Novelist Edna O’Brien Explores the True Nature of Evil

Celebrated for her books about love, the writer might finally win a Nobel Prize for something darker

Edna O’Brien pictured in late 2013 (Alberto Cristofari / A3 / Contrasto / Redux)
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Love and Evil. Two great mysteries that have obsessed the greatest writers and thinkers for as long as people have thought and written. For a long time Edna O’Brien, the celebrated Irish-born, London-dwelling writer, has been known as one of the literary world’s great chroniclers of love. Of love and longing and the desperate lives of souls in the pitiless grip of passion and doomed elation. A beautiful writer who has always been able to find beauty in life, even in despair. Some have likened her to Chekhov; others have compared her to James Joyce in his early Portrait of the Artist phase.

But in her latest novel, The Little Red Chairs, O’Brien shifts from love to evil. A wild and ambitious leap that takes us behind the headlines and home screens of the most tragic world news—war crimes, refugees, genocide—and which may garner her the Nobel Prize that she’s often been mentioned for and long deserved.

It just so happens that her new novel was published in America just a few days after the bang of a gavel in the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. The evil character she’d written about in thin disguise, Radovan Karadzic—a.k.a. the Beast of Bosnia—had been found guilty of war crimes and genocide for ordering the mass murder of more than 7,000 mostly Muslim men and boys in 1995, an act that brought the terrifying term “ethnic cleansing” into common use. He was found guilty, too, of ordering the deadly shelling of women, children and civilian noncombatants in the years-long siege of Sarajevo, a thriving city Karadzic turned into a graveyard. Guilty as well of participating in a horde that committed horrific up-close and personal acts of torture, rape and mutilation.

Four thousand miles away, I met Edna O’Brien for lunch in a bistro near Central Park, on a side street blooming with early spring blossoms.

**********

She is 85, a bit frail, but one of those women whose perfect manners, executed with subtle grace, give her an unexpected power. Despite surface delicacy, Edna O’Brien radiates a fierce and feminine energy, the kind of inextinguishably vibrant beauty that had suitors such as Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum and Richard Burton following her wild red tresses through London in the swinging ’60s and ’70s.

“What did you think of the verdict?” I asked her when we were seated.

“I was overjoyed. So were my Bosnian friends. They kept sending me messages. ‘In two more minutes! In one more minute!’”

“Were you surprised?”

“When I went to The Hague the last time, two years ago, Karadzic seemed very happy, very sure he’d be acquitted. The day of the sentence, it was different. I watched it on English television. And as the sentence was read out very slowly by the [South] Korean judge, I thought, ‘All I wish to do is to get inside that brain for two seconds to see what he’s thinking.’”

“That really is what your novel is about, isn’t it, trying to get inside the monster’s brain?”

“Trying to get inside the brain and understanding why he would never, ever admit to [his crimes]. And never, ever show [remorse]. Well, they do go insane eventually—but not soon enough.”

It is a paradox of evil that stretches back at least as far as Socrates, who opined in one of his dialogues that no one commits evil knowing they are doing wrong—evildoers think they are doing the right thing. O’Brien can’t abide that, or the psychological exculpation it offers.

She earned her steely attitude toward Karadzic the hard way: In researching the novel, she spent years hearing the stories of his victims and survivors. The name of the book, The Little Red Chairs, is taken from a commemoration of the start of the siege of Sarajevo. Eleven thousand five hundred and forty one red chairs were set out on the main street in the city—each one empty—one for every Sarajevan killed during the siege. “Six hundred and forty three small chairs,” her epigraph notes, “represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.” There is a flood of emotion welling beneath every page of the book. “A lot of tears in that waterfall” is how she puts it.

What gets to her, in her novel and in life, is Karadzic’s refusal to admit he knew what he was doing was evil. “That interested me greatly,” she said coolly. “Is the person born like that? Or does the person become like that? And I don’t think, and I said so in one chapter, that he’s mad.”

“I remember a passage where Fidelma [the unfortunate female protagonist] goes back and forth between blaming him as Lucifer or explaining his evil as the result of insanity.”

