Irish dandies, and written of their “theatrical, aggressively fictional self-fashioning.” O’Brien allowed herself to be filmed walking, with wistful purpose, across windblown hilltops, in layers of long garments—looking, as Clive James once put it, “like the head prefect of a private school for the daughters of rich Romantic poets.” She made the case for “occasional adultery, like once a year,” at a current-affairs roundtable on the BBC. She judged the 1972 Miss Beautiful Eyes competition, and advertised Wella shampoo. Jane Fonda and Richard Burton came to her parties, and she was often a guest at parties thrown by others, although, as she once said, she never quite felt herself to be at a party; in her mind, she was in some other place, in the company of “an ideal non-existent male.” Princess Margaret, who knew O’Brien, liked to attempt an impression of her breathless, confiding speech patterns.
O’Brien now chooses to have few visitors apart from her younger son, a five-year-old grandson, and her Monday typist—“the Constant Nymph,” as one of O’Brien’s correspondents has called her. And O’Brien leaves the house without relish. “I used to swing into taxis,” she said, one recent afternoon, as she cautiously climbed into a black cab that would take her from her home, in Chelsea, to T. S. Eliot’s former home, now an Eliot archive, fifteen minutes away. (She is scheduled to give next year’s T. S. Eliot Lecture.)
O’Brien’s instinct for stage-managing and self-fashioning remains undimmed. In the taxi, I asked her how she’d prefer an article to refer to the fact that she was finishing a draining, yearlong series of treatments for cancer—or “the cancer,” as she has put it. She said that she’d send me something in an e-mail.
Her message, a few days later, withheld medical details but supplied a jaunty commentary on the transaction under way between us. She began:
Edna O’Brien met me on the doorstep of her small house in Chelsea, where she has lived for over thirty-three years, which, in deference to Ibsen, she has named A Doll’s House. She seemed both calm and concerned, calm because after three years, she had just completed her novel “Girl,” which is set in Nigeria and charts the story of a young girl taken by Boko Haram, enduring the bondage of captivity, then escaping with her baby to the Sambisa Forest and finally returning to her community, some of whom were deeply suspicious, fearing the bad blood that came with her. Early readers have described the book as having a mythic quality and she herself said that what she intended was to tell the story of many such girls through the fluent voice of one visionary girl. She was dressed in black, her favourite colour, a Miyake jacket, a pleated white blouse bought in New York, a place she has a particular nostalgia for and is in search of a cork-lined room when she goes there in November for book promotion.
The relief of having finished her task was, however, vitiated by the fact that for almost a year she has been undergoing treatment for cancer and the prodigious energy of which she was so proud was not in attendance.
This continued for several paragraphs. In a subsequent e-mail, she took pains to say, “I was setting things down so that you may write them in your own way and with your own perceptions. They were guidelines.”
In the spring of 1960, just before the publication of “The Country Girls,” which tells of two young Irishwomen entering adulthood, O’Brien went to a dinner party in Chelsea. She was not quite thirty. Brought up in a village in County Clare, in the west of Ireland, O’Brien had studied at a Catholic boarding school, then trained, in Dublin, to become a pharmacist. There, to her family’s regret, she met an older man, Ernest Gébler—a novelist, separated from his wife, who had had a best-seller with “The Plymouth Adventure,” an account of the Mayflower voyage. They married and, in 1958, moved to London’s southwestern suburbs with two young sons, who, in recognition of Gébler’s political views, had been given the names Karl and Marcus. (Gébler’s son from his first marriage was also named Karl.)
Among the other guests at the London dinner were Rebecca West, the writer, and Peter Eyre, the actor, then still a teen-ager. “I remember you having rather curly hair,” Eyre told O’Brien one afternoon this past summer, when he joined her for lunch at the Wolseley, a big, busy Art Deco restaurant on Piccadilly, where a nice fuss is made over her. Eyre and O’Brien have been friends for sixty years.
O’Brien is known for reddish-brown hair that is abundant but not curly. “Maybe I’d had it done in a bad hairdresser’s that day,” she said. The dinner party, she went on, was probably the first such literary affair of her life. A moment later: “Oh, Lord—many lives, Peter.”
Eyre recalled that, at the dinner, O’Brien had been “intense, nervous, and completely sweet.” He subsequently met Gébler—who projected unease about having become, suddenly, the lesser-known writer in the marriage. “You can tell when someone is sort of frozen with jealousy,” Eyre said. O’Brien has written that when Gébler read “The Country Girls,” in manuscript, he told her, “You can write and I will never forgive you.” (The novel is alive with moments when a woman narrator offers acute observations of other women: “She made piano movements with her fingers, so that the nail polish would dry quickly.”)
O’Brien said of Gébler, “He was a difficult man.” She looked down at her plate, where there was half a lobster. Expressing surprise that the lobster was in the shell, she said, “I didn’t know that it entailed engineering!” She pressed on with a martyr’s fortitude, making only occasional protests. O’Brien often writes about people who have been let down, one way or another, and at a quotidian level she seems most comfortable when registering discomfort, and accepting amends. A former friend recently described her as “regal.” I came to think that, were O’Brien given a choice between a punctual guest and a mortified, unpunctual one, she would opt for the latter. Maureen O’Connor, the academic, who is one of several people who have considered taking on the task of writing an authorized Edna O’Brien biography, once spent a few weeks reading through the archive of O’Brien’s papers at Emory University; it includes correspondence with Samuel Beckett, John Cassavetes, and Laurence Olivier. A few days in, a librarian offered to bring out correspondence that she categorized as “Apologizing to Edna”: letters from stores, carpenters, airlines.
O’Brien has said that “The Country Girls” took three weeks to write. In the novel’s first chapters, Caithleen and her friend Baba are still living at home, in rural Ireland. Caithleen, whose voice is at once alert and naïve, conjures the village: “Billy Tuohey nodded to us through the open window space. It was so smoky in there we could hardly see him. He lived with his mother in a cottage at the back of the forge. They kept bees, and he was the only man around who grew Brussels sprouts. He told lies, but they were nice lies. He told us that he sent his photo to Hollywood and got a cable back to say come quick you have the biggest eyes since Greta Garbo. He told us that he dined with the Aga Khan at the Galway races and that they played snooker after dinner.”
