No noise in her head

I’ve been reading Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl. We lived parallel lives in London in the 60’s, with countless connections, though we interacted directly only in two phone calls about an issue of The Observer Magazine I was writing. Country Girl is crafted with exemplary care, rich with meticulous detail about Catholic Ireland and the wild natural world of O’Brien’s childhood. I was floored by the late chapter “The North,” less memoir than first-rate journalism, about the troubles in that part of Ireland where I was born and grew up. O’Brien describes her childhood as dark, but it was drenched in a knowledge of Ireland’s history and culture denied to me in my Protestant schooling and family. O’Brien has devoted her life to literature and been justly feted. I couldn’t have written her book. But I wouldn’t want to.
In The Memoir and the Memoirist, Thomas Larson distinguishes between autobiography (“The author’s purpose is to set the historical record straight, an idea based on the assumption that there is a single record and that the person who lived it can best document it”) and memoir: “The memoirist, then, is one who while and after she writes realizes the existential limitation of memoir. … What the memoirist does is connect the past self to—and within—the present writer as a means of getting at the truth of his identity.” I’d add making an ultimately futile attempt to get at that truth.
Country Girl is billed as memoir, but it’s autobiography. Maybe part of the trouble is that O’Brien wrote it for the wrong reasons: “I was reluctant to write a memoir, but my agent, Ed Victor, was greatly enthusiastic and eventually managed to persuade me that I should do it. I mistakenly believed that it was going to be an easy journey.” So there was no pressured need to attempt to understand the mess of events and identity.
O’Brien is indeed a great prose stylist, but here the novelistic method seems off. Time and again she describes a particular moment in exquisite but questionable detail. Did birds really fly and dip with a jauntiness on that particular Christmas season morning so long ago? Did she make a note of it? On a childhood day were birds for miles around really making their evening excursions, swooping down into the rain barrel where midges had swarmed? Is she 100% sure of that?
O’Brien has been praised as “an exemplary female survivor.” Country Girl is full of suffering, but no attempt to place that suffering in a social or political context, discuss how that context has changed, or suggest that O’Brien’s view of herself or others has changed over time. (My take is that we change the narrative of our lives every second we live.) O’Brien’s husband is depicted as a villain, and the court hearing for custody of her two sons a nightmare stacked against her. But she did get custody. Which was always likely, because in those days courts still assumed kids would be better off with their mothers. Later, when O’Brien sends her sons to boarding school, she describes her decision as reluctant and the parting as “well nigh unbearable.” But she doesn’t take us through her reasoning in making that decision, though we learn about “the leaves on the trees turning russet” that day 50 years ago. The book ends on a note of unconvincing epiphany, the way main characters in novels tend to walk away down an autumnal avenue or the Elmer Bernstein music swells at the end of a Douglas Sirk melodrama to nudge us into feeling.
Though maybe not for the intended reasons, O’Brien’s book was salutary reading for me. I was shamed to be reminded of the disrespect with which I treated literature for so many years, and glad to know that plenty of people behaved worse than me in 60’s London. But O’Brian’s life comes across as unexamined, which can’t possibly be true. She tends to focus on what they did to her. I tend to focus on what I did, to myself and others. Maybe when I’m listening to the interesting chaos in my head, I could go a little easier on myself.

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