Edna O'Brien attends the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 16
Edna O'Brien attends the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 16
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"All creativity comes from trauma and cuts." Edna O'Brien gestures to her face, as though it were covered in wounds. In fact, the Irish novelist has lineless skin and hair the colour of a fox's pelt. The sole clue to her age ("86 and a half") is the range of experiences that infuse her conversation. "You've got to have a cut of some kind, and I have a triple cut. From family, especially my mother, from country, from religion. And that's no small business to be going on with."

Painful candour offset with lightness: the O'Brien sweetener. It marks her speech and her prose. When we meet her first novel, The Country Girls, is just finishing a theatre run on the English south coast 57 years after its incendiary (and, in Ireland, prohibited) publication. Cooped up in their rural convent school, Cait and Baba, the girls in question, flee for a life of swish new clothes and romantic escapades in Dublin, which has another kind of disillusion in store. The book and its sequels upset conservatives with their scandalous insinuation that women quite like sex. By modern standards, the writing is chaste. It is the underlying theme of freedom that retains its sting.

Today, O'Brien is screened from London's mad heat by the marble and dark wood of the Delaunay, which serves Mitteleuropean fare from its corner spot on Aldwych. Over heftier portions than either of us bargained for, she becomes a production line of epigrams that balance light and dark: "I'm not fickle but I can fall for a monster", "I never wanted to be old, but I couldn't stop it". The effect, on me at least, is to elicit admiration for her endurance in life but to ward off anything as presumptuous as pity. It feels like an Irish flavour of the stiff upper lip.

I wonder if she fears being defined by her early work just as Philip Roth, who has her down as the "most gifted woman now writing in English", remains tied to Portnoy's Complaint half a century and several superior novels later. "If you are defined at all, that's something," she says. "I'm proud of the book. It wrote itself in three weeks. It was a gift from God. LP Hartley said it was just two nymphomaniacs." Apparently, he meant that in a bad way.

Free-love hippies in a few enclaves of London and California emerged with the credit for sexual liberation at the end of the 1960s. But the breakthroughs were hard-won at the start of the decade by brave (often female) artists from less celebrated places. Shelagh Delaney, who wrote A Taste of Honey, a drama about a mixed-race coupling in industrial Salford, was one. O'Brien was another, though she would go on to build a larger career.

From the general manager of the restaurant, a young Irishman with whom she has some acquaintance, O'Brien orders a goat's cheese flambé and a crab salad. I go for the salmon tartare and the wild boar wurst. When she refuses a glass of wine (she has to give a talk in Chichester, where the play is showing) I tell her I feel too guilty to have one myself. "Don't," she fires back. "I have guilt to donate." It is too good a line not to act on. I summon a red. She sticks to her cool ginger beer.

O'Brien was born and raised in County Clare, in the west of Ireland. Her strict parents sent her to a Sisters of Mercy school and later forbade her to study literature, prodding her into life as a pharmacist instead. At 24, she thought she had found freedom by marrying, against their wishes, the Irish novelist Ernest Gébler and moving to London. But he turned out to be a "rather imperious man" (I sense she would like to use a harsher adjective) and their new home was the suburb of Morden, where "you have to get a bus to get a bus".

Through prodigious independent learning, she found a job as a reader of manuscripts for the publisher Hutchinson. On the basis of her reports alone, the firm commissioned her to write a novel. That was The Country Girls, which led to Girl with Green Eyes, Girls in Their Married Bliss, A Pagan Place - and to divorce, infamy, freedom and the London she had imagined. "I had a bit of money," she says, "which I rapidly spent on parties." Her social pace slowed - all those books to write - but she still prefers urban life to the countryside she describes so well in prose. "I am less susceptible to loneliness in the city. Because I can if I want to go out, go to the pictures. The great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva said the same thing about cities. Poor Marina, she hanged herself."

The goat's cheese flambé turns out to be more flambé than goat's cheese, and bigger than a pizza. "You have to have some," she begs, and I agree to share the carbohydrate burden.

From what I can work out, her relationship with Ireland has improved without achieving absolute harmony. I ask what she makes of the new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, an openly gay man with an Indian father. Impressive for a republic that banned her work two generations ago, no? "Some more cultural change is needed," she says, after agreeing. "What about the abortion laws? If we're going to be liberal, let's get the whole policy on the table." For Irish critics, distaste at her sexual themes has gone but another criticism has replaced it: that she does not quite understand the place that Ireland has become, alternately missing its material progress (in 2015's The Little Red Chairs, her latest novel, there are crafty priests and "farms auctioned off for half of nothing") and worrying that it has gone too far. Ireland has lost its "poetic soul", she tells me. "But then so has England."

O'Brien saw off the 1970s and 1980s, when flash prose ("absolute wizardry", she grants, of the likes of Tom Wolfe) edged out the communication of feeling as the most prized skill in literature. "It's very brilliant but it's not for me. Give me the Russians, give me the Russians," she says, with the hunger of someone who had to learn her own way around the canon. Her favourite writers of recent decades are WG Sebald and Roberto Bolaño: both foreign (German and Chilean, respectively), both dead when at the peak of their popularity, both excavators of the past. "Memory and language are the two best things a writer has," says O'Brien, who has also enjoyed Teju Cole's Open City. How quickly can she sense a book that lacks depth? "I can tell within one minute."

