Squinting at the Absolute

The Vision of John McGahern

A few months ago, I was fortunate to hear a BBC radio abridgement of All Will Be Well: A Memoir, read by the Irish novelist John McGahern, who died of cancer at the end of March. A light tenor voice, scarcely betraying his seventy-one years, offered a rural idyll of County Leitrim, place of the writer’s birth and retirement. The lyrical evocation clashed with a somber formative story of childhood loss and fear—fear of the trembling sort.

In All Will Be Well (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 289 pp.), McGahern combines the unabashed longing of a child for his mother (also a victim of cancer) with ambivalent awe of his bullying policeman father. His book’s title registers a rural acceptance of the cyclical nature of things, mirrored in the rites of the church and lived according to an agricultural pattern. His mother’s mediation of religious belief works itself out in a schoolteacher’s routine, and partly defuses the impossible tensions between her and her husband. “A child can become infected with unhappiness,” McGahern writes, signaling the pain of that time.

In a career of more than fifty years, the writer reaped what was sown in that boyhood. “There are no things more cruel than truths about ourselves spoken to us by another that are perceived to be at least half true,” observes the narrator of McGahern’s short story “The Country Funeral,” recording an exchange between two brothers facing up to difficult family history after their uncle’s death. The lingering vision of McGahern’s fiction opens on the judgments we make about ourselves; one of the disturbing pleasures of reading him is to register the cruel half-truths we recognize, mea culpa, in ourselves. For McGahern, in the end there is little in us that we can change. An unpalatable fictional diet this might perhaps be, if not for the searching, grave, and melancholy voice that serves it to us.

Despite less than prolific output, John McGahern quietly built a reputation as a preeminent voice of his land. His six novels and three story collections constitute what novelist Colm Toibin, writing in The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, termed "the most impressive body of work of any Irish writer in the second half of the century." McGahern’s regional focus is that of his native place, the Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon region of the Irish Midlands, or Dublin when he moves his action to the city, and his plots center on family, generational rivalry, and the adult pursuit of love. The rural setting provides the locus for two later novels, markedly chastened in style: Amongst Women (1990), a tale of the last months of a failing patriarch; and By the Lake (2002), a serene chronicle of two families living around the lake of the title, leading lives of not very great significance, in conditions soon likely to disappear. The novel’s elegiac tone is inescapable, and arises from “the belief,” as McGahern professed in his memoir, “that 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.”

By the Lake was reviewed in these pages (“Pastoral,” May 17, 2002), and in many other journals, with almost reverential praise—a sharp contrast to the controversy surrounding the novelist’s early writings. At the outset of his career McGahern heard himself frequently decried as a writer of “dirty books,” a notoriety derived from The Barracks (1963), his first, prize-winning novel, and even more so from The Dark, his second novel, banned in Ireland in 1964 for its free and unorthodox treatment of sex and religion. Four decades later, The Barracks still strikes one as a remarkably mature first novel. Its chief character, a woman dying of cancer, faces her approaching death with stark honesty; her resignation becomes the characteristic McGahern pose. Rendered in an impressionistic style, the novel records the apparent incidentals of everyday life that, in Joycean epiphanic mode, suddenly offer transcendence. These revelations are limited victories won against time and death, in full recognition of the most powerful constraints on self. McGahern celebrates those moments when life steps outside the quotidian to meet what is most true—and mortal.

As its title suggests, The Dark offered entry into nether regions, dark spaces of fear—the confessional, for one—and of the soul. McGahern relays the consciousness of his young protagonist, John, with an innovative set of shifts in point of view, third, first, and the self-accusatory second: he alternating with I and turning to self-address in you. The shifts put the emphasis on the discovery of self, as John finds himself ranged against a self-loathing father, his own guilt-laden sexual drives, and the persistent shaping of his self-image by the church. Powerful scenes tell those cruel half-truths a reader might not want to hear, then depart from them with an exhilarated release. Witness John’s emergence from confession, after the surgical probing by the confessor of his acts of self-abuse:

Dazed, you got up, and pulled aside the curtain. The world was unreal. All your life had been gathered into the Confession, it had been lost, it was found. O God, how beautiful the world was. The benches, the lamps, the people kneeling there...How beautiful the world was, you wanted to say to them, and why did they not dance and smile back at you, sing and praise....There was such joy. You were forgiven, the world given back to you, washed clean as snow.

