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Edna O'Brien is no stranger to bold writing

Kristin Tillotson
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

LONDON--For the young Edna O'Brien, mother didn't always know best; in fact, she almost never did. But at 74, O'Brien -- one of Ireland's best-known writers and a mother and grandmother herself -- has spent some time reflecting on her mother's life beyond how it affected her.

"As women, our mothers remain not just with us, but in us," O'Brien said. "Our connection with mothers is stronger than memory, a kind of permeation that goes beyond anything verbal."

O'Brien, whose oeuvre includes dozens of novels, story collections and plays, has written a highly personal novel that echoes her complicated, strained relationship with her mother.

"The Light of Evening" (the title is the opening phrase of a Yeats poem) is the story of Dilly, an old Irishwoman who recalls her life from a hospital bed as her estranged daughter, Eleanora -- a successful novelist living in London -- does the same on the way to visit her. The novel is written with O'Brien's usual rich detail and sense of story, but its most memorable achievement is the quietly epic, ingeniously limned struggle between a mother and daughter whose fierce mutual love is obscured by decades of resentment and disappointment.

"Throughout life, your mother is always a guest at your table, in some form or another; you can't untie the knot," O'Brien said. "When I was young, I wanted to escape not only my mother, but Mother Church, Mother Ireland, and a few other mothers. When I was young, I did not see my mother in her own light. With this book, I hope I've achieved that."

One of the book's most powerful sections is the collection of letters Dilly has written to Eleanora over the years. They are adapted from letters O'Brien's mother wrote to her nearly every day.

From one sentence to the next, the letters thrust finger-wagging critiques between household chatter to startling, tragicomic effect:

"Yesterday a chimney pot fell down and the breakfast room chimney is blocked with crows' nests so we're upside down and downside up as the fella says. I saw your photograph in the paper but may I say the outfit you wore didn't do you justice, it exaggerated your figure by twice your size, the gathers and belt made you fatter. You have many ill-wishers here. Poor Dunny died alone in the gate lodge, the rats nearly got him before he was found."

The letters are masterpieces in their own right, O'Brien said. "My mother had great distaste for the written word. She was angry I became a writer -- especially of fiction, which she saw as sinful, a contamination of the mind. But life being full of paradoxes, these letters reveal her to be quite a writer herself.

"She only asked me once in her life to look for a book for her in London. It was called `Mother Knows Best.' I couldn't find it."

For many years, O'Brien may as well have painted a scarlet "O" on her forehead every time she stepped foot on the Emerald Isle. Her first novel, "The Country Girls," was banned in Ireland 46 years ago because it laid bare the patriarchal tyranny of both home life and the Catholic Church for rural Irish girls. More recently, a novel she wrote based on the real-life case of a deranged young man who killed a family in an Irish woods rekindled resentment toward her as someone who insists on putting her homeland in a bad light.

In the aftermath of outrage over "The Country Girls," O'Brien was lured onto a popular television chat show. When she walked onstage, the host looked not at her, but at the audience, saying, `Who here is ashamed of this woman?' At least half raised their hands. But by the end of the program, she had charmed many of them into changing their minds."

O'Brien lives in a 19th-century Victorian rowhouse in Chelsea -- the oldest one on the block, to judge by the weathered-gray stone exterior. When she opens the door, the face that greets a visitor must be the same one that won over that audience: Not the beautifully aloof face from her publicity shots, it is rather wise, open and observant, remarkably well-maintained and framed with a still-thick mane of upswept, faded-red hair.

She spends most of her time in the library, a lofty but homey room designed by her son Sasha Gebler, a London architect. The antique furniture is accented with lace inherited from her mother. Eight-tiered bookshelves line the walls, holding titles by Joyce, Yeats, Proust, Beckett and Faulkner as well as Jane Fonda.

"My mother is very funny," said Gebler. "What's kept her young is that she's interested in the rest of the world, in what other people think, and with such humor."

O'Brien's own mothering of Sasha and his older brother, Carlo, was bitterly criticized as both neglectful and indulgent by her ex-husband, the Czech/Irish writer Ernest Gebler -- especially after she became a much bigger literary success than he was.

"Mothers are constantly judging daughters in a way they don't their sons," O'Brien said. "I am devoted to my sons and we're very good friends. But I don't think I was a normal mother."

"I think she means she wasn't a boring mother," said Sasha Gebler. "In some ways she treated us as both children and adults."

O'Brien writes her books in longhand (in purple ink, with the ZIG-brand pens she adores). It took her nearly four years to write "The Light of Evening." By contrast, "The Country Girls," her breakout 1960 novel, wrote itself in three weeks, she said.

Kieran Folliard, now a Minnesota restaurateur, grew up in a small town north of O'Brien's village. He remembers reading "The Country Girls" as a young teen, when it was banned.

"My mother was a big fan and got hold of a copy," he said. "I have a great empathy for Irish girls in those days. Things were much more difficult than they were for a lad, very parochial and almost completely dominated by the church."

Rosaleen Linehan, currently starring in "Lost in Yonkers" and one of Ireland's best-known actresses, read it when she was 19 and recalls it as a mind-blowing, seminal book.

"Apart from being a classic, it really opened doors for girls back then," she said. "We're now so open-minded there's nothing you can't say or do, but it brought up a whole realm of things that had not been discussed in Ireland, like Joyce's `Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' did. Just as he was considered a dirty man, she was considered a dirty woman."

"My incentive to write this book was to go back and retrace the ground I had fled from, both geographically and psychologically," O'Brien said. "My inner landscape is converged with the outer one of County Clare," she said. "I could never set a book anywhere else in Ireland."

Often praised for an amazing memory that brings the Irish countryside to life, she has no trouble separating her love of homeland with the mud slung from it in her direction.

The cudgel was out, the swords were up, she said. "I would be dishonest if I said it no longer bothers me. But I draw consolation from the fact that James Joyce was similarly attacked."

The best revenge, of course, is a book well read -- or in O'Brien's case, more than two dozen of them. But she doesn't gloat when reflecting on the reversal of her persona-non-grata status.

In June, University College Dublin awarded her its Ulysses Medal, given to scholars whose work has made an outstanding global contribution.

"The Light of Evening" is at least as autobiographical as anything O'Brien has written before. She has no urge to try her hand at straight memoir.

"It's not about discretion," she said. `'Joyce called fiction `fantasized autobiography,' and he was right. Fiction takes truth's peaches, its juiciness, and adds imagination's scope. The secrets writers put into their fiction are far more deep and enticing than the ones we tell each other in life."

Philip Roth once suggested to O'Brien that she needed a Leonard Woolf in her life, a husband or mate like Virginia had to support her and her writing.

"I told him, `I need a combination of Leonard Woolf and Lord Byron,"' she said.

O'Brien, who has written a book about her hero, James Joyce, is now on to a short life of Byron, "not a biography, more of one writer's take on another," she said.

"I think people don't realize what a scholar Edna O'Brien is," Folliard said. "It's evident she's extremely well read and has had fantastic influences. Every couple of generations there's a woman who stands out -- (political activist) Maud Gonne, the pirate queen Grace O'Malley -- who causes scandal and loses the respect of some, but garnishes it later."

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