Country Girl: A Memoir, by Edna O’Brien, Faber, RRP£20, 352 pages
Towards the end of Edna O’Brien’s wonderful new memoir, Country Girl, the author describes being on holiday in Dorset with Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, who are paid a visit by Jude Law. O’Brien, well into middle age by now, wants to go for her daily dip in the pool but is afraid that “Adonis” will awaken from his nap and see her; unable to swim, she uses armbands and a kitchen chair to stay afloat. From her vigil, she spots the actor, “golden-haired, lit by soft August sunshine”, walking in her direction. “Unexpectedly,” she writes, “he came over and without a word bent down and kissed me.”
Men, particularly stars – Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Paul McCartney and Richard Burton among them – flock to O’Brien throughout the pages of Country Girl but, in the case of Law, something has changed. Later, when the guests have left, O’Brien heaves a sigh of relief “that it was not the beginning of something, of getting on the love trampoline” – but still, we sense her longing for “more intensities, more fervour, more hope, more desolation, more everything”.
Throughout her life, O’Brien, who is now 81, has been unafraid to write about female desire – for which she has often received the wrong kind of critical attention. Irish readers, particularly her family, were scandalised by her semi-autobiographical debut, The Country Girls (1960), which an archbishop and the then minister for justice claimed was filth; she has been attacked, too, for migrating from her homeland to live the life of a socialite in London. In 1994, when O’Brien wrote a profile of Gerry Adams for The New York Times, she was dubbed “the Barbara Cartland of long-distance Republicanism” for her admiring portrait of the Sinn Féin leader.
In this memoir, she describes the difficulties of balancing her obligations as a daughter, mother and lover with her own needs; she condemns the jealous rage of her first husband, the writer Ernest Gébler, with whom she had two sons, and the narrow-mindedness of critics such as LP Hartley, who dismissed the heroines of The Country Girls, Baba and Kate, as “a pair of nymphomaniacs”.
Her best defence, of course, is her witty, rude, sensuous prose – which, in this memoir, is Proustian from the prologue, in which she describes the “second flowering of the roses, washed pink and blousy” and the smell of soda bread, “the begetter of many a memory”.
Readers of her novels will find familiar material in the early sections of this book, in which she describes her childhood in Drewsboro, the dilapidated family house in Tuamgraney, County Clare; her violent, drunken father; and the convent school at which she developed a crush on one of the nuns.
Swathes of the memoir are devoted, as was her life, to parties, which she hosted in her London townhouse in the 1960s, and which were attended by such a glamorous array of people that her descriptions read like parody. (“Marianne Faithfull was also one of the regulars ... Diane Cilento would bring the I Ching ... Sean Kenny, clearly besotted with her, could be heard saying that Sean Connery, who was within hearing, was ‘a slow-burning turf fire.’”) O’Brien recounts these events in the high spirits in which they were lived, only pausing to question her actions after things have started to crack up. The turning point, she maintains, was an LSD trip with RD Laing, her analyst and friend, after which, she writes with wry understatement, she became “somewhat unhinged”.
After stints in New York, O’Brien headed to Donegal in the 1990s to buy a house where she hoped she might remain into old age – but, having painstakingly filled her new home with red lacquer cabinets, giltwood armchairs, hand-carved dining tables and pear-shaped mirrors, she found herself unable to write. “I could not imagine myself into it,” she says of her supposed home, “its dictions too gnarled for me.” Yearning – for love, for Ireland – is, for O’Brien, we sense, a state of being, even a source of pride. As she once told her friend, the novelist Philip Roth, “I doubt that we would welcome an alternative life, there is something stoical about soldiering on all alone.”