I discovered Samuel Beckett’s Murphy after a Friday-night friend boozily extolled its dark and comic virtues (‘he wants his ashes to be flushed down the jacks of the Abbey theatre, but instead they get spilled in a barfight!’). In similar circumstances I’ve had the good luck to stumble upon great books by writers as varied and diverse as Mervyn Wall, Flann O’Brien, Anne Enright and Sebastian Barry.
It may be the company I keep, or indeed the courses I took in college, but nobody has ever sat me down, in a bar or otherwise, to enthusiastically sing the praises of Edna O’Brien. She’s a writer who, perhaps more than any of her Irish contemporaries, seems to have fallen into public disfavour, to the point where – in my experience – nobody discusses her work, and if her name comes up it is usually to focus on her personality (volatile, eccentric, stagey – so the spiel goes). And it’s not just bar-room critics – take a leaf through Seamus Deane’s authoritative Short History of Irish Literature and she doesn’t merit a mention, let alone an index entry.
In many ways it’s not surprising – O’Brien pushes all the wrong buttons for many. She’s been wildly successful (particularly in America – a sin back home), opinionated, and larger than life. She’s written too many books with similar themes, and her political stances both within her novels and in interviews have often left would-be fans uncomfortable.
All of these things (and more), though, could be said of her more discussed male contemporaries.
The Country Girls, O’Brien’s first novel, which I’ve just finished reading, is the sort of book that deserves plenty of discussion. It was groundbreaking when published in 1970, both for the story that it told, and the way in which it was approached.
Unkindly,a writer in The New York Observer (lamenting the absence of great new male writers) described O’Brien as the ‘inventress of chick-lit’, and reading a two-line synopsis of The Country Girls you could be forgiven for sharing that view. It’s a story of two country girls, Caithleen and Baba – one rich, the other impoverished – who escape the straitjacket of rural life for the (relatively) cosmopolitan bright lights of Dublin.
Read the first chapter, though, and you’ll see that you’re in the hands of a serious writer, writing about serious themes – power structures, love and commerce, urban rural divides. While simply describing Caitleen getting up and ready for school, O’Brien manages to reveal a complex family dynamic, and set the stage for the novel’s main drama. In interviews she has mentioned how important Hemmingway was to her when writing the book, and it shows through in her muscular prose – each phrase takes on the responsibility of moving the story forward, while at the same time giving various shades, tones and meanings.
So, for example:
I wakened quickly and sat up in bed abruptly. It is only when I’m anxious that I waken easily and for a minute I did not know why my heart was beating faster than usual. Then I remembered. The old reason. he had not come home.
Getting out, I rested for a moment on the edge of the bed, smoothing the green satin bedspread with my hand. We had forgotten to fold it the previous night, Mama and me. Slowly I slid onto the floor and the linoleum was cold on the soles of my feet. My toes curled up instinctively. I owned slippers but Mama made me save them for when I was visiting my aunts and cousins; and we had rugs, but they were rolled up and kept in drawers until visitors came in the summertime from Dublin.
It’s a simple description, with a keen eye for detail, but all the details also tell another story – one of a house terrorised, both by a menacing male presence/absence, but also by her Mother’s hoarding (a reaction to her Father’s irresponsibility, or perhaps a contributing factor to it? We’re never told, as there are no black & white villains in this story). The child is physically discomforted by both parents.
The novel was one of a number banned in Ireland at the time – indeed it was the subject, apparently, of a correspondence between a government minister (Charlie Haughey) and the Archibishop of Dublin and a number of the English Catholic hierarchy, all of whom concluded that it was a filthy book with no literary merit – and so a critical reception to the novel has been clouded by the issue of censorship. Obviously now, forty years on, the scandal seems misplaced, though the sexuality described in the book is still uncomfortable (largely being the predatory advances of much older men on the young women).
Two other elements have governed reactions to the novel. The first is the matter of autobiography, many presuming that the book is a thinly veiled autobiography, given certain shared elements between the protagonist Caithleen and O’Brien – both have an alcoholic father, go to convent school, and found a certain liberation in Dublin. This is reductive nonsense though – as, for example, one of the most moving scenes in the book revolves around the death of Caithleen’s mother, while O’Brien’s mother lived long enough to be deeply embarassed by her daughter’s work. O’Brien also went to University in Dublin while Caithleen is a grocer’s assistant. The relationship between a writer’s biography and their work is always a difficult area of literary criticism, but one can’t help but feel a certain amount of chauvinism dismissing her work as a thinly-veiled memoir.
The other main talking point about The Country Girls is feminism and O’Brien’s seeming dismissal of it. While the girls escape the rural setting for Dublin, Caithleen’s main preoccupation remains romantic love – she is constantly awaiting the arrival of a knight in shining armour (in the form of a middle-aged married man who takes a shine to her). Hardly the stuff of women’s liberation – particularly given the time it was written, 1970, the same year that The Female Eunuch, and Millet’s Sexual Politics were published. At the same time though, the mistake here is a) to simply judge the novel in feminist terms, and b) to confuse the views of the author with that of the main character.
In fact, what is displayed in The Country Girls is a careful and shrewd examination of sexual politics in Ireland (and probably in many other countries) at the time. On the face of it the author is championing an old-style vision of romantic love, with her heroine searching for mr right, but take a closer look and there’s a subtle depiction of gender relations governed by money and power throughout. It’s telling that the more romantic of the two girls is Caithleen, who is also the poorer of the two. Throughout the book relationships are linked with social status and purchasing power – in fact the attention to detail focusses in very specifically on the cost of items and their purchase. Caithleen escapes the rural town and its expectations (that she marry the local grocer), but financially she has little hope of independence without some kind of male patronage.