Hermione Lee, review of Love of the World by John McGahern, in Times Literary Supplement (4 Dec. 2009)

Details: Hermione Lee, ‘A Sly Twinkle’, review-article on Love of the World: Essays, in Times Literary Supplement (4 Dec. 2009), pp.3-5 - available online [online edn. dated 2 Dec. 2009; accessed 02.08.2011. Sub-heading: He showed how art replaces religion, and how writing reveals the spirituality of a lost Ireland.

Three years after the death of John McGahern at the age of seventy-two, comes, as a slight consolation for the silencing of one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, this collection of his non-fiction. Love of the World contains autobiographical essays, pieces on writing, introductions and reviews. It prints some highly interesting essays, a number of them hitherto unpublished. It brings McGahern richly back to life on the page, and it comes with an eloquent and informed preface by Declan Kiberd. The collection provides a retrospective insight into this extraordinary Irish writer, whose fictional worlds – unlike this big book – were always spare, narrow and contained, but whose imagination was deep and wide. To an almost startling extent, the non-fiction here confirms our sense of how autobiographical the fiction was. We learned that from Memoir, the story of his childhood and youth which McGahern published the year before he died, and we learn it again from these essays, many of which anticipate Memoir. Over and over again, like Michael Moran in Amongst Women, McGahern “walks the fields” of his places and people, his memories and his history, his strong likes and dislikes, his local territory.

He was not a fast or a prolific writer. In the 1960s and 70s he published four bleak and daring novels of Irish life, The Barracks (1962), The Dark (1965), The Leavetaking (1974) and The Pornographer (1979). They dealt with what he called the “moral climate” in which he grew up: “terror of damnation”, “the confusion and guilt and plain ignorance that surrounded sex”, the power of the Church, violence and abuses within the family and the Catholic education system. The same themes recur in Memoir and in the autobiographical essays in this book; he was always reworking his life story. All his readers know that he was the child of a gentle, educated woman, a teacher, a devoted mother who wanted him to be a priest, that his father was a bullying sergeant, that he grew up with his siblings during the war on a farm in County Leitrim, near Enniskillen and the border. The death of his mother when he was ten, his unhappy childhood with his father in the barracks, his early reading in the library of eccentric Protestant neighbours, his education with the Presentation Brothers in Carrick-on-Shannon and then, in the 1950s, at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, his training to be a teacher, his years as a writer in 1960s Dublin, the scandal that drove him out of Ireland, and his later return; these are the key stories of this writer’s life.

McGahern’s early novels provoked some outrage in Ireland. The Pornographer was a startling book for its time. An essay called “Censorship” recounts (as he does in Memoir) the banning of The Dark in Ireland in 1965, and McGahern’s subsequent dismissal from his job as a primary schoolteacher in Dublin. It is a comical but bitter story. While he was teaching, McGahern had married, abroad, a Finnish divorcee, his first wife. The official who dismissed him said: “If it was just the auld book, maybe we might have been able to do something for you, but by going and marrying this foreign woman in a registry office you have turned yourself into an impossible case entirely”. McGahern went first to work in London, travelled widely, got married again, to his life’s companion, Madeline Green, and returned with her in the 1970s to farm and write in the same spot in County Leitrim where he grew up.

From the 1970s onwards he also wrote plays, and four fine collections of short stories, collected in 1992. His magnificent, sombre novel of Irish family life, Amongst Women, was published in 1990. It begins: “As he weakened, Moran grew afraid of his daughters”. That quiet, lethal first sentence tells you this is a writer who knows exactly what he is doing – and what a dark, troubling novel this would be. Michael Moran is a powerful and disappointed man, impotent in the outside world, a domestic tyrant in his own kingdom. The novel is intensely local. The farming cycle controls the shape of the book. Vicious local gossip registers every phase of Moran’s life. Old local customs persist. On “Monaghan Day” poor farmers sell stock to rich ones; at Christmas the “wren-boys” go from house to house to play at dances; the locals still bury their dead in the old graveyard of the ruined church out on the edge of the sea. All these habits and traditions are found, also, in his autobiographical essays, but more tenderly and nostalgically.

