THE LETTERS OF JOHN MCGAHERN. Edited by Frank Shovlin. Faber & Faber, £30 in UK.

Such is Frank Shovlin’s remarkable scholarship throughout these 800 pages that the book is worth reading for its annotations alone. If McGahern mentions in passing an upcoming football match in 1973, a footnote on the same page tells the reader that the match in question was a World Cup qualifier at Wembley between England and Poland, that it resulted in a scoreless draw, with England taking 36 unsuccessful shots at goal, and that it denied the home side a place at the 1974 tournament in West Germany.

There are similarly detailed and absorbing footnotes on every page, while the letters themselves are so compellingly readable that the book provides a treasure trove for anyone interested in the writer, the man, the cultural and social history of his times, or indeed the trials and tribulations of the literary life, including the blandishments and networking entailed in the publishing game: a “savage trade”, as he calls it at one point.

“Implacable courtesy” was McGahern’s advice to Seamus Heaney about dealing with the envy and resentment of other writers, and (like Heaney himself) he was always a courteous man – as well as charming and mischievous and great fun. But he was also a master of the devastating putdown and in my chats with him over the years he often delivered withering verdicts on others – indeed, I sometimes hesitated about leaving the room lest, in my temporary absence, I incur a similar fate.

There are striking examples of his putdowns in these pages, with poets getting especially rough treatment. Being trapped on a two-hour train journey with Padraic Fiacc “was like being doused in soft warm shit”. John Montague was a “fraud” and also a “gossip”: “He may amuse you with it, but be careful as far as trusting him with anything goes. Don’t”.

And when it came to his old friend Richard Murphy, he observed after a 1969 meeting with him that “there’s no concealing the homosexuality anymore, it rampages in the face”. Indeed, such are the venomous barbs about Murphy in letters to others it’s as well that the poet passed away three years ago. Yet though he disliked the boozed and truculent persona of Patrick Kavanagh, “he’s a real poet and that’s rare…after Beckett he’s probably the only one of that whole generation”.

Some of the correspondents come and go throughout the book. There’s a flurry of flirtatious letters to American graduate student Mary Keelan in the early 1960s, but when she finally responds to his protestations of love, he abruptly drops her. And there are numerous chatty and confiding letters to Patrick Gregory, who worked for Knopf in New York, but when, after a period of eight years, Gregory moved publishing jobs, the correspondence comes to a sudden halt.

Some contacts, though, remain constant down through the decades. This is especially true of such old friends as Jimmy Swift and journalist Joe Kennedy, the letters to whom are notable for the unfeigned warmth of his responses. And Kevin Lehane, a lovely man who became manager of the Ambassador cinema in Dublin and subsequently the Academy in Pearse Street, is spoken of with great affection.

But the most constant and frequent of these letters are to Charles Montieth, the Antrim-born Faber editor who nurtured McGahern’s talent from the outset and was also a mentor to Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. He’s an avuncular presence throughout and someone in whom McGahern easily confides.

The book’s main biographical revelation concerns the existence of a son, the product of a brief 1962 love affair with young Irish Press journalist Joan Kelly, who went to England to have the baby. Seventeen years later, in a letter to an old friend, he recalls telling Joan that he would be “unavailable” as a father. “It was considered part of my brutality at the time”, he remarks. Eventually, late in 1979, he met up with Joan and 17-year-old son Joseph in Portsmouth, where she was stationed with the Royal Navy.

There’s not much reference to his father, who was such a baleful presence in his early life and looms over Memoir (2005) but is here reduced to the status of the “old bastard” who “wrote a horrible letter over the break-up of my marriage”. However, we follow in detail the ultimately doomed 1960s relationship with first wife Annikki, the banning of The Dark in 1965, his subsequent sacking as a teacher, and the flourishing of his loving and enduring relationship with Madeline, who became his second wife and to whom this collection of letters is dedicated.

“Im afraid I’m seldom kind when it comes to writing”, he confessed in a letter written some months before his death, and indeed he could be a rigorously stern critic of the works of others, even when they were such friends as Brian Friel and Colm Toibin.

So how will his own work come to be judged? Fifteen years after his passing, he can be seen as the scrupulous chronicler of a vanished Ireland that existed before the internet and the smart phone – and, indeed, before revelations about the widespead clerical abuse of children: a more savage Ireland than even his beady-eyed scrutiny of human behaviour envisaged.

But he’ll be remembered for three novels – The Barracks, The Dark and Amongst Women – and for his incomparable short stories, which are where, I feel, his true genius lies. And he may well be remembered, too, for these letters, in which both the man and the writer come vibrantly alive.


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