Na de flop van de spookverhalen van Montague Rhodes James ga ik me nu wagen aan “Girl with green eyes” van Edna O’Brien (foto Andrew Lih via Wikipedia). De aanleiding is nochtans precies dezelfde als bij M.R.James: gisteren heb ik een documentaire gezien op de BBC, waardoor ik in het werk van deze Ierse schrijfster ben geïnteresseerd geraakt. Hopelijk loopt deze kennismaking niet op dezelfde manier af…
Het begint trouwens al negatief: ik kan enkel een beroep doen op de Engelse Wikipedia, want een Nederlandstalige bijdrage over haar bestaat nog niet. Enkel De Bezige Bij (wellicht haar uitgeverij in onze regio) geeft een zeer beknopte biografie.
Edna O’Brien was born in 1930 at Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland, a place she would later describe as “fervid” and “enclosed”. According to O’Brien, her mother was a strong, controlling woman who had emigrated temporarily to America, and worked for some time as a maid in Brooklyn, New York, for a well-off Irish-American family before returning to Ireland to raise her family. O’Brien was the youngest child of a strict, religious family. From 1941 to 1946 she was educated by the infamous Sisters of Mercy – a circumstance that contributed to a “suffocating” childhood. “I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening and all pervasive. I’m glad it has gone.” She was fond of a certain nun as she deeply missed her mum and tried to identify the nun with her mother.
In 1950, O’Brien was awarded a licence as a pharmacist. In Ireland, she was discouraged to read, but still she secretly discovered such writers as Tolstoy, Thackeray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (*). In 1954, she married, against her parents’ wishes, the divorced Irish communist writer of Czech origin Ernest Gébler and the couple moved to London. They had two sons, Carlo (a writer) and Sasha Gebler, an architect, but the marriage was dissolved in 1964, when O’Brien’s literary career eclipsed Gébler’s.
Although O’Brien left the marital home, she eventually got sole custody of the children. Both O’Brien and Carlo Gébler later wrote about Ernest’s cruelty to the family. Gébler, born in 1914, died in 1998 of a bronchial infection, after several years with Alzheimer’s disease .
In London, O’Brien bought Introducing James Joyce, with an introduction written by T. S. Eliot, and said that when she learned that James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was autobiographical, it made her realise where she might turn, should she want to write herself. “Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories,” she said. In London she started work as a reader for Hutchinson, where on the basis of her reports she was commissioned, for £50, to write a novel. She published her first book, The Country Girls, in 1960.
This was the first part of a trilogy of novels (later collected as The Country Girls Trilogy), which included The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). Shortly after their publication, these books were banned and, in some cases burned, in her native country due to their frank portrayals of the sex lives of their characters. In the 1960s, she was part of the swinging sixties scene with friends such as Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Marlon Brando. As Bob Geldof put it in the documentary: “She shagged a lot of rock stars.” She was also a patient of R.D. Laing, who prescribed her LSD: “I thought he might be able to help me. He couldn’t do that – he was too mad himself – but he opened doors”, she later said.
Her novel, A Pagan Place (1970), was about her repressive childhood. Her parents were vehemently against all things related to literature; her mother strongly disapproved of her daughter’s career as a writer. Once when her mother found a Seán O’Casey book in her daughter’s possession, she tried to burn it.
O’Brien was a panel member for the first edition of the BBC’s Question Time in 1979. In 2017, she became the sole surviving member.
In 1980, she wrote a play, Virginia, about Virginia Woolf, and it was staged originally in June 1980 at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, Canada and subsequently in the West End of London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Maggie Smith and directed by Robin Phillips. It was staged at The Public Theater in New York in 1985. Other works include a biography of James Joyce, published in 1999, and one of the poet Lord Byron, Byron in Love (2009).
House of Splendid Isolation (1994), her novel about a terrorist who goes on the run (part of her research involved visiting Irish republican Dominic McGlinchey, later shot dead, whom she called “a grave and reflective man”), marked a new phase in her writing career. Down by the River (1996) concerned an under-age rape victim who sought an abortion in England, the “Miss X case”. In the Forest (2002) dealt with the real-life case of Brendan O’Donnell, who abducted and murdered a woman, her three-year-old son, and a priest, in rural Ireland.
Over het enige boek dat ikzelf in mijn bezit heb en dus ook datgene dat ik als eerste (en hopelijk niet laatste) zal lezen, Girl with green eyes, staat er dus niks op Wikipedia. Volgens de kaft (waarop een naakt, zwanger meisje) is het “the comic and poignant sequel to The Country Girls, in which Caithleen Brady finds romance in Dublin – classy romance with the second Mr Gentleman.” Het dateert van 1962 (**) en is nog opgedragen aan Ernest Gébler.
Haar laatste boek (Girl) wordt ook (nog) niet vermeld op Wikipedia, maar gelukkig kon ik daarmee kennismaken via de documentaire. Het gaat over de meisjes die in Nigeria werden ontvoerd door de Islamitische terreurgroep van Boko Haram. Ondanks haar hoge leeftijd is zij tweemaal afgereisd naar Nigeria met een grote som geld op haar lichaam verborgen. Dat geld was nodig om via omkoping aan getuigenissen te geraken.
Alhoewel ze nog in goede gezondheid verkeert, zowel fysiek als geestelijk, heeft ze toch aangekondigd dat dit boek haar laatste zal zijn.
(*) Haar alterego uit “The lonely girl” leest “Tender is the night”.
(**) De oorspronkelijke titel blijkt “The lonely girl” te zijn en dus wordt het boek wél vermeld op Wikipedia.