COUNTRY GIRL: A MEMOIR
By Edna O’Brien
Little Brown, $27.99, 358 pages, illustrated
That well-worn phrase “the stuff of fiction” kept jumping into my mind as I thought about this memoir by the Irish writer who found such fame and fortune after moving to London 55 years ago. If the true purpose of a writer’s autobiography is to disclose the person behind the fiction and the life experiences that produced it, then “Country Girl” is a resounding success. Even its title is an echo of Edna O’Brien’s first novel, “The Country Girls,” and it is clear that she was formed by her straitened upbringing in the heart of rural Ireland. As she takes the reader from there to Dublin, where she was an apprentice pharmacist, and on to London in an increasingly unhappy and confining marriage, it soon becomes apparent that this is a book in which the author reveals unwittingly, rather than by design or control, more than she intended.
Although not a great writer, Ms. O’Brien is sufficiently accomplished and artful that the transformative process of turning quotidian dross into fictive gold inevitably elevates it above raw material, no matter how passionately recalled. However, seeing the stuff of her fiction laid out in these pages highlights a certain hollowness at the core of her mimetic work, which has always left me unsatisfied by what seemed much more promising in conception than execution. Her central theme, the repression of narrow-minded and rigid thinking in a theocratic society, is not exactly original, especially in her native Ireland, where generations of writers, from Yeats to Joyce, have railed against the same things and blazed the trail to exile.
Indeed, Ms. O’Brien unsurprisingly credits her first encounter with Joyce for setting her on her path as a writer. Certainly her own experience with family and schooling to some extent parallels his. But it’s dangerous for a writer, perhaps particularly for a compatriot, to invoke that giant because of the glaring gap between his majestic and supremely artistic, effusive protestations and their own efforts, which inevitably seem paltry by comparison. Of course, Ms. O’Brien can — and does — provide a woman’s perspective, but even here, has any writer of either gender ever explored the female psyche more evocatively than James Joyce? After “a chaste night” with Marlon Brando, relatively early in her career, he naively but at the same time perspicaciously asks her, “‘Are you a great writer?’ The question, so sudden and daunting, caught me off guard. I did not want to boast, yet I did not want to belittle myself, so that I heard myself say, ‘I intend to be.’”
Like DNA in every cell, these brief sentences encapsulate so much about “Country Girl.” To start with — Marlon Brando. The name-dropping in this book is breathtaking, if not quite record-setting. Her young son wakes up to find Paul McCartney strumming in his bedroom, only one of a veritable stream of celebrities from Princess Margaret to Robert Mitchum to follow her home from parties like lemmings. Even as an old woman in a reverie after a swim, the “young Adonis” who kisses her — or is it only a dream? — is Jude Law napping by the pool. But her glamour preceded her celebrity and seems integral to her success, despite her protestations to the contrary. Certainly, her ex-husband, Ernest Gebler, a successful writer whom she rapidly overtook before shaking him off, thought so. His verdict, in words too pungent to reproduce here, clearly rankles, as she repeats it all these years later. But in her account of her marriage, as in all these encounters with the famous and even with those apparently too insignificant to be named — no point apparently to a name not instantly recognizable — what stands out is Ms. O’Brien’s total inability to see anyone else’s point of view.
This stunning egotism is key to the solipsism marring Ms. O’Brien’s fiction. In the memoir, too, she seems so self-conscious, so aware of the attitudes struck, that even her account of a putative suicide attempt is robbed of effect. Her whining does not sit well from one who has, in so many respects, won life’s lottery. Why for all this, the center did not hold, she signally fails to convey so as to enlist the reader’s sympathy or admiration. It is unlikely that many readers will finish “Country Girl” with an enhanced view of either its author or her oeuvre.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.