March 9, 2012 10:02 pm

There was a literary lady from Limerick

A festival honours the county’s most esteemed novelist and woman of ideas

When I worked with prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentences, years ago, we often talked about issues of disclosure: when and how they should reveal that they had been in prison to others once “on the out”, both in personal relationships and in professional settings. When was it important to be open? When was it wise to economise with the truth?

I had these conversations firmly in mind this weekend as I was attending the Kate O’Brien literary festival in Limerick, invited by some fans of this newspaper. My guilty secret was that I knew next to nothing about O’Brien and did not want this fact widely disseminated. I did not know, for example that O’Brien was a highly distinguished, intellectual, and serious-hearted author of many novels. That she is Limerick’s answer to Gertrude Stein and Henry James combined, a novelist of ideas, whose themes of private responsibility and public conscience, of matters relating to the tension between intimacy and integrity, expressed a particular strand of Irish experience, or perhaps experience in general.

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Susie Boyt

Besides, the last festival I attended was traumatic in the extreme. I should have known all was sunk when the woman assigned to pick me up telephoned me to check my timings and then snapped with notes of asperity I was horrified to hear, “Well, that’s hardly going to help the lasagne, is it?”

But sometimes everything goes right. The hotel was deluxe in all the obvious ways and in some recherché ways also: I ordered tea twice to the room for no charge. “Well, now, we wouldn’t ask money for bringing a person a cup of tea in their room now, would we?” I was told, as if to do so would contravene basic human rights. At night, the corridors were lit by candles in tall hurricane vases, and there were mirrors that proved to you just how flattering this light was, lifting your spirit wildly as you made your way down to the street. Perhaps the pièce de résistance for nervous travellers was that the hotel was half a minute from a branch of the Samaritans. Tea, sympathy and compliments. Ker-ching!

The street itself was lined with substantial early Georgian terraced houses, three of which looked half-derelict and ripe for salvation, by me. “Mmm, they’re a fine house,” an elderly passer-by stopped to tell me. I imagined transporting our lives to Limerick. It could happen. In fact, I wish it would, for I have never in my life met people nicer than the people I met there. The organisers of the festival were calm, super-intelligent, beautiful, warm and sweet without exception. I felt happier than I had in an age.

. . .

“I am by no means a world expert on Kate O’Brien,” I would murmur now and then apologetically. “I don’t know a vast amount about her, but I love what I’ve heard.” I gathered information as I went: her best book, almost everyone agreed, was The Land of Spices. I heard myself join a discussion about the roads named after her in Spain. I sat up late with some Dublin journalists drinking whiskey and discussing the scandalous rumour of her hidden love-child. I even felt offended when one of the speakers said she had no sense of humour. “But isn’t that what a certain kind of man always says about women of intelligence?” I countered, thousands of leagues out of my depth.

When a Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet remarked to me at the closing lunch that for an omniscient narrator, O’Brien sure was very omniscient, I found myself saying, “Aren’t we all?” It was a bit like being at a wedding when you had never met the bride.

On the Saturday, a smouldering French academic began his talk devilishly well: “In this lecture I am going to retrace the image of the stereotypical French lover in literature,” he declared. I may have heard better news but I couldn’t think when. It was mighty strong material for 10am.

After this, a poet who had befriended me read from her stunning first collection, which although delicate-seeming was filled with powerful images of acute dilemmas in music, in art, in nature. I could have listened to her all day. Then a journalist touched on his history of Ireland in a hundred euphemisms. Is Ireland especially guilty of them, I wondered. “What do we call 30 years of slaughter?” He asked mildly. “The Troubles.”

I gave a talk about loss and love and where these things get you in life and felt the warmth of the audience envelop me. I adore that kind of attention but it’s a cautious love because I know it has the power to make a monster out of me. Later that night in the bar, I fell into conversation with a literary young lady from Limerick. “And tell me, what do people in London say about Kate?” she said.

Panic! How did I gently break it to her that any talk of Kate O’Brien in London has escaped me entirely? “Well, um ... ” I replied, “I’m not certain that she features an enormous amount in the, err, circles I frequent.”

“Really?” She just couldn’t believe it. “I find that astonishing.”

“Sad, but true,” I had to concede.

“Didn’t they make a big fuss about the wedding? Wasn’t there a holiday? And what about that beautiful lace gown?”

“Ah,” I said. “Oh yes. About that Kate I do know quite a bit ... ”

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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