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Creatures of the Earth by John McGahern (1935-2006)
Such sweet sorrow
By Christina Patterson
Published: 15 December 2006
FABER & FABER £16.99 (408pp)
The "best of life," said John McGahern in his wonderful last book, Memoir, "is lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything." It's a statement that could be taken as a manifesto for his work, work which contains, in each finely honed and often bite-sized chunk, whole worlds of heartbreak.
To say that "nothing happens" in a McGahern novel or story is often something of an understatement. His fiction is less about the events that punctuate our lives than the quiet rhythms that mark our slow progression, à la Beckett, from the cradle to the grave. For more than four decades, until his death from cancer earlier this year, John McGahern depicted daily life in the country he both loved and loathed. The final body of his work, which includes the Booker-shortlisted masterpiece, Amongst Women, serves as a testament not just to one of the finest writers of the past 50 years, but to a country which, beneath his gaze, changed beyond all recognition.
Creatures of the Earth, his collection of "New and Selected Stories", offers a panoramic snapshot both of the country and of McGahern's work. Here is an Ireland shot through with the timeless rituals of a rural community, one that worships at the twin altars of the Catholic church and the pub, and that marks the passing of its members with lavish celebrations at both. Here are tyrannical fathers ruling their broods with iron fists and threats of disinheritance, cowering offspring chained to family farms, and mousy wives exhausted by childbirth and poverty. Here, in fact, are all the archetypes of Irish life, but under McGahern's Midas touch they turn to gold.
His portrait of a primitive community locked in a timeless past, one marked by hard physical grind, casual brutality, and near-total ignorance of any world beyond the bounds of the village or farm, is about as far from the Celtic Tiger as it's possible to get. In the first story, "Wheels", he describes a son's visit to his father, offering, in a few deft strokes, a vivid portrait of a miserable marriage, an expectation of family obligation bordering on servitude and a fierce inarticulacy imbued with the threat of violence.
In "Korea" he recounts a son's devastating discovery that his father's offer to pay his fare to the US is based on the hope that he will be conscripted, and a friend's tales of hefty insurance payments in the case of death. In "Lavin" he depicts a world of brutish sexual fantasies, one in which the big excitement for two adolescent boys is the local peeping Tom, obsessed with the pubic hair of pubescent girls, and the thrill of torturing a frog. In "Faith, Hope and Charity", he describes a feckless father whose decision to hold an extravagant funeral for his son perpetuates the cycle of debt he is already in.
These are stories bursting with quiet tragedy, peppered with opportunities missed, lives wrecked by a single throw of the dice and portraits of men and women whose modest hopes have hardened into disappointment. But if the lives are rarely redeemed, the stories - as compressed as poems - are: by their exquisite subtlety, their lyrically spare descriptions of the natural world and, above all, by their humanity.
And some of the stories are a little less grim. "Gold Watch" is a rare depiction of joyously unfettered young love that survives even the family's attempts to crush it. "Bank Holiday" describes the quietly unfolding love affair of a senior civil servant with a much younger academic. "Creatures of the Earth", one of two new stories, describes grief, yes, but the grief that strikes after a long, happy, equal marriage. "They were the last words he spoke," writes McGahern of the dying husband, "and broke her heart, but they were a deep source of solace in the days ahead." The same could be said of this bleakly beautiful work.
The TLS n.º 5410, December 8, 2006
Dark, delightful country things
John McGahern’s austere eloquence
Creatures of the Earth
New and selected stories
408 pp. Faber £ 16.99
0 571 22566 7
John McGahern’s recent funeral in the Irish countryside the Catholic hierarchy was in attendance. For one observer, there was the sense of a mild monsignorial jostling, after which a priest stepped forward to express regret for a past mistreatment of the writer at the hands of the Church. McGahern’s early fiction was banned in Ireland, and cost him his job as a schoolmaster. Once bitten, once a scandal, he had since become a credit to the community of the faithful.
His novels and stories, and his Memoir of 2005, are not such as to persuade many readers that this medieval-seeming penitence — a Canossa in reverse, with its papal amends — has to be thought arbitrary or incongruous. His scenes from clerical life can be bleak and unillusioned. Most of his people lead “sensible pagan lives”. They tell their beads and go to Mass for reasons of custom and solidarity, rather than doctrine. But the customs and ceremonies of the Church illuminate his books, bath litterally and figuratively. The parish church stood, “through the great feasts of Christmas”, like “a lighted ship moored in a sea of darkness”. At the centre of it all is his feeling for his mother, celebrated in his books in the point for some Irish readers, of Mariolatry.
For the boy Sean McGahern, she was “my beloved”. She caused him to remember, at the end of his days, that “our heaven was here in Aughawillan”. She was the Church in person, the part of ii that could be loved, and there was the hope that he would one day serve her by becoming a priest. In the novel Amongst Women (1991), she turns into the stepmother Rose, who wants everything lo move “towards reconciliation and the unquestioning love she herself felt with her who]e heart”. His mother believed that “God is great” and that “God knows best”, while his fiction is apt to suggest that human beings “know nothing”. She believed that God had taken away her health in order to test her faith. Her death from cancer, at the age of forty-two, occasions, in the memoir, a Liebestod of high intensity. Her son was later lo leave the Church, but was never lo leave his mother.
