Edna O'Brien 2004

Edna O'Brien

We’re in a beautiful room. And looking at these lights, I thought of the great Ernest Hemingway, who once had a beautiful short story called “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Well, this is an opulent, well-lighted place. And thank you for coming. Hopefully, you’ll stay. It won’t be too long, my talk.

The Foundation ought to be congratulated wholeheartedly, because literature now is on the margins of society. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” is no longer the case. So anything that can be done to encourage good (or even great) writers to write, and encourage good (or even great) readers to read, is no small thing.

I also should thank or mention those faceless nominators that Robert mentioned, because they do have a hard time. And of course, to the lucky people, the authors, the award winners, I congratulate each one of you. And I have a minor—a very minor—joke that I thought I'd mention to you. When a writer wins money, even if it’s only five shillings, the first thing anyone asks them is what he or she is going to do with the money, as if a writer somehow lived off ether, or if the miracle of the loaves and fishes was every day reenacted. It’s true. People don’t ask dentists or doctors or pastry cooks what they’re going to do with the money, but they always ask the writer. So if I were you, I would have a little indulgence first, and then a long year ahead of you for work, with many congratulations.

On his deathbed, Virgil asked his friends to burn the unfinished manuscript of the Aeneid, which he had been working ceaselessly on for 11 years. Kafka, knowing that he was dying, asked his colleague, Max Brod, to destroy all his manuscripts and his materials. While poor Gogol went about his own destruction more robustly; he did his own burning. He burned the sequel to his masterpiece Dead Souls because of a loss of faith in himself.

I mention this not to strike a lugubrious tone but to dwell for a few moments on the hazards of the writing life and the Herculean strengths that are essential to it. Faith in self is more essential for a writer than the fickle and often transitory hope or faith of any other. People sometimes ask me who I write for, and I have to say I do not know. I simply do not know. But I do not envisage a crowded, eclectic stadium of readers, because they’re not there.

As a young man about to leave Dublin, at the age of 21, James Joyce wrote in a contemptuous letter to Lady Gregory, from whom he had tried to borrow money, that he knew no one with a faith like his, and that faith served him against a Sisyphus-like mountain of obstacles—shortage of cash; ill health; ill look; procrastination from publishers; court cases concerning the obscenities of his work; the murderous malice of his own race, which is also my race; the scathing condescension of other races—a “tithe of troubles,” as Anna Livia would have called it—impelling Joyce himself to say that he did not want to be a literary Jesus Christ.

Yet, when one reads the diaries or the letters of most great writers, they have certainly been put through the wringer. Sometimes by their own impassioned, hurtling dispositions, sometimes by the decree of others, and sometimes by the gods themselves, for the Greeks tell us that the rage of Mars is a matter of very great chance, indeed.

But assuming one is armed with the necessary faith and not consigned to a gulag, there are other pitfalls, not least envy, indifference, relegation, or downright slaughter. Borges, whose writings and essays show such a capacious mind that it would seem he lived in an Alexandrian library all of his own.

He tells us we’re made for art. We’re made for memory. We are made for poetry. In Borges’ universe, yes. But place that manifest still at the cash counter of any book shop, in any country, and it will shortly be replaced by something more potentially lucrative—how to lose weight, how to gain weight, how to lose God, how to gain God, three easy steps to arousal—all in a twinkling.

And yet Borges was and is right. Your writing must be the theme of your life and of your thoughts, and must take precedence over all else, a stance which can wreak destruction, the eroding of love, friendship, even marriage—the casualties are legion.

Poor Emma Lavinia Gifford, first wife of Thomas Hardy, lived and died in two attic rooms in Dorset, while her husband wrote his masterpieces downstairs in the study underneath and ignored her. It is not a trait to be proud of, but writers must and do have an inner core of ruthlessness.

James Joyce was reared in a house of 16 or 17 children. He and his brother, Stanislaus, could not agree on the count, something that may happen next Tuesday night. There was in his house wrangling, impecunity, infant deaths. His mother’s death was a tableau of cruelty and melodrama, her profligate husband telling her to die and be done with it.

Yet Joyce, the avowed poet, with the detachment of a samurai, tells us that he put such consideration, such wretchedness, behind him as he walked across the sloblands of Fairview, reciting and memorizing the silver-veined prose of Cardinal Newman.

Flaubert’s mother believed that her son’s love of language hardened his heart. And Proust, who felt for his mother an overwhelming love, nevertheless, after her death, forever feared her as the hovering dark angel come to oversee and castigate his crime—his crime of writing, his crime of Sodom and Gomorrah.

One has only to read Kafka’s letter to his father to see both how desperately, and yet with what futility, Kafka endeavored to escape that towering shadow. There are some who maintain—and I happen to be one of them—that that shadow, or any shadow, is the precursor of the gift, the archetype to strike out and revolt against.

