A Fanatic Heart is a collection drawn from over a decade of Edna O’Brien’s career as a writer of short stories; it prints complete her 1981 volume Returning, only now published in the United States, as well as a “Quartet” of uncollected stories which appeared in The New Yorker between 1979 and 1981.
The book opens with the Returning stories, set in Ireland during the Forties and Fifties. Exile, if it is voluntary (and therefore reversible) and doesn’t involve the abandonment of a language—and moving from Ireland to London, though a somber step, doesn’t quite involve that—can be a good thing for a writer. Exile produces a transformation of values that otherwise only maturity could accomplish: the commonplace becomes exotic, the trivial fascinating, and poverty becomes a source of richness. Even experience reverts to its opposite; the wildest renegades of these stories have an innocence unnoticed by the communities they scandalize.
The Ireland of Edna O’Brien’s stories is a country where in midsummer the milk sours five hours after it has been put in the tanker; where a child’s tapeworm can be talked about for a week; where a girl in love with the nun who teaches her geometry has to ask her what color her hair is, never having seen it under her wimple; and where people’s dream house is identical with their own (that is, a twostory cement building), except that it has a tiny hall inside the front door, so that company can be vetted there, “instead of plunging straight into the kitchen.”
Thresholds are jealously guarded; one woman has never set foot inside anyone else’s front door. “She always washed outdoors at the rain barrel, and never called her husband anything but mister. Unpacking the groceries, she said that it was a pity to waste them on him, and the only indulgence she permitted herself was to smell the things, especially the packet of raspberry and custard biscuits.” The same thresholds, though, can act as prison gates, and nonconformers pay dear. A family whose unmarried daughter is pregnant spends a whole day cleaning oats from the sitting room, giving the whole house a spring-cleaning, so as to have a suitable setting for the scene in which they will force the guilty man to do the decent thing.
The rules are strict. Women are meant for marriage and for nothing else; the local women wear no cosmetics, and the jars of cold cream and vanishing cream go dry on the chemist’s shelves for lack of demand. The women read about fashions in magazines, but style remains something applied to the outside of a woman, under which she is unchanged. A local vamp has “an attaché case full of style,” but she will need more than that to escape.
These stories reveal a particular sympathy for internal exiles, the casualties of convention, but at their best the stories themselves are impersonal. The central character is usually a young girl, but it is her best friend or sister that takes the risks and pays the penalties. Although the girl looks on intently, in some way she is not involved; to one of these characters, for instance, whose family has suddenly come down in the world, “the word ‘pauper’ sounded so beautiful, like some kind of Indian flower of fruit.”
This unjudging receptiveness is compromised from time to time in the Returning stories by an inappropriate adult voice. This intrusive persona sees the stories as interesting only insofar as they throw light on her own background. The first story in the book, for example, “The Connor Girls,” deals faithfully with its subjects, a pair of sisters with great prospects and greater disappointments. They have been unable to choose a world to replace the one they were born into. But then, in the last paragraph, the narrator hijacks the story. Her husband, who is an outsider, is rude to the Connor sisters and “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.” End of story. This brutal extrapolation, quite at odds with what has gone before, violates the compass of the story. The depiction of other lives is suddenly unimportant, and the tale is prevented from working itself out in its own terms.
O’Brien’s endings are not a strong point. Since she has an attaché case full of style (and then some), her final paragraphs are always beautifully written, but they aren’t always appropriate. Even the most impressive stories in the book, both stories about terrible enclosure, one in a nunnery and the other in an unsuitable marriage, have endings that falter. “Sister Imelda” closes almost with flippancy. “In our deepest moments we say the most inadequate things.” “A Scandalous Woman” makes the opposite mistake by driving home the moral with a theatrical intensity. “…I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”
The self-advertising voice from “The Connor Girls” recurs in a number of stories. It introduces “Ghosts,” a trio of essentially unconnected sketches, in the manner of a duchess opening a country fair, with a remark that the characters represent “defiance, glamour, and a kind of innocence that I miss in my later world.”
There is even a certain grandness in the title of this collection. The phrase “a fanatic heart” is from Yeats’s “Remorse for Intemperate Speech” but the pungency of its context has been purged from it, leaving only self-congratulation. The same persona, or an accompanying lack of confidence in the merits of stories about mere country folk, has saddled a couple of stories with titles (“Tough Men,” “Savages”) that burden them with a general significance which they do not need and will not bear.
The composite Edna O’Brien heroine goes to sleep in her teens and wakes up after the breakup of her marriage. She is much changed by her hibernation. She has memories of childhood, but none of her life as a wife and mother; her life now gets its meaning from a sexual relationship with a married man. In one story (“Paradise”) the man actually wants a wife, but he has been much married, so one thing is constant: a contest with rivals, whether past or present, which the O’Brien heroine cannot win.
