In interview with Harriet Gilbert, when meeting to discuss her landmark work The Country Girls as part of the BBC’s World Book Club, Edna O’Brien speaks about the relationship in that novel between a young woman and a married man referred to as Mr. Gentleman.

Edna O'Brien The Love Object

Little, Brown and Company, 2015

Given the autobiographical nature of The Country Girls, one member of the book club asked whether there was a “real” Mr. Gentleman.

Edna O’Brien explained that many people who lived in the same neighbourhood felt that they knew exactly who Mr. Gentleman was, but that, in fact, they were wrong. (Isn’t this a lovely way of not answering and answering the question?)

“You can write better about the people that you don’t marry,” she comments. (She then amends her statement, saying that it is only half true.)

The same observation could be made of “The Love Object”; one can imagine calling that character, the love object, Mr. Gentleman, too.

This collection of 31 stories is named for one of the stories published in Edna O’Brien’s first collection, The Love Object, in 1968.

Since then, the author’s reputation has grown substantially and she has become tremendously influential. In fact, as John Banville describes, in the introduction to this collection, she has played a pivotal role in the literary scene.

“No one before her, not even Kate O’Brien or Mary Lavin, had managed to portray in fiction an utterly convincing female sensibility. It is not so much the figuring of the female characters themselves that is so striking in these stories, but the way in which their author catches in the web of her artistry something of the essence of womanhood itself.”

Everything has to go in, she explains, in discussion with the BBC reading group, until there is only nakedness. Perhaps this, then, is the essence to which John Banville refers.

“The Love Object” is a dense read in which the information is shared entirely from the perspective of the not-love-object, with only a smattering of dialogue to break the consistency. (Having heard Edna O’Brien read passages from The Country Girls as part of this archived BBC broadcast, it is easy to catch the cadence of her words in her prose.)

“From then on it was seldom possible to meet at night. He made afternoon dates and at very short notice. Any night he did stay, he arrived with a travel bag containing toothbrush, clothes brush, and a few things a man might need for an overnight, loveless stay in a provinicial hotel. I expect she packed it. I thought, How ridiculous. I felt no pity for her. In fact, the mention of her name – it was Helen – made me angry. He said it very harmlessly.”

The sentences vary in length, perfectly conveying the emotion therein. Statements made are matter-of-fact and brusque, but nonetheless highly emotive.

She often uses a single detail where another author might require a string of adjectives to convey. (Ironically, in the following example, that single detail is of the not-Connor-girls’ accent.)

“The Connor girls were not beauties but they were distinguished and they talked in an accent that made everyone else’s seem flat and sprawling, like some familiar estuary or a puddle in a field.”

Even though I am not familiar enough with U.K. accents to be able to replicate a flat and sprawling one, even in my mind, I can immediately understand an accent like a puddle (which is presumably what mine would be like, at least in comparison to the Connor girls.)

As with the stories of Alice Munro, many of the stories in this collection of Edna O’Brien’s works are preoccupied with disappointment and sorrow.

But not exclusively. Consider this passage from the end of “The Love Object”, which does mention happiness:

“I suppose you wonder why I torment myself like this with details of his presence, but I need it, I cannot let go of him now, because if I did, all our happiness and my subsequent pain – I cannot vouch for his – will all have been nothing, and nothing is a dreadful thing to hold on to.”

That happiness, however, is in the context of torment and need and pain and something dreadful. The story is beautifully written, but the mood upon finishing is bittersweet, at best.

When asked about a comment she once made to the French newspaper, Liberation — “Happy people don’t write” — Edna O’Brien maintained that she believes this is true. A normal and happy and sane person does not put themself through the rigours of a writer’s life; Proust, for example, was mad, she declared.

And, certainly, there is considerable unhappiness in this collection. Within and alongside many stories about love. (And loneliness.And devastation. And betrayal. And…. )

  • “Only love makes one notice a thing like that, love, that bulwark between life and death.  Love, she thought, is like nature but in reverse; first it fruits, then it flowers, then it seems to wither, then it goes deep, deep down into its burrow, where no one sees it, where it is lost from sight and ultimately people die with that secret buried inside their seeds.” (“Long Distance”)
  • “Not to go to you is to precipitate the dark and yet I hesitate. It is not that I do not crave the light. Rather, it is the certainty of the eventual dark.” (“Manhattan Medley”)
  • “It was not love and it was not hate but something for which there is no name, because to name it would be to deprive it of its truth.” (“Old Wounds”)
  • “By such choices we gradually become exiles, until at last we are quite alone.” (“The Connor Girls”)

What makes these stories not only bearable but laudable, sometimes even triumphant, is a quality that simmers beneath even the more sorrowful and regretful tales in the collection.

This anecdote works towards explaining this quality. Edna O’Brien had been earning a guniea a week for reading manuscripts for Ian Hamilton when he offered her a 50 quid advance to write a novel. In interview, she explains that she spent the money immediately, buying things for her two children and “to please the man I was married to, I bought a sewing machine, whch I have never used.” The audience laughs and she adds “I never intended to.”

I imagine that she still has that sewing machine, tucked in the corner of an upstairs room, as a weight, a reminder of what she was not going to do (and simultaneously, just as she can answer a question without directly answering, her declaration of what she is going to do instead).

For the greater weight comes with her true intentions, those which she did plan to pursue.

It is this sense, this directedness, this possessedness, that draws me to her prose.

This is the first of Edna O’Brien’s works which I have read: I intend to read many more.