John McGaherns Memoir is painfully aware of its larger significance as an account of growing up in rural Ireland during the 1940s and 50s. Much has been written, he says, about the collusion of church and state to bring about an Irish society that was childish, repressive and sectarian, and this narrative hardly suggests otherwise. People, especially young people, will find ways around a foolish system, and difficulty can often serve to sharpen desire, but many who could not were damaged or were driven into damaged lives. As it turns out, this kind of generalisation only begins to emerge in the last third of the book. Its main focus, and the most compelling part of its narrative, concentrates on the smaller-scale agonies and ecstasies of family life. In this respect, it forms a continuum with McGaherns novels, which masterfully assemble easily overlooked details to create a proper density of scene and character. At the same time, it breaks new ground - not just because everything it contains has a manifestly personal value, but because McGahern has such success in exploiting the unrivalled clarity of a childs-eye view.
Maybe this has something to do with the fact that he now lives among the scenes of his earliest days, in Leitrim, and is able to encounter his past in a largely unchanged landscape. The very poorness of the soil, he says, with a typical mixture of plainness and melancholy, saved these fields when old hedges and great trees were being levelled throughout Europe for factory farming. To an outsider, this sameness might appear nondescript. To the young McGahern, the delicate social shadings of the place, combined with a passionate sense of belonging to a particular region, rather than to Ireland as a whole, made home as intricate and marvellous as Helpstone was to John Clare 150-odd years earlier. The deep lanes, the frail houses in windy fields, the large and elaborate family structures: they seemed a universe, while being a world in miniature.
And a universe, moreover, with the potential to become ideal: McGaherns relationship with his devout schoolteacher mother was exceptionally close, and they both mingled their ideas about heaven above with their sense of heaven on Earth. (Heaven was in the sky, he says. My mother spoke to me of heaven as concretely and with as much love as she named the wild flowers.) But this glimpse of paradise is quickly denied - in the first instance by McGaherns father, a policeman, who lived away from home in the local barracks. At the very start of the book, this arrangement seems merely unconventional but within a few pages it becomes much more than that - sinister in its unsettledness, then frightening, then actually terrible. McGahern senior was dangerously unpredictable, sometimes sweetly courting his young children when he visited home, at others handing out vicious beatings, and making them cower at the edge of his own existence. This memory of mealtimes is typical: He never acknowledged the server or any of the small acts of service, but would erupt into complaint if there was a fault - a knife or dish or fork or spoon missing, or something accidentally spilled or dropped. When he wasnt eating from his plate, he stared straight ahead into the big mirror, chewing very slowly. At exactly nine he would go down to the dayroom, and the whole of the living room relaxed as soon as the dayroom door slammed shut.
With nightmarish predictability, McGaherns mother is soon unable to shield her children: she mysteriously goes away (we understand later that she has cancer), and the children move in with their father at the barracks. Here they are not only kept at the tyrants mercy, but isolated from the wider community as well: In the Ireland of that time the law was still looked upon as alien, to be feared and avoided, and kept as far away from as possible. This conferred on us an ambiguous protection that was paper thin. Here, too, McGahern (now at his fourth school in as many years) begins to understand the larger pressures bearing down on him: the dominance of the church, the power-play between priests and law-givers, the poverty of rural communities roundabout, the horrible lack of prospects and choices.
Its a dark passage into conscious existence, and grows blacker still when his mother comes home, returns briefly to her job, settles the children, then falls sick again. Her death is the emotional centre of the book, and confirms McGaherns view of the world as a place where virtue goes unrewarded - at least as far as the living are concerned. It seems almost heartless to consider the final house-clearing as a piece of writing, rather than simply emotional witness, but the books attention to things-in-themselves is more telling here than anywhere. It is purely and simply harrowing. The iron beds were left till last. The joints had rusted in the dampness and the sections would not pull apart. Bicycle oil and brute strength were tried. Neither worked. They started to beat the sections apart. The sound of the metal on iron rang out and the thin walls of the house shook in the beating ... When the sections were finally separated, they fell with a light clang.
Much of the remaining half of the book follows the mangled course of the childrens life with their father. By turns neglectful, brutal and complaining, he organises the troops into a miserable little posse, eventually finding a new wife to help him cope. Although McGahern can hardly trust himself to believe it, this oppression gradually leads him towards a form of salvation. By driving him in on himself, it simultaneously encourages him to stick close to the earth his mother loved and helped him name, while also leading him to enjoy his imagination. Having first been so stunned by his mothers death that his teachers considered him retarded, at 13 he enters Rosary High School in Carrick-on-Shannon, discovers books, and begins to expand his intelligence. From this new delight (there are no days more full in childhood than those days that are not lived at all, the days lost in a book), its a short, albeit difficult, step to St Patricks Training College, where the pleasure in reading mutates into a craving to write. In that one life of the mind, he says, with a proper sense that his vocation is a fantastical idea, the writer could live many lives and all of life. I had not the vaguest idea how books came into being, but the dream took hold, and held.
Its often the case with autobiography, especially the kind that honours a young childs point of view, that the writing texture thins as it moves into adulthood. The structure of time becomes more coherent, the sense of comparison and trajectory grows more developed, the immersion in things is replaced by the appeal of story. Thats all true of Memoir as McGahern remembers his first visits to England, his first marriage, his early publications, then his second marriage and the eventual return to Leitrim. But the circular journey of the book proves that McGahern knows he cant ignore - or, imaginatively speaking, do without - the scenes of his childhood. In this sense his book is an act of healing, perhaps even of forgiveness, as well as a probing of deep wounds. In a tremendously distinguished career, he has never written more movingly, or with a sharper eye.