The setting of these later, very personal stories is most often London, and here too the outsides of things are lovingly described, but the social awareness is fragmented. Two of the stories deal with the actual breakdown of the heroine (“Paradise” and “The House of My Dreams”) but it is fair to say that these stories only exaggerate a general tendency. There are many ecstasies on display, and many despairs, but little to mediate between despair and ecstasy. Outside the charmed circle of love, nothing makes sense. There is only a difference of degree between the sane heroine of “Over,” who thinks her neighbor is “trying to impress me with her shouting and her car and her rainwear,” and the unstable heroine of “Paradise” who attributes a fellow guest’s radiant complexion to “constant supplies of male sperm.” The world view of the O’Brien heroine is likely to be paranoiac in some degree.
Love is a state of grace, but an O’Brien heroine never falls for a man whose availability is unqualified. A life of ordinary piety as wife and mother leaves her untouched; she has set her sights on the martyr’s crown, and wastes no sympathy on those who play the humbler parts. “Wives do not come out too badly from the human maul,” she says in one story (“Over”), though as a matter of fact that particular wife attempts suicide. Her passion sometimes makes her patronizing (she imagines her lover “looking into his wife’s eyes, or his old cat’s eyes, putting drops into his cat’s eyes, doing his duty”), sometimes vicious, as when she refers in a letter to her lover’s wife’s “dandruffy womb.” Passion makes her blind. In one story she offers to suppress her jealousy (“Couldn’t we all live together?”), to ride it as the white horses ride the sea. Nothing is said of the wife’s jealousy.
The pattern is foreseeable but O’Brien fails to foresee it, and is herself betrayed. Betrayal within marriage doesn’t touch this writer’s nerve; even those stories whose plots involve it give no details. (Interestingly, too, only once does a woman do the betraying, and then the betrayed party, Sister Imelda, is also a woman.) Edna O’Brien is good on the chronic disappointingness of men, and indefatigable in her charting of a woman’s moods and desires, even if it is one particular woman at the expense of all others, and a woman at that who defines herself solely through her relationships with men.
With some of these stories Edna O’Brien gets stuck in a rut, and risks setting herself up as the patron saint of innocent temptresses. Even the most selfobsessed story has its trawl of detail and of fierce undignified truths, and many are enlivened by flagrantly excellent phrasing, but it is a pleasure to find, toward the end of the book, a growing detachment. The heroines of “Christmas Roses” and “Ways” both foresee the pattern and escape it; the heroine of “Ways” meets the wife in question, before she meets the man in question, and manages in consequence not to seduce him. After what has gone before, this is some sort of breakthrough.
If Edna O’Brien’s version of romanticism has something of manic-depression about it, Anita Brookner’s approximates to masochism. Her new novel, Hotel du Lac, the surprise winner (amid some controversy) of last year’s Booker Prize, Britain’s richest literary award, even has as its heroine a romantic novelist whose private life fails to measure up. Edith Hope knows that decency such as hers invites shoddy treatment in life, though in fiction of the sort she writes it is sure to be rewarded.
Edith stays at the Hotel du Lac, an establishment in Switzerland of calculated dowdiness, at the instigation of her friends in London; she has done a “dreadful thing,” and her penance is to be a period of self-examination in this plush limbo, after which she may perhaps resume her place in society.
Edith has been having an affair with a married man; she writes him letters of muffled passion from the hotel, though a reader with any experience of romantic fiction is likely to realize that the letters are never sent. Edith certainly seems cowed and shellshocked; her first entry into the dining room, for instance, is an ordeal that she shrinks from. Hotel du Lac, which tells the story of Edith’s disgrace and of her changing relationships with her fellow guests, depends for its success on its heroine’s being convincingly vulnerable, a softly complex creature likely to be trampled by a brutal world.
This is a possible theory of Edith in the book’s opening pages, but too much information contradicts it thereafter for it to hold up for very long. Edith is a sharp critic of her companions and surroundings, which makes her satisfactory as a point of view but unconvincing as a victim. The “dreadful thing,” moreover, that has led to her short exile turns out not to be a suicide attempt, or even the sudden eruption into the public eye of her secret affair with David, but her rejection (at the last moment, admittedly) of an unsuitable marriage. In the absence of authentic trauma, her state of mind is likely to seem feeble.
The double negative of rejecting a nonentity is the nearest that Edith comes to an affirmative act; but she allows herself to be persuaded that she has committed a crime, and must earn her way back into favor. Edith’s identity is in fact composed only of negatives. Born a woman, she prefers men (in this she takes after her mother). Ladylike by nature, she admires women who can get what they want (men). It is “the company of [her] own sex” that drives her into marriage.
