John McGahern’s Essays

by John Boland

When John McGahern died in March 2006 at the age of 71, he was the most admired Irish fiction writer of his generation and there seems no reason to alter that evaluation today.

This is not always the case after a writer’s passing. Graham Greene’s reputation went into a decline on his death in 1991, his novels seeming somehow the legacy of an era that had vanished, their political topicality and their religious concerns no longer regarded as timely or even relevant. And the same is true of other writers – F Scott Fitzgerald, who died in 1940, was almost entirely forgotten for the rest of that decade and Elizabeth Bowen, who died in 1973, has only recently received the critical recognition she has always deserved.

But McGahern’s claim on posterity is a little different because in the last twenty years of his life he was not only the most admired of Irish prose writers but the most loved, too. Since the publication of Amongst Women in 1990, his public readings and occasional interviews attracted a range of people not available to other writers. They were coming to hear a major literary figure, but there was also the sense that here was a man who really belonged to them – a man who, through the banning of The Dark and the sacking from his teaching job, had been treated shamefully by the religious and secular authorities (indignities he bore with quiet stoicism), who understood the feelings of his fellow countrymen and women and who, in beautifully cadenced and accessible prose, told them the often uncomfortable truth about their own lives and about the troublesome and troubling country in which he and they found themselves.

In that sense, this latter-day McGahern was a kind of sage or at least a kindly uncle who saw it all, understood it all and forgave most of it – though not the savagery committed by Church and State in the name of so-called independence. That, too, registered powerfully with an audience bewildered and angered by the political and religious scandals that came to light in the 1990s.

Of course without the scrupulous rigour and hard-won insights that he brought to his fiction, such devotion to him probably wouldn’t have survived his lifetime, but, though the man is now gone, his personality is all  there in the prose – in the novels, in Memoir and especially in the short stories, which cherish humanity and rebuke those who seek to pervert it and which, more than the work of his contemporaries, provide a central, and centrally important, chronicle of Irish life over the last half-century.

For that reason, anyone who loves his work will be enthralled by Love of the World, a collection of his essays and reviews, many of them culled from the pages of this newspaper. As Declan Kiberd points out in his introduction, McGahern responded to editors he liked rather than to particular publications, and he often spoke to me of his fondness for Vinnie Doyle, former editor of the Irish Independent, and for Ferdia MacAnna, former books editor of the Evening Herald.

Kiberd describes this book as “a gathering of fugitives” and indeed that’s what it is – there’s little here that’s as essential as even the slightest of his stories, and there’s much that’s repetitive (whole sentences, and sometimes paragraphs, reappear in various of the pieces), but the reader is being granted access to  the same civilised mind and encountering the same concerns that are transmuted into art in the fiction.

The book’s title, which is also the title of one of his last stories, comes from Hannah Arendt, and it enshrines what McGahern felt about living and about the daily pleasures and epiphanies, most of them bestowed us on when we least expect them, that give exhilaration to our existence. Indeed, it is the day rather than any grandiose notion of life as a part of any grand plan that he celebrates. In this he is at one with the great Russian writers he so loved. In his lovely essay on Turgenev, VS Pritchett observes that in nineteenth-century Russian literature “we seem to hear a voice saying: ‘The meaning of life? One day that will be revealed to us – probably on a Thursday.’ And the day, not the insistence of the plot or purpose, is the melodic bar. We see life again, as we indeed know it, as something written in days, its dramas not directed by the superior foreknowledge of the writer, but seeming to ebb and flow among the climaxes, the anticlimaxes, the yawnings of the hours. And in seeing people in terms of their anonymous days, the Russians achieved, by a paradox, a sense of timelessness in their books.”

So did McGahern with his insistence on the passing hour as the only thing we really know. “People do not live in decades or histories,” he writes. “They live in moments, hours, days.” And this profound sense of the temporal, along with his love of the local, leads him to disdain the repressive culture in which he grew up, where “a childishness in religion and politics and art was encouraged to last a whole life long” – though he adds that “most people were untouched by all this and went about their sensible pagan lives as they had done for centuries.”

That’s from a hitherto unpublished essay on censorship, but the theme recurs as a kind of motif in other essays – notably in ‘The Solitary Reader’, where he writes of the “collusion of Church and State to bring about an Irish society that was insular, repressive and sectarian” – a system “so blatantly foolish in so many of its manifestations that it could only provoke the defence of laughter, though never then in public.”

Instead he revels in the essential carnality of people, an earthiness that neither Church nor State can ever fully stifle, as in his evocation of a ballroom near Mohill “that throbbed to the big bands of the 1950s” and where “there wasn’t a haycock safe for a mile around in the month of July.”

Given this feeling for the accidental wonder and beauty of ordinary life, it hardly needs to be said that he had no time for nationalistic pieties. An essay written in 1991 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Easter rebellion opens dismissively: “I think that the 1916 Rising was not considered to be of any great importance in the country I grew up in. In fact, it was felt secretly to have been a mistake…Certainly, it meant little to the people in the crowded boat trains, the men who worked on the roads or had a few acres and followed de Valera’s dream, the men and women who waited till they were too old to marry.”

Yet his imaginative sympathies could also lead him to write eloquently about Ernie O’Malley, his dismay at O’Malley’s contempt for democracy leavened by his admiration of  On Another Man’s Wound, which he praises for its candour, wryly adding that that it was “the one book of high literary quality permanently on display in Sinn Fein’s windows.”

Indeed, his sympathies are generous and wide-ranging. There are fine essays here on John Butler Yeats, Tomas O Criomhthain, Dick Walsh and the painter Patrick Swift, as well as praise for authors as diverse as Georges Simenon, Alistair MacLeod, Vikram Seth, Mavis Gallant, Edmund Wilson and Alice Munro. There are also lovely evocations of meals in Julien’s art nouveau restaurant in Paris’s Saint-Denis, of living in Trinity College, of  Mohill (“one of the happiest towns in Ireland”) and of Blake’s pub in Enniskillen, where I had pints with the author more than once. “One of the happiest and most beautiful bars in the whole of Ireland,” he says of it, and it certainly was on those occasions.

“I have always looked on art as a luxury,” he declares in the essay on censorship. “While it may be an important part of my life, it can never be confused with essentials such as food or shelter, education or medicine.” But in another previously unpublished essay he says “I write because I need to write. I write to see. Through words I see.” And through his words we’ve all seen things we would otherwise have been the poorer for missing.

Love of the World: Essays. By John McGahern. Faber & Faber, 20.00 sterling.

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