Joyce himself put it more succinctly. He spoke of genius breaking out in the family and against the family. So there is the family that we know, that we all have in our different walks of life, and then there is that flotsam family of critics. Reading the evaluation of many works down the years, it is actually impossible to believe how critics could be so wrong, so blindfolded, and so gleefully destructive, unless we allow for the cancer—yes, the cancer—of envy.

Tolstoy excoriated on the trivial and immoral works of Shakespeare, an aberration which the great Harold Bloom quite sensibly attributes to creative envy. William Faulkner was accused of writing under the influence of an ongoing epileptic fit. And Melville found his way into the Encyclopedia Britannica by merely being a chronicler of sea life.

George Saintsbury, an English critic, said he was appalled at the vulgarity and meretriciousness of Emma Bovary, and wondered how Flaubert could’ve created such a trite creature, ignoring Flaubert’s own testament that he was Emma, and Emma was him.

So why do we write, considering the various pitfalls, debilitation of body—and alas, sometimes so—fractured friendships, and a way of life which makes us, as writers, increasingly introspective, while, ironically, being supposed to depict the human condition? And then there is the writer’s block—that inhospitable place between solitude and despair, when the words or the song or the fragment simply does not come.

I think the reasons are many, but that the primal reason is far more complex than we could ever ourselves know. But when the unconscious allows itself to be tapped, and the imagination is in full spate, in full rein—words, words, words sending sparks and signals out into the silence. There is no better or more glorious or more fulfilling place to be.

Whistler tells us, or did tell us, that art happens. It does not. Art is beaten and hammered and eked out of one’s life experience, and is perfected only through unceasing work, contemplation, and solitude. There is the necessity of solitude, and there is the dread of it.

And in his letter to a young poet, Rilke spoke of the profound law under which the young writer—he could equally have said the not young writer—is placed. The law of loving the solitude, of accepting it, and resisting the temptation to break out of it. Immersion—immersion is all.

To the English painter, Frank Budgen, Joyce once wrote that he wished it known throughout all of time that Leopold Bloom’s waking trances in filthy streets were quite different to his trances as clandestine lover to Martha Clifford or his trance in silent, masturbatory collusion with Gertie MacDowell as the sky deepened and a bat came through the air with a tiny, lost cry.

And to his great patron, Ms. Harriet Weaver, Joyce confided that he could not listen to music—could not listen to music—for many, many months after creating the siren section of Ulysses, a section that is a cacophony of sounds, sounds, rhythmical devices, horse hooves, ringing steel, cash register, coins, clip-clap—the sanctum of the Oriental, the Ormond Bar with the lunchtime drinkers, and the inevitable Irish lament of the exile.

A sail upon the billows, a girl’s vein fluttering, that song touching their still ears, their remembered lives. And Leopold Bloom, in a shifting succession of thought and half-thought, recognizing age as the true witherer of love and hate.

We are readers as much as we are writers. And, more especially, we are re-readers of the books that have shaped, and continue to shape, our thought, our philosophy, and our sensibility.

It was not simply as a writer alone that Faulkner chose Moby Dick as the book he would most like to have written, deeming it “a sort of Golgotha of the heart…” But we live in more callow, secular times, where depth, Golgotha, and the metaphysical quest is not an ascendency. Instead, a lurking ordinariness.

I know that tastes differ. I know that appetites differ. The author Jonathan Franzen said to resist the notion of literature as a nobler or higher calling, and tells us that the novelist’s duty is to entertain. I don't know about a nobler or higher calling. It might even be a vagabond’s calling, ours. But I do maintain that entertainment is only the tip of the iceberg. A poem, a play or a novel, even a paragraph, imparts something more than entertainment.

Charles Dickens would tell us that, and certainly and unfailingly, Chekhov would tell us that one of the imperatives of writing is to look and think and see more clearly into the heart of things and of people. Virginia Woolf, in a more transcendent vein, talked of those moments of vision, those moments of infinite possibility, the absence of which, for her, forboded a journey, a very solitary journey, into the abyss, and an acceleration of her madness.

Samuel Beckett thought the opposite to Virginia. He regarded writing as hovering on the margin of the unexpressed and the inexpressible. Responding to a question once of the influence that Joyce might have had on him, Beckett said Joyce was the master manipulator of his material, tending toward omniscience and omnipotence, whereas Beckett was working with impotence, ignorance, traversing a zone discarded by other artists as being unusable.

But while the intention varies, and of course it does, what matters and what only matters is the text. Vibration, saturation, intensification, and the brief miracle of inhabiting.