At lunch, Peter Eyre asked O’Brien if she recalled the approving commotion that had surrounded the novel’s publication. In the New Statesman, V. S. Naipaul described the book as “a first novel of great charm by a natural writer.” The Times of London said, “O’Brien shows an ear for dialogue and an eye for description. She is frank and gay.” Polly Devlin, the Northern Irish writer, who moved to London a few years after O’Brien did, recently recalled that “The Country Girls” forced her to acknowledge her own competitiveness: “What was very hard to come to terms with was she had written an enchanting book—a book so full of vivid life—about what I’d been brought up to believe were ‘bad girls.’ ” Laughing, she added, “This terribly successful, very beautiful young Irish woman—I fucking hated her.”
“You know, sooner or later we’re going to have to let her go out unaccompanied.”Cartoon by Sara Lautman
O’Brien told Eyre, “I felt I had done something that I always wanted to do—write a book and get it published. But I had also made a lot of trouble for myself.” She said that only the faintest “overhearings” of interest in the book reached her at home, in “Morden, SW20.”
Eyre looked blank. “Where the hell is that?”
“Exactly,” O’Brien said. She’d made it to London, but to a neighborhood that other Londoners couldn’t find on a map. After O’Brien left the suburbs—and her husband—in 1962, Eyre was often a guest at her parties. But, she reminded him, “Morden was pre-parties.” Few people visited, although those few included Vanessa Redgrave—whom she met when both were briefly held in police custody, after a Trafalgar Square protest against nuclear weapons—and Naipaul. (A few years later, Naipaul and his wife “came to stay in my house briefly,” O’Brien told me. “But it wasn’t brief. It went on for some weeks. More than I imagined. Weeks and weeks. It was—too long.”)
O’Brien asked Eyre about a recent illness, and they talked about hospitalization.
“When I’m in a car and drive past a hospital, I freeze,” O’Brien said.
Eyre noted the strangeness of any glimpse, from a hospital window, of life going on outside. “People running, or whatever—”
“—always with suitcases.”
“I’d think, I used to be in that world!” Eyre said. “I wasn’t frightened. I just entered this other sphere.”
O’Brien asked how people were able to watch more than one episode of the HBO series “Chernobyl” at a sitting, and she listened, without satisfaction, to talk of streaming and binge-watching. Her ideal TV viewing is European club soccer. When we first spoke on the phone, we discussed Barcelona’s underpowered performance on a recent visit to Liverpool. “Messi looked like someone who just came out of a badger burrow!” she said. “And I love Messi.”
O’Brien asked Eyre, “Does my brain seem gone to you?”
“No, not at all!” he said.
“Oh, good,” she said. “That’s all that’s left.” Kisses were blown. “Shall we dance?”
The page for O’Brien on the Web site of her London literary agent describes her as the winner, in 1962, of the Kingsley Amis Award. For decades, this accolade has been noted by O’Brien’s publishers, by journalists and academics, and by the universities where she has taught. A review of a stage adaptation of “The Country Girls” referred to “the prestigious Kingsley Amis Award.”
There isn’t, and never has been, a Kingsley Amis Award. In 1962, Amis, though established, was near the start of his career, and better known for disliking things than for liking them. But in 1960 the London Observer asked readers about books they’d enjoyed that year, and Amis praised “The Country Girls” for its “unphony charm and unlaborious originality.” For this, he wrote, it “wins my personal first-novel prize of the year.”
It’s not clear how a kind remark in a Sunday paper took on a sixty-year life as a formal honor—it may have started as a joke. O’Brien said that she couldn’t recall, but blamed the carelessness of agents. In general, O’Brien’s narrations of her life have tipped a little in the opposite direction, to emphasize distress, and sometimes struggle, rather than acclaim and good fortune. This instinct is suggested by a passage in her 2012 memoir—titled “Country Girl”—in which she notes that one of her London homes had the extraordinary asset of a lawn running down to the Thames. She sets the scene with: “The Thames, its name derived from the Celtic word Tamessa, meaning dark . . .”
In the same spirit, perhaps, O’Brien has seldom mentioned the period, in the fifties, when her writing focussed on jolly verse. Carlo Gébler (né Karl), now a writer and teacher living in Northern Ireland, recently said, “We loved it—it was droll and rhythmic, in the Ogden Nash or Edward Lear register.” His mother considered making a career of this work, he said. O’Brien told me, in an e-mail, that even in the fifties she knew that she’d have to find in herself what Eliot once called a “dark embryo” of inner turbulence.
“My mother never wanted me to be a writer,” O’Brien said, when we first spoke in person, in the second-floor living room of her house. “She wanted me to be an air hostess. High heels and levitation.” That morning, O’Brien had been doing some last-minute work on “Girl,” and she said that the task was filling her with fear. She showed me ink stains on her hand, and—self-mocking, wide-eyed—called them “stigmata.” Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony played on a radio in the next room.
Sometimes, when O’Brien recalls her Irish childhood, one can detect the impulse—empathic but perhaps imprecise—to draw herself into a shared regional experience of want. A few years ago, in an essay, she observed that she’d been shaped by the landscape of East Clare, “with its beauty and its hardships, its harvests and its hungers.” She has referred to her “peasant resilience,” and to neighbors “poorer even than us.”
In a 1984 interview, Philip Roth, a friend, asked O’Brien if there had been enough money in her childhood. She said, “No,” adding that there had been more money in her family’s past. O’Brien’s father mismanaged a large inheritance, and cheated the family out of peace of mind. (Alcoholic benders, a bailiff in the kitchen.) But Edna grew up in a large Arts and Crafts house; she and her three older siblings went to boarding school; her brother became a doctor. When, in the early fifties, O’Brien and Ernest Gébler, then unmarried, sought to outrun her family’s disapproval by flying to the Isle of Man, her father pursued them in a chartered plane.
