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 tremendously impressive. Because the first short story I wrote was by John McGahern. Its called Sierra Leone and it appears in the 1979 collection Getting Through, a copy of which had been purchased by my father. A keen reader of Irish fiction, he felt always, like my late mother, a particular respect for McGahern, who had suffered much through being true to his calling. McGaherns novel The Dark had been banned in Ireland for obscenity, and its author had lost his job as a teacher. But, remarkably, he seemed accepting of fate and circumstance. He simply kept writing, never complained. He did not make appearances on chat shows.
In Sierra Leone, two lovers meet in a Dublin bar to analyse their complicated affair. I was 16 the year I first read it. Complicated affairs interested me. My English teacher, John Burns, a wonderful man, who would rage like Lear and weep at a line of Yeats, said writing could be a beneficial pastime 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. This McGahern fellow - he was good, my parents were right - often wrote about rural Leitrim and the wilds of Roscommon, and crops, and cows, and taking in the hay, and buckets, and threshing, and artificial inseminators. But we had no hedgerows or calves 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, and few enough inseminations, or opportunities for same, of even the non-artificial kind. 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. 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 of his. I must have felt that the act of writing would make the words somehow mine. I suppose it was comparable to aspirant 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 communion with words we love. Not just with what they are saying, but with the words themselves. Perhaps every reader is re-writing the story.
A couple of evenings later, I transcribed the McGahern piece again. This time I dared to alter a couple of names. The male lead became Sean (my fathers 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 volumes 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 Id guiltily rewrite the latest adaptation, changing the grammar here, a phrasing there. Id move around events, break up the paragraphs, or tell exactly the same story from a different point of view. (In which case, of course, it would not be the same story at all - an important lesson in itself.) I must have written 30 or 40 versions. The heroines black hair became auburn or yellow, 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 McGaherns masterfully sculpted characters, replacing them with my own pitifully scanty puppets. The pub became a discotheque, the couple acquired flares; I engaged them, married them, bought them a bungalow 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 my fathers childhood home. 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 shouldnt be dog-eared. Sometimes they quarrelled. I would have them reconcile. I could almost feel the firelight of that pub on my face as I watched my parents materialise through the prose.
At one point I could have made a reasonable stab at reciting the entire text of Sierra Leone by heart. It appeared breathtakingly simple, as though it had taken no effort to compose. I recall, as I write now, one of the short, plain sentences: Her hair shone dark blue in the light. It is a sentence that could be written by almost anyone, but few writers are as aware as McGahern was of that strange ache in the heart caused by ordinary precise words, placed carefully, in order, quietly.
Each man kills the thing he loves. And so the vandalism continued, over many an evening, with me editing and rewriting this once perfect story, slashing and burning, twisting, demolishing, with all the respectful deference of a wrecking ball in a cathedral, until gradually, over the span of my teenage years, every trace of McGahern was bludgeoned 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 master whose work I had so abused, he replied, somewhat gravely: Mines a pint.
Dublin appears again and again in McGaherns work, sometimes at a distance but often centrally. His 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 citys 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.
McGaherns work acknowledges that Dublin (like capitals everywhere) is largely a community of migrants with conflicted loyalties. And I think of his explorations - so destabilising in their way - as opening a path 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 McCabes The Dead School and London-born Philip Caseys The Fabulists offer commanding 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 spellbinding novel set in the furtive Dublin of that Gubu era, a nighttown of whispered secrets and compromised positions. I find it hard to imagine how these and other great novels could have been written without the presence of McGahern on the Irish scene. For me, he looms behind everyone: an Easter Island figure, with the ineluctable shadow - and the sternness - suggested by such an embodiment.
At University College Dublin in the 80s, I read The Barracks, The Dark and more of the stories. I found them strange, always enthralling, stylistically flawless, but more touching than almost anything I had read. His account, clearly autobiographical, of a young mans early days at university - the first of his family ever to know such an experience - moves me still. 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 15-page sentence. Against this blizzard of vowelly pyrotechnics McGaherns 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, the most important Irish novel of my lifetime.
So much has been written and said about this sparely magnificent book. It conjures a world that is absolutely specific to itself, down to the most minuscule, seemingly inconsequential detail, but in so doing achieves the alchemy of saying something about every life. Not for nothing did this novel become a perennial bestseller in Ireland, as well as being garlanded with critical accolades. 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 uneasy nation in which they exist.
The book draws so subtly from that well of Irish familial images and returns them to us reimagined, 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. A man grown strange, even to himself, so brutal yet impossible to hate. The episode at Morans funeral, is the most powerful fictional scene I have read since my adolescence. 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 dont know. This tableau was composed a decade before the Celtic Tiger padded into Ireland, but it is the most ruthless comment imaginable on that ambiguous, sharp-toothed beast.
His final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, took 11 years to make and surprised many of its creators 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 abounds with the juiciness of popular speech. It is his most audaciously structured book, 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 youve never lived in before, where you dont know the neighbours or how things work. But thanks to his artistry, you want to know them.
Not long after his death, Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories was published, a sort of correction to the Collected Stories that had appeared to great acclaim in 1992. The later collection is the finest body of short stories published by any Irish writer in recent years, and serves as a moving valediction to the characters McGahern made his own. They drift through these unforgettable and assiduously crafted miniatures like the archetypes of a modern folklore: the inarticulate lover, the distant, damaged father, the ill-used stepmother, the pilgrim between two worlds, the schoolteacher who doubts or despises his vocation, the sufferer of sexual loneliness. Several times we encounter the former student for the Catholic priesthood who abandoned that path on the verge of ordination. Again and again, there is the desperate invitation to marry, usually dismissed or evaded, misunderstood. 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.