It is true, as Roman Roland has said many years ago, that art is useless against history, but a great consolation to the individual. And which of us in this room, in this brightly lit room, would want to forfeit that great, private consolation?

As an afterthought, I have to remark that when dressing the wounds of paupers in a hospital in Cheapside, Keats found that spouting passages of Shakespeare both helped him and his unfortunate patients. And then there is the matter of truth. Whose truth, you may ask. Robert Frost asked it of himself. He answered it flawlessly. He said art is not a form of propaganda. It is not to be in style. It does not belong the sphere of the polemic or ideology. The highest duty of the writer is to remain true to himself because, in serving his vision of truth, the artist best serves his nation.

Now, if you happen—as I have done and my friend, Robert, mentioned a moment of it—if you happen to come from a small country or a small community, that little difference with the nation can sometimes get very out of hand, very intemperate. I've had quite embattled times in my own country, a country, by the way, that I am very glad I come from. Nothing like a little disturbance and conflict to have one get the pen out.

My mother, who did not like the written word and was totally opposed to it, had a saying which said, “Ink never refused paper,” but she didn’t mean it as a compliment.

And when my first book, The Country Girls, was published, I was not—we didn’t have books in our village. In fact, a copy of Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier was passed around in my very early childhood. And it being only the one copy, it was loaned by the page, but not consecutive. So you might get page 100 and then page 2.

But I did have the gospels to read, and I did have some old Irish—profound, actually—folktales. So when my first book appeared in that village, there was certainly a lot of rumpus. And one or two women had gone to Limerick, which was the nearest town, and bought a copy each. The parish priest heard of this and asked for the copies to come into the chapel grounds, the owners and the copies, on that evening. It happened to be winterish.

My mother relayed this story to me. And they brought the copies in. A few other people came in the chapel grounds. The rosary was said. And a fire, it seems, was lit to put these two or three copies of this 21-shilling book in the fire. And my mother told me that women fainted. So in order to deflect the guilt which I was most certainly feeling, I tried to dissimulate. I said, “The women probably fainted from turf smoke.” But my mother did not take that on board. And it just shows you how changeable people’s opinions are about a work.

When the next book came out, it was called The Lonely Girl, and the opinion was that the first book, The Country Girls, was a prayer book by comparison. So, it would seem to me that each time a writer has to put up with a bit of hurt in order for the book to make its way—not at the moment or period one would have wished it, but maybe a year or two or three later.

Beckett, when writing about Jack Yeats, said a rather wonderful thing: “The artist who stakes his life has no brother and comes from nowhere.” Well, of course, we do come from somewhere. We come from a place and a people and an ancestry that, and never should, leave us. It very much enriches and informs a lot of our writing and our imagery, and it is both our psychic and our actual landscape.

People talk of countries as being motherland or fatherland. Ireland has always been, as I think I once said in a book, a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a sow, and a gaunt, haggard bear. But there is the motherland of the country, and there is the mother of the mother. I have for about, I think, the best part of two years, been trying to write a book about a mother, who would be my mother, but also “mother.” And I thought I would end—it might bring me luck, and it’s very brief—on reading you a half a page of that. I suppose it would be called the prologue.

“There is a photograph of my mother as a young woman in a white dress, standing by her mother, who is seated out of doors on a kitchen chair in front of a plantation of evergreen trees. Her mother is staring with a grave expression, her gnarled fingers clasped as in prayer. Despite the virgin marvel of the white dress and the obligingness of her stance, my mother has heard the mating calls of the world beyond and has seen a picture of a white ship far out at sea. Her eyes are shockingly soft and beautiful.

The photograph would’ve been taken of a Sunday and for a special reason. Perhaps on account of her daughter’s looming departure. A stillness reigns. One can feel the sultriness, the sun beating down on the tops of the drowsing trees and over the nondescript fields, and on and on to the blueish swathe of mountain.

Later, as the day cools and they have gone in, the cry of the corn crake will carry across those same fields and over the lake to the blue haze of mountain, such a lonely evening sound to it, like the lonely evening sound of the mothers saying, ‘It is not our fault that we chafe so. It is nature’s fault that makes us first full, then empty.’ Such is the wrath of the mothers. Such is the cry of the mothers. Such is the power and lamentation of the mothers, on and on until the last day, the last blueish tinge, the last pismires, the gloaming and the dying living dust.” 

Since her debut novel The Country Girls, Edna O'Brien has written over twenty works of fiction, along with biographies of James Joyce and Lord Byron. She is the recipient of many awards including the Irish Pen Lifetime Achievement Award, the American National Art's Gold Medal and the Ulysses Medal. Her most recent novel is the much-acclaimed The Little Red Chairs. Born and raised in the west of Ireland, she has lived in London for many years.