I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Not telling

Maureen O’Connor
Country Girl: A Memoir, by Edna O’Brien, Faber and Faber, 339 pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0571269433 Bodies, corporate and corporeal, have given Edna O’Brien trouble all her life. According to Country Girl, a contributing factor in the disintegration of her marriage to Ernest Gébler was his obsessive and controlling attitude towards food: “a favourite book of his was The Culture of the Abdomen by Mr Hornibrook, from which he would read passages at random”. In a subtle moment of comic relief that briefly ventilates the increasingly airless domestic atmosphere she is describing, O’Brien quotes a passage from Hornibrook that includes this lurid, almost gothic warning: “And remember that all the time this lagging tenant of the bowel is retained the conditions favouring evil are at work: heat, moisture, nitrogenous refuse, darkness and micro-organisms.” O’Brien’s underappreciated but pervasive humour is frequently scatological, drawing attention to what Mikhail Bakhtin called the “material bodily lower stratum”. In The Country Girls (1960), her first novel, a moment that inspires laughter between Kate and her mother is their memory of the latter being surprised by a man on a bicycle when she is peeing in a ditch; he collides with her, and his front tyre ends up between her legs. In the memoir, O’Brien recalls her own mother smelling the chair seats after male visitors to the house, “to see if they had farted”. In his theory of the carnivalesque and the grotesque body, Bakhtin argues that degradation, the downward dynamic central to folk humour, is ultimately regenerative, as it “digs a bodily grave for a new birth”. O’Brien often reverses this trajectory. Her recent memoir rarely features the scene of writing, but one early instance figures it as an inverse birth: “I would go out the fields to write. The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough, because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back in the maw of my mother.” The eponymous protagonist of Murphy, by O’Brien’s friend Samuel Beckett, finds little to recommend the post-natal state endured “from the moment of his being strangled into a state of respiration”. Similarly, in a 1978 interview in The Guardian, O’Brien claimed not to have recovered from the experience of her own birth. Perhaps she was in part responding to a review, written two years…

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