How Edna O’Brien found refuge among American Jewish writers

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Edna O’Brien, whose new novel Girl will appear next month by Faber, does not hide her love for Irish literature. Yet his collected papers, held between UCD and Emory University in Atlanta, also shed light on his lifelong engagement with American culture and literature.

The dazzling preeminence of James Joyce – “in the constellation of geniuses, he is the blinding light” – no longer obscures the place of American writers in O’Brien’s personal pantheon. As she writes in one of her archived speeches, “A lot of people crowd a poor head.”

O’Brien has always been fascinated by the United States. She inherited this concern from her mother, who worked as a Brooklyn maid in the early 1920s and “dreamed of her time in America and the style she had.” Returning Yankee parents brought precious trinkets and provided teenage O’Brien with “signals from an outside, cosmopolitan world, a world I wanted to step into.”

Nor has she been backed by more established Irish male writers and critics, who have viewed her as a scribbler of tasteless romance.

In poor, conservative Ireland of the 1930s and 1940s, America was a shortcut to freedom, as seen in his transatlantic novel Evening Light (2006): Go “.

In 1958, O’Brien emigrated not to America but to London, where she wrote The Country Girls (1960), her story of two Irish girls – the idealist Caithleen and the blasphemous Baba – as they negotiate conformity. and the misogyny of mid-century Ireland. . Her honesty saw her attacked by the Church and banned by the State: “I had offended several modes. I have offended the Catholic Church. I betrayed Irish femininity… I betrayed my own community by writing about their world.

She also didn’t have the backing of more established Irish male writers and critics, who saw her as a scribbler of tasteless romance. (Now little known) novelist John Broderick nicknamed her “Molly Bloom” before berating “idiots … critics and critics from England and America” ​​for taking her seriously.

All the while, his books were circulating secretly in Ireland, entering ports and crossing the border in the suitcases of returning emigrants, only to be hidden in cupboards and sneaked around to friends, much like the samizdat literature of the Soviet Union.

Repudiated in Ireland, O’Brien was celebrated by her American contemporaries, and in particular by the rising cadre of American Jewish writers.

In America, however, O’Brien received a more open reception, with a book contract from Knopf and the appearance in the New Yorker of his short story “Irish Revel”, a rewrite of “The Dead” by James Joyce. Like so many repressed Irish writers at home, O’Brien found his first receptive audience across the Atlantic.

Repudiated in Ireland, O’Brien was celebrated by her American contemporaries, and in particular by the growing group of American Jewish writers, who praised The Country Girls and her successors The Lonely Girl and Girls in their Married Bliss. Joseph Heller, author of the WWII satire Catch 22 (1961), wrote to O’Brien to praise The Lonely Girl as “a magnificent, sincere and refreshing novel, I appreciated its candor and its humorous vitality of the start to finish ”.

Bernard Malamud, whose astonishing collection of short stories The Magic Barrel (1958) gave mythical significance to the experience of Jewish immigrants, hailed his fiction as “fresh, strong, full of human things.” And O’Brien returned the favor, applauding his 1957 novel The Assistant as “wonderfully compassionate” and rating his 1961 novel A New Life for the Evening Standard favorably.

Saul Bellow was another fan. He met O’Brien at a party in New York in 1965, writing to him later to express a writer’s affinity. Photography: Dominique Nabokov / Liaison agency

Saul Bellow was another fan. He met O’Brien at a party in New York in 1965, writing to him later to express a writer’s affinity: to do with the parties…. I liked you very much. I think you are a lovely woman. ”Her novel Joycean Herzog (1964) tells the story of an insane American Jewish scholar who tries to find her place in the world by writing unsent letters to parents, politicians and of deceased philosophers.

The book left a deep mark on O’Brien, as she wrote to Bellow: “I get such a sustenance from Herzog that I can’t understand how I got there (from a life standpoint) before reading it…. Every time I buy myself a copy, I find that I give it away because I want other people to read it and therefore buy another. Its effects can be felt in the epistolary nature of her 1966 novel Victims of Peace: “Letters saved her.” They were both her consolation and her food, through the letters she pleaded her case and although never posted, they absorbed the juice of the pain ”.

