Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reading: A Fanatic Heart

I got a short story collection in the post the other day. Well, I'd actually ordered it before Christmas, posted it to a friend's address up North and got up there to collect it the other day.

It's A Fanatic Heart, by Irish writer Edna O Brien. I'd had my interest piqued about her through reading Father and I, a memoir by Carlo Gebler, who I'd heard a lot about last year, from colleagues who were taking the Prose strand of the Creative Writing MA at Queen's. He's a no-nonsense style of writer and critic, from what I heard.

Anyway, I read Father and I - it was a chance find for a fiver in the book boxes that you find at the back of the Central Bank in Temple Bar, Dublin. Once I'd started reading it I couldn't put it down. In it, Gebler traces his troubled relationship with his father, from when he had to deal with his old man's impending illness, moving him into a home and before that: back through time to Gebler's early childhood in London.

I found the account compelling: including moments like how he recalled his mother perched, tapping away on the typewriter at what would become The Country Girls, her first novel, and how his parents separated because his own father found his writing stymied and couldn't cope with his wife's success in writing. But Gebler writes in a way that evokes your sympathies, not because he plays on heart strings, but because he just lets the reader's heart strings resonate. Good writing, simply told.

So that led me to discovering some of his mother's work. A Fanatic Heart is a selected collection spanning across Edna O'Brien's writing career: early to late short stories that draw on her upbringing in Ireland and her travels in the UK and US. Both writers share an ability to turn really good, fresh phrases.

Here's Carlo Gebler at the close of Father and I: "You can't change the past but, with understanding, you can sometimes draw the poison out of it." Boy does that resonate.

And here's Edna O'Brien from 'The Connor Girls' in A Fanatic Heart: "... at that moment I realized that by choosing his world I had said goodbye to my own and to those in it. By such choices we gradually become exiles, until at last we are quite alone." Equally resonant.

You can't say that these two writers don't know how to turn a pithy quote. Now, I must keep on reading - I keep getting ideas though :)

*** Late addendum: Edna O'Brien was appointed adjunct professor of creative writing for UCD's MA in Creative Writing in 2006.


Totalfeckineejit said...

Hey B if you go to this address there's an interesting interview with Edna O'Brien from 1992


Hi B
I loved 'Father and I' - Gebler Snr came off badly but it was a fairly written, I thought. I love CG anyway because he judged the 1st short story comp I ever won. Fond memories.
Have you read O'Brien's 'A Pagan Place'? It's one of my favourite books and I have a spare copy that you can have. Give it to you on the 14th. Remind me!
N x

BarbaraS said...

TFE, thanks for that link, I will go check it out.

WRW - you little star! No, I've not read that one, so looking forward to getting hold of it. Glad you've read the Gebler as well, and isn't that great that he liked your writing so much!

Kay said...

Edna O'Brien is a stunning writer - her son sounds as if he has inherited some of the genes (whatever those genes are!) that make good writers. I think O'Brien may have been the first modern, Irish writer I read - back in the dim dark ages when I was young. ;)

BarbaraS said...

And there you have it, from the other side of the world, what an important writer Edna O'Brien was and still is - thanks Kay!

Liz said...

Barbara, Edna O'Brien is good, haven't read her in ages ...I missed her at Flatlake as had to rush back to Donegal for a've whetted my appetite to look her up again.

BarbaraS said...

Flatlake - must look that festival up and see what's happening there this year, Liz... for short stories E O'B has such a distinctive style.