McGahern’s art has its own ceremonies. It takes pleasure in regularity and in repetition; it has some striking duplications. It travels with the seasons and with the sun and moon. His is a plain style of the utmost directness, charged with vigilance and subtlety. The journey to school of the boy and his mother, with its serial Mahons, is recited again and again in the memoir — “past Brady’s house and pool and the house where the old Mahon brothers lived. past the deep, dark quarry and across the railway bridge and up the hill by Mahon’s shop” — just as, in the writings at large, the same story, his own, is told and retold.
The paradise of his childhood was subject lo expulsions. His father. a policeman, with his uniform’s three silver stripes, was darker than any quarry, a restless bully, a beater of his children. “The hard way is the only way”. says the father he invents for one of his stories. When his real father claims in the memoir to be missing his dead wife, the boy “knew that he was lying . . . though I would have given the whole world for the mercy of the picture he painted”. It was as bad as that. His father passes through several incarnations in the writings, and is at his worst in the last judgement delivered in the memoir. The patriarch Moran in Amongst Women is assigned a charm that is more apparent, at times, to his oppressed womenfolk than it is likely to be to the reader. His children resort to subterfuge and to outright rebellion, but his will, his hard way, persists in the end on the borne ground of the farm. The various images and analogues of his father in McGahern ‘s fiction leave an impression both of the uniqueness and uncertainty of the individual self and of his father’s affinity with others in the society, those who are the same but different, like and unlike the Sergeant of Cootehall.
“Help Them”, advises an old drinking dominie in the story “High Ground”: “Women are weak.” They do need help in McGahern’ s fiction, and are many times refused it. From weak to wilful, virgin mother to virago, women are a suitably wide spectrum, and a crucial presence, in the Ireland of his books, where they are also seen in be in a state of subjection. The “unquestioning love” ascribed in the stepmother Rose might seem to risk sentimentality. But he is rarely a sentimental writer, and Rose is awarded, elsewhere in his fiction, a hostility to the husband she bears and manages and can even be charmed by in Amongst Women. McGahern is often austere. And yet he is notably affectionate about the people he creates and commemorates, his “creatures of the earth”, and is persuasive about the good he finds there. Their tea with buttered bread is a feast.
We are mostly in the West, in Leitrim or Roscommon, in a small place where “nothing much ever happens”, as he is given to saying, and where much does happen, rather as his womenfolk are at once subordinate and important. There is the barracks, where his father rules, with the mother away with her children an a farm, or else in hospital. Near his different dwellings are healing waters — a river and a lake. Near, too, is the great Gloria Bog.
McGahern’ s art is derived, early and late, from his experiences as a san. Dating from the 1970s, the stories — now gathered together for a second lime, in the form of a selection, but with the inclusion of two new items — ushered in the experiences of a man among women. Sexual intercourse begins. “A meal of each other’s flesh” follows fast on encounters in dance halls. “Love flies out the window”, as he is also given to saying, and as it does in his outstanding story “My Love, My Umbrella”, where the self-centred teller of the tale comes to grief. In his novel of 1979, The Pornographer, another selfish narrator lords it over two successive women. By now he is making use of urban settings of Dublin and London. His Irish countryside has its stock of “been-tos”, in the Indian phrase, of men and women who have been in the fair cities of England and America, in search of a living and in danger of losing the native gentleness of their manners.
In an obituary tribute Cólm Toibìn laid how, at a literary conference where writers were urged to display political commitment, McGahern spoke up in dissent: “It is a writer’s job to look after his sentences. Nothing else”. Can he have meant this pastoral injunction? The “war that was still raging in Europe” gets no more attention in his novels and stories than the Napoleonic struggle does in Jane Austen. But Ireland’s wars are in evidence. His father belonged to the IRA, and one of his fictional fathers is shown in action against the Black and Tans. In That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002), a local IRA worthy, a farmer prisoner of the British, is quietly opposed by the novel’s main man, Joe Ruttledge, who has returned from Landon with his wife Kale, in the manner of McGahern himself. Ruttiedge remarks that the country is already free. “Not all of it”, replies the respected citizen, no less quietly.
Throughout his work a sense of the Irish locality as somewhere other than a small place carved an its piece of ivory is clearly registered. in the novella The Leavetaking (1975), a teacher is sacked for marrying without the sanction of the Church: it’s a “crazy country”, he reflects, which fires people for such reasons. Crazily, too, his real father threatens his little ones with “I’ll pack you all off to the orphanage where the nuns and brothers won’t be long in bringing you in your senses”. And the Ireland that ensued on the Second World War is condemned, in Amongst Women, by a veteran freedom fighter, as “this mixture of druids and crooks that we’re stuck with”, which earns the indignation of his old comrade, the patriarch Moran. The memoir is stoical, but firmly critical, in its discussions of the bygone Irish theocracy.
