For those who may not know, Dame Edna O’Brien is an Irish novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet, and short story writer. This past week, she was given the PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement Award “for breaking down social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and beyond.”
I first discovered her as a writer after reading her 1999 biography of James Joyce. I began with her first novel, ‘The Country Girls‘ but soon moved to her short stories. At a time when Ireland’s literati was made up almost entirely of male writers, O’Brien had been writing about women — their coming of age, their relationships with their mothers, their issues in dealing with men, their conflicts with religion and patriarchy, and a society that did not care about any of these concerns. And she had been doing it with such incisive, frank, beautiful prose that the powers that be in Ireland denounced her and banned/burned her early books.
Certainly, she changed Irish literature by bringing the woman’s voice and experience to the fore and writing as honestly about all aspects of life as some of her male predecessors and colleagues. Irish writers of today like Colum McCann and Colm Toibin and many others often talk about the huge debt they owe her. Beyond that, she has inspired women writers the world over. Including yours truly.
I have always loved her short stories the most and have featured them in this series in the past. This month, let’s celebrate and honor her with a roundup of some of these short stories (free to read online.) The themes she often returned to in these stories were of the challenges faced by Irish rural communities, mother-daughter conflicts, girls coming of age (with their “conscious innocence,” as John Mullan calls it), the other woman, and so on.
This story has many of O’Brien’s hallmarks: country living, a child narrator who sees and understands more than some of the adults around her, the rambling and musical narrative voice, beautifully cinematic imagery, and more.
A daughter is telling us about how she and her mother call in on new neighbors who are more well-off than them. It is a simple story with little drama, except for the mother’s and daughter’s caustic and canny observations. Just a lovely little yarn that shows how the daughter is, indeed, her own mother in the making.
Also, note the way O’Brien arranges and presents specific details of the objects in the setting so that we learn so much about the characters through their relationship with or response to those objects — both the characters who are a part of the setting and those who are observing it. That is a terrific way to bring more nuanced emotional layers into a story without reams of dialogue and action.
We went back into the room and surprised Mr. Coughlan, who was wolfing the sandwiches. The moment he saw us he made some apologetic murmur and bolted. Mama whispered to me that there was a strong smell of drink off him and said that no one ever knew the skeletons that lurked in other people’s cupboards. She removed the fire screen and out of habit poked the fire and put a sod on it, and then she vetted the contents of the room more carefully, estimated the cost of all the furnishings, and said if she could have one item it would be the tea trolley and perhaps the mirror with the little candelabras on either side, but that she would not give tuppence for the piano. Then, as if I were absent, she said aloud to herself that there was no swelling and no rash, and that for a woman to wish to go to the doctor at that hour of evening was fishy, decidedly fishy.
A St Patrick’s Day story. Every Irish writer should have at least one such. This is another one rich with details and descriptions. It’s also a story within a story. Rafferty, the eponymous shovel king, is telling the narrator the story of his life, his ups, and downs. It’s a long one, as you might imagine, and told over multiple meetings — mostly over pints in pubs. All the while, the narrator has stuff going on of his own though we do not get more than the odd few references here and there. In the end, this is a heartbreaking story of a young boy who leaves his beloved Ireland, tries to make a life in England for more than 40 years through hard work and heartbreak, tries to then go back but finds it is nothing like the home he left or, indeed, he is no longer the boy he was.
You need to read this one slowly. Savor each detail. Imagine an old man like Rafferty with a gruff Irish brogue telling you all about himself. I suspect this is the reason O’Brien employed this literary device of using a second narrator. We are distanced from Rafferty who is, really, the protagonist. But this is done in a way that allows us to also observe him as the storyteller through the point of view of another narrator. There is a lot of interesting subtext because of how Rafferty actually appears or is perceived and how he tells his story and perceives himself.
In one lapel was a small green and gold harp, and in the other a flying angel. His blue jacket had seen better days. He wore a black felt homburg hat, and his white hair fell in coils – almost to his shoulders. His skin was sallow, but his huge hands were a dark nut brown, and on the right hand he had a lopsided knuckle, obviously caused by some injury. Above it, on the wrist, he wore a wide black strap. He could have been any age, and he seemed like a man on whom a permanent frost had settled. He drank the Guinness slowly, lifting the glass with a measured gravity. We were in a massive pub named Biddy Mulligan’s, in North London, on St Patrick’s Day, and the sense of expectation was palpable. Great banners with Happy St Patrick draped the walls, and numerous flat television screens carried pictures of the homeland, featuring hills, dales, lakes, tidy towns, and highlights of famed sporting moments down the years. Little votive lamps, not unlike Sacred Heart lamps, were nailed in corners to various wooden beams and seemed talismanic on that momentous day. Only three people were there, the quiet man, a cracked woman with tangled hair gabbling away, and myself.
