John McGahern

by John Boland

You can’t go home again, the American writer Thomas Wolfe declared in the title of one of his most famous books. John McGahern would not have agreed. After years spent in Dublin, London and further afield, he returned three decades ago to the countryside of his birth and remained there until his untimely death yesterday.

Imaginatively, though, he’d never left the towns, villages and fields on both sides of the Roscommon-Leitrim border, just as Joyce never left the Dublin of his youth, Sherwood Anderson the Winesburgh, Ohio, of his boyhood or Alice Munro her little stretch of rural Canada. Some of his stories and parts of his novels may be set elsewhere, but even these seem to yearn for the home from which they’re stranded in exile.

This fidelity to place is, I think, crucial to McGahern’s greatness as a writer. Not for him the varieties of locale, situation and mood that you’ll encounter in that other modem Irish master of fiction, William Trevor, who has always delighted in disappearing behind the multitude of personae he conjures into life. In place of Trevor’s dazzling breadth, McGahern opted for the depth that’s to be found by the scrupulous mining of a narrow seam.

That the results were never narrow is an indication of his mastery of imaginative fiction, in which his meticulous attention to the shaping of each sentence and his sympathetic engagement with human aspirations, failings and losses resulted in writing of timeless appeal.

It was an appeal that, in the years since the 1990 publication of ‘Amongst Women’, made him that rare entity in Ireland – a much-loved writer whose public readings and interviews attracted audiences most other writers could only dream about. The admirers were coming to hear a major writer, of course, but there was more to it than that – there was a sense that here was a man who somehow belonged to everybody and who was to be cherished both for his insights and for the empathy and truthfulness he brought to his telling of them. He was the kindly uncle who saw it all, understood it all and forgave most of it, and his audiences and readers adored him for it.
It wasn’t always like that. His two earliest novels, ‘The Barracks’ (1963) and ‘The Dark’ (1965), were subversive in their anger and their anguish, and after the banning of the latter the young writer was fired from his teaching post in Dublin. In his later years, he chose to regard these two traumatic acts in terms of low comedy and was fond of quoting the school principal who fired him: “If it was only the banning of the auld book it wouldn’t be too bad, but why did you want to go and marry a divorced foreign woman when there are thousands of Irish girls with their tongues hanging out for a man?” To which the young writer retorted that he hadn’t noticed too many tongues hanging out in his direction.

It was a good story and he enjoyed telling it, but the incident it recorded saw him in temporary exile. His readership at that time was discerning rather than large and even though his devotees kept faith with him and always regarded him as a writer of major stature (nowhere more so than in France, where he has been much honoured), it wasn’t until the publication of ‘Amongst Women’ that he began to be regarded by a wider Irish and international public as somehow a central, and centrally important, chronicler of Irish life over the last half century.

‘Amongst Women’ was a bestseller and remains his most popular book, though his recent ‘Memoir’, about his harrowing early life under a brutal father, was acclaimed for its honesty and integrity, and some readers have a special affection for the 2002 ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’, which is a curious novel in that it is all story and no plot but which evokes the passing of the seasons in a rural landscape with breathtaking precision and lyrical beauty. Two earlier novels, ‘The Leavetaking’ (1974) and ‘The Pornographer’ (1979), are full of wonderful things but remain structurally problematic.

The short stories are what many, this writer included, regard as his greatest achievement, worthy of being placed beside those of such contemporaries as William Trevor, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, He was writing them from the outset of his career and they appeared in three individual volumes – ‘Nightlines’ (1970), ‘Getting Through’ (1978) and ‘High Ground’ (1985) – before a ‘Collected Stories’ appeared in 1992. This is currently due for reissue with some added stories.
What makes these stories great? Many things, though not least the wrenching eloquence the writer conveys as his protagonists falter towards whatever self-revelation is awaiting them. It’s this sense of almost stumbling across a great, if uncomfortable, truth that gives many of these stories their often troubling power, as self-discovery is not arrived at easily by many of the characters.

Nor, of course, is it always welcome. Life, George Orwell observed, is an accumulation of small disappointments, and the lives of many of McGahern’s characters, whether on a small farm or in a Dublin flat, are permeated by such let downs. Some of these let downs occur in sexual relationships and I can think of no other writer who has described so well the initial elation and the dying fall of an affair, as the catastrophe of carnal desire takes its compulsive course.
Yet in the mysterious way of art these stories transcend and transmute their situations and say something real and true to us about ourselves. They redeem their immediate circumstances and become universal, while remaining resolutely local and temporal. And, over time, they become works of social history, too, as we seek in them truths about who we were and who we are now.

McGahern has long been the great Irish writer of his time and his books will out live the man who passed away yesterday and who leaves behind him his wonderful wife and soulmate Madeline.

He will be mourned, not just by those of us who had the privilege of knowing him and who loved him for his kindness, his courtesies and his considerable, often very mischievous wit, but also by anyone who truly loves literature.

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