One possible account of O’Brien’s early writing career in London: her talent was quickly recognized; a publisher pressed her to attempt a novel; and, before it had been completed, she’d been invited to tea, at Claridge’s, with Blanche Knopf, then the president of Alfred A. Knopf. O’Brien tends to characterize this differently. She has written that, in order to succeed, she needed the resilience of a hundred men. For decades, O’Brien has defined herself as a survivor of censorship and book burning. A recent headline in the New Statesman, which can stand in for scores of others, declared that “The Country Girls” had been “Banned, Burned and Reviled.”
In “The Country Girls,” Caithleen and Baba reflect on their romantic and sexual hopes with amused candor. (Caithleen, recording Baba’s views about black underwear: “She said that we wouldn’t have to wash it so often, and that it was useful if we ever had a street accident, or if men were trying to strip us in the backs of cars. Baba thought of all these things. I got black nylons, too. I read somewhere that they were ‘literary.’ ”) And the novel includes a scene in which Caithleen and an older admirer undress, and sit awkwardly on a sofa, but do not have sex: “I stood there shivering a little, not knowing what to do with my arms.” For this level of indecency—and, perhaps, for the novel’s depiction of brutish rural Irishmen—the Irish censorship board added the book to its list of thousands banned in the country, alongside “Brave New World” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” According to O’Brien, this institutional disapproval was echoed by Irish public opinion. She was assailed, she has said, because “I was a woman and, indeed, a girl—I was in my twenties.” She told me of family and neighbors feeling betrayed: “I hurt my mother very much. I hurt the people in my village very much. Oh, my God—the letters, the accusations, the confrontations!” Back home, a few copies were “burned in the chapel grounds.”
In 1966, O’Brien attended a meeting in Limerick, twenty miles from her family home. By then, she had published five stories in this magazine, and had extended the tale of Caithleen and Baba in two more novels. An understated film adaptation, “Girl with Green Eyes,” had been released in 1964. In O’Brien’s fourth novel, “August Is a Wicked Month,” she had taken some of her experience as a fêted young novelist in London and transferred it, in a melancholy, memorable way, to louche gatherings on the Riviera. All four novels were banned in Ireland.
O’Brien described the Limerick meeting in her 2012 memoir. She remembered it as a confrontation. The event was convened “so that my own people could voice their reservations to me in person,” she wrote. Remarks by Peter Connolly, a priest and a professor at Maynooth College, were civil, but after he had spoken the audience unleashed accusations: “Had I no thought for my family and the shame I had heaped on them? Did I not think the decent and wholesome thing to do would be to donate my earnings to a charity?” John Dillon, the person in charge, brought things to a hurried close.
In a recent phone call, Dillon, now retired from an academic career, remembered the event as “rather good-humored.” The evening was a show of solidarity. Limerick was then a “particularly conservative place,” Dillon said, and some in the audience “were of the orthodox persuasion,” but most were not. They had come to hear Connolly, a known enthusiast of O’Brien’s fiction, give a talk about her work. (O’Brien was invited only a day or two before, because she happened to be in the area.)
Dillon added that, when he asked attendees if they’d read O’Brien, “hands went up all over the place.” By 1966, government restrictions on literary fiction were widely considered absurd. (The system was soon reformed, then largely abandoned.) As the raised hands revealed, the bans were ineffective as censorship, at least when a writer had built a readership elsewhere. People brought books home from London, or had publishers put them in the mail.
None of this dismisses the unpleasantness of being criticized by former neighbors or maligned by figures in the Irish establishment. Julia Kilroy, the author of “Banned in Ireland: Censorship and the Irish Writer,” told me of a handwritten note she’d seen in the archives of the Dublin archdiocese: Archbishop John McQuaid called O’Brien “a renegade and a dirty one.” But, according to Maureen O’Connor, O’Brien’s correspondence from the period suggests that the banning of her work was seen by her friends “as only a good thing.” In an interview that took place in the seventies, O’Brien noted that literary Dubliners who suspected her of welcoming the censorship had nicknamed her the Banned-Wagon.
The Irish Times sent a reporter, John Horgan, to the Limerick meeting. On the way, Horgan checked out a related story: at a church close to the O’Brien family home, a priest had reportedly burned copies of “The Country Girls.” (O’Brien has often told the story, which she says she heard from home: an announcement from the altar, a gathering that evening, smoke, fainting.) The O’Brien house stood between Scariff and Tuamgraney, villages that are two minutes apart. Horgan drove to Scariff, “and made a few discreet inquiries in public houses,” he told me. Nobody recalled a burning. He dropped the story.
“My gosh, look at the time!”Cartoon by David Borchart
John Dillon told me that a burning “would be very remarkable,” adding, “How would it occur to anyone?” Tom Stack, a Dublin priest, has written that two priests in Clare told him there was no such event. John Horgan thinks that there must have been some sort of fire; he trusts O’Brien, who, decades after the event, told him that he’d made his inquiries in the wrong village.
Maureen O’Connor said, “What matters is that it was her impression of the response back home—very much fuelled by her mother’s flair for the dramatic.”
In conversation, O’Brien often draws attention to her mother’s appalled reaction to her work. In her memoir, she quotes from a journal entry that she wrote after visiting her parents, Lena and Michael. She starts, “Shall I write and tell them that I hate them?” One might take away the impression that the family experienced a rift of some kind. But, as O’Brien said to me, “writers and their parents have complex narratives.” Carlo Gébler told me that his grandmother sometimes came to visit in London, even in the period that his mother recalls being filled with accusations and confrontations. And the O’Brien archive at Emory holds numerous affectionate, supportive letters from Lena to Edna. Just after Edna and her husband separated, Lena wrote, “When you are settled let me know and I’ll send you a couple of chickens and a fruit cake and in the meantime God bless you and I assure you again I feel so much better to know you can live your own life without anyone nagging.” Two years later, Lena wrote, “I often say if everyone was one tenth as good as you life would be straight sailing.”