The collection of 1985, High Ground, reveals au urban Ireland explored by a young man from the country. “Bank Holiday” is a romance gargoyled by Dublin’s literati, who also figure in “Parachutes”, where love flies out the window and the narrator is left with the geniuses in their pub. “High Ground”, the title story, describes a Haugheyesque politico: such men are now a higher power in the countryside than the priest who used to run the school and much of the community. “The Conversion of William Kirkwood” studies, from life, a benign, eccentric, once-Protestant landowner. McGahern has a kindness for lairds, as for laborers: two of the best pieces in the selection relate to British building sites and their guest workers. The hostile father appears in High Ground’s “The Gold Watch”, together with the stepmother Rose of Amongst Women. The closing passages have been reworded, as part of a process of trimming and repunctuation which the stories have undergone since they were first published, but the meaning of these closing passages remains at certain points elusive. A summarizing eloquence of his, touching on “the nature of things”, can sometimes give, as here, a sense of strain. A cut administered tale in “Oldfashioned”, which half-retracts an enormity of the fictional father, produces a doubt and would have been better resisted.
McGahern’s gift for the short story is fu1ly apparent in the new stories included in Creatures of the Earth. The title story bas a retired doctor and his wife who find they are no longer useful”, and are therefore dropped, by friends and colleagues. The wife becomes a widow and retires to a lonely place, her only friend a daughter soon to marry. Two pets are successively killed by different males — an unsettling duplication. Old Ireland has changed with the change of life experienced by the couple. Authority is gone. Priest and doctor are disbelieved. “Mere anarchy” assumes the evil form of a human meanness polluting a beautifully rendered cliffscape.
The other new story, powerfully dramatized. speaks of neighborhood spies who also complain that the country has changed. You no longer lie an the bed you have made. Couples separate, commit adultery. Kate Ruttledge (a relation of the woman of the same name in the novel of 2002?) is a reader — an activity seldom predicated now of fictional characters – and would be well on the way to divorce had she lived in London or Luton. A new terror is added to the bullying husband who is too “full of himself’. “The blackbirds and thrushes racketed. A robin sang. Maggie was still there, praise be to everything that moves or sings”. The birds are a mantra of the story, which gives way here to an affirmation of Kate’s love for her mother.
One of McGahern’s favourite writers was the Scottish-Canadian Alistair MacLeod. Both bring something quite distinctive, something ancient, to the operations of a prevailing metropolitan culture. In both cases, the richness of manual labour is evoked by someone who has bent his back. Birds, animals, plants, weather are never incidental or decorative. They matter, rather as the people do. McGahern’s country place is no paradise lost, and few of his urban readers can have felt that they were being enlisted in a version of pastoral. If he is in some way ancient he is no more atavistic than he is parochial. He has lived, and is known, in cities, has~ been read and recognized in France. Tóibín remarked in his tribute that at one time “Enniskillen, rather than Dublin, was his capital, and after Enniskillen, Paris”.
Many of his sentences are interestingly sententious. “Though children are seldom fair, they have a passion for fairness.” There is a moment in the Nightlines collection of 1970 when we read about what happens when “people look to each other for happiness or whatever it is called”. Eight years later, in Getting Through, perhaps it is “better not to have been born at all”. Some of these sentences would appear to deny the happiness recalled in the memoir — the times with his mother, or alone on the river. Some have the ring of his encourager Beckett, on the occasions when Beckett offers his fatalistic bad news about the human condition and its slavery to limit. One or two echo his father’s hard sayings. There’ s a story in Nightlines where “I shouted almost in his voice”.
John McGahern likes to write about darkness, and can sometimes seem to be its friend: “why should we wish the darkness harm, it is our element; or curse the darkness because we are doomed to love in it, and die… This is from “Along the Edges”, in Getting Through and in the Collected Stories of 1992. The memoir says what his embodiment Joe Ruttledge says, with reference to “most of the people in this part of the country”: “I suppose they’ll move around in the light for a while like the rest of us and disappear”. The darkness Ruttledge has in mind does not seem to allow for the hope of heaven. McGahern’s play The Power of Darkness, a Leitrimization of the melodrama by Tolstoy of the same name, proves, surprisingly, to be a very funny Jacobean-bucolic farce, a jig of poisoners round a dying patriarch, in which, once more, “love flues out the window”.
McGahern’s fictions were capped by the memoir, a late work which is at least as satisfying, in its candour and imaginative fervour, as any of his stories. What does art add, in this case, to autobiography? The answer should make room for the thought that the memoir and the variously gifted novels and stories are all of them art. They drink from the same well. They are the one dark, delightful, chiefly country thing.
