The grand dame of Irish letters, Edna O’ Brien, spoke yesterday at the International Literature Festival about her latest novel, The Little Red Chairs, hot off the press in its German translation. Published in 2015 and her first book after a 10-year-long hiatus, the novel centres on the arrival of a charming stranger, who turns out to be a fugitive war criminal modelled on a real-life Bosnian counterpart, Radovan Karadžić, in the small Irish town of Cloolnoila and the rippling impact it has on the community, in particular the innocent Fidelma McBride, who is desperate to have a child by any means. Credited with reshaping the landscape of Irish literature to include frank descriptions of women’s lives and desires, O’ Brien’s books were burned and banned in her native Ireland but earned her worldwide acclaim. We spoke to her about the influences on her work, the current state of literature and the “criminal act” of writing.
You speak of how you had a fervid religious education, so what were your first experiences of non-religious literature?
I was espoused to literature before I even knew what it was. I thought words were magic – or at least words had the properties of being magic; could be magic. My education, as such, was very lacking. I did go to school – a national school – in County Clare but we learned everything through Irish, except the English language. I didn’t, for instance, read Shakespeare as a child. I wish I had. But whatever I did read entered my consciousness and has had a lasting effect. For instance, our teacher had a book with essays by different authors and one was by the Henry David Thoreau and when I read his description of landscape and snow, I thought, “I know this world. I know this and now I’m meeting it in a book.” It wasn’t just the geographic description; it was the emotional response. I said I wanted to be a writer without knowing what being a writer could mean because it seemed to me – of course it is a bit of an exaggeration – that writing, or literature, can be a transformation in a person or in a society. It’s an old-fashioned idea because it’s no longer true.
Why do you believe that literature is no longer transformative in that sense?
Well, Shakespeare has not changed the world but he has wakened us to every possible emotion. A certain kind of writing has, but I don’t consider the writing of a lot of writers literature. Literature is literature – you read a paragraph of W.G. Sebald and you know you’re in the hands of a genius. Other people, you’re not – you’re just getting their egotism. Nabokov gave the four things a book must have – that it tells a story, that it is educational, gives knowledge and so on… but, he said, the ingredient that makes a book great is enchantment. The norm today is not about anything like that; it is about power, information and so on and that is valid – we need to know what is happening in the rest of the world – but if Marcel Proust were alive today and presented those seven volumes [of In Search of Lost Time], he would not have a huge readership. People are lazy; people want to read rubbish. I wrote a piece in The Guardian – “Is literature a dying animal?” Well… It’s not a prospering animal.
That’s a rather bleak view of the future…
It’s not a bleak view – it’s a realistic view. It’s a wake up call – I’m not here preaching bleakness; I’m addressing a subject that I feel very strongly about not just for my own sake, but for future generations.
Do you think there are any solutions – how can literature adapt?
Well it’s very hard you see – all the other influences are so tremendous now, the internet, Facebook, all those things – you know, that world. Reading – real reading – is a contemplative, serious occupation. The world‘s agenda at this point in our history is not about that. It is about out, out, out. I’m not just the person inventing that – I’m just noticing that that’s how things are. I would not wish you to convey that I’m presenting a bleak view of the world because I love literature, but I am more fearful for the fate of literature, both for itself and for future generations.
Is that a reason why you continue to write – to continue the literary tradition?
No – the reason to write comes from my soul. The reason is very deep. In any writer that I respect, the reasons are always deep. Even the writer doesn’t fully know the reason but it’s there, because you keep writing. I could write much easier books, probably more successful – well, I could and I couldn’t. I could write more accessible books but I don’t want to do that. I want to go as deep as I can into the forest of myself. It’s not fashionable. It’s very hard, but it’s what I want to do.
You speak a lot about the influence of your restrictive childhood on your ‘impetus’ to write? What do you believe the relationship between suffering or restriction and artistic creation is?
Well again, I didn’t invent that. Edmund Wilson called it “The Wound and the Bow” but with the wound, I think most great writers – Faulkner, Proust, and Kafka, who would be the most immediate example for me to bring up – said “writing is a criminal act”. I don’t think writing springs from a calm or harmonious psyche because who would bother? Like Flaubert – he was spending three months trying to describe the passage of a cloud. It’s fantastic, but it springs from a mind that is far from sane.
You mention a quote from Byron in an article: “a man should calculate on his powers of resistance before entering on a career of writing” before noting that a woman needs these powers a hundredfold. Does it bother you that, for example, lots of interviews mention your glamour or how elaborately dressed and made up you are?
My looks are my genes. I have found it irrelevant – it doesn’t worry me. I actually like to look okay. I appreciate beauty. For instance, the Russian poet, whom I greatly admire, Anna Akhmatova, was very beautiful in her younger days but nobody would comment on it – they read her poetry. Since the world of journalism and writing got mixed in together, I experienced it as a bit of an issue – how can she be serious if she looks glamorous? Which is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. It’s like saying if you have brown eyes you can’t play the piano. It’s ridiculous, but it’s part of the superficial lingo one has to ignore… Females do have a harder time though. They have a much harder time. When Alice Munro, whom I admire very much and was a friend of mine through letters, was give the Nobel Prize she said “Only 13 of us?!” A lot of women have a harder time. It is unfortunate, but it is undeniable.
How have the key concerns and themes your books handle changed over the course of your writing career?
When I began writing my books, they centred more on my life, people I knew in my village from what we might call the domestic hub of life, which is very valid – Madam Bovary is about the domestic hub of life! I did that because that was my world and I wanted to re-render my world of girls and women. But I wanted to move on from that – not because I rejected it – but because I wanted to embody the intensity that I felt in my first books with themes that were more about the world. One cannot write about a big issue – like in The Little Red Chairs, about a war criminal – unless that story, because the world is full of stories, resonates with something inside oneself. The book I’m working on now is actually set in Nigeria. I wanted to marry the personal and the global, but I do not want to write a protest book. I want to write a human story, in which some of the more blatant and cruel things of the big world impinge on the smaller world.