O’Brien’s second son has long been known as Sasha. An architect, Sasha Gébler was recently in an East London member’s club that he designed, recalling the day in the mid-sixties when his father—a “desperate, driven” man who mistakenly “thought he’d married an ingénue”—asked him and his older brother to write something down, for a judge’s eyes, about their preferred future living arrangements. “At the time, my mum was living in Putney,” Sasha said. “I just wrote, in huge letters, ‘Putney.’ ” Sasha’s voice broke. “He loved us and wanted us, and he’d already been divorced. He couldn’t bear it.”
At a custody hearing, Ernest Gébler’s lawyers persuaded the judge to look at “August Is a Wicked Month,” which had just been published: a young woman, recently separated; a flirtation with a movie star; a sexually transmitted disease; the death of a child. The judge was unswayed, and O’Brien gained custody. Soon afterward, Sasha said, his father decided that he no longer wanted visits with his sons. Sasha told me that he next talked to his father a decade later, just before starting college.
O’Brien has written of the marriage: “There were no rows, just silence and routine.” She found the key that unlocked a box where her husband kept notebooks, and read entries filled with “fury with me and with the world.” Aspects of the marriage appear in much of O’Brien’s fiction, as well as in Ernest Gébler’s 1968 novel, “Shall I Eat You Now?,” which includes a character bedecked in Irish names—Maureen Dingle Murphy—who writes to the husband she has left, “I married you to get a home in London from where I could make my career. . . . I’m going to be famous in my career and have lots and lots of handsome men making love to me.” (A film adaptation, “Hoffman,” starring Peter Sellers, tried, without success, to make something urbane out of misogyny, and kidnapping.)
Carlo Gébler has also written about the marriage, both in a memoir and in “The Projectionist,” a biography of his father, which sometimes quotes from Ernest’s aggrieved diaries; in a typical entry, he proposes that O’Brien cheated him out of “children she didn’t want, children she fought against having.”
Speaking at her home, O’Brien brought up her son’s decision to publish this material, saying, “I was, shall we say, thrown by that.” She added, “I would have preferred that they had not been shared with the world. But having been, myself, a more or less naked writer, I cannot expect total . . . let’s say . . . ” She paused. O’Brien is an unflagging reviser. Even after her prose goes to print, it’s still provisional. A few years after “Girls in Their Married Bliss”—the third volume in the Caithleen trilogy—was published, she rewrote it, starting with the first sentence. The original text ends in a mood of muted optimism. In the revision, Caithleen loses access to her young son, who is taken by his father to Fiji; she then decides to be sterilized.
In 1986, when the “Country Girls” trilogy was first published as a single volume, O’Brien added an epilogue of several thousand words in which Caithleen dies, by drowning.
At around this time, O’Brien read the trilogy for an audio release; the recordings are now available as digital audiobooks. She tweaked every other sentence, over five hundred pages. O’Brien has sometimes been challenged on feminist grounds—the novelist Julia O’Faolain, writing in the Times in 1974, noted that “Miss O’Brien’s sex-dazzled heroines continue to race like lemmings toward unhappiness.” One effect of the audiobook edits was to make Caithleen a little less tractable. A passing thought about the future—“I wondered if I would be married by then”—now included a new possibility: “I wondered if I would be gone, or if I would be married.” “Moping” became “hating.” Instead of Caithleen “almost” shouting at the man with whom she’s living, when he’s being a jerk about teacups, she shouts. (O’Brien has never publicly acknowledged this editing, and she told me that she didn’t recall doing it: “You’re joking! Was it better or worse?” In a later e-mail, she said that these changes, which were not a response to criticism, gave Caithleen “more gumption” and “opened her eyes to the serpentine ways of the world.”
In her living room, O’Brien searched for the right words to use in reference to her son and his book, and seemed to be giving a glimpse of her Monday sessions with the typist. “If we can get this sentence right,” she said, and started again. “I addressed my son about it. I cannot expect but to have various versions of my life on . . . not ‘on display’ . . . not ‘reported.’ What’s the word? ‘Relayed.’ That’s a good word? You approve? Shall we change it?” She added, in good humor, “It’s like I’m carrying around, in the pan of my brain, all the words, and I am constantly wishing, I’m constantly rearranging, to make them . . . better. Or—‘better’ isn’t the right word. Make them more . . . potent.”
She later told me about a moment when her self-editing reached an extreme. At a party in the sixties, she was introduced to Samuel Beckett. The next day, she bumped into him as she came out of a Tube station. “He said, ‘Would you like a coffee, Edna?’ I said, ‘That would be lovely.’ I was young—that’s necessary to say. We go to this coffee place, and I cannot think of a single thing to say. I am completely dumb, and stupid. I see Beckett looking into the distance.” She laughed. “Boredom, in every particle.”
O’Brien once asked Philip Roth if the character of Caesara O’Shea, in “Zuckerman Unbound,” was based on her. O’Shea is a movie star; Zuckerman, reflecting on her attractions, considers “the whole savory mixture, sauce and stew: the self-satirizing blarney, the deep-rooted vanity, the level-headed hatred, the playfulness, the gameness, the recklessness, the cleverness. And the relentless beauty. And the charm. And the eyes.”
Roth told O’Brien that she was one of several inspirations. “I said, ‘I would have liked a solo,’ ” O’Brien told me.
For a few months in the mid-sixties, the Dublin-born journalist Mary Kenny did secretarial work for O’Brien. “Edna was far too soft an employer to keep me up to scratch,” Kenny said recently. “She was so indulgent. It was: ‘We’ll have a glass of Beaujolais and a piece of cake.’ ” Kenny went on, “She was a beauty.” She wore “upper-class hippie clothes—gorgeous, and arty in a very swanky way.” (O’Brien once dedicated a book to her friend Thea Porter, the fashion designer who introduced London to caftans.) O’Brien became so famous that she was honored with a nickname, Edna O’Booze, in Private Eye, the satirical magazine. Kenny said that O’Brien became an irresistible lunch guest for the type of “stuck-up Englishman” drawn to “what he thinks of as fresh and wild Irish girls,” adding, “We all played that card a bit. You get to play whatever hand you’re given.” Kenny noted that O’Brien “occasionally laid on the Irish accent quite strongly.”