Hers is a temperament so thoroughly self-punishing that she doesn’t actually need to be treated badly in order to generate the demure agony that is her recurrent emotion. The period before her wedding shows her in fine form. Already she has steeled herself to marriage, that is, to immolation; when her fiancé gives her an iron garden chair to replace the comfortable wicker one in which she used to unwind from her writing, she seems not to realize that she is under no obligation to use it in his absence. (In general she prefers to be forced into a rigid framework, rather than choose a softer option and have to take responsibility for it.) She chooses the colors for her impending bedroom, but takes the advice of her best friend Penelope, and so ends up with a decor she finds alienating. She has her outfit for the wedding (which will be at a Registry Office) made by an elderly Polish dressmaker in a shade of bluegray, thus guaranteeing that she will be outshone by Penelope, if not by every other woman present. “Privately,” moreover, she thinks that her mother “would have considered this a puny alliance.” Here is the triumph of her need to fail, the high point of her self-abasement.
As for her lover David, he had
laughed at her new recklessness and has teased her with an unknown lover. “You must be in love,” he had said. And she, not daring to break that unwritten contract between them, had not said what she wanted to say, and had missed her chance for ever.
When he learns of her engagement, he presses his face into her neck and mumbles, “Do you mean it?” “And she had meant it, because sometimes he stayed away too long. And because he had not dissuaded her.” Any reader who is less than convinced of Edith’s suffering decency is likely to wonder about this last tense (it doesn’t say that he “did not try to dissuade her” now, since that is clearly what he is working up to). When had he not dissuaded her? When he said, “You must be in love,” and she said nothing?
David, incidentally, if he had protested against her involvement with another man (as he might have done in a novel of the early 1970s) would have been applying the old double standard; but now that passive-aggressive heroines seem back in fashion, men can be criticized for failing to coerce them. Clearly it is preposterous for a reviewer to be siding with a minor character against a heroine with whom the author is so clearly in sympathy, but Edith’s shy tyranny calls for desperate measures. Edith may be isolated in the hotel, but her author protects her from all but the lightest ironies. Edith’s account of what happened in London is the only available version. Four men (the hotel manager, David, a fellow guest, and Edith’s London gardener) momentarily occupy the point of view, but otherwise she has it all her own way. These little vents have no chance of dispelling so dense a fog; it is a fog that this novel is dedicated to condensing.
Edith, after all, is a novelist like her creator and can even muster five titles as against Anita Brookner’s four. There can be few activities less passive than writing a novel—writing a novel is the mental equivalent of building a dam and drowning a few valleys—and even though Edith’s novels are romantic (published as they are under the name of Vanessa Wilde) they contain no writing down. As Edith says in her last unsent letter to David, “I believed every word I wrote. And I still do, even though I realize now that it can never come true for me.” There is some attempt to suggest that Edith writes in a sort of trance state, but clearly that will not do; in her observations and in her letters to David, she has a fixing eye and an unsparing wit.
Some effort is made to gloss over the discrepancy between Edith as sharply disillusioned spectator and Edith as romantic casualty. After seeing Penelope’s bed, which “would have accommodated four adults,” and having noted with cruel precision the message sent by the delicate little pillows that are scattered on it (“I am a woman of exceptional femininity”), Edith’s thoughts continue. “Some women raise altars to themselves, thought Edith. And they are right to do so. Although I doubt if I could carry it off.” Each sentence in this extraordinary series represents a further retraction of claws, and the resumption of a helpless manner. But if Edith is meant to be such a mouse, why do her little paws show traces of blood?
Penelope gets a rough ride of it. On the morning of the near-wedding, Edith overhears her saying, “I wonder she doesn’t put me in a book.” “I have, thought Edith. You did not recognize yourself.” Edith prefers to disguise her power, and hugs close to herself the knowledge that she is underestimated (by friends who don’t know about David, and who fail to see their portraits in her books), but she is plentifully armed. It is just that she (or her author) cannot admit that intelligence is power (as her professional career convincingly demonstrates), or she would need to devise a new persona altogether. Femininity in Hotel du Lac may not quite be synonymous with weakness, but it is likely to entail it; there are no weak men on view. Depressingly, too, Edith at the end of the book chooses between two men, and only chooses the second when she discovers by accident that the first has been playing a double game. Returning to David, she can rely on at least one failure, the failure to get married, if not certainly the failure to be loved (though there too her prospects are bright).
Hotel du Lac works so hard at the limpness of its heroine that it has a perversely bracing effect: just as Edna O’Brien’s characters can exhaust with their paraded hungers and intensities, so Brookner’s heroine may make her readers resolve, on next meeting a quiet, shy, painfully sensitive novelist (romantic or otherwise), to give him or her a shake. Hotel du Lac is divided between narcissism and self-mortification, between wallowing and astringency; the curious combination of urges that might lead a person, say, to take an ice-cold bubble bath.
January 31, 1985