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1990 BOOK PRIZE WINNER: FICTION : On Edna O'Brien's 'Lantern Slides'

November 04, 1990|THOMAS CAHILL | Cahill is co-author of "A Literary Guide to Ireland" and Director of Religious Publishing at Doubleday. and

A writer's life is filled with lies, most of them not of her own making.

"Poor Mrs. O'Brien," says the countrywomen of rural Clare in speaking of Edna O'Brien's late mother. "Sure, she tried to hold her head up, but . . . (shrug) well, y'know, with a daughter like That Wan. Ah, the poor t'ing, didn't she travel all the way to London to visit That Wan and when she got there didn't she find there wasn't a stick of proper furniture to be found in the entire flat--just pillows on the floor?" Of course, the content of That Wan's novels and stories lie beyond all possibility of comment. They are, literally, unspeakable. Far easier to pronounce authoritative condemnations on her decor.

In Dublin, whither Edna fled her rural life, they recall her mad, shop-girl involvement with a prominent Anglo-Irish statesman, who, they aver, "taught her to be above herself, to have notions." They recall her marriage to a mild, reticent man ("You wouldn't know he was in the room"), who taught her to write ("She hadn't a clue"). Note the nice balance in this analysis: He was of no account, yet he was wholly responsible for her later fame and fortune. From these years came "The Country Girls Trilogy," first novels that tore across the literary sky like comets whose tails we have yet to see the last of.

In London, whither she fled her provincial Dublin life, they speak of her with admiration and a kind of tender pity as for one "beautiful and . . . (shrug) well, doomed, rather"--a hopeless Celt who finds tragedy everywhere, especially in all those places where the English find reason only to titter and be smug. A romantic among the impervious Nigels and Beryls. And yet, the spell O'Brien casts does have its uses. "I always take along an Edna O'Brien to read on trains," confided one Beryl, "because then I'll always be picked up by the right sort." Quite.

On her occasional sallies into New York, O'Brien leaves a sea of dazed admirers in her wake, all dazzled and bewitched by her unearthly beauty, her diabolical talent. Her reputation, both here and in London, almost threatens to overwhelm her work--to elevate her to that High Empyrean where, with a few other living figures like Graham Greene, she may exist beyond criticism or reproach.

But all these lies and half-truths cannot really disguise the permanent, universal value of her work. The fictional Irish village she returns to again and again is her village and your village. In "Oft in the Stilly Night," the opening story of "Lantern Slides," she tells us of a woman sacristan who goes mad: "Now I ask you, what would you do? Would you comfort (her), would you tell her that her sins were of her own imagining? . . . Would you loiter with the drunkards and laugh with the women gorging the white bread; would you perhaps visit the grave to say an Aye where Angela . . . and the errant husband lie close together, morsels for the maggots, or would you drive on helter-skelter, the radio at full-blast? Perhaps your own village is much the same, perhaps everywhere is, perhaps pity is a luxury and deliverance a thing of the past."

In "A Little Holiday" in the same collection she gives us a 9-year-old Everychild whose first holiday adventure proves an immense disappointment. She had thought to escape the crabbedness of her own household by visiting a seaside aunt and uncle, whose domestic establishment proves to be even more bleak than her parents'. Hysterical and forlorn, she is returned home in disgrace. "Part of me wanted to volunteer to go back with them, while another part admitted that that would be absurd. Either way, I knew that I had lost some part of my parents' love and God only knows how long it would take to win it back--days, weeks maybe, of slaving and washing up and shining at school. But even then it could come up at any time, this failure of mine, an added incentive for an outburst, another blind grope in which my mother and father were trying to tell each other how unhappy they were."

She is a storyteller, an Irish storyteller, one of an ancient tradition of storytellers, people who tell the truth. In old Ireland, the words of a truthful poet were both sought and feared: They could kill. Her best work has the sound of something prehistoric--palpable, thrilling, incantatory--about it. It should be read aloud, like poetry. It is, indeed, not prose, at least not in any modern manner.

Her plots are devastating, not a happy one among them, though they are intensely full of sensuous joys. Her scenes are both archetypal and resolutely naturalistic--the claustrophobic, incestuous farmhouses of Ireland, the soiled beds of England, the desperate pleasures of a Mediterranean holiday.

She writes with the sureness and conviction of a priestess or prophet, one of a long procession of prophetic Irishwomen--from Briget and Ita in late antiquity, through Dark Eileen O'Connell (whose Sophoclean "Lament for Art O'Leary" is one of the world's great poems), to Lady Gregory and Mary Lavin and Maeve Brennan--surely the boldest tradition of women writers in all literature.

Edna O'Brien writes about love and death, the only two things that can ever matter to a great writer. She tells the truth.

And no one should expect to be thanked for telling the truth.

Nominees In Fiction

LANTERN SLIDES by Edna O'Brien (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

BAOTOWN by Wang Anyi, translated by Martha Avery (W.W. Norton)

REACHING TIN RIVER by Thea Astley (G. P. Putnam's Sons)

FRIEND OF MY YOUTH by Alice Munro (Alfred A. Knopf)

ORDINARY LOVE & GOOD WILL by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf)

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