Approaching the silence
The new and selected stories in John McGahern's Creatures of the Earth are full of a poised and resonant beauty, says Joseph O'Connor
Saturday December 23, 2006
Creatures of the
Earth: New and Selected Stories
by John McGahern
408pp, Faber, £16.99
John McGahern's Collected Stories was published in 1992, becoming a classic of the genre and, in his native Ireland, a bestseller. It offered itself as an assembly of "all John McGahern's short fiction, fully revised, in a definitive text". But the statement of finality proved premature. McGahern, a rewriter throughout his career - he completely reworked his novel The Leavetaking some years after its first publication - came back to these magnificent stories in the last seasons of his life. This new collection, appearing eight months after his death, is a fascinating self-critique as well as being the finest body of short stories published by any Irish writer in recent years.
Nothing like academic completeness has been attempted here, although, given the large number of drafts reportedly among his papers, a variorum edition will surely be published at some point. Seven stories have been removed. The order of appearance has been altered. Two new stories are included, "Creatures of the Earth" and "Love of the World". Some of the surviving pieces, already spare, have been trimmed.
"The Creamery Manager", for example, one of the most powerful short stories since Joyce's Dubliners, is shorter, harder, less about its own ambiguities. This portrait of a small man disgraced by an act of petty fraud becomes even more heartbreaking in compression. Yet what is moving about the story is not just the protagonist's situation, but the notion that a piece already so forceful was still worth work; the image of a writer approaching the silence but still keeping faith with the impulse for simplicity. Thus McGahern himself becomes a central presence in this collection, like a character in the corner of the room.
Where the completeness of the 1992 collection revealed the evolution of a unique way of seeing, this one, like any selection, is intriguing for its omissions. A couple of his editorial choices may be regretted by admirers, but in a tantalisingly brief introduction McGahern clarifies his rationale. Some of his shorter fictions were too autobiographical to take flight, he came to feel, and were reworked for his last book, Memoir. "No matter what violences or dislocations were attempted, they continued to remain ... obdurately what they were."
Justly praised as the most gifted chronicler of rural Ireland, he also recorded the realities of Dublin life more memorably than did many a native. Time and again the city appears in these stories, peopled by migrant characters who see the metropolis as a labyrinth of elusive possibilities. Stories such as "Parachutes", "Gold Watch" and "My Love, My Umbrella" reveal a Dublin of grimy dancehalls and uneasy courtships, of kisses stolen in doorways and unfulfilled hungerings. Sexual need is a constant, the brokenness of unwanted celibacy often imaged as a kind of homelessness. His citizens are stalwarts of the city's rural-born workforce, who take the first train to the countryside on a Friday evening and the last one back to Bedsit-Land on a Sunday night. To negotiate these borders is always difficult in McGahern, but his people never stop trying. Their flings and farewells make for writing of extraordinary grace, with the city as forlorn backdrop to the search for love. Anyone who has ever lived away from home will be moved by the truths of these pages.
The collection also serves as a form of farewell to the characters that McGahern made his own. They walk through these assiduously crafted miniatures like the archetypes of a modern folklore: the inarticulate lover, the distant, damaged father, the schoolteacher who doubts or despises his vocation. Several times we encounter the former student for the Catholic priesthood who abandoned that path on the verge of ordination, or the man who missed his cue when it was howled by the fates. These are lives marked by abrupt turnings, roads not taken, promises broken, the hopes of childhood crushed, but somehow a faith in the world survives, a notion that redemption is possible. This Chekhov of small town, pre-confident Ireland is brilliant on human weakness, on what it means to be powerless. His people have feelings of agonising complexity, but their language does not give them the power of expression. Like Beckett's outcasts or Brian Friel's lovers, they seem caught in a perpetual struggle between silence and speech, but the style McGahern developed, shifting subtly between scrupulous plainness and high lyricism, somehow gives voice to their condition.
The collection draws so skilfully from a well of Irish familial images, returning them reminted, infused with quiet force. In that way, the stories may be read as rehearsals for the novels, or as tributaries of one another, workings-out of implications. The father in most of them is a version of Amongst Women's Moran, the disenchanted republican burnished hard by pain. The women, especially the elderly women, are so achingly recognisable that you forget they are products of an imagination. They talk about rain, about children and preparing food, and all the time something else is being discussed. The troubled couple in the masterful "Sierra Leone" cannot communicate except in evasions. Yet McGahern finds resonant beauty in such halting attempts at empathy, and his dialogue, so loving and carefully poised, crackles with the vividness of popular speech.
McGahern, a man of unfailing modesty, might have found some of his obituaries embarrassing. But it is difficult, reading these luminous stories of loss and desire, to avoid the kind of cliché he would have killed with his unforgiving blue pencil. He was the greatest Irish writer of the late 20th century and this collection is an extraordinary triumph. Indeed, right to the end his work was opening ground, new ways of reading the silence.