“Is it fooling people?” she asked. “To say that they don’t quite know what they are doing? I think he calculated that. It could have been about Hitler or Joseph Stalin or [West African dictator] Charles Taylor. They’re all similar. They do not have the [remorse] gene. They only have, ‘I am a hero, I am a martyr, I am fighting for my people.’ That’s their truth.”

“Was there a moment when you decided you needed to write about this?”

“The impetus to write was twofold. I saw Karadzic taken off the bus in Europe [when he was captured in 2008] on CNN. And there was this formerly strutting man, you know, the soldier of great size. But he’d been on the run for 12 years and there he was transformed to looking like Moses or a Russian holy man. Long black garb, a pendant, crystals.”

It turned out that for his 12 years on the run after his indictment, Karadzic had been disguising himself as, incredibly, a New Age healer who spoke of “human quantum energy” and other mumbo jumbo. He’d attended New Age conferences, even launched a New Age website.

“His metamorphosis was genius,” she said, marveling. “He was 12 years on the run. But he knew time was running out. Because [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic, they all wanted to be part of the European Union [which had made the capture of war criminals a condition]. So up to then they didn’t search very hard for him. He was right in [the Serbian capital] Belgrade, every night in his favorite bars, singing to this gusla [a Balkan stringed instrument] that they played with. There were photographs of him in his warrior mode on the wall behind him.

“The other inspiration,” she remembered, “was when I was being filmed in Ireland and reading for the camera, and the director said to me, ‘Tolstoy says there are only two great stories in the world.’ I said, ‘What are they?’ He said, ‘A man goes on a journey, like Hamlet—a man on a personal, philosophical quest.’ And ‘A stranger comes to town,’ like, for instance, The Playboy of the Western World [the classic Irish play by J.M. Synge].

“And as he told me that I thought, I will bring that stranger [the Karadzic figure on the run, in disguise] to a small Irish hamlet where there is still a wonder about the stranger. A stranger represents hope rather than danger. A stranger represents, to some, a romance. So once I had that little nugget of inspiration, I knew all it needed was hard work. And a love of research.”

The research sent her not only to The Hague but back to her origins in the wild, wind-swept counties of western Ireland, where she had grown up amid a sense of wonder. And which had cast her out as a stranger.

Her first novel, The Country Girls, about two young girls in the hard-bitten, “priest-ridden” (in Joyce’s phrase) territory of County Limerick in southwestern Ireland, led to her books being banned, even burned for their what now seems to be rather mild sexual frankness. Clergy denounced her from the pulpit, the populace treated her like a wicked, sinful pariah. By then, O’Brien had already moved with her family to London, though she long felt hurt by the obloquy in her native land.

She became a literary star in London, and her career now spans some two dozen novels and short story collections, five plays and two collections of poetry, as well as four nonfiction books. One, a biography of the rogue poet Lord Byron, could be described as a thrilling hymn to the peaks and perils of the Romantic life. Another was a biography of James Joyce, who left Ireland forever in his early 20s and wrote about it the rest of his life. Like her country’s most famous writer, O’Brien also has been shadowed by the loss of her home. No wonder the identification with refugees, exiles and migrants in the new novel.

Here’s how she describes, in the opening pages of the book, the man who arrives on a wintry evening in a small, backward Irish village: He was “bearded and in a long dark coat” and “long afterwards,” she continues, “there would be those who reported strange occurrences on that same winter evening; dogs barking crazily as if there was thunder, and the sound of the nightingale whose song and warblings were never heard so far west. The child of a gipsy family, who lived in a caravan by the sea, swore she saw the Pooka Man coming through the window at her, pointing a hatchet.”

The Pooka Man is a creature of Irish folklore who can be a precursor of terrible tidings. Or sometimes a reversal in fortune for the better—but not often when he has a hatchet in his hand.

I asked O’Brien if she believed in the supernatural—in the seers and mystics, tarot readers and gurus and healers who appear throughout her fiction, and in her fabulous memoir, Country Girl, published in 2012.

