Declan Kiberd, ‘Portraits of a paradise lost’, review of John McGahern, Memoir, in The Irish Times (3 Sept. 2005), Weekend.

[Autobiography: It’s one thing to recall the landscapes of childhood from the vantage-point of age and another to describe the scenery in which the grown person lives: but to seek to recapture the lost world of youth while living many decades later in its immediate setting is something else again, writes Declan Kiberd.]

Such a challenge, confronted by John McGahern in his luminous memoir, raises all kinds of questions about what is real and what is not. “When I was three years old I used to walk a lane like these lanes to Lisacarn School with my mother.” The lanes of memory are lowered, like a grid, upon the actual ones now walked by the older mortal man. But which are the more completely imagined? Walking that maze in summer is “like walking through a green tunnel pierced by vivid pin-points of light”. The image is Proustian. It reminds us that for this writer, also, the only imaginable paradise is the one already lost, just as one possible justification for art is that it allows a person to search out that lost time.

Again and again in the opening pages, the difficulty of such remembrance is recorded by the fastidiously suppositional language: “I must have been extraordinarily happy walking that lane to school” or “I am sure my mother took me with her because she loved me”.

McGahern knows that all such evocations are made at the mercy of the present moment, which they may tell us far more about. The poet WB Yeats admitted as much at the start of his own Autobiographies: “I have changed nothing to my knowledge, and yet it must be that I have changed many things without my knowledge, for I am writing after many years and have consulted neither friend, nor letter, nor old newspaper, and describe what comes oftenest into my memory”.

McGahern struggles to be both accurate and artistic, constantly checking his memory against the evidence of family letters written by father, mother and close relations. Much of this material has been covered already in some of the finest short stories, novels and essays produced in the English language over the past 40 years.

Memoir might therefore seem like the mine from which that great oeuvre has been dug, in much the same way as The Aran Islands is known to have been a source for so many plots of JM Synge. But there is one major difference. The Aran Islands was written before most of Synge’s plays, whereas Memoir comes after McGahern’s major books. It is as if this is offered not so much as a source-book for scholarly explicators but rather as yet another artistic rendition of the baseline experiences.

Nothing seems more remote to us than the recent past: the stones of Newgrange are more decipherable now than an early Beatles LP. And the recent past is often ridiculed by shallow souls who try to demonstrate how fully they have transcended it: its styles are always made to appear as anti-aphrodisiac as a beehive hairdo on an ageing beauty. Irish writing since the mid-1990s has been filled with venomous “outings” of the parental generation of the mid-20th century.

Memoir is like none of these works, being tender and complex where they were merely ferocious. Its author questions their glib assumptions that the 1940s and 1950s were decades of uniform repression: instead, “people, especially young people, will find ways around a foolish system” and this narrative is valuable for its amusing descriptions of such freedoms outside Leitrim dance-halls (“there wasn’t a haycock safe for a mile around in the month of July”). These are a people whose primordial pagan customs are more deeply embedded than the thin overlay of Christian doctrine.

Nevertheless, McGahern, who might be forgiven for being anticlerical, instead writes with warmth about the ways in which country churches conveyed a sense of aesthetic beauty to a people otherwise impoverished. He celebrates in particular one young priest who connected the real lives of people to a sense of mystery and ritual in the face of the hell-fired rule-bound ideas then favoured by the ecclesiocracy.

Yet there was ferocity in that world too - and an almost wilful blindness to the troubles of childhood. Grown-ups appear and disappear without explanation here - first a grandmother, and then the beloved mother herself disappears, reappears and then dies (with her furniture, as well as her children, being removed from the house even before she has drawn her last breath). Adults send the boy on inexplicably dangerous errands - whether as a toddler to shops in a nearby town or as an early teenager to drive a white bullock from Aughawillan to Cootehall - yet they tell him next to nothing. Sometimes, the effect is hilarious, as when the bullock sits obdurately in Leitrim village and will not budge, but more often it is chilling.

Of course, those grown-ups who make such adult demands on the young often seem themselves more childlike than their offspring. The violent father is really a case of arrested infancy, forever competing with his eldest son, John, for the beloved mother’s primary affections. Among its many other virtues, Memoir is that most paradoxical of projects - an autobiography written to rebuke all forms of narcissism.

Removed from the scene of his mother’s funeral, the 10-year-old boy imagines it - or realises it in each of its phases - far more vividly than any of those actually present can have done. Already, despite his promise to her that he will become a priest, he is turning to the alternative vocation of artist. Here, however, there will be no melodramatic Joycean loss of faith - just a gradual and growing conviction that the human world may be all that we can ever hope to know. Life with the dead mother was heaven; and what follows is a secular version of hell, as the father humiliates his children by monthly readings-aloud from the grocer’s bill of all the food they have so selfishly consumed. And the beatings are remorseless.

This deranged and neurotic paterfamilias behaves as if his family were the nearest modern equivalent to a Fiannaíocht band or a flying column. “How are the troops? Are the troops fighting fit?” is his daily greeting.

McGahern is an astute analyst of the social shadings with which rural Ireland replaced the old Anglo-Irish gentry. He remarks that a council worker might be looked down upon as uncouth by farmers, yet could afford to exude an independence of mind and spirit, unlike the farmers who, whether big or small, always depended on one another for support. (This system, called by its admirers comhar na gcomharsan, was one which Michael D Higgins later derided as a form of licensed mutual terror.)

Though primarily an artist, McGahern emerges here as perhaps the profoundest of all sociologists of 20th-century Ireland. His comments on emigration throw the much-vaunted homesickness and sentimentality of the departed into question, as when a Co Clare man, working on a London site, reads of another wet Irish summer in his paper and says, “May it never stop. May they all have to climb trees. May it rise higher than it did for fukken Noah!” McGahern’s sense of the ridiculous alights on a third-level qualification system which asked of its recruits up to 90 per cent marks on admission and only 40 per cent to pass out. And he reports how the literary pubs of Dublin in the 1950s were as self-protective and provincial as any other group of the time who “believed that everything of importance took place within their circle”.

In one of his short stories, McGahern described how Catholic priests, with the relocation of altars after Vatican Two, turned to face the ultimate mystery: their own people. He has done no less in recent years, appearing in many public events and on the Arts Council, producing the two novels which best capture Irish life in the second half of the 20th century, and now counter-signing those with a magnificent memoir of a slightly earlier period.

It may well be that,like the purest artists, he has but a few stories and that he must tell them over and over as personal testimony rather than fiction - to “fail again, fail better”. Perhaps he may, in writing it all out just one more time, hope to forget and bury much of it for good. He finds at the heart of his childhood that very pain which led him, in some desperation, to evoke it. However, while the child could see no end to suffering, the adult can, for his words can soothe the pain by the simple expedient of describing it so very well.

Jonh Henry Newman’s spiritual quest ended with his conversion to Roman Catholicism, at which point his autobiography ceased as both vocation and life became in effect one. McGahern concludes his years of apprenticeship with the moment when he and Madeline Green settled in Foxfield and the real work of his maturity at last began. Memoir is a surprisingly personal utterance from an artist too serene for self-assertion, but one who once again allows entire culture to speak through him, as once it expressed itself through the scrupulous, unshowy words of Tomás Ó Criomhthainn. Their books stand supreme in the Irish canon as examples of autobiography without egotism.

[Declan Kiberd’s The Irish Writer and the World has just been published by Cambridge University Press; Memoir. By John McGahern, Faber, 273pp. £16.99]

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