Moran is a man of fixed behaviour. Every Monaghan Day for years, until they quarrel, he meets with his old companion-at-arms, to recall their exploits in an IRA flying column, fighting in the Anglo-Irish war of 1919–21. (Ernie O’Malley, the leader of one such column in Munster, is an important figure in Love of the World, where McGahern is acute about his mixture of quixotic romanticism and manipulative violence). At the end, Moran’s coffin is draped in a faded tricolour, and “as the casket stood on the edge of the grave a little man in a brown felt hat, old and stiff enough to have fought with Finn and Oisin”, comes out of the crowd and with deep respect removes the flag. In an essay called “The Solitary Reader”, McGahern tells an ugly story about an incident at the Booker Prize dinner in 1990, the year Amongst Women was shortlisted. A. N. Wilson called out to the chair of the judges, Kenneth Baker, while he was talking to McGahern: “Do you realize, Mr Baker, that the novel glorifies the IRA?”. McGahern comments: “Amongst Women glorifies nothing but life itself ... All the violence is internalized within a family, is not public or political; but is not, therefore, a lesser evil”.

Moran is an embittered failure who detests the crowd of “small-minded gangsters” then running the country, and has no illusions about his part in the history of the Republic: “Don’t let anybody fool you. We were a bunch of killers”. He is a gloomy, doggedly pious, short-tempered and brutal man. The novel describes, with alarming quietness, his domination over his second wife, Rose, whom he married so that she could look after his three daughters and his younger son. The older son, the one who got away, has escaped to London. Rose’s creative endurance of an impossible marriage – a powerful study of female stoicism – is meshed in with the daughters’ painfully mixed feelings towards their father, and with the sons’ revolt. The family’s conspiratorial resistance to their tyrant is wonderfully done, and Moran’s dark turbulence is invoked in that grave, measured language which is McGahern’s signature.

“The light was beginning to fail but he did not want to go into the house. In a methodical way he set out to walk his land, field by blind field ... It was like grasping water to think how quickly the years had passed here. They were nearly gone. It was in the nature of things and yet it brought a sense of betrayal and anger, of never having understood anything much. Instead of using the fields, he sometimes felt as if the fields had used him. Soon they would be using someone else in his place ... He continued walking the fields like a man trying to see.
 Dark had fallen by the time he went into the house.”

So the dark falls, but what the book leaves you with is not a sense of darkness, but the feeling of illumination, of everything having been fully understood.

Amongst Women gained great acclaim; critics stopped calling McGahern under-recognized. Prizes and honours began to fall in his lap – the Irish Times Aer Lingus Prize, the American Irish Award, the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the GPA Prize (awarded by John Updike) and, later, the Lannan Literary Award and the South Bank Literature Award.

McGahern, meanwhile, remained on the farm in County Leitrim, appeared rarely at literary festivals, went to no literary parties, gave very occasional, powerfully intense readings, and took twelve years to write his next – and, as it turned out, his last – novel. That They May Face the Rising Sun, published in 2002, turned into fiction that quiet, reclusive, dedicated rural life. (In America it was called By the Lake, in case – he used to say – the original title might make readers think the book had something to do with Japan.) The setting was McGahern’s own place, the remote and sparsely populated corner of County Leitrim where he lived, worked and is now buried. There are a few houses on a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless Abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard. It is described in the novel meticulously and repeatedly, just as it is in Memoir, in the 1989 essay “County Leitrim: The Sky Above Us”, and in stories like “High Ground” or “The Country Funeral”.

Very little happens in the novel, but everything that happens is “news”. Nothing goes unremarked. “Have you any news?” “No news. Came looking for news.” That is a running joke between the two couples living on the lake, Joe and Kate Ruttledge, who have lived and worked in England but have returned to the place Joe knows from childhood, and Jamesie and Mary Murphy, natives of the country: “I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world”, Jamesie boasts. There is affection and dependency between the four, but also reserve and distance. Their visits are marked by ritual jokes and by the retelling of stories they already know. “I’m sure I told it all before.” “Go ahead. There’s nothing new in the world. And we forget. We’ll hear it again.” Memories and stories recur. Clocks strike irregularly. (“What hurry’s on you?”) It’s hard at first to work out when this is taking place: the 1930s, the 50s, the 90s? Then we see the Murphys compulsively watching Blind Date. Telephone lines are being put in, at last. Over the border, a few years ago, there was the atrocity at Enniskillen.

