On John McGahern  

The first short story I wrote was a work of genius. It was austere and lovely, full of elegant sentences and sharp insights. Any reviewer would have called it a tour de force. Because the first short story I wrote was by John McGahern.

It’s called ‘Sierra Leone’ and it appears in the 1979 collection Getting Through, a copy of which had been purchased by my father and was lying around the house. In the story, a couple meet in a Dublin bar to discuss their complicated affair. I was sixteen that year. Complicated affairs interested me. My English teacher, John Burns, a wonderful man, who would rage like King Lear or weep at a line of Yeats, said writing could be a beneficial hobby for teenagers. It was the one thing he ever told us that was completely wrong.

Writing was like attempting to juggle with mud. I would sit in my bedroom, gawping at a blank jotter, wishing I had the foggiest inkling as to what might be written. McGahern often wrote about rural Leitrim, but we had no hedgerows or loys in the 1970s Dublin estate I called home. We had no thwarted farmers, no maiden aunts on bicycles, no small-town solicitors, no cattle-dealing IRA veterans. Simply put, there was nothing in Glenageary to write about. You could call it the original failure of the creative imagination without which no writer ever got going.

Whenever I tried to write, there was only frustration. I felt as pent-up as McGahern’s lovers. That’s how I recollect these youthful efforts at fiction: a haze of self-conscious fumblings and awkward gropings, second-hand sentences, sentenced to fail. One evening, in dismal hopelessness, I found myself copying out ‘Sierra Leone’ word for word. I ached to write a story. So I wrote one.

I must have felt that the act of writing would make the words somehow mine. But, if so, it was an act of literary adultery. I smouldered to know what that feeling was like: to write out a beautiful text from start to finish. I suppose this was comparable to wannabe pop-stars throwing shapes and pulling pouts in the bathroom mirror. But something richer and more interesting was going on, too. McGahern was teaching me to read, not to write: to see the presences hidden in the crannies of a text, the realities the words are gesturing towards. Perhaps this is what pulses at the core of the desire to read: the yearning for intense relationship with words we love. Not just with what they are saying, but with the words themselves. Perhaps every reader is re-writing the story.

The next evening, I transcribed the McGahern piece again. This time I dared to alter a couple of names. The male lead became ‘Sean’ (my father’s name). I christened his girlfriend ‘Deborah’ (after the punk singer Debbie Harry). Our next-door neighbour, Jack Mulcahy, had his name nicked for the barman. This felt taboo. It was like editing the bible. I was raised in a home where books were revered. My parents considered it disreputable even to dog-ear a volume’s pages. To interfere with a story would have been regarded as a form of sacrilege. Under the spell of McGahern, I became a teenage blasphemer.

Every few nights I’d guiltily rewrite the latest adaptation, changing the grammar here, a phrasing there. I’d move around events, break up the paragraphs, or tell the same story but from a different point of view. I must have written a hundred versions. The heroine’s beautiful hair became auburn or black, and finally - exultantly! - ‘strawberry blonde’. I learned the importance of punctuation in a story. A question mark could change things. A well-placed full stop had the force of a slap. Before long, I was murdering McGahern’s characters, replacing them with own pitifully scanty puppets. The pub became a discotheque, the couple acquired flares; I engaged them, married them, bought them a house in the suburbs, then a collection of Planxty records and a second-hand lawnmower. The lovers in the story were starting to seem familiar. They would not have appeared out of place in Arnold Grove, Glenageary.

I rechristened them ‘Adam and Eve’, after a church on the Dublin quays not far from where my father grew up. I altered their appearances, their way of speaking. I was afraid to admit it, but I knew who they were becoming. They roamed this fictive otherworld, this Eden designed in Leitrim, talking to each other about all sorts of things: how much they loved novels, how books shouldn’t be dog-eared. Sometimes they quarreled. I would have them reconcile. I could almost feel the firelight of that pub on my face as I watched my parents materialize through the prose.

I’d look at ‘Sierra Leone’. It became a kind of friend to me. I wanted to know it better, to learn how it ticked. At one point in those years, I could have made a fair stab at reciting the entire text by heart. It was breathtakingly simple, as though it had taken no effort to compose. In that, and in other ways, it was like an old Connemara ballad, of the kind I had often heard with my father on our holidays in Galway: so direct, so alluring, so subtly economical. It reminded me of ‘The Rocks of Bawn’: you wanted to know how it would turn out. It read, in fact, as though nobody had written it - as if it had somehow grown on the page. I recall one of the sentences: ‘Her hair shone dark blue in the light.’ That strange ache in the heart caused by precise words.