The novelist Nell Dunn became a friend of O’Brien’s when they were neighbors in Putney. “Her life was writing and looking after the kids,” Dunn said. “And then she’d have some gentleman callers, and sometimes that would become very passionate and fully involved and desperate.” She laughed. “The desperation!” She went on, “She didn’t have a lot of luck with men, and she gave a lot of herself. She wasn’t someone who could put her feet up and relax and watch a bit of telly.” One of O’Brien’s best short stories, “The Love Object” (1967), describes an affair with a married man: “I rang someone who knew him and asked for no reason at all what she thought his hobbies might be. She said he played the harmonium, which I found unbearable news altogether. Then I entered a black patch, and on the third day I lost control.”
O’Brien’s life had its delights. She once took J. D. Salinger, and her sons, to Battersea Park, where they all rode on a Ferris wheel. Paul McCartney gave O’Brien a ride home after a party, and came in long enough to sing “Those Were the Days,” the Mary Hopkin hit, for Carlo and Sasha, half asleep in bed. But Dunn told me, “She found life difficult. People let her down a lot. In relationships, and things like doing up her house. It went wrong.”
“It seems to me that I have always pursued pain and humiliation,” O’Brien told Dunn, in a conversation that Dunn recorded for an absorbing 1965 book, “Talking to Women.” O’Brien noted that she’d sometimes begun serious relationships with men “knowing that I was eventually going to write about them.” She continued, “You were asking me about what I live for? What matters? And this is the thing that matters, I live on expectation more than anything else. Of what I could become. I used to have hopes of what would happen to me, or that I’d go somewhere beautiful, or someone would touch my thighs or something. I used to have those hopes—I still have a bit—but I now have the hope of becoming a deeper person, of becoming a seasoned person. I may not.”
O’Brien, prompted in part, perhaps, by the need to pay boarding-school fees, eventually expanded her writing beyond novels and stories. She wrote a scene for “Oh! Calcutta!,” the sex-driven revue devised by the critic Kenneth Tynan. In O’Brien’s contribution, a prostitute and two clients role-play a prison scene; the bit was seen in previews, but cut before the show opened in New York, in 1969. She also wrote a screenplay, “Stag”; Tynan, recommending it to a producer, proposed that it would be “categorically the most outrageous sexual fantasy ever filmed.” O’Brien once urged the actor Christopher Lee to commit to a lead role. In his memoir, Lee recalled that O’Brien “gazed in my eyes and said in her delicious Irish voice, ‘You have good vibrations!’ ” He went on, “That was kind, but I felt that it was rather vibrators than vibrations that the part called for.”
That film was never made, but in the early seventies O’Brien sold a screenplay about the sex lives of sour, upper-middle-class Londoners, which became “X, Y & Zee,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine. (From the script: “Could you be a little less optimistic? You remind me of everyone’s mother during the war.”) O’Brien said that she was paid thirty-nine thousand pounds, allowing her to buy a six-bedroom house on Carlyle Square, in Chelsea. Someone aiming to reënact this today would have to write a ten-million-dollar screenplay.
The new home was the setting for the kinds of parties that other novelists sometimes experience as guests but rarely as hosts. “She did get very depressed,” Dunn said. “But she was also a great, generous, brave party giver.” O’Brien’s sons, when home from school, helped out. “In the big dining-living room, there was Sean Connery and Diane Cilento and Princess Margaret and everyone,” Sasha Gébler recalled. “And my mum running in and out with stew. Our job was to bring up the champagne from the cellar.” The parties, O’Brien told me, were “my imaginary breaking away from the strangleholds of childhood and the greater strangleholds of marriage—‘I’m free, I have money, I can give a party!’ ” Then, with a laugh, “ ‘Oh, no—I can afford to give lots of parties.’ ”
The British journalist and novelist Andrew O’Hagan, who became a friend of O’Brien’s long after this period, recently gave a teasing, fictionalized rendering of her party reminiscences: “She speaks in her own prose. She’ll say, ‘A woman’s loneliness is like a tree, the roots go into the very earth, black as it is—and I was thinking that, standing at the window of No. 10 Carlyle Square, when the doorbell rang, and I opened the door, and it was Jackie Onassis, and she was wearing a beautiful scarf. I said, “That’s beautiful, Jackie!” She said, “You can have it!” Behind her was Robert Mitchum.’ ”
Among O’Brien’s guests was R. D. Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist turned countercultural guru. “He was very attractive, and part of his appeal was his silence,” O’Brien told me. But “the theory that everybody should be mad was not helpful.” Under Laing’s supervision, O’Brien once took a dose of what she has called, cozily, “the old LSD.” She told me, “I’d been reading Timothy Leary. And I believed, rightly, that it would enlarge some part of my thinking mind, and it did. With a price.” The experience was terrifying and caused distress for years afterward. She told me that once, while she was on a call to her sons’ school, her phone turned into a “moving scorpion.”
O’Brien’s most active era of party-throwing ended after she had a dream that she took to be, in part, a warning about reprising her father’s profligacy. In the dream, she was giving “the usual Saturday-night party”: “I cook the geese as always—I often cooked roast goose. I take the very, very boiling pans of goose fat and pour it on all the guests.”
In 1977, she released a novel, “Johnny I Hardly Knew You,” but didn’t publish another for a decade. “There was a pause—too long,” O’Brien said. There was still some writing, including her first plays, but years were lost “in hopes and . . . love? That old faithful called love. Or old faithless.”
Peter Eyre, at lunch, reminded O’Brien that he’d not seen her once “during your period with John Fortune”—a British comic actor. In her memoir, O’Brien describes another serious relationship, with a married man whom she calls her Lochinvar. In a striking passage, she recalls being told that he had been seen at a party, “running a comb through his hair as he passed a mirror in the hallway.” She goes on, “I would have walked on water to be there.” She later adds, “We had known only a fraction of each other, but that fraction was sacred. I had fooled myself, living on emotional crumbs and now the inhabiter of Yeats’s bitter words—I had ‘fed the heart on fantasies / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.’ ”
Cartoon by Glen Baxter
Sasha Gébler is among those able to identify Lochinvar as a prominent British politician. (O’Brien confirmed the man’s identity.) Gébler told me, “My mum was in love with him, and I knew he was indifferent to her.” In Gébler’s opinion, the relationship posed a threat to the man’s ambitions. “He misled her, he shouldn’t have done it. If you don’t love someone, don’t do it. And my mum always wanted love.”
