Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist. By Denis Sampson (Oxford University Press)

by John Boland

Irish Independent, February 18, 2012

The decade following a writer’s death is often the most cruel to his status. During his lifetime, Graham Greene was viewed as the most vitally topical of novelists, but on his demise in 1991 he was downgraded as too caught up in his times to be relevant anymore and his reputation has never since quite recovered. Closer to home, the similarly admired Brian Moore, who died in 1999, is almost forgotten now – you’ll look in vain for his novels in most bookstores.

In the five years since John McGahern’s passing, not much has been written about him and it is difficult to gauge whether the literary esteem – indeed, intense fondness – in which he was held during his later years remains as potent or whether his incessant focus on a now vanished age and an almost-vanished way of rural life will tell against him.

And so Denis Sampson’s new book is a timely reminder of why we should honour this fastidious chronicler of Irish society, though its title may mislead some readers into thinking they’re about to read a narrative that (in the manner of so many warts-and-all biographies) will dish the dirt on its subject in his progress from the insecurities of rural boyhood to the intellectual, social and sexual possibilities provided by such cities as Dublin and London – surely there must be indiscretions to disclose.

However, it’s not that kind of book and Sampson, an Irish academic based in Montreal, is not that kind of writer, as can be deduced from his previous work – a scholarly treatise on McGahern’s fiction and a fine critical biography of Brian Moore. Indeed, on the level of biographical detail, much of the information set out in this new book will be familiar to anyone who’s read McGahern’s Memoir (2005) and Love of the World (2009), which features a good number of autobiograhical sketches and personal reminiscences by the author.

With regards to posthumous revelations, Sampson favours respectful circumspection. Former pupils of McGahern who phoned Joe Duffy’s Liveline show last year had distressing recollections of the man’s behaviour in his Belgrove classroom, but that controversy is not mentioned here and we merely learn that “some found his discipline harsh and his presence intimidating.”

A similar discretion marks the brief account of McGahern’s relationship with Nuala O’Faolain in the early 1960s, though I was intrigued to learn of his time with the Irish-American fiction writer Elizabeth Cullinan, who first met him in Dublin in 1961 and who may have been the model for the young woman in two of his finest stories, ‘Doorways’ and ‘Bank Holiday’ – just as O’Faolain was possibly the lust object in the darkly bawdy ‘My Love, My Umbrella.’

Sampson is especially interesting on McGahern’s early mentors and friends in Dublin, including Eanna OhEither from the Aran Islands, whom he met while studying at St Patrick’s teacher-training college in Drumcondra in the early 1950s and who, according to Sampson, “played a decisive role in freeing McGahern from the insularity of the institution” and the “repressive regime” of its clerical rulers. We hear, too, of his friendship with Kevin Lehane, whom I fondly recall from his time as manager of the Ambassador and Academy cinemas, and with the artistic-minded Swift family, who lived off the South Circular Road, and with whom McGahern forged a bond that would last many years.

From essays in Love of the World, McGahern’s distaste for the “bohemian” bars of Dublin’s artistic set had already been clear. “A single visit to McDaid’s was enough,” he wrote, “to cure me of any desire for literary company for a month,” though the reader was left wondering whether this was a principled stance or because he felt slighted by Patrick Kavanagh and drinking cronies. Sampson doesn’t quite resolve that question but he evokes the general scene – “a warm pool full of smiling crocodiles,” in Cyril Connolly’s memorable phrase – and McGahern’s unease with it very well.

The book’s real intent, though, is to provide a portrait of the evolving artist and to this end it offers engrossing correspondences between the life of the budding writer and the prose fiction into which his experiences were transmuted.

There’s much comment, too, on his dedication to “solitary reading” and on the writers who were to influence his vocation : writers as various as Tolstoy, Proust, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett – and, indeed, Kavanagh, who proved far more congenial to him as a poet than as a man.

At the end of this period in McGahern’s life came the publication of The Barracks in 1963 – “the classic novel,” in Sampson’s conclusion, “out of which all his later achievement would grow.” But that’s for another book.

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