October 4, 2002

Edna O'Brien Reading Begins Memorial Series

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Inaugurating the newly established Eamon McEneaney Memorial Reading Series, Edna O’Brien delivered the first reading of the memorial program last night in Schwartz auditorium.

O’Brien is one of Ireland’s foremost literary figures as the author of over twenty novels and numerous short stores, including Wild December, Down by the River, House of Splendid Isolation and, her most recently published novel, Into The Forest.

Prof. Emeritus Alison Laurie, English introduced O’Brien as one of the world’s most, “brilliantly original and gifted writers.”

Combining the ancient tradition of Irish literature with contemporary political issues, “O’Brien has the soul of Molly Blume and the skill of Virginia Woolf,” Laurie said, quoting Newsweek Magazine.

O’Brien is also an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and many of her works have been made into movies.

“It is a great honor to be invited to Cornell,” O’Brien said. “I have been received with such warmth and welcome reward. Everyone has been sweethearts. Though I am delighted to be here I feel both deeply sad and equally inadequate because one cannot bring back the dead,” O’Brien said in her opening. “I’d like to think of Eamon McEneaney free of all in heaven.”

Eamon McEneaney ’77 was both a distinguished student-athlete and star lacrosse player at Cornell who lost his life in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. His generous teammates and friends established this annual reading series in his honor.

“Everyone who knew [Eamon] loved him. He brought out the best in everyone. He was an evangelical speaker and writer, the father of four children, a wonderful husband and friend. Those who loved him loved his passion. Though small in stature, he was a brilliant lacrosse player and a fierce football player who was even invited to try out for the New York Giants,” said Kenneth Melanie, the W.E.B Dubois Professor of Literature.

“I don’t know how we’re going to get anyone better than Edna O’Brien but we’re at least going to try to get someone on the same planet,” McClane said in his introduction.”

O’Brien gave a reading from her most recent novel Into The Forest, which she called, “a Greek tragedy for present time.” The tale details the triple homicide of a young woman, her son and a priest that took place in Ireland in 1994. In her reading, she described both the psyche of the murderer and the events with a chilling realism and passionate tone. One of the readings was a creative letter from the Priest’s point of view, her own interpretation of a note he could have written.

“She was magnificent,” McClane said. “We have been trying to get her to come to Cornell for twelve years and are just delighted to have her. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate reading than the one we just had. Edna O’Brien is one of the great practitioners of the English language. In a time when so much of language has been diminished, it was wonderful to hear a reminder of what a meaningful language we have when used so elegantly.”

From their reactions, the audience could not have been more pleased by both her presence and her eloquent reading of her prose.

“I thought she was brilliant,” said Linda Meyers, a staff writer with the Cornell news services and an MFA graduate of Cornell’s writing program after the reading. “How she can go into those dark places that are so frightening to all of us that can bring out some tiny fragment that puts us in touch with humanity. I feel privileged to be here.”

Other members of the audience echoed the positive sentiment.

“I thought she captured a specific historical event in a most universal way that was powerful and moving,” said Emily Goldman ’06.

Concurring, Alberto Leff ’03 said, “Her stories were sharp, realistic and moving. This was not simply another reading on campus.”

O’Brien has been in the Ithaca area for the past week, in which time she met with writing students and faculty in a series of informal and formal meetings. In addition, she gave an off-campus book signing yesterday at The Bookery in downtown Ithaca. Today she will hold an open colloquium in the English department lounge on the second floor of Goldwin Smith.

O’Brien currently resides in London though the primary subject of her prose remains her native country, Ireland.

“I can only write about were I come from” O’Brien said. “Our themes pick us as we pick our themes.”

Archived article by Alison Levine