O’Brien recalled being aware, in her forties, of the possibility of an easier life—feet up, a bit of telly. “It was the life I yearned for, but not the life I wanted,” she said. “Arthur Schlesinger, God rest him, said to me once, ‘You’re the most realistic romantic I’ve ever met.’ I am able to cook, I am able to bring up children and show them love. But a conventional life, and having Sunday lunch, or going to the country at weekends, and all other normal things of life? A month of them, I’d be in a straitjacket!” Instead, she said, “I embraced disappointment. Maybe not embraced it—I endured it, and I lived it. I was still torn. It wasn’t ‘I’m finished with that now, I’ll go home and mourn it in a room.’ I want it, and yet a part of me is like the Steppenwolf—I want my silence. I want to do something that another human being, too close to me, would prevent me from doing. And that is single-minded. That is what I am.”
Her life, then, became one of “loneliness and brooding—and reading.”
In O’Brien’s kitchen, a photograph of Samuel Beckett hangs above the table. Beckett’s lined face, she has proposed, reveals a psyche that “must have wrestled for every second of its waking life with the cruelty, crassness and barbarity of mankind.” Elsewhere, there are portraits of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. O’Brien’s conversation often turns to literary quotation—and, at times, to lively misquotation. (Eliot’s “Teach us to sit still,” from “Ash Wednesday,” becomes “Oh, teach us, Lord, to sit still.”) She refers to the Carlyle Square house, which was sold in the eighties at a time of financial distress, as her Cherry Orchard.
All of this indicates her life’s priorities—a treasuring of literary writing that extends, when reading, to saying the words aloud. Among more recent writers, she admires W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, and Téju Cole. (She also reads aloud when writing.) But the piling up of bookish references sometimes suggests an argument being built, against an unseen antagonist, about her place in the pantheon. By O’Brien’s mid-career, when her work had largely turned from ironic narration, and assured evocations of place, speech, and manners, to inner lives, myth, and catastrophe, a similar argument could perhaps be detected in the prose. The newer novels—monologues of isolation and remembrance, narrated by women unable to escape the often disastrous influence of men—had frequent passages of lyricism and psychological acuity: few writers have taken the same care to describe the experience of consuming, unproductive agitation, of looking too many times in a hotel-room drawer to confirm that you’ve left nothing behind. And the work still included moments of precise observation, often in a recollection of youth—in “The High Road” (1988), the narrator remembers a bride pacing a hallway, “with a vast bunch of violets, which she sniffed nervously as if they were nose drops.” But the books could feel solemnly insistent about their literary intent, and a little claustrophobic. Caithleen didn’t quite know what she knew; later characters shared all they knew.
Nell, the protagonist of “Time and Tide” (1992), is a book editor. One day, she writes some advice to Millie, a would-be author: “Sit with your story, your rich, raw, bleak, relentless story, the one you are so near to, too near to, and moisten it with every drop of pain and suppuration that you have, until in the end it glistens with the exquisite glow of a freshly dredged pearl.” Nell is in an odd mood, related to new experiences with drugs and sex, but there’s no indication that O’Brien is spoofing her. Nell continues, “The seed is within yourself. ‘How?’ I hear you ask. Simple. The sperms are the moonbeams and sunbeams and shadows of every thought, half thought, and follicle of feeling that have attended you since your first breath of hardship. Think only of big things, Millie, big sad, lonely, glorious, archetypal things.”
This is some way from “The Country Girls,” in which Baba tells Caithleen, “Will you, for Chrissake, stop asking fellas if they’ve read James Joyce’s Dubliners? They’re not interested. They’re out for a night. Eat and drink all you can and leave James Joyce to blow his own trumpet.”
Clair Wills, an Irish-literature specialist at Cambridge University, who once talked with O’Brien about becoming her biographer, recently suggested that O’Brien doesn’t quite recognize her greatest qualities. “She’s a brilliant writer about social mores, but she believes that her gift is a kind of bardic one, where she can access the truth of—particularly—female emotion.”
O’Brien has said that, “if you are at all serious” as a writer, you will over time “go deeper into the conflicts that caused you.” While visiting New York in the nineteen-sixties, O’Brien stayed at the Algonquin, where she had drinks with Günter Grass and Thornton Wilder. She told me that Wilder offered her advice—“which I never took.” She went on, “He said, ‘You have more humor than appears in your fiction. The play of Shakespeare’s you should read is “As You Like It.” ’ I said, ‘I have read “As You Like It,” and I love it, but you’re not going to part me from my sorrows.’ ”
O’Brien once told an interviewer that she lived in “continuous fear of catastrophe.” She described herself to me as Mother Anxious. Andrew O’Hagan said, “She understands the world in terms of dark places and rowdy talk, and things being ripped asunder, and time being torn apart. She sees the world as a place of troubles.”
From the start of her career, O’Brien included material that could be read as dread fulfillment or as a riposte to a cheery friend asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” (A car crash, a pleasure boat sinking in the Thames, injury through a self-administered abortion attempt.) Then, in the mid-nineties, O’Brien turned from accidental destruction to extreme, purposeful violence. If this shift had any roots in hidden personal trauma, it remains hidden. Writing to Carlo, in the late nineties, she proposed, “You have no idea, nor could you have, of the physical, sexual, emotional butchery I experienced throughout my whole childhood. Among other things, it gave me a terror of birth and all things pertaining to the body.” When asked about this letter, O’Brien said that it was not a “comprehensive” description of her childhood, and “should not be read too literally.”
In writing about bloody violence, O’Brien found a new focus and a new audience, and she seemed almost to provide a retroactive commentary on her earlier work. If her female characters had ever seemed to lack agency, here was the compelling context: male sadism. O’Brien’s fiction had always included episodes of cruelty; in “The Country Girls,” Caithleen’s father calls her a “stinking little foul-mouth,” and strikes her. (“I fell and hit my head on the edge of the china cabinet, and cups rattled inside in it.”) But, O’Brien told me, the death of her mother, in the late seventies, “released some violence in me—some ferocity.” Before then, “I was not free enough, or developed enough—or old enough, maybe—to go the full hog.” She added, “It thrilled me that I could go there.”
