Playgirl of the Western World

Sarah Hughes reported for The Guardian of 13 Dec 2020:

“Most people approaching their 90th birthday would be forgiven for deciding that, whatever their work, enough was enough and it was time to relax.

Most people, however, are not Edna O’Brien. Ireland’s greatest living writer has over the past week delivered this year’s TS Eliot lecture on Eliot and James Joyce for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – Covid-19 meant that it was recorded at the Irish Embassy in London and will be broadcast on her birthday – and won the South Bank Sky Arts award for literature for her recent novel, Girl, a harrowing, heartbreaking tale about the girls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram. On Tuesday she celebrates her birthday.

It will, she says, be a relatively quiet affair. “I’m going to see my agent and my son Sasha, and there will be one other person – I hope that’s allowed. My other son, Carlo, lives in Enniskillen [in Northern Ireland] so he can’t come.”

There is something magical about being in O’Brien’s company. It’s not simply that at almost 90 she remains a bewitching presence, tiny, beautifully dressed in black jacket and skirt with an intricate silver necklace, her red hair perfectly styled. Her house itself, a narrow terrace in London’s Chelsea which she rents, has an aura about it from the cosy downstairs kitchen to the book-stacked shelves of her office – “The books are taking over,” she laughs at one point. “They’re everywhere…”

…”When Vanity Fair called me the ‘Playgirl of the Western World’ it wasn’t badly intended but if it had been true then I wouldn’t have raised two children and written 28 books and plays and other things.”

These days she has been embraced by a more modern, less shame-filled Ireland, with many acknowledging that the country is catching up to her way of thinking. “President Michael D Higgins, a marvellous sincere person, spoke of the intentional malice that had been meted out to me and why. My books are not hateful of Ireland [but] I was told by [Irish author] Rosita Sweetman that what offends people is my honesty. I have always tried to be truthful in everything I write. What I was hurt about was when attacks were about me rather than about what people were reading.”…

…What about regrets? “I do regret that I had to begin to cut myself off from people more, even pre-Covid, as there was only so much energy in the pot. And sometimes I have been too hasty in my judgment of people. I also wish I’d been more sensible about money – I think that’s in my genes, my father’s family were very reckless.”

There’s a pause. “I did not have that brilliant a life in many ways. It was quite difficult and that’s not said in self-pity but one thing that is true is that language and the mystery of language and the miracle of language has, as that lovely song Carrickfergus says, carried me over… the richness of great language.”

There is still the hope too of one final book: “I do have one in mind but I’m not sure I have the energy or the existence to carry me through,” she says with a hint of regret. “I don’t know if I’ll manage it but I do know that I have always written with truth and feeling. I have not abandoned those qualities ever, and I never will.” “

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