“When I was a child, growing up,” she replied, “every place around our house—windows and gates and roads and rivers—everything seemed to me to be more than reality. To have something other in them, which for want of another word, we can call supernatural. I don’t think it’s true in Ireland in general, but in our house and in the houses around, people told ghost stories and stories about people who had seen ghosts. And we loved telling them. It was like reading Edgar Allan Poe. There was thrill and terror combined. And then there was a local witch, Biddy Early.”

“What did she do?”

“She did cures. Out of a blue bottle. She said [the poet W.B.] Yeats had visited her. She was dead when I came to know of her, but she was a legend. She was about three miles from where I lived, and Biddy Early could put curses on people, especially the clergy, because the clergy hated her.”

I laughed. “They would have.”

“But she existed in my mind as someone whose magic permeated the place. I would have loved to have met Biddy Early. To this day, they talk about her. She left the blue bottle somewhere. So older people talk, if they can find Biddy Early’s bottle, they could become healers as well. Irish mythology and early Irish stories always have—as if it was totally natural and inevitable—elements of the supernatural, transformations and miracles. That was in my DNA. And I’m also very interested in the method of the fairy tale. I love the Grimm Brothers, I love Hans Christian Andersen. It’s amazing the danger that shimmers over their stories.”

She’s had experience too, she told me, with more sophisticated modern seers and healers. R.D. Laing, for instance, the once famous Scottish psychoanalytic heretic who endorsed madness as true sanity in the mad, mad, mad world of the ’60s and ’70s. Laing believed madness was truth-speaking about a mad world. His influence on her emerged when I asked about an enigmatic line I recalled her saying about how her writing “was never the same” after one of her mid-career novels called Night.

What was the change, I asked, what kind of dividing line was that?

“Yes,” she said. “I took LSD with R.D. Laing, whom I was seeing as a patient. I was also, as is not uncommon, a little smitten with him. He was quite a beguiling man. He was also nuts.”

I had to laugh, she said it with such charming nonchalance. But I sensed that the sinister “healer” in The Little Red Chairs owes something to Laing and his alchemical mixture of mysticism old and new.

“There was so much talk about LSD at that time,” she recalled. “Timothy Leary and the San Francisco people. So I asked him to give me LSD. When I asked him, it was more to be, if you like, privy with him, or in with him than about my writing. To his great credit, he gave me [testimonies] of four people who had had very bad LSD trips. He watched over me. I didn’t think, even though I know I’m a very highly strung person, I didn’t want to leave him. I loved him, but I thought—‘This is what will happen to me?’ And he came to my house, and he was in a suit and tie, which he never wore. And in one of the many books I’d read about LSD, I had read that when you’re taking it, to get someone to hold your hand. So he gave it to me, quite a lot, in a glass. And I began to feel a bit wobbly. I said to him, I have been told that if you hold my hand, I will be all right. And at that moment, he turned into a rat in a suit!”

“Uh! I hate when that happens.”

“And my trip was very long and irretrievable,” she added.

“Irretrievable?”

“I couldn’t come back.”

Once again, a loss of home, if not a loss of mind. In fact, in her memoir, she describes some fairly terrifying flashbacks.

Night is the first book I wrote after that. There is this raveled deluge of feeling, image, of impression, of bawdiness, of anger that all came cascading in.”

She once told the Paris Review her first influence was the unadorned, heartfelt simplicity of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. But lately, her prose gushes forth turbulently in a deluge of words like one of the wild rivers of Ireland’s western coast. It’s unashamedly rich and thrilling to read.

Some readers, though, weren’t thrilled. “I was very attacked when I wrote it, because people wanted me to stay The Country Girls’ scandalous woman or they wanted me to continue in the style I had been. I’ve had a very hard time as a writer,” she continues. “Don’t want to sound like Joan of Arc, but I have been attacked more than anyone. So this more charged, slightly berserk vision....And here it is again in this new book.”

There’s certainly nothing safe or sedate about the writing in The Little Red Chairs. It takes you to places of pain, personal and historical, that can feel like bad flashbacks.

