This essay appeared last weekend in The National.
“Is there a place for me in some part of your life?” a married man asks a woman in “Manhattan Medley”, one of the stories in the Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s new book Saints and Sinners. By asking for a place not in someone’s life, but in a part of her life, the man suggests that he wants to approach something slowly, less dramatically than affairs usually are. By speaking of a sliver and not of the whole, he perhaps indicates too that, realistically, all that he can offer is a part of his own life, and the woman understands as much.
“We did not have a garden, we had ploughed fields and meadows,” says a girl about her family in another story, “My Two Mothers.” “Somehow I thought that a garden would be a prelude to happiness.” Although she longs for the pleasures of a garden to call her own, the girl still seems to divine that her childish desires can be but a threshold to some ideal state, not happiness but a prelude to it. These are people who seem preternaturally aware, even when in the grip of heightened feeling, of how obdurate life is, of how something may be changed or attained only by small steps, not grand sallies. Even the children are, by observing the world of adults, already adults, and the stories they narrate in O’Brien’s work are adult stories.
Saints and Sinners is the late work of a writer – late in terms of O’Brien’s own age, a vivid eighty, but not in terms of any diminution of her sensibility – to whom we owe some of the most beautiful, limpid, and resonant English prose of the twentieth century, especially that of the great The Country Girls trilogy and the stories later collected in A Fanatic Heart. Across these stories can be found all of O’Brien’s signature characters and narratorial emphases. There are the questing, emotionally dissatisfied female protagonists of small Irish towns and villages, longing for escape from boredom or stiflement; the women who think about their love affairs and the girls who watch the love affairs or marriages of their mothers. There are, too, the hardened men who want to escape from feeling or have succeeded in deadening it through drink or desolation.
There is the landscape of fields, mountains and marshes, described in language that brings out all their strangeness (from “Inner Cowboy”: “The bogs were more peaceful, stretching to the horizon, brown and black, with cushions of moss and spagunam and the cut turf in little stooks, igloos, with the wind whistling to them, drying them out.”) And there is the society both roused and distorted by what O’Brien has elsewhere called “the hounding nature of Irish Catholicism” (“I was full of fears, thought everything was a sin,” remembers the old man Rafferty about his youth in the book’s opening story “Shovel Kings”. “If the Holy Communion touched my teeth I thought that was a mortal sin.”)
There is O’Brien’s very precise attention to the colours and textures and emotional valency of objects, as when we are shown, in “Old Wounds”, a woman turned out of her house by her son, who wanders down the road “carrying her few belongings and her one heirloom, a brass lamp with a china shade, woebegone, like a woman in a ballad.” And there is the affection for, even adoration of, people who dream and at the same time attend conscientiously to life’s duties and try to do little things well, such as the mother who, despite being poor, applies icing on a Christmas cake with “the rapture of an artist”.
All these things are presented through a style that knows how to be ornate without being mannered and how to be plain without being poor. O’Brien achieves an effect of naturalness through a palette of options as simple as the omission of a comma where one is expected, and as complex as a clause in a sentence that seems unrelated to anything before it, as if seeking to surprise the very sentence of which it is a part.
Consider, for instance, Miss Gilhooley, the protagonist of the story “Send My Roots Rain”, which borrows its burnished title from a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins that Miss Gilhooley loves. Miss Gilhooley finds herself abruptly abandoned by a man with whom she has had a passionate affair, but remains possessed by him. Maddened by her pent-up yearning, she goes to see a psychic to see if there is a future for them. Encouragingly, the psychic foresees them “setting up a house together....She drew a picture of their future life together, one or the other, whoever got back first of an evening, kneeling to light a fire and praying that the chimney would not smoke, though at first it would, but in time that would clear, once the flue had its generous lining of soot.”
Though at first it would, but in time that would clear – the psychic seems to take her story much further out than she needs to, into a level of detail that should interest nobody, not even Miss Gilhooley. But it is only by her doing so that her story becomes real to Miss Gilhooley even as, on another plane, we comprehend how the writer’s narrative ingenuity has made the story real to us. The psychic’s crafty story also illuminates the craft of story. Miss Gilhooley is gulled by the psychic, but so are we, who are nowhere as susceptible.
In O’Brien’s stories men and women are always blazingly, defiantly, men and women before they are human beings. These are stories that everywhere ask us to think about what it is that constitutes their difference, a difference which undergirds both their mutual attraction and their ultimate incompatibility. Men and women feel differently, think differently, want differently, as a consequence of their biological and emotional differences, and this fact is not something to be evaded or simplified, but rather to be both experienced and rued. This sentiment may be accused of being essentialism, but in O’Brien’s stories it has always seemed, from the situations laid out before us, more like realism.
“Never give all the heart outright – who said that?” asks Mildred, the rambling, slightly disordered narrator of the marvellous story “Madame Cassandra”. “I have read that men have cycles just like us women...we have cycles because of the presence of the uterus – hence we are subject from time to time to hysteria – whereas men’s cycles do not answer to the womb or the moon but to their own dastardly whims...they simply go on and off the creatures they call women.”
The story is about Mildred’s visit all the way from a village up to Dublin to meet Madame Cassandra, some kind of psychic or healer, about an affair her husband is having. Madame Cassandra, however, refuses to see Mildred, but even in inaction she precipitates the story’s denouement. On the train back from Dublin Mildred runs, of all people, into her own husband, and finds that he “looked at me almost with wonder, as if he was seeing me in some way altered, his wife of twenty-two years leading a secret life, having a day up in Dublin, a rendezvous perhaps.” Mildred knows now, as they return home, that there is “a little agitation at the core of both our hearts”, and it does not matter if her husband’s rendezvous is real and her own is fiction, as long as her knowledge of the whole exceeds his. This is just one of many unusual closes and catharses in the work of this sensuous, rueful and sublime writer.