“The House of Splendid Isolation” (1994) partly derived from interviews that O’Brien had conducted, in prison, with Dominic McGlinchey, the Irish Republican paramilitary leader, who once claimed to have murdered thirty people. (The same year in which the book was published, O’Brien interviewed Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader, for a profile, in the New York Times, that was widely seen as too forgiving: she described him as “a lithe, handsome man with a native formality.” O’Brien told me that, given the criticism of that piece, “it’s no wonder my health has suffered some blows.”)
“Down by the River,” from 1997, drew on a controversial Irish legal case: a teen-age rape victim fought an injunction that denied her the right to travel out of the country for an abortion that would have been illegal at home. Five years later, O’Brien’s “In the Forest” retold the story of a notorious Irish triple homicide of the nineties. Members of the victims’ families opposed the book’s publication, and the Irish critic Fintan O’Toole called the project “arguably an aesthetic as well as a moral mistake.” O’Brien remembers this as a more spiteful accusation—that the novel was “morally and aesthetically criminal.” (In a novel that O’Brien published a few years later, an infant named Fintan is thrown to his death over the railings of a ship.)
O’Brien told me that she was first drawn to Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb leader, as a possible subject, in 2008. She was flipping channels in a German hotel room and saw footage of Karadžić “in a black robe, a long beard.” He had just been arrested on charges of war crimes, after years of working as a New Age healer, under an assumed name. “The idea of healer-killer, which is quite often in my inner jumble, was riveting,” O’Brien said. “I thought, I want to write that story. I will bring him to Ireland, where a sort of embryonic Madame Bovary has a shop with French corsets and . . . and falls in love.”
O’Brien e-mailed Ed Vulliamy, a British journalist who covered the Bosnian war. Vulliamy admired O’Brien’s work—“I’ve always adored her,” he said recently—and had been struck by her increasingly unflinching approach to violence. He told me that he’d once sat down in a park with two books, Jean Hatzfeld’s “Machete Season”—interviews with Rwandan killers—and “Down by the River”; when he reached the point in O’Brien’s novel when “the father gets a broom off the wall, and approaches the daughter he has impregnated, I said to myself, ‘Please, Edna, I know what’s going to happen, don’t do this,’ and picked up Jean Hatzfeld, for light relief.”
He and O’Brien got together for lunch, in Chelsea. Vulliamy, who had met Karadžić twice, recalled, “She ordered ‘champagne and not prosecco,’ unquote, and I related the ghastly history I had with this man.” As he described Bosnian violence to O’Brien—neighbor torturing neighbor; killers tiring of their task, and needing to rest—“I could sort of see her eyes widen,” he said, adding, “There’s nothing that fascinates her more than violence when it’s got a kind of intimate aspect.”
Vulliamy was the only journalist to serve as a witness against Karadžić during his trial, which began in 2009, at the International Court in The Hague. With Vulliamy’s help, O’Brien observed the proceedings for some days. Later, she showed him a manuscript. “We heard that the gunners were so tired from killing, they asked for chairs and chairs were provided,” O’Brien had written, in a scene that made reference to Beckett and Musil. “Then replacements took up the grisly task. Four days, four nights of it. Those cries, those screams, those expirations, the apotheosis of all bloodiness, with carrion men groaning for burial.”
The novel was titled “The Little Red Chairs.” O’Brien had named her Karadžić character Dr. Vlad. “My jaw drops,” Vulliamy said. “Because she’s got him, absolutely—not just the mannerisms, not just the evil and cruelty in that man but the essence, the meta-evil.” Vulliamy made a few suggestions, the most significant of which was to change the identity of men who, in a central scene, subject the Bovary-like character to a sexual assault that ends with rats lapping up her blood. In O’Brien’s draft, the attackers were vengeful survivors of Vlad’s concentration camps. “I don’t have any illusions about them being any nicer than anybody else,” he told me. “But I don’t know any who would have done that.” He proposed that, instead, the men be former gangster associates of Vlad’s. O’Brien agreed.
The novel was widely praised. Joyce Carol Oates, reviewing it in the Times, said, “Here, in addition to O’Brien’s celebrated gifts of lyricism and mimetic precision, is a new, unsettling fabulist vision that suggests Kafka more than Joyce.” O’Brien, recalling the assault scene, told me, “I am proud of it.” She went on, “At that time, it was the most extreme thing I had written.”
At the start of this summer, in Chelsea, O’Brien had nearly finished work on “Girl,” and was worrying about her acknowledgments page. She told me, “You forget names!” And Nigerian names, she said, were “peculiar.” She had baskets filled with notebooks. “I’m sure I could find the names, but to go through it all again? I couldn’t do it!” She was planning to go to her agent’s office for secretarial help. At home, she noted, “there’s a machine upstairs, an Apple, that was given to me by Ian McKellen when I was eighty. A very good present. Little does he know that I can’t work it.”
Sasha Gébler recently said that when his mother began contemplating a novel about Boko Haram, he told her, “Don’t do it.” Some readers would object, he felt. O’Brien hadn’t been to Nigeria, or to West Africa. She hadn’t previously written a novel whose audiobook wouldn’t be read, most naturally, by an Irishwoman. O’Brien told me that her research had included rereading “Heart of Darkness,” as well as J. M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Nonfiction works about Boko Haram, she said, were largely unhelpful. “They didn’t inspire me, in the way I needed to be inspired,” she said. “In fact, they didn’t always enlighten me. There was no way around it but to go.”