Around the same time, O’Brien met Norman Mailer, author of The Naked and the Dead (1948) and one of the proponents of the new journalism. In their correspondence, Mailer advised O’Brien on Joan of Arc, a figure the two novelists wanted to write about (unfortunately in O’Brien’s case, and perhaps fortunately in Mailer’s case, nothing is out of these projects). He later showed her around her native Brooklyn while she researched the setting for The Light of Evening.

In 1968, O’Brien befriended JD Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye (1951) so heavily influenced The Country Girls Trilogy, particularly in Baba’s keen eye for social hypocrisy and ‘fake “. He was particularly struck by his collection of short stories, The Object of Love (1968). Recently, O’Brien recalled giving Salinger, who had Irish and Jewish heritage, a piece of Irish lace as a souvenir before “he started to retire completely.”

Portrait of American author Norman Mailer, 1975. Photograph: Arthur Schatz / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Portrait of American author Norman Mailer, 1975. Photograph: Arthur Schatz / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

In the 1969, O’Brien was introduced to Philip Roth, who rose to fame thanks to his outrageous denominational novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) -like The Country Girls, banned in Ireland. They befriended London in the 1970s through their mutual love for authors such as Joyce and William Faulkner.

Annoyed by the critics who despised his friend as a writer closely concerned with sex and the self-accusations he also faced, Roth wrote a preface to the 1984 O’Brien short story anthology A Fanatic Heart. to counter them: [of the stories here] are love stories, among them weirdly intimate stories related to sexual love, and these are what people mainly associate with Edna O’Brien. But its range is wider than that and there is an acute social conscience, sometimes burning ”.

In the early 1970s, Yiddish short story writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (who, like Bellow, would win the Nobel Prize for Literature), wrote to O’Brien from America as “one of the many admirers you have in this country” . He was moved by his 1969 novel A Pagan Place: “I think we both have in common that we are rooted in the soil and culture of our people. Most modern writers are uprooted and consider it “cosmopolitan”.

O’Brien also met the Russian Jewish poet Joseph Brodsky, then in exile in America: “Brodsky was a brilliant and bristly man…. He has a weakness for the ballad ‘The Night Before Larry was Stretched’ that Brendan Behan sang to him. Like O’Brien, Behan was drawn to Jewish New York writers, once joking: “Others have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis ”.

Throughout his career, O’Brien’s was inspired and in turn inspired writers from the fringes

Beginning in the mid-1970s, a younger and more diverse generation of American Jewish writers began to look to O’Brien, Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying (1974), seeing her as a role model to upset ” man literary establishment. ”One of the chapters of Fear of Flying carries an epigraph from Girls in their Married Bliss:“ The vote… means nothing to women. We must be armed. ”O’Brien also encouraged many aspiring writers through his education at City College of New York, New York University and Bard College.

For example, Jewish-African-American novelist Walter Mosley gives O’Brien credit for guiding him to the literary “riches” of his hybrid identity. More recently, Lev Raphael, one of the first writers to openly address the intersection between Jewish and gay identity in Dancing on Tisha B’av (1990), wrote O’Brien’s book with admiration. , Wild Decembers (1999), while second-generation Holocaust survivor and novelist, Melvin Jules Bukiet, praised Down by the River (1996) as an “angry and grief-stricken book “.

Throughout her career, O’Brien’s has been inspired and in turn inspired by writers from the fringes. In one of her notebooks kept at UCD, she wrote a quote from Bellow: “What seems to be missing is a firm sense of a common cause, a cohesive community, a real purpose in life.” . Although now rightly celebrated in Ireland, for many decades it was in America, among American Jewish writers, that O’Brien found a community of writers who embraced another stranger.

Dan O’Brien’s book Fine Meshwork: Edna O’Brien, Philip Roth, and Jewish-Irish Literature can be ordered now on Amazon and through the Syracuse University Press website.


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