The same few characters provide all the “news”. The district’s notorious womanizer, John Quinn, gets – and loses – a new wife. Kate’s uncle, “The Shah”, a wealthy, self-made businessman, passes on his business to his assistant. Bill Evans, a traumatized farmworker, has the small but intense pleasure of a weekly trip to town in a special bus. Jamesie’s brother is laid off from his poor job at Ford’s Dagenham plant, and threatens to move back in with the Murphys; they love him, but are aghast at the prospect. A local builder fails to finish the shed roof he is building for the Ruttledges. There are two deaths. As in Amongst Women, the farming cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. The same man sells his cabbages at the market every year. The lake – like Chekhov’s “magic lake” in The Seagull – is the book’s central character, stirring with its own life and peculiarities:

“The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish. There were many swans on the lake. A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore. A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog. A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand. The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky. Along the high banks at the edge of the water there were many little private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otters fed and trained their young.”

What happens in nature is also “news”. “Everything will have started to grow”, says Jamesie at the start of spring. “It’s all going to be very interesting.”

It looks at first as if this is a benign antidote to Amongst Women’s dark rural story. But this is not a pastoral idyll. Many of the life stories are appalling, such as the monstrous John Quinn’s brutal treatment of his first wife and her elderly parents, or Bill Evans’s childhood sufferings at the hands of the sadistic Christian Brothers. Parents are humiliated by their children, brothers cannot tolerate the idea of living together, old friends lash out at each others’ faults.

Evasions, compromises and weaknesses are in every life. The Murphys’ gentle manners “dealt in avoidances and obfuscations ... Confrontation was avoided whenever possible ... It was a language that hadn’t any simple way of saying no”.

The violence in Northern Ireland just over the border is very close; it colours the whole history of the region. An IRA man – who is also the local auctioneer – is at work in the local town. Every year there is a procession to commemorate a terrible history of an ambush by the Black and Tans of young rebels. McGahern’s gentle alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out savagely against violence towards the end of the book. Ruttledge suggests to us how this intensely local story, shining with the visible world, opens out into larger meanings. Helping the builder with the shed roof, he notes “how the rafters frame the sky. How ... they make it look more human by reducing the sky, and then the whole sky grows out from that small space”. “As long as they hold the iron, lad, they’ll do”, the builder replies.

So this moving novel, which looks so quiet and so provincial, opens out through its small frame to troubling and essential questions. How well do we remember? How do we make our choices in life? Will there be any other life than this? What is to remain of us? Above all, what can happiness consist in? “The very idea was dangerous ... happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all.”

Three years later, in 2005, McGahern published Memoir. This was remarkably quick for him, and the book seems to have been written easily and rapidly. For his admirers it was a surprise, for he had always been a writer who preferred Flaubertian self- disguise to confessional. In Memoir at one point he says that “masks make us free”. Having put on the masks of fiction, he must have felt finally released into telling his own story directly – though even then there was much that is kept dark and secret. Memoir told, at last, his essential story. Here, minutely done, is his love of his mother, and the heartbreak of her death (“A terrible new life was beginning, a life without her, this evening and tomorrow and the next day and the next”); his cruel childhood with his sisters, ruled by their violent and unpredictable father, whom he said he never fully came to understand but had to write about all his life; the Catholic schooling, and his dismissal from his job. It moves between small everyday details – many of them, particularly his account of life in the barracks, quirky, fierce and funny – and his characteristic tone of stilled contemplation, which has an echo in it of the priest his mother meant him to be:

“We come from darkness into light and grow in the light until at death we return to that original darkness. Those early years of the light are also a partial darkness because we have no power or understanding and are helpless in the face of the world. This is one of the great miseries of childhood. Mercifully, it is quickly absorbed by the boundless faith and energy and the length of the endlessly changing day of the child. Not even the greatest catastrophe can last the whole length of that long day.”

Memoir was about returning – to places, memories, losses and the past. It was the final reworking of his life by a writer who never let go of things. Kate, the wife in That They May Face the Rising Sun, says that “the past and the present are all the same in the mind. They are just pictures”. McGahern painted in these pictures carefully, lovingly, repeatedly, minutely. He even rewrote some of his books, for instance The Leavetaking, which he revised ten years after its first publication. The slow pace at which he wrote is mirrored in the pace of the novels themselves. In Memoir, he said that “the people and the language and the landscape where I had grown up were like my breathing”. Memoir embodied his credo that stillness can work best for the writer: “the best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything”. Out of that comes the quality which he thinks all good writing must possess, “inner formality or calm”.

