Seamus Deane, review of That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern, in The Guardian (12 Jan. 2002)

[Details: Seamus Deane, ‘A New Dawn’, review of That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern, in The Guardian (12 Jan. 2002). Sub-heading: John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun shows that, at last, an Irish author has awakened from the nightmare of history, says Seamus Deane. ]

This book is a strange and wonderful mixture of various genres of writing - narrative in the basic sense, but also a meditation, a memoir, a retrospect, an anthropological study of a community, a culminating and therapeutic reprise of the author’s own career, a celebration of an Ireland that had formerly been the object of chill analysis as well as of loving evocation. All these aspects are contained within a capacious style that has all the lucidity and intensity we have become accustomed to in McGahern, but inflected by a tone of forgiveness and acceptance that adds an amplitude and serenity rarely achieved in fiction. There are no chapter divisions, yet this merely enhances the sense of structure; the repetition of passages and phrases functions more clearly, more musically, without the conventional divisions. Also enhanced is the sense of continuity, of particular lives unfolding day-to-day, seasonally, in relation to the rhythms of farming and cultivation, of the natural world, and historically, in relation to the shifting socio-economic and political forces in Ireland in the recent past.

The community of the novel is centred around a great lake that mirrors the world it dominates. It provides the bass rhythm of natural change that underlies all the other rhythms of the human and animal world. The interchange between these rhythms is complex: the percussion syntax of McGahern’s sentences transmits to the most routine actions the beat of an impersonal process and the variations of the human consciousness that modifies it. So we are told: “Tea was made. Milk and several spoons of sugar were added to the tea and stirred.” The social world is given this almost impersonal quality to emphasise its routineness and its closeness to the physical world in which, for instance, in one half-page, “A green gate hung from the ash tree then ... a path ran ... A line of storehouses stretched ... A kettle hung ... A dishevelled bed stood ... ”

This is the grammar of the implacable existence of things, a writing style that wants to reduce the mediation between itself and the world it represents as much as possible. It does that. Yet it also makes the reader alert to the writer’s range of modulating skills in, for example, distinguishing between the processes of the social and the natural world. Social behaviour is vulnerable to its own subtleties. “The timid gentle manners, based on a fragile interdependence, dealt in avoidance and obfuscations. Edges were softened, ways found round harsh realities ... These manners, open to exploitation by ruthless people, held all kinds of traps for the ignorant or unwary and could lead to entanglements that a more confident, forthright manner would have seen off at the very beginning. It was a language that hadn’t any simple way of saying no.”

One of the characters, Bill Evans, an orphan or “home-boy”, victim and product of a brutal, now-extinct system of hired farm-labour, is both individual and generic. “His kind was now almost as extinct as the corncrake.” The extinction of that creature by modern methods of farming is associated in a series of recurrent motifs: with an IRA man hiding from the British during the war of independence and calling for help; with the mimicries of Jamesie, one of the central characters; with the very sound of greeting, that we meet on the first pages, in the “Hel-lo, Hel-lo” that introduces the central pair of the Ruttledges and Jamesie; with “the tension in the call between the need to be heard and the fear of being heard”. It is that fragility of relation that McGahern captures more successfully than any of his contemporaries. In one sense it could be crudely described as a relation between an older and an emergent way of life, between Ireland of the haemorrhaging emigrations and the new, more prosperous place where the returned emigrant is the crucial figure.

Ever since McGahern’s career was initially defined, when his first novel, The Dark, was banned and he lost his job as a teacher because of a ruling by the Archbishop of Dublin, he has run the risk of being burdened with the cliché of constant battle with authoritarian tradition. He was launched as a paradigm as well as a writer. Although he has indeed charted the internal history of a culture in which most of the old authoritarian systems have weakened or even collapsed, and has as such retained his status as an emblematic figure, the danger has always been that this view of him would govern the reception of his writing to the exclusion of all else. In the light of this work, such exclusion now becomes impossible.

The stories contained within this novel retain the ferocity of McGahern’s preceding work, where sweetness of disposition and barbarity of feeling and behaviour are so often melded within a single personality. John Quinn’s sexual appetite and savagery, intermixed with a cajoling charm, is one instance; the hopeless love that drives Johnny to emigrate and reduces his existence to that of the uprooted bachelor is another. Then there is the courtesy of McKiernan, the dedicated republican, or the northern protestant, Robert Booth, who has become a successful member of the English establishment but had to abandon his native accent to do so, the only flaw of the newly acquired one being that “it outdistanced what it sought to emulate”.

Some of these portraits are based on recognisable originals. But the cruelties and contradictions within them are not exposed for satiric purposes, although there are enough acrid moments for any connoisseur. Joe and Kate Ruttledge, in particular, operate as the leading couple in a hierarchy of intelligent and loving people who have survived many storms and can, in consequence, better appreciate the life they have part-created, part-inherited in the Ireland they have returned to. Perhaps what McGahern has done is to show that the opposing elements within an individual and/or a community can indeed be understood as a contrast between civilised and retarded, even anachronistic elements; but that this is only one mode of viewing them - even though it remains a useful one, especially when he is read as an historical novelist. In this regard, he could be compared with Sean O’Faolain, whose vision as a writer is almost wholly consumed by that contrast and for whom the modern and the economically prosperous are conditions of virtue.

McGahern’s work is far subtler and ultimately much more generous in spirit, for it does not depend on such a stalwart simplicity of contrast. In the incident from which the book takes its title, Patrick Ryan explains to Ruttledge why it is so important that their friend Johnny be buried so that his head lies in the west end of the grave. It makes all the difference or no difference; it is a religious belief that is not confined to believers in religion. Ryan’s histrionics are perfectly in place here; this is a sober truth and it is a dramatic gesture.

“He sleeps with his head in the west ... so that when he wakes he may face the rising sun.” “We look to the resurrection of the dead.” That is McGahern’s exit from the simple contrast. These dead and their traditions no longer weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living. They have been incorporated into consciousness. At last an Irish author has awakened from the nightmare of history and given us a sense of liberation which is not dependent on flight or emigration or escape.

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