Joseph O'Connor's novel Star of the Sea is published by Vintage
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 24/12/2006
Matt Thorne reviews Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories by John McGahern
Creatures of the Earth is a collection of 'new and selected stories' by John McGahern, completed shortly before his death in March this year. It's a new edition of the 1992 Collected Stories, which brought together three collections, Nightlines (1970), Getting Through (1978) and High Ground (1985) with several stories cut or revised, and two new stories added, presented (slightly confusingly) as 'the authorised edition of a modern classic.'
I'll leave it to McGahern scholars to decide whether this updated version is an improvement on the original, although the new story that gives this collection its title (and concerns the violent death of Fats the Cat) is the weakest offering here. This was my first encounter with McGahern's short fiction, and while it feels disorientating in 2006 to be reading stories about wives who spend their evenings razoring their husbands' corns, his fiction contains such vivid truth that even the most prosaic detail becomes beguiling.
Although the stories are broadly realist, there's something almost gothic about the darker examples included here, such as the perverse 'Lavin', where a man 'close to the poorhouse' is sustained by descriptions of young girls' glabrous bodies. Here sex is a bestial act, committed in the mud and rain, as in 'My Love, My Umbrella'. Bodily functions of all sorts come as a welcome disruption to a life of boredom: through the groans of their bowels McGahern's characters establish themselves as something more than the machines their jobs require them to become.
For McGahern's characters even lemonade is ambrosia, a drink as capable of changing the mood of an evening for the better as a bottle of Bass. Men spend their days digging trenches and their nights pursuing simple gratification. Priests do better than most, choosing their vacations 'as a way of vanquishing death and avoiding birth', but are still besieged with doubts.
Teaching, too, is a way out. McGahern trained as a primary school teacher and taught before resigning during controversy over his second novel, The Dark (1965), and his experiences inform some of the best stories. One of these is 'Crossing The Line', in which a young teacher becomes trapped in a battle between his archdeacon employer and his union; another is the erotic 'Like All Other Men', where a woman sleeps with a teacher before joining a nunnery.
McGahern's novels and non-fiction are held in enormous regard; this collection reveals that his short fiction is equally estimable.
December 2, 2009
John McGahern in his place
He showed how art replaces religion, and how writing reveals the spirituality of a lost Ireland
LOVE OF THE WORLD
Edited by Stanley van der Ziel
448pp. Faber. £20.
978 0 571 24511 6
Three years after the death of John McGahern at the age of seventy-two, comes, as a slight consolation for the silencing of one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, this collection of his non-fiction. Love of the World contains autobiographical essays, pieces on writing, introductions and reviews. It prints some highly interesting essays, a number of them hitherto unpublished. It brings McGahern richly back to life on the page, and it comes with an eloquent and informed preface by Declan Kiberd. The collection provides a retrospective insight into this extraordinary Irish writer, whose fictional worlds – unlike this big book – were always spare, narrow and contained, but whose imagination was deep and wide. To an almost startling extent, the non-fiction here confirms our sense of how autobiographical the fiction was. We learned that from Memoir, the story of his childhood and youth which McGahern published the year before he died, and we learn it again from these essays, many of which anticipate Memoir. Over and over again, like Michael Moran in Amongst Women, McGahern “walks the fields” of his places and people, his memories and his history, his strong likes and dislikes, his local territory.
He was not a fast or a prolific writer. In the 1960s and 70s he published four bleak and daring novels of Irish life, The Barracks (1962), The Dark (1965), The Leavetaking (1974) and The Pornographer (1979). They dealt with what he called the “moral climate” in which he grew up: “terror of damnation”, “the confusion and guilt and plain ignorance that surrounded sex”, the power of the Church, violence and abuses within the family and the Catholic education system. The same themes recur in Memoir and in the autobiographical essays in this book; he was always reworking his life story. All his readers know that he was the child of a gentle, educated woman, a teacher, a devoted mother who wanted him to be a priest, that his father was a bullying sergeant, that he grew up with his siblings during the war on a farm in County Leitrim, near Enniskillen and the border. The death of his mother when he was ten, his unhappy childhood with his father in the barracks, his early reading in the library of eccentric Protestant neighbours, his education with the Presentation Brothers in Carrick-on-Shannon and then, in the 1950s, at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, his training to be a teacher, his years as a writer in 1960s Dublin, the scandal that drove him out of Ireland, and his later return; these are the key stories of this writer’s life.
McGahern’s early novels provoked some outrage in Ireland. The Pornographer was a startling book for its time. An essay called “Censorship” recounts (as he does in Memoir) the banning of The Dark in Ireland in 1965, and McGahern’s subsequent dismissal from his job as a primary schoolteacher in Dublin. It is a comical but bitter story. While he was teaching, McGahern had married, abroad, a Finnish divorcee, his first wife. The official who dismissed him said: “If it was just the auld book, maybe we might have been able to do something for you, but by going and marrying this foreign woman in a registry office you have turned yourself into an impossible case entirely”. McGahern went first to work in London, travelled widely, got married again, to his life’s companion, Madeline Green, and returned with her in the 1970s to farm and write in the same spot in County Leitrim where he grew up.