The Dorset crab arrives in a silver receptacle you can see yourself in, and is much more to her taste than the hubcap-sized starter. There is no buyer's remorse from my side either as the wild boar sausage is as good as you would expect from a restaurant that defines itself with these Ruritanian dishes. You imagine stern Junkers with names like Otto gorging on this stuff before horseback duels in the forest. Though just five years old, the Delaunay is a holdout against the small plate and the sharing concept. It is the bridge between the ossified London that O'Brien came to in the 1950s and the creative destruction of today.

Does she get enough credit for the body of work she has accumulated in between those eras? "A male artist in the room is - for women and men - cultural Viagra," she says. "As for a woman, there may be one or two who are glad you are there but you don't make the same impact." None of this is said with bitterness. If anything, she values being left alone to concentrate on her writing. "For all my affability, I am also cold."

You have to look after number one?

"Well no, you have to look after what is right. In the case of work, you have to look after the work. If someone comes into your life that you don't want and keeps nagging you with emails and things, the gate comes down." She mimes a portcullis shutting in front of her face. This is Graham Greene's "splinter of ice": the chill at the heart of the serious novelist. Writers cannot be with you all that much. And even when they are with you, they are not really with you.

In the 1990s, O'Brien's work widened to take in politics - though, she says in a post-lunch email, it was never about "preaching or protest". House of Splendid Isolation revolved around a member of the Irish Republican Army. Down by the River explored the abortion laws through a courtroom showdown. And in The Little Red Chairs, a charismatic healer who shows up in an Irish village turns out to be a Radovan Karadžić-style fugitive from a dirty war at the other end of the continent. It is her best book (take Roth's word, not mine), a highly evolved writer describing the species at its most basic: a man of violence, a woman driven to folly by want of a child. But there is always humour competing with pain for space on the page. Reading the book, it takes a while to realise it will not be a rural comedy.

"There's a great line in Beckett," she says, searching for a quote to capture this equipoise of light and dark. "I can't remember who says it. 'You're on Earth. There's no cure for that.' There's as much common sense in that as in all of Sophocles or Socrates or anyone else."

She speaks in coherent paragraphs with the rich, sonorous husk of a continuity announcer on a high-end public-service radio station. She is also the most inquisitive person I have interviewed. She wants to know what will happen with this Brexit business (search me), whether I have tried LSD (she has, with the psychiatrist RD Laing) and what pick-up techniques go on in bars these days. Through one of her two sons, an architect who worked on the private members' club Shoreditch House and the Everyman cinema in Hampstead, she still knows her London. She knows her football, too, tuning into big European games of an evening. "When Madrid are playing Barcelona, oh boy, that's a game and a half." She has friends in the adjacent arts, including the film director Michael Haneke and his frequent star Isabelle Huppert (who, it occurs to me, has the poise and the features to play O'Brien in an eventual biopic).

This proliferation of interests makes me wonder why, after all the novels, plays and short stories, she has never been one for essays. O'Brien on Lionel Messi (she rates him over Cristiano Ronaldo), on Emmanuel Macron ("Jupiter himself"), on modern Ireland, would demand attention. I feel like crossing the restaurant to lobby her publisher, who by coincidence has booked a table of his own. "The thing with essays," she says, "is the marriage of theme and writer. If that is vitiated in any way, then the essay is nothing." She contrasts Saul Bellow's powerful early essays with his "cranky" late stuff, when the writer exceeded the theme. If I did not know better, I would detect self-doubt here.

Or it may be that everything she wanted to say in non-fiction form came out with her 2012 memoir, Country Girl. In the book, pride in her defiance of those who sought to contain her - parents, church, spouse - vies with regret at her slowness to act. I press her on which she feels stronger.

"I wish in my early life I had stood up a bit more," she admits, "but all things considered I was pretty brave. You know, if you start off with a pretty terrifying start, you have many handicaps. You have many handicaps." The repetition is poignant. "I would say, as regards my inner self, I am happier than I ever was, while naturally aware of death and decay and decrepitude. I am full of darkness, but I am also full of light. Do you know what I mean?"

Yes. All her readers do.

Memory and language - those precious writerly resources - are flowing as I ask for a coffee. "Because of my religious saturation," she recalls of her younger self, "I believed that mortal man and Jesus Christ overlap. I wanted sensual love and spiritual sensibility. Well, you know what, you can't always have both." Splinter of ice or what.

"You're young, you see," she says, as I settle the bill. "You're happy and you have original life."

Original Life could have served as her memoir title. Her novels are bold, but not as bold as her own story. In literature, characters who escape an unpromising start to make their own way in the world tend to be male: David Copperfield, Julien Sorel, Augie March. O'Brien did not just invert this tradition with The Country Girls and subsequent books, she lived the inversion. The result appears to be a woman in love with the freedom she has won and conscious of what it has cost - but then life, as she says of literature in her email, "requires layers of complexity".

She leaves me with a copy of The Love Object, a collection of her short stories with an introduction by John Banville, her stiffest competition as Ireland's greatest living writer. And now she must head to Chichester. A car waits for her on Aldwych, London's hinge, where postcodes stop starting with W and start starting with E, where tourists, students, diplomats, barristers and chefs on a cigarette break compete for space on the paved bend. Into the scorched traffic she disappears, a city girl.


This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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