Each man kills the thing he loves. And so the vandalism continued, night after night, with me editing and re-writing this once perfect story with all the grace and deference of a wrecking ball in a cathedral, until gradually, over the span of my teenage years, every trace of McGahern was squeezed out of the text. Sierra Leone had become Glenageary. The story had been desecrated, but at least the resulting ruin was mine. When once in my later life I had the opportunity of relating this tale of destruction to the gentle master whose work I had so heartlessly destroyed, he replied, somewhat gravely: ‘You owe me a pint.’

Perhaps all writers have the story they will tell forever, the idea they will go on exploring, consciously or not, until they run out of masks or find their own way of seeing the world. McGahern’s ‘Sierra Leone’ helped me find mine. Every fiction I’ve begun, every story I’ve struggled and failed with, has been an attempted reaching-back to that heart-stopping moment of first encountering the power of his art. It’s a desire as doomed as any in the history of love stories. But you could spend your time chasing worse.

The Miro foundation in Barcelona, a city about which McGahern wrote with great grace, is arranged by chronology. You start with the child-artist’s naïve little doodles: his cartoon faces and multicoloured animals. Then you walk through the rooms organised year-by-year, through a life of struggle to say anything worth saying. You think of Patrick Kavanagh as you move through the still rooms: a man who dabbled in verse, only to have it become a life. Here are the pictures from the young Miro’s figurative phase, the bowls of fat oranges, the wine-bottles on windowsills. Then the warped guitars, the twisted limbs and mouths. You see him wrestle with the central question of Kavanagh’s career: how to balance the satirical impulse with fidelity to the sacred. And then the stuff gets stranger, wilder, more revolutionary. The faces are leering, the bodies apparently yearning to flee their frames; the world turns upside down before your eyes. And now paint itself begins to be abandoned: there are crazy collages, sculptures, ceramics, electric with the colours of the Catalonia Miro loved. It is a stunning experience to enter the last room and see the three vast canvases that dominate its walls. They hit you the way the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth do, or those last short plays of Samuel Beckett, in a way you know you will never quite forget. Each painting is an unadorned field of vivid blue, with a yellow snaking line bisecting the plane. The simplicity moves you with incredible force, the idea that at the end of such a long search there is only the very simple, the plain line across colour, the desire to leave a stain on the silence. To stand before these images always brings McGahern to my mind: the man who knew, again like Kavanagh, that in art there will always be two kinds of simplicity. The simplicity of going away and the simplicity of coming back.

Much more could be said about McGahern and Kavanagh, two rural-born Irish writers who chronicled versions of Dublin more memorably than did many a native. Again and again, the city appears in McGahern’s work, sometimes at a distance but often centrally. The exquisite short stories are peopled by migrant characters who see the metropolis as labyrinth of possibilities. Here is a Dublin of tatty dancehalls and uneasy courtships, of kisses in damp doorways and unfulfilled hungerings. His citizens are stalwarts of the city’s rural-born workforce, who take the first available bus home to the countryside on a Friday evening and the last one back to Bedsit-Land on a Sunday night. They are, in short, like most Dubliners were at the time, and as many are now, despite the new prosperity. Their flings and farewells make for writing of extraordinary beauty, with the city as forlorn backdrop to the search for love. Anyone who has ever lived away from home will find bittersweet beauty in these pages.

McGahern’s work acknowledges that Dublin (like capitals everywhere) is largely a community of migrants with conflicted loyalties. And I think of his explorations as opening a way for a number of subsequent writers. In that context it is striking that much of the most compelling fiction about the city has been produced by authors who grew up somewhere else. Ulsterman Patrick McCabe’s The Dead School and London-born Philip Casey’s The Fabulists offer powerful reflections on a place that changed radically in the 1970s, as political failure and corruption began to wreak havoc. In The Book of Evidence, Wexford-born John Banville produced a gripping novel set in the Dublin of that furtive era, a nighttown of whispered secrets and compromised positions. I find it hard to imagine how these novels could have been written without the presence of McGahern on the Irish scene. For me, he looms behind everyone. Every subsequent Irish novelist owes him a debt.

