3.12.2009

St. Patrick's Day Podcast: Edna O'Brien on Pre-Hedonist Ireland

As we approach the day of green beer and "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons, it's refreshing to listen to the words Edna O'Brien wrote about an iced bun in a convent dormitory in her 1960 novel, The Country Girls. The author herself reads the excerpt in this January 2008 episode of the BBC's World Book Club podcast. The iced bun interlude begins at Minute 3:50.

Recountress Extraordinaire
Once again WBC host Harriett Gilbert orchestrates a rich audio portrait of an author in less than half an hour. She gives a succinct intro and asks questions that prompt O'Brien to reminisce about 1950s, pre-hedonist Ireland with wry exactitude. O'Brien also answers called-in questions, from World Book Club listeners in locales as un-Irish as Russia and Guam, with quick honesty and wit. She's so fluent it's easy to see how she could write a voice-filled novel like The Country Girls in under three weeks, though she says subsequent books took longer to compose.

Lingerie and Liberty
Compatriot Ann Enright, who won The Booker Prize in 2007 for The Gathering, phones in a little excitedly to ask if the theme of dressing up in "fantastic clothing" in The Country Girls was a deliberate counterpoint to a repressive Catholic tradition, a question which doesn't quite strike home with O'Brien, who nonetheless dishes up a rhapsody on the slips "in wonderful colors" she'd seen in shop windows in the 1950s, before citing Kate and Baba's larger quest for freedom (Minute 13).

Joyce for Sixpence on Bachelor's Walk
When asked about the influence of women writers on her formation, O'Brien mentions the Bront√ęs and Jane Austen, but she talks more vividly of the outdoor stall on Dublin's Bachelor's Walk, where for sixpence she purchased her first influence: T.S. Eliot's selections of James Joyce's prose (Minute 15:30). Interestingly, Joyce's 1922 Ulysses, with its onanistic niceties and adulterous Molly, was banned in the US and the UK but not in Ireland, whereas the The Country Girls' romantic and sexual yearnings (PG-13 by current standards) were considered "a smear on Irish womanhood" by many in the land of saints and scholars, including the author's mother, who considered it a "mantle of shame." The first book in the trilogy was formally banned based on the opinion of "four opaque men" on the government censor board (Minute 11 :30), as were the books she wrote after, which became more explicit and dealt with darker themes.

O'Brien moved to London in 1959. The besmirching and banning and burning (literally) of her books in Ireland convinced her to stay abroad. Though she continued to write about her native land, and though her works were unbanned in the late 70s, O'Brien remains expatriate.

Funny and Full of Life
If you're an Edna O'Brien fan, I recommend downloading the WBC episode to your computer so you can enjoy her humor and liveliness at any time of the year. Or load it onto your iPod for the next time you find yourself on a train, as Kate and Baba do in the excerpt O'Brien reads at Minute 18. The interview is bound to inspire you to go back to The Country Girls to read her sharp and funny scenes, and to check out her more mature works, such as her collection of short stories, Lantern Slides.

unKindled
Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Country Girls nowadays is that it's not currently available for the Kindle--how can this be?

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