Edna O’Brien Has Been #MeToo-ing for Fifty Years
Last week, the Irish novelist Edna O’Brien was in town to receive the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. O’Brien, who has “broken down social and sexual barriers for women,” as the organization’s press release put it, received the prize from the Irish novelist Colum McCann. O’Brien and McCann have been friends since 1994, when they met at his London publishing house on the day that McCann’s first story collection appeared, and O’Brien invited him to read with her that evening. Later, when she was in New York, they liked to go to Ulysses’, on Pearl Street, with the Irish writer Frank McCourt.
The day before the ceremony, O’Brien and McCann met for tea in the Tennyson Room of the Lotos Club, and O’Brien reminisced about staying at the now defunct Wyndham, on West Fifty-eighth Street, where, decades ago, she used to share an elevator with Franco Zeffirelli and run into Joan Fontaine picking up her newspaper on Sunday morning. “I did set one story in New York that isn’t a dud,” she said.
“You can’t write a dud,” McCann said, checking the teapot. He was wearing a linen jacket with a long, very thin scarf.
She was referring to “Manhattan Medley,” a love letter to a married man with whom the narrator is having an affair. The story is a favorite of Philip Roth’s.
“It’s a love story,” she said. O’Brien, who has the voice, high cheekbones, and slightly exaggerated gestures of a stage actress, often looks into the distance as she talks, as if she were seeing a vision. She was wearing a black sparkly cardigan with a large brooch, and a long silver necklace. “It’s a love story told differently, because the love ain’t happening. Well, that happens a lot.” Since the publication, in 1960, of her début novel, the autobiographical “The Country Girls,” which was banned by the Irish censor for its descriptions of female sexuality, O’Brien has written more than thirty books. In “Night,” published in 1972, the narrator recalls her childhood in Ireland and love affairs in London while lying awake in a four-poster bed. “I was off the wall,” O’Brien said, of the state in which she wrote it. “I’d had my one and only and definitely profound and definitely traumatic experience with hard drugs.” She was a patient of the psychiatrist R. D. Laing, who experimented with high-grade LSD as part of his treatment. “He wanted to be a poet,” O’Brien said, lifting her right hand and making it tremble. “My mind was on stilts.”
O’Brien talked about a research trip she’d recently taken to Nigeria for a novel she is working on, called “Girl,” inspired by the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram.
McCann shook his head in wonderment. “You’ve been #MeToo-ing for the last fifty years,” he said.
O’Brien nodded at the mention of the movement. “I think it’s very laudable,” she said. She raised a cautionary finger. “But sometimes, with a cause, even a very just and necessary and visceral cause, it gets mixed in with what I call self-promotion, fashion, and a kind of straying from the gravity of the message.” She took a piece of sponge cake from a silver plate. “People are very mistrustful, aren’t they, of art and of poetry and of real writing? They much more go for a tweet and a twit—whatever.”
In 2009, McCann won a National Book Award, for “Let the Great World Spin.” He dedicated the prize to McCourt, who died that year, at the age of seventy-eight. In his acceptance speech in New York, he said, “I think he’s dancing upstairs . . . with the J.C. and the Mary M. and the twelve hot boys, and in the morning all will be forgiven.”
“I was in Dublin that evening,” O’Brien said. “And I said, ‘I’m going to light a candle for you.’ Do you remember?”
“I do, I do,” McCann said.
“I’d had a recent hip operation,” O’Brien went on. “There’s one chapel—which they now like to call a church, but it’s a chapel in my mythology—where I wanted to light this candle. And it was pouring rain—not a taxi between here and—” O’Brien hesitated.
“Portobello,” McCann said.
“Kilimanjaro,” O’Brien said. “Anyhow, I went off and lit the candle.” She paused. “It’s so funny about candles. I remember Frank McCourt saying once, ‘You know, you have to have real flame.’ Because now they have a little thing, you press a button and a light comes on inside a bulb.” She looked serious. “That isn’t urgent. That’s not going up.” She pointed toward the heavens.