At UCD in the 1980s, encouraged by Declan Kiberd and the late Gus Martin, I read The Barracks, The Dark and more of the stories. I found them completely strange and always enthralling. At the time, the vogue among my friends was for Latin American ‘Magic Realism’. In those years it often seemed that no novel was worthy of the name unless it contained a talking leopard or a fifteen-page sentence. Against this blizzard of vowelly pyrotechnics McGahern’s work stood solid, starkly implacable, like a dry-stone wall in a windstorm. I loved its quiet faith, its insistence on its own terms. And then came his masterpiece Amongst Women, perhaps the most important Irish novel of the late twentieth century.

So much has been written and said about this sparely magnificent book. It does what was done by Joyce, by George Eliot and Miro, by Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, the Sex Pistols and Miles Davis: it conjures a world that is absolutely specific to itself, down to the most minuscule, seemingly inconsequential detail, but in so doing manages the alchemy of saying something about every life. Not for nothing did this novel become a bestseller in Ireland, as well as being garlanded with literary awards. The family it depicts is somehow every Irish family of a certain era, held together by its secrets, bound by its evasions, by a nexus of loyalties, only one of which is love. Indeed, it is difficult not to read the Morans as embodying the profoundly uneasy nation in which they exist.

The book draws so subtly from that bottomless well of Irish familial images and returns them to us re-imagined, made wholly new. Moran, the disillusioned republican, burnished hard by pain, walks through the book like a living ghost, through drifts of memories of nights on the run, promises broken, responsibilities ducked. The women in the book, especially the elderly women, are so utterly real, so achingly recognisable that you forget they are products of someone’s imagination. They talk about the rain, about children and food, and you know something else is being discussed all the time. And the episode near the end, at Moran’s funeral, is the most powerful fictional scene I have read since my adolescence, when its author helped me first know what it is to read. We see the local hacks of the two conservative parties snickering together in the rural cemetery, as the embittered old revolutionary is finally buried. Sometimes great writers know things they don’t know. This tableau was composed a decade before the Celtic Tiger padded into Ireland, but it is the most forceful comment imaginable on that ambiguous, sharp-toothed beast.

His final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, took eleven years to make and surprised many of its creator’s admirers by addressing that rarest of Irish literary subjects: happiness. Here on the lakeside, near to Gloria Bog, little is happening beyond the everyday syncopations - yet, as ever, McGahern unearths resonant beauty. Gossip is a currency, as always in Ireland, and his dialogue, so subtle and carefully poised, abounds with the juiciness of popular speech. It is his most audaciously structured book to date, almost completely devoid of plot, suggesting reams about its characters while rarely telling you anything about them. Reading it is like reading everything he wrote: like moving to a place you've never lived in before, where you don't know the neighbours or how things work. But thanks to McGahern, you want to know them, because somehow coming to know them, even though they might be nothing like you, is to come to know yourself and those you love, and to understand that there is still a kind of hope.

McGahern’s Collected Stories had been 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 Pornographer some years after its first publication – came back to these magnificent stories in the last seasons of his life. A new collection, Creatures of the Earth, appeared eight months after his death. As well as being the finest body of short stories published by any Irish writer in recent years is also a fascinating self-critique.

Nothing like academic completeness had been attempted, although, given the large number of drafts reportedly among his papers, a variorum edition will surely be published at some point. Seven stories had been removed. The order of appearance had been altered. Two new stories were included, ‘Creatures of the Earth’ and ‘Love of the World’. Some of the surviving pieces, already spare, had 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 – he was a little too tough on himself, omitting stories any writer would love to have made -- but in a tantalizingly 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.’ It is tempting to read that sentence as an epitaph for its author.

The collection serves as a farewell to the characters that McGahern made his own. They walk through these unforgettable and 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. He is brilliant on human weakness, on what it means to be powerless, this Chekhov of small town, pre-confident Ireland. His people have feelings of agonizing complexity but their language does not give them the power of expression. Like Beckett’s outcasts, and 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 but returns them re-minted, 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 in the stories, 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 he 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 twentieth century and this collection is an extraordinary triumph. Indeed, right to the end his work was opening ground, new ways of reading the silence. His work remains a reminder of the everyday miracle of fiction; one of the reasons why we want to read at all, wherever that grace is revealed to be available, in suburban bedrooms, or in bed-sits, alone.



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