From the 1970s onwards he also wrote plays, and four fine collections of short stories, collected in 1992. His magnificent, sombre novel of Irish family life, Amongst Women, was published in 1990. It begins: “As he weakened, Moran grew afraid of his daughters”. That quiet, lethal first sentence tells you this is a writer who knows exactly what he is doing – and what a dark, troubling novel this would be. Michael Moran is a powerful and disappointed man, impotent in the outside world, a domestic tyrant in his own kingdom. The novel is intensely local. The farming cycle controls the shape of the book. Vicious local gossip registers every phase of Moran’s life. Old local customs persist. On “Monaghan Day” poor farmers sell stock to rich ones; at Christmas the “wren-boys” go from house to house to play at dances; the locals still bury their dead in the old graveyard of the ruined church out on the edge of the sea. All these habits and traditions are found, also, in his autobiographical essays, but more tenderly and nostalgically.
Moran is a man of fixed behaviour. Every Monaghan Day for years, until they quarrel, he meets with his old companion-at-arms, to recall their exploits in an IRA flying column, fighting in the Anglo-Irish war of 1919–21. (Ernie O’Malley, the leader of one such column in Munster, is an important figure in Love of the World, where McGahern is acute about his mixture of quixotic romanticism and manipulative violence). At the end, Moran’s coffin is draped in a faded tricolour, and “as the casket stood on the edge of the grave a little man in a brown felt hat, old and stiff enough to have fought with Finn and Oisin”, comes out of the crowd and with deep respect removes the flag. In an essay called “The Solitary Reader”, McGahern tells an ugly story about an incident at the Booker Prize dinner in 1990, the year Amongst Women was shortlisted. A. N. Wilson called out to the chair of the judges, Kenneth Baker, while he was talking to McGahern: “Do you realize, Mr Baker, that the novel glorifies the IRA?”. McGahern comments: “Amongst Women glorifies nothing but life itself . . . . All the violence is internalized within a family, is not public or political; but is not, therefore, a lesser evil”.
Moran is an embittered failure who detests the crowd of “small-minded gangsters” then running the country, and has no illusions about his part in the history of the Republic: “Don’t let anybody fool you. We were a bunch of killers”. He is a gloomy, doggedly pious, short-tempered and brutal man. The novel describes, with alarming quietness, his domination over his second wife, Rose, whom he married so that she could look after his three daughters and his younger son. The older son, the one who got away, has escaped to London. Rose’s creative endurance of an impossible marriage – a powerful study of female stoicism – is meshed in with the daughters’ painfully mixed feelings towards their father, and with the sons’ revolt. The family’s conspiratorial resistance to their tyrant is wonderfully done, and Moran’s dark turbulence is invoked in that grave, measured language which is McGahern’s signature.
"The light was beginning to fail but he did not want to go into the house. In a methodical way he set out to walk his land, field by blind field . . . . It was like grasping water to think how quickly the years had passed here. They were nearly gone. It was in the nature of things and yet it brought a sense of betrayal and anger, of never having understood anything much. Instead of using the fields, he sometimes felt as if the fields had used him. Soon they would be using someone else in his place . . . . He continued walking the fields like a man trying to see.
Dark had fallen by the time he went into the house."
So the dark falls, but what the book leaves you with is not a sense of darkness, but the feeling of illumination, of everything having been fully understood.
Amongst Women gained great acclaim; critics stopped calling McGahern under-recognized. Prizes and honours began to fall in his lap – the Irish Times Aer Lingus Prize, the American Irish Award, the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the GPA Prize (awarded by John Updike) and, later, the Lannan Literary Award and the South Bank Literature Award.
McGahern, meanwhile, remained on the farm in County Leitrim, appeared rarely at literary festivals, went to no literary parties, gave very occasional, powerfully intense readings, and took twelve years to write his next – and, as it turned out, his last – novel. That They May Face the Rising Sun, published in 2002, turned into fiction that quiet, reclusive, dedicated rural life. (In America it was called By the Lake, in case – he used to say – the original title might make readers think the book had something to do with Japan.) The setting was McGahern’s own place, the remote and sparsely populated corner of County Leitrim where he lived, worked and is now buried. There are a few houses on a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless Abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard. It is described in the novel meticulously and repeatedly, just as it is in Memoir, in the 1989 essay “County Leitrim: the sky above us”, and in stories like “High Ground” or “The Country Funeral”.
Very little happens in the novel, but everything that happens is “news”. Nothing goes unremarked. “Have you any news?” “No news. Came looking for news.” That is a running joke between the two couples living on the lake, Joe and Kate Ruttledge, who have lived and worked in England but have returned to the place Joe knows from childhood, and Jamesie and Mary Murphy, natives of the country: “I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world”, Jamesie boasts. There is affection and dependency between the four, but also reserve and distance. Their visits are marked by ritual jokes and by the retelling of stories they already know. “I’m sure I told it all before.” “Go ahead. There’s nothing new in the world. And we forget. We’ll hear it again.” Memories and stories recur. Clocks strike irregularly. (“What hurry’s on you?”) It’s hard at first to work out when this is taking place: the 1930s, the 50s, the 90s? Then we see the Murphys compulsively watching Blind Date. Telephone lines are being put in, at last. Over the border, a few years ago, there was the atrocity at Enniskillen.