“But my luck turned,” she continued. “I’m luckier now.”

“How did your luck turn?”

“Well, maybe because I kept going. I persevered. And maybe I got even more—more precise and in another sense, more wild. The Little Red Chairs has had wonderful reviews in England.”

Edna O’Brien in 1996
“I don’t know if I’ll ever write another,” says O’Brien (below in 1996). “I would like to. But I’m very tired. I’m exhausted.” (Bruce Weber / Trunk Archive)

One of the most surprising things she told me about the writing of the book is that she sent some chapters to Philip Roth while she was working on it. An unusual gesture since, although they are often described as great friends and he has called her “the most gifted woman now writing in English,” they are also commonly depicted as rivals for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But when Roth professed his dissatisfaction with one of her chapters, she cut him off. She knew what she wanted. And who was he to say he knew better? In fact, I’d have said it would be better for Roth if he’d sent some of his chapters to her. Especially those about women. One reason I think she is to be valued is that she is able to write about love and its aftermath of sadness, while what we get most from Roth is not love at all, but sex and the aftermath of hatred. She is more complete.

“Is love the same for men and women?” I asked, figuring I may never have an opportunity to ask a wiser woman this question. “I remember a line from an interview you gave a long time ago in which you said of men and women and their inability to understand each other, ‘I don’t think there’s any man who knows what I’m about,’ or ‘I don’t know what any man is about.’ Do you remember that?”

“Yes, I think it’s true. How utterly impossible, it is, in hate or in friendship, to fully know another person. We don’t. You don’t know the person you live with even though you know a lot about them. The constant shuffling of change, and through everything the paradox of ambiguity. We know a version of them. And we know the facts. And that’s another reason why literature is so great. Because in literature, in Zola, or Flaubert, or all the Russians, we know people inside out. We know Prince Andrei in War and Peace. We know Natasha. We know the wonderful Pierre. We know them far better than we know [real] people.”

“Do you think we truly know Anna Karenina? Do we know whether she is in love with Vronsky when she betrays her husband? Was she in love or was it a dream, a romantic illusion?”

“I think she was in love,” O’Brien replied definitively. “When Tolstoy describes the first dance—I’ll never forget—and her dress and her necklace of fresh pansies, dark violet pansies. And he dances with her. One of the most beautiful commencements of love I’ve ever read.”

Her memory of Anna’s necklace led me to ask about one striking facet of her new novel, which draws on an unusual strength: writing about flowers. There is a profusion and an enthusiasm in O’Brien’s writing about flowers that is, well, sexual. She captures the force of nature as it blossoms into exquisite sweetness, without losing its overpowering strength.

“When you write about flowers,” I said, “it seems to have within it the cream of your best writing—cascades of words and beauty. You write about flowers in a way that people rarely do anymore.”

“My publisher said to me once, ‘Edna, I think you love flowers more than you love people!’”she laughs. It’s the most excitement she’s displayed in the whole conversation. “And I think it has to do with more than the beauty of flowers. I grew up on a farm, you know—rough, rough. Manure and cattle and horses. And I promise you, when I first saw primroses sprouting up out of a bit of mound of earth, all sorts of debris and mud, these primroses were like...you know the color of primroses? They’re a pale yellow flower. When I saw these primroses, it was as if life itself was going to change. Not be as hard, and not be as frightening, and not be as dreary. So flowers are connected with emotion for me.”

“I must admit, often when reading other writers, I skip flower descriptions.”

“So do I,” she admits. “I work hard at the words, rewriting, finding the right words, the ones where no other word would suit, only those words. And that makes you a little bit mad.”

**********

It’s astonishing to me the combination of precision and “a little bit” of madness she has brought to her novels and collections of short stories. I found myself particularly attracted to her short stories, polished gems of loss captured in amber.

There are two collections that beginning O’Brien readers should not miss: A Fanatic Heart and The Love Object. Perhaps because both of these are marked by New York stories of obsession and heartbreak.