I’ve heard this at least 3-4 times now on Selected Shorts at NPR, as a longtime listener.
They describe it as follows: “Violets,” which is really a dramatic monologue. A woman sits at her dressing table, looking into the mirror, and awaiting the arrival of a potential lover. Will he come, or will he stand her up? What will she say to him if he does appear? Will she have the courage to say what she feels? The reader is Fionnula Flanagan, an old friend of O’Brien’s.
This story was also published in The New Yorker in 1979 and their description is this: A woman is preparing to receive a caller, a married man she met a month earlier at a Christmas party. He is rich, successful, very English. He is coming to lunch. Tells about her preparations for an hour in advance of his coming. She has read a line from Proust that affected her: the only paradise is the paradise lost. She is thinking about this when he kisses her for the first time.
For me, O’Brien’s feat here is in how she manages to make us, as readers feel the woman’s ups and downs as she is preparing — emotionally and physically. It’s a quick but powerful story about someone hovering at the intersection of uncertainty and hope and desire — as do many of O’Brien’s women characters. I love how O’Brien is able to convey all the pain and longing of the start of a doomed love affair and how, at some level, the woman knows it too. I will give you just one line because it is so perfect in how much it says.
In an hour, he is due. In that hour, I have tasks to perform, and they, of course, revolve around him.
[PS Please let me know if the above audio link does not work for you. For some reason, I am not able to find the audio at NPR’s usual Soundcloud account. If I do find it, I’ll update this.]
O’Brien has had many works published in The New Yorker. Some are available to read for free and some need a subscription.
This particular one rips me apart every time I read it. It’s about a young boy who steals a gun, shoots at a door, and gets sent away to a detention center. From then onwards, his life changes entirely. It is the story of many juvenile delinquents from about those times when they were treated terribly by the state, the law, their own families, and the others incarcerated with them. The institutions did not create reformed adults so much as ruined their entire lives and turned them into career criminals.
The very last paragraph, with its symbolic imagery, always gets me. I have to take a deep breath and sit back for a moment or two to collect myself because of how that one description tells us so much about the boy’s state of mind than anything else he has said in that entire last scene. That’s some tragic magic right there.
O’Brien does some interesting things with the POV and narration. Though we see the entire story through the protagonist’s POV, it shifts from the first paragraph, where he is an older man looking back, to him as the vulnerable ten-year-old when his life turns upside down and he can barely comprehend what is happening and why. That first paragraph (below) is like a condensed version of the whole story from which O’Brien then unspools the individual threads carefully till the whole thing is unraveled before us. As a writerly technique, it has a chilling narrative effect.
The Kinderschreck. That’s what the German man called him when he stole the gun and was caught and had to be banished. Before that he was Michan, after a saint, and then Mich, his mother’s pet, and after that, when he went to the place, he was Boy, and then Child, when Father Damien had him helping with the flowers and the cruets in the sacristy, and then later still he was K, short for O’Kane, when his hoodlum times began.
O’Hagan chose this, he said, because it’s probably the best one about smalltown gossip he has ever encountered. It is set in a typical Irish town with a close community where everyone knows way more than they ought to about their neighbors and they speculate a whole lot more than they ought to.
O’Brien is a master at depicting such small-town scandals with all the rumors and gossip that fuel it. Here, it is all because the widow, Bridget, does not fit the expected grieving, somber ideal of widowhood. Instead, she is a cheerful, partying sort. And, when she gets engaged to one of her lodgers, a man younger than herself, things ratchet up rapidly to a terrible finish.
The narrator is the entire village/town community giving us their own versions and commentaries of what is happening —like a Greek chorus, almost. And, as the story progresses, so do their unkind interpretations of Bridget’s every act, gesture, word. O’Brien’s skill here is in giving us this prejudiced narrator voice while still allowing us, as readers, to see what is really going on.
Bridget was her name. She played cards like a trooper and her tipple was gin and lime. She kept lodgers — only select lodgers — people who came for the dapping, or maybe a barrister who would come overnight to discuss a case with a client or with a solicitor. The creamery manager was the first to be more or less permanent. After a few months, it was clear he wasn’t going to build the bungalow he had said he would and, after a few more months, he was inviting girls to the house as if it were his own. Oh, the stories! The stories! Card parties. Drink. And God knows what else. No one dared ask expressly.
Till next month, then.