"Michael O'Brien is, I believe, the greatest living Catholic novelist... There are not many people in the world who are more worth meeting than Michael O'Brien." - Peter Kreeft
In the Beginning
I retrieved my luggage from the carousel and rolled the bag with its small, squeaking plastic wheels into the arrivals hall of Ottawa International Airport. Jetlagged, but relieved to have passed immigration, I saw my host, the artist and novelist Michael O’Brien—a rather tall, lean man in his sixties with silvery, curling hair—standing at the exit. In his right hand, he held a little, red wooden horse from Dalarna, Sweden: it was a tribute to my home country, but also the agreed sign of recognition. After introduction and greetings, he smilingly beckoned me with a deep voice to follow him to his car, or not quite his car, but a vehicle belonging to one of his children.
Driving away from the airport, we entered almost instantaneously into a vigorous conversation on topics close to both our hearts; the flow of dialogue drifted from religion to art and modern society, and then back to religion again. The car was slightly unreliable as a vital part of the automatic gear—a small, red ball—kept falling down on the floor, making it impossible to put in the reverse gear; three times during the trip we had to search for the little thing that rolled away unnoticed. On a visit two years later, I think I saw the same vehicle in a rather terminal condition parked outside his house.
We had a whole weekend to ourselves in the silent, almost lonely house, as his wife was away visiting one of their children. Outside the boundary of the garden, a seemingly limitless Canadian forest began, interrupted here and there by clear lakes. The weather was of the chilly November type before the arrival of snow. Warmed by the roaring fire in the living room, we spoke about literature, his life story, God, the calling of a Christian artist, and so on. The discourse was more structured when I recorded it and stuck to the questions that I had sent to him in advance regarding his novel writing. But it was obvious to me that this was more than merely collecting information for writing a piece of pure, disinterested scholarship—I felt included in a grace filled moment of friendship, in a personal conversation on the Church, sacred art, and Catholicism.
This turn from my initial intention of focusing on a literary analysis of Michael O’Brien’s novels, toward his personality and life story, became stronger the next time I arrived in Canada for fieldwork in 2013. Then I interviewed him in his studio, surrounded by his colourful paintings and energized by a mixture of intense heat emanating from the small iron stove and fresh crisp air let in through an open window. I also met his wife, Sheila, for the first time and some of their children and grandchildren.
During one of our interview sessions, he told me that his Canadian publisher had urged him to write his autobiography, but that he felt reluctant to do so—indeed, he had declined. Through the interviews, I had at that point collected a significant amount of material on his life, which I deemed to be important in itself, so to focus on his life story seemed like a natural development of my project. Therefore, during this second round of interviews, we agreed that I could expand my original study into a biography. In that sense, this is an authorized biography, and I have enjoyed full support and vital encouragement from him during the whole work process.
As Michael O’Brien is very much alive, assiduously writing and painting, it is not possible to summarize his life as a whole, analyzing events with the clear eye of hindsight. Every year that he continues to work, his life expands and changes, and with it the meaning of individual events, even those of his childhood. Instead, the aim of this biography is to give the essentials of his life story and to present succinctly the major themes of his writing and painting. One can say it is an introduction to Michael O’Brien’s life and art, not the definitive work on it.
The Mystery of Life
To write a life story is in many ways a demanding task. Despite the extensive amount of work in collecting the material, organizing it, and, finally, the actual process of writing, a life is always more than what has been captured. So much has to remain untold, and one can always ask: Has the story and the analysis, really, managed to dive beneath the surface of a unique human personality? In his biography of the painter William Kurelek, Michael O’Brien admonishes those tempted to embark on such a project:
A great mystery lies at the heart of every life. Biography, as it approaches the mystery in search of understanding, should go carefully and reverently. At best, it can offer intuitions, flashes of insight. The writer is, after all, describing a geography of the soul, an entire universe, equipped only with the crude instruments that come to hand.
Biography fails when the researcher, blithely unaware of his own prejudices, sets forth in pursuit of knowledge of his subject.
The task of the biographer is here made both difficult and humbling. For to what extent can we become aware of our prejudices? And, even when seeing them, how can we understand a life without them? I have tried to go carefully about my task, but I have no illusion of having captured the totality of a life or fathomed the depth of a man’s soul. This book is the story of a life seen through a particular temperament—mine. The mystery remains. Even Jesus needed four biographers, despite providing them with divine inspiration. Accordingly, this account is written from the perspective of a Swedish religious studies scholar sharing with Michael O’Brien a Catholic background, the experience of working with both writing and painting, having six children (both of us have three boys and three girls), and a weakness for things Croatian.
Clemens Cavallin. "On the Edge of Infinity." part of the Epilogue from On the Edge of Infinity: A Biography of Michael D. O'Brien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019).
Reprinted with permission from Ignatius Press and available on their website.
Clemens Cavallin is Associate Professor in History of Religions at the University of Gothenberg, Sweden. He studied at the Valand Art Academy in Gothenburg and is an active painter of portraits and of works commissioned by churches. He has been married since 1993 to Natalija; they have six children. He is the author of On the Edge of Infinity.Copyright © 2019 Ignatius Press
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