Yes, there is an Edna O’Brien moment that recurs—that of a woman waiting alone in a desolate hotel lobby, for a man who will not show up. Really her only competition for these stories are the works of Chekhov. But there is more to them than tear-jerkers; there is a kind of recognition of the emotional violence that love inflicts on both men and women.

And she has written about straight-up violence as well, showing rare courage in her reporting on the terrible cost of the Troubles. Too much love, you might say, for country or tribe, has been inflicted on her Irish homeland.

Hovering, shimmering above all of O’Brien’s work is the shadow of loss. Rereading her memoir, I found myself shocked at the psychological violence inflicted upon her when she was virtually exiled from Ireland for writing The Country Girls and its two sequels (now published as The Country Girls Trilogy). You would think she was one of St. Patrick’s snakes.

She was a 30-year-old first novelist whose book was being banned, burned and denounced as satanically, demonically wicked by all the authorities, sacred and secular. Despite her celebratory reception in London, it was as if she were a flower cut off at the roots.

Her recent memoir is structured around periods of her life that were defined by differing homes she tried to create in various parts of England and Ireland. Something almost always goes wrong and sees her seeking to establish a new place, a new sanctuary. She was married for ten years to Ernest Gébler, an Irish writer, and had two children. “Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories,” she once said.

And I realize that, even more than love and evil, exile, and the desperate search for refuge in the instability of a world ruled by evil, is what drives her writing in The Little Red Chairs.

In one dramatic moment, she makes the point that the longing for rootedness and return can be twisted into patriotism. In the final pages of the book we’re in The Hague, in the International Criminal Tribunal. It’s the last day of evidence against the Beast of Bosnia. She writes: “He assumed a messianic calm, appealing to what was best and most reasonable in mankind. Suddenly and with great theatricality, he broke into English, his voice booming, pervading every corner of that chamber fortified with his own bravura—‘If I am crazy then patriotism itself is crazy.’”

“You trace his actions to patriotism?” I ask her.

“Megalomania married to patriotism. In the court the other day when the verdict came against Karadzic...oh, in Serbia, there was outrage! That yet again, Serbia has been punished! But you know, that is really part of it. I wanted to write about evil, what evil does in the world, and how it spirals out not only to those who have been preyed upon by it, but to those who have to live to tell the tale of their own kith and kin who were slaughtered.”

She’s spent time with the survivors, with, among others, a group called the Mothers of Srebrenica, an organization of Bosnian women who lost loved ones in the massacres and lost their homes too—now exiled from their home in now-Serbian Bosnia. Mothers whose futile pleas to be allowed to return derives from one of the most primal urges: “They want a piece of their child’s bone.”

The bones buried in the mass grave. That for them is all that’s left of their lost home.

It seems this became unbearable to her in the writing. Almost as if she is pleading with her own protagonist to admit he knew he was doing evil. And knowing she won’t get that satisfaction, that fragment of bone.

I ask her about the book’s last few pages, a description of refugees staging a ravaged production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, his play about the arbitrary beauty and cruelty of love. At the end of it, the refugees chant the word “home” in “thirty five tongues.” O’Brien concludes: “You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music can be wrung from it.”

It’s breathtaking, a fusion of joy, loss and brutality.

“Well, everyone wants home,” O’Brien said to me. “Maybe he wants home as well. But because I set it in that [refugee] center that I went to a lot, I could not finish with a false, cathartic, happy ending.”

“Do you feel like an exile yourself?”

“I can’t go home, I can’t go home,” she replied. “There’s no home to go to.”

“What do you mean?”

“I couldn’t live in the country I came from. So there’s a perversity in it. I can see Ireland sitting here now as if I was there—the fields, the roads. I think exile has to do with a state of mind, a feeling of being alone on earth. So I’m in exile from a state of contentment or happiness. And I would feel that even if I lived in Ireland.”

“People all over the world love your work,” I said. “Does that matter to you?”

“It matters greatly to me,” she said with a small smile. “It is my little inner, talismanic joy. I never thought I’d have it.”

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