“It seems like your parents are finally comfortable enough with our relationship to openly criticize it.”Cartoon by Lila Ash
While flying to Abuja, in 2016, on the first of two visits, O’Brien realized that Nigerian regulations required cash to be declared. She hid her money, “in Victorian language, throughout my person,” she said. She compared the Abuja airport to Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel,” with “suitcases half opened, flung on the floor, people, children, people losing each other, calling to each other.” (In her memoir, O’Brien describes a London hospital in a similarly Hogarthian manner: “People calling, people bleeding, people shouting, a drunk couple wrangling and then all of a sudden cuddling.”) Officials from the Irish Embassy picked her up. Her first ambition was to “meet girls who will tell me their story,” she recalled. O’Brien told me that she wanted “their diaries, their souls,” and referred to Anne Frank. But the girls she met were “very shy, and also reluctant to talk.” Committed to producing a work of fiction that had documentary authority, she made contact with social workers, doctors, and journalists.
“Girl” begins: “I was a girl once, but not any more. I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass.”
The narrator of the novel, Maryam, escapes Boko Haram along with another adolescent girl, Buki; their sometimes fractious comradeship evokes that of Caithleen and Baba, in “The Country Girls.” When Buki reveals that, in preparation for flight, she has been stealing food from their captors, Maryam notes, “To anyone observing us from above we would have seemed lost and insignificant, but to ourselves we were champions.”
Many readers of “Girl” will agree with the admiring assessment of Terrence Rafferty, who, in a review in The Atlantic, wrote, “Despite the obvious contrasts in circumstances, this girl isn’t so different from O’Brien’s young Irish heroines. She lives in a world that’s testing her, daring her to survive.” Others may recognize that O’Brien has shown a form of courage in taking on the story but react uneasily to a character from rural northeastern Nigeria whose world view includes egg cups, perambulators, and bottles of vanilla essence, and whose inner life is conveyed by such expressions as “an ungodly hour” and “jolted hither and thither.”
Clair Wills, reviewing “The Little Red Chairs” in 2016, wrote that “O’Brien appears to believe that interiority is timeless, that the emotional inner world, the sensations of consciousness, remain the same even while the world changes around them. But the difficulty is that even if we accept that such desires may be primordial (which is debatable), the language in which desire is expressed, and arguably in which it is felt, is surely not.”
O’Brien’s version of the Boko Haram conflict seems to be based less on reported fact than on a fiction writer’s desire to describe a society built wholly on male cruelty. Obi Anyadike, a Nigerian-born researcher who has studied the conflict, told me that he was struck by material in “Girl” that seemed to have no natural place in a Boko Haram story: horses being used to crush people to death in pits, fighters pumping themselves up with amplified music. “You wouldn’t be doing that,” Anyadike said. “You’d be listening to Hausa poetry extolling the wonders of Islam.” In “Girl,” Boko Haram soldiers set up a table in the middle of a compound, then rape one girl after another, to “baying and cheering.” Many Boko Haram abductees, Anyadike noted, have been raped, typically in the context of coerced “marriages,” but this scene struck him as wayward. “I think it’s incredibly disturbing that she went on this flight of fantasy,” Anyadike said.
Cartoon by Sofia Warren
Asked about this, O’Brien told me that she “would not be so reckless as to insert untrue, or lurid, situations,” adding, “I didn’t have to.” She pointed me to a number of magazine and newspaper reports about Boko Haram abuses. None of them described the particular kind of organized, public mass rape that O’Brien depicts. Not all of Boko Haram’s acts of sexual violence may have been reported, but researchers I spoke with were unaware of such incidents.
O’Brien recently told a British journalist, “It has been suggested to me that as an outsider I am not eligible to write this story. I do not subscribe to that devious form of censorship.” Rafferty, in The Atlantic, ratified this sentiment. “It would be a shame if her attempt to assume the voice of an African girl were to be seen only, or even primarily, as an act of cultural appropriation,” he wrote. “O’Brien’s understanding of, and sympathy for, girls in trouble transcends culture.”
In 1957, T. S. Eliot bought an apartment in Kensington, and lived there with his second wife, Valerie, until he died, in 1965. Valerie stayed on, and left it largely unchanged; for years, she held on to the oxygen bottles that her husband used in his final days. After Valerie’s death, in 2012, the apartment became the home of the T. S. Eliot Foundation. It’s not open to the public, but O’Brien—as an esteemed author published by Faber & Faber, where Eliot was a director—is welcome to visit.
When the black cab arrived in Kensington, O’Brien said “Good luck” to the driver. In the building’s lobby, our uncertainty about the apartment number briefly flummoxed the affable young doorman. Once inside, O’Brien, taking off her coat, described that exchange to Clare Reihill, the foundation’s director. “For two full minutes, he assured us we were in the wrong place!” O’Brien said. “I’m approaching a heart attack. We have arrived jangled—jangled!”
We had tea and madeleines. Reihill, who had been a friend of Valerie Eliot’s, told O’Brien a story of devotion: sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon, T. S. Eliot “would put a letter on the mantelpiece, addressed to ‘Mrs. T. S. Eliot.’ And it would be an erotic letter about their life together.”
“Would you get him back, please?” O’Brien said. “Could I have a month of this happy, literary, erotic life?”
Decades later, Reihill said, Valerie still treasured these communications. “Once, when she was quite ill—you know the Lister Hospital, Edna?—she took some of the letters to put under her pillow, and I had to sit and read them to her in the evening.”
“What did you feel, reading them?” O’Brien said. “Shy?”
“I was slightly embarrassed, because they were . . . intimate.”
“But they were beautiful.”
The room was nearly silent. “I become orderly as I sit here,” O’Brien marvelled. “To put it mildly—a favorite line of Beckett’s, it’s in three of his plays—I am not orderly.”
“You look orderly,” Reihill said.
“No—I lose things all the time, and can’t find things, and I write by hand,” O’Brien said.
Reihill handed her the family edition of “The Waste Land,” whose inscription starts: “This book belongs to Valerie and so does Thomas Stearns Eliot, her husband.”
O’Brien sighed. “When I’m in a bad way, I say out loud, ‘My nerves are bad to-night—I feel I am in rats’ alley.’ ”
Reihill showed O’Brien the bedroom in which both Eliots died, forty-seven years apart. O’Brien noticed monogrammed leather luggage on top of a wardrobe.
“Look at the good suitcases,” she said. “Oh, I want another life!” ♦