There is a great deal in Love of the World about how to write and what writing is for, and all of it reflects back on his own work. Art is McGahern’s alternative to, or replacement for, religion. Writing gives us “a world in which we can live ... a world of the imagination over which we can reign”. Fictional writing, if it is to work well, must converge on and produce what he calls “an image”: “the clean image that moves us out into the light”. It must find the right rhythm, and it must be rooted in the local and the particular. “Everything interesting begins with one person and in one place.” “All good writing is local and is made universal through clear thinking and deep feeling finding the right expression and in so doing reflects all the particular form is capable of reflecting, including the social and the political”. It must be controlled by reason, but it must also be able to let go and trust to instinct. There must be “emotional truth and accuracy”. But it must not be uncontrolled “self-expression”: for McGahern, as for his hero Flaubert, that is “the opposite of creativity”.

He does not think writing can be taught, and he thinks it should not be ideological or explicitly political. He likes fiction which renders “the whole life of a person as being formed by a succession of single days”, as in the writing he admires: John Williams’s novel Stoner, Alistair MacLeod’s stories of Nova Scotia, some of Alice Munro’s stories, Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s The Islandman, translated from the Irish by Robin Flower. He likes an art – whether it is poetry, fiction, painting or photography – which will bring to light the lives and voices of people who have never thought about being witnessed or recorded, like the unselfconscious working rural Irishmen in the Leitrim photographs of Leland Duncan. “The moment and the day were everything. The past was a cutaway bog or an exhausted coal seam on the mountain. The future belonged with God. Too much talk they saw as unlucky and essentially idle. They left no records. Their presences are now scattered on the mountain air they once breathed.”

McGahern’s heroes (and they are mostly heroes, not heroines) are clearly strong influences on his work: Proust, Flaubert and Chekhov, Joyce (especially Dubliners), John Butler Yeats as letter-writer as well as painter. In spite of his admiration for Proust, his highest term of praise is “plain”, and he applies the word with equal strength of feeling to a writing style as to a landscape. “In its plain way I think it beautiful”, he says of his local small town. He is attached to the minor, enduring features of landscapes he knows: “There are also small trees that I find very moving”, he says of a coastal road in Galway. One anecdote repeated in this collection is of the IRA fighters Ernie O’Malley and Paddy Moran, who, in jail, “retrace in their minds the walk down the right bank of the Shannon from Lough Allen to Carrick, and in the evening come back up the opposite bank, each time adding fresh details along the way”.

Those IRA fighters haunt his landscapes, and the essays, like the novels and stories, are constantly harking back to the wars, the killings, the vendettas, the betrayals and failures and exiles, of twentieth-century Ireland. These are not idyllic writings, for all that they are full of the love of a landscape and an old way of life. They have a great deal to say, coldly and furiously, about the barbarities of the Catholic education system in his time (“I think that nearly all the children of that generation went to school in fear”), and about the damaging social and religious politics of Ireland between the 1910s and the 1970s. In McGahern’s view, the “spirit of the Proclamation was subverted in the Free State ... rights and freedoms were whittled away from the nation as a whole in favour of the dominant religion”. “Church and State became inseparable, with unhealthy consequences for both.” The essays spell out forcefully the political opinions which provoked, and darkly underlay, his deliberately non-political fictions.

Yet the religion he was brought up in and which he associates profoundly with his mother always colours his language and his ways of thinking. It upset him to be accused of anti-Catholicism, however much he loathed the theocracy that controlled and monitored expression in his youth. In 1993 he wrote: “I have nothing but gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing, the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven. That is all that now remains. Belief as such has long gone”.

Much of McGahern’s Ireland is long gone too, but in these essays vanished figures come back with vivid energy: the boorishly quarrelsome man of genius Patrick Kavanagh, the charmingly argumentative painter Paddy Swift, bluff, shy, sensitive Michael McLaverty, his childhood neighbours the Moroneys, eccentric bee-keepers and astronomers. His characterizations are no more sentimental than his fictions. He can be caustic and unforgiving; there are some biting short reviews of writers he considers to be “too literary”, such as J. M. Coetzee and Isabel Allende. (In fact there are too many short, minor reviews piled into this baggy holdall of a book, which, as a piece of editing, is awkwardly constructed by themes, under-annotated and repetitive.)

In a number of the essays McGahern refers with pleasure to the kind of person who has “a very sly twinkle” or makes “a sly pointed comment”, who is shrewd or humorous. At one point he talks of himself at school as “hiding behind a kind of clowning”. He himself was funny and mischievous in company, looking like a country farmer, ruddy-faced and bright-eyed, and talking wickedly about literary folk. But under his courtly, jocular, affable loquacity was a deep reserve; in interview he was guarded and wary. Well, he is gone: as he says here, of his friend Michael McLaverty, “Now only the work remains”.

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