The same few characters provide all the “news”. The district’s notorious womanizer, John Quinn, gets – and loses – a new wife. Kate’s uncle, “The Shah”, a wealthy, self-made businessman, passes on his business to his assistant. Bill Evans, a traumatized farmworker, has the small but intense pleasure of a weekly trip to town in a special bus. Jamesie’s brother is laid off from his poor job at Ford’s Dagenham plant, and threatens to move back in with the Murphys; they love him, but are aghast at the prospect. A local builder fails to finish the shed roof he is building for the Ruttledges. There are two deaths. As in Amongst Women, the farming cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. The same man sells his cabbages at the market every year. The lake – like Chekhov’s “magic lake” in The Seagull – is the book’s central character, stirring with its own life and peculiarities:
"The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish. There were many swans on the lake. A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore. A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog. A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand. The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky. Along the high banks at the edge of the water there were many little private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otters fed and trained their young."
What happens in nature is also “news”. “Everything will have started to grow”, says Jamesie at the start of spring. “It’s all going to be very interesting.”
It looks at first as if this is a benign antidote to Amongst Women’s dark rural story. But this is not a pastoral idyll. Many of the life stories are appalling, such as the monstrous John Quinn’s brutal treatment of his first wife and her elderly parents, or Bill Evans’s childhood sufferings at the hands of the sadistic Christian Brothers. Parents are humiliated by their children, brothers cannot tolerate the idea of living together, old friends lash out at each others’ faults.
Evasions, compromises and weaknesses are in every life. The Murphys’ gentle manners “dealt in avoidances and obfuscations . . . . Confrontation was avoided whenever possible . . . . It was a language that hadn’t any simple way of saying no”.
The violence in Northern Ireland just over the border is very close; it colours the whole history of the region. An IRA man – who is also the local auctioneer – is at work in the local town. Every year there is a procession to commemorate a terrible history of an ambush by the Black and Tans of young rebels. McGahern’s gentle alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out savagely against violence towards the end of the book. Ruttledge suggests to us how this intensely local story, shining with the visible world, opens out into larger meanings. Helping the builder with the shed roof, he notes “how the rafters frame the sky. How . . . they make it look more human by reducing the sky, and then the whole sky grows out from that small space”. “As long as they hold the iron, lad, they’ll do”, the builder replies.
So this moving novel, which looks so quiet and so provincial, opens out through its small frame to troubling and essential questions. How well do we remember? How do we make our choices in life? Will there be any other life than this? What is to remain of us? Above all, what can happiness consist in? “The very idea was dangerous . . . happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all.”
Three years later, in 2005, McGahern published Memoir. This was remarkably quick for him, and the book seems to have been written easily and rapidly. For his admirers it was a surprise, for he had always been a writer who preferred Flaubertian self- disguise to confessional. In Memoir at one point he says that “masks make us free”. Having put on the masks of fiction, he must have felt finally released into telling his own story directly – though even then there was much that is kept dark and secret. Memoir told, at last, his essential story. Here, minutely done, is his love of his mother, and the heartbreak of her death (“A terrible new life was beginning, a life without her, this evening and tomorrow and the next day and the next”); his cruel childhood with his sisters, ruled by their violent and unpredictable father, whom he said he never fully came to understand but had to write about all his life; the Catholic schooling, and his dismissal from his job. It moves between small everyday details – many of them, particularly his account of life in the barracks, quirky, fierce and funny – and his characteristic tone of stilled contemplation, which has an echo in it of the priest his mother meant him to be:
We come from darkness into light and grow in the light until at death we return to that original darkness. Those early years of the light are also a partial darkness because we have no power or understanding and are helpless in the face of the world. This is one of the great miseries of childhood. Mercifully, it is quickly absorbed by the boundless faith and energy and the length of the endlessly changing day of the child. Not even the greatest catastrophe can last the whole length of that long day.
Memoir was about returning – to places, memories, losses and the past. It was the final reworking of his life by a writer who never let go of things. Kate, the wife in That They May Face the Rising Sun, says that “the past and the present are all the same in the mind. They are just pictures”. McGahern painted in these pictures carefully, lovingly, repeatedly, minutely. He even rewrote some of his books, for instance The Leavetaking, which he revised ten years after its first publication. The slow pace at which he wrote is mirrored in the pace of the novels themselves. In Memoir, he said that “the people and the language and the landscape where I had grown up were like my breathing”. Memoir embodied his credo that stillness can work best for the writer: “the best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything”. Out of that comes the quality which he thinks all good writing must possess, “inner formality or calm”.
There is a great deal in Love of the World about how to write and what writing is for, and all of it reflects back on his own work. Art is McGahern’s alternative to, or replacement for, religion. Writing gives us “a world in which we can live . . . a world of the imagination over which we can reign”. Fictional writing, if it is to work well, must converge on and produce what he calls “an image”: “the clean image that moves us out into the light”. It must find the right rhythm, and it must be rooted in the local and the particular. “Everything interesting begins with one person and in one place.” “All good writing is local and is made universal through clear thinking and deep feeling finding the right expression and in so doing reflects all the particular form is capable of reflecting, including the social and the political”. It must be controlled by reason, but it must also be able to let go and trust to instinct. There must be “emotional truth and accuracy”. But it must not be uncontrolled “self-expression”: for McGahern, as for his hero Flaubert, that is “the opposite of creativity”.
He does not think writing can be taught, and he thinks it should not be ideological or explicitly political. He likes fiction which renders “the whole life of a person as being formed by a succession of single days”, as in the writing he admires: John Williams’s novel Stoner, Alistair MacLeod’s stories of Nova Scotia, some of Alice Munro’s stories, Tomàs Ó’Criomhthain’s The Islandman, translated from the Irish by Robin Flower. He likes an art – whether it is poetry, fiction, painting or photography – which will bring to light the lives and voices of people who have never thought about being witnessed or recorded, like the unselfconscious working rural Irishmen in the Leitrim photographs of Leland Duncan. “The moment and the day were everything. The past was a cutaway bog or an exhausted coal seam on the mountain. The future belonged with God. Too much talk they saw as unlucky and essentially idle. They left no records. Their presences are now scattered on the mountain air they once breathed.”
McGahern’s heroes (and they are mostly heroes, not heroines) are clearly strong influences on his work: Proust, Flaubert and Chekhov, Joyce (especially Dubliners), John Butler Yeats as letter-writer as well as painter. In spite of his admiration for Proust, his highest term of praise is “plain”, and he applies the word with equal strength of feeling to a writing style as to a landscape. “In its plain way I think it beautiful”, he says of his local small town. He is attached to the minor, enduring features of landscapes he knows: “There are also small trees that I find very moving”, he says of a coastal road in Galway. One anecdote repeated in this collection is of the IRA fighters Ernie O’Malley and Paddy Moran, who, in jail, “retrace in their minds the walk down the right bank of the Shannon from Lough Allen to Carrick, and in the evening come back up the opposite bank, each time adding fresh details along the way”.
Those IRA fighters haunt his landscapes, and the essays, like the novels and stories, are constantly harking back to the wars, the killings, the vendettas, the betrayals and failures and exiles, of twentieth-century Ireland. These are not idyllic writings, for all that they are full of the love of a landscape and an old way of life. They have a great deal to say, coldly and furiously, about the barbarities of the Catholic education system in his time (“I think that nearly all the children of that generation went to school in fear”), and about the damaging social and religious politics of Ireland between the 1910s and the 1970s. In McGahern’s view, the “spirit of the Proclamation was subverted in the Free State . . . rights and freedoms were whittled away from the nation as a whole in favour of the dominant religion”. “Church and State became inseparable, with unhealthy consequences for both.” The essays spell out forcefully the political opinions which provoked, and darkly underlay, his deliberately non- political fictions.
Yet the religion he was brought up in and which he associates profoundly with his mother always colours his language and his ways of thinking. It upset him to be accused of anti-Catholicism, however much he loathed the theocracy that controlled and monitored expression in his youth. In 1993 he wrote: “I have nothing but gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing, the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven. That is all that now remains. Belief as such has long gone”.
Much of McGahern’s Ireland is long gone too, but in these essays vanished figures come back with vivid energy: the boorishly quarrelsome man of genius Patrick Kavanagh, the charmingly argumentative painter Paddy Swift, bluff, shy, sensitive Michael McLaverty, his childhood neighbours the Moroneys, eccentric bee-keepers and astronomers. His characterizations are no more sentimental than his fictions. He can be caustic and unforgiving; there are some biting short reviews of writers he considers to be “too literary”, such as J. M. Coetzee and Isabel Allende. (In fact there are too many short, minor reviews piled into this baggy holdall of a book, which, as a piece of editing, is awkwardly constructed by themes, under-annotated and repetitive.)
In a number of the essays McGahern refers with pleasure to the kind of person who has “a very sly twinkle” or makes “a sly pointed comment”, who is shrewd or humorous. At one point he talks of himself at school as “hiding behind a kind of clowning”. He himself was funny and mischievous in company, looking like a country farmer, ruddy-faced and bright-eyed, and talking wickedly about literary folk. But under his courtly, jocular, affable loquacity was a deep reserve; in interview he was guarded and wary. Well, he is gone: as he says here, of his friend Michael McLaverty, “Now only the work remains”.
Hermione Lee is President of Wolfson College, Oxford. Her most recent works include Biography: A very short introduction, 2009.