John’s preparation for public examinations, offering—in the prospect of scholarships—an escape from constraint, form the focus for the novel’s second half. McGahern creates a frenzied amalgam of religious obligation, cramming, and prayer, followed by achievement as divine judgment. In a burst of recrimination John shouts at his father: “You want to use prayer like money, wheedle the exam out of God. Can’t you leave it alone? God is more important than a getter of exams for people.”

The Dark, as troubling an account of coming of age as one might find, ends with John’s resolving his relationship with his father and with the church. It would take McGahern two more novels to have his protagonists come to terms with sex. The repercussions surrounding The Dark cost him his position as an elementary-school teacher, and caused a three-year drought in his own writing. He then produced, in succession, a novel about a teacher discharged on “moral” grounds (The Leavetaking, 1974) and a provocative exploration of bad art, The Pornographer (1979). Like The Dark, these works examined the coming of age of a male narrator and his struggles with adult sexual relationships. How does he deal with mother and father? How does he find commitment in love? McGahern’s early books show the novelist working through the indelible Catholic boyhood, a subject he shared with James Joyce. Comparisons between the two writers are inevitable; McGahern is as self-conscious a stylist as one might find, and his nods to Joyce (like his acknowledgments of debts to Proust and Beckett) are deliberate.

McGahern was indeed a very literary man, and The Leavetaking and The Pornographer are both experimental works, challenging not merely through provocative content, but with attention-grabbing stylistic gambits. It is Amongst Women, though, published after a silence of ten years, that most commands attention and marks a significant stylistic and thematic shift for the novelist. With this book (shortlisted for the 1990 Booker Prize), McGahern turns away from city life and examines the relationship of his characters to rural Ireland, and to a lifestyle that is slowly but surely passing away. Amongst Women studies an autocratic, volatile family patriarch, Michael Moran, living with his family on a country farm. The novel takes its title from the Hail Mary, and points ironically both to the rosary and to Moran’s life with his second wife and three daughters. The binding loop of beads hints at the circular structure of the novel, and the daily recitation of the rosary makes a pattern that spreads its rings concentrically through time, season, and generation.

The telling of Moran’s years has joy, sorrow, and passion. McGahern’s narrative style is so stark it reminds a reader of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” in its elemental, declarative form. The effect is to distance or estrange: there is no confessional intensity or first-person self-revelation. Rather, Moran appears unknowable, the moody, emotionally brutal father, who alienates his sons while confirming his three daughters in their devotion to him. In flashback, McGahern lets us glimpse the shaping experiences of the war for Irish independence, in which Moran led a daring and successful series of raids. Yet we see little beyond his ritual-bound despotism, his desire to keep his family tethered to him, and his anger over the alienation of his eldest son. Moran’s psychology is rendered in syntactically simple strokes. Here he is in self-absorption after his wedding to his second wife:

During the entire day he felt a violent, dissatisfied feeling that his whole life was taking place in front of his eyes without anything taking place. Distances were walked. Words were said. Rings were exchanged. The party moved from church to house. All seemed a kind of mockery. It was as if nothing at all had happened. He was tired of wrestling with it.

The novel begins with an anticipation of Moran’s death and ends with his funeral; in between, it circles through his life, decade by decade, in associative connections. As they return from the graveyard, the family, split by gender, reflects on the life of the man. To his daughter, Maggie, he remains a somberly abiding presence (“He’ll never leave us now”). But the sons and male in-laws, lagging behind, chat and laugh freely, and receive ironic censure from another daughter, Sheila, who sees the lads as “a crowd of women...you’d think they were coming from a dance.” If nothing else, Amongst Women tells cruel half-truths about gender roles in Ireland today. But there is much, much else. Turning circles, the novel completes a sense of human complexity circumscribed by the experiences of Ireland in the twentieth century: a war for independence, the development of a new country, a profound change in the social structure of rural people, and the pervading power of the church.

McGahern’s final novel, By the Lake, was published in Britain as That They May Face the Rising Sun, a specific reference to the orientation of bodies in Christian graveyards; and indeed, a misaligned corpse and the redigging of a grave provide the novel’s significant stopping point. By the Lake tells the story of Joe Ruttledge, an Irishman returning to the country with his English wife, Kate, after long residence in London, to practice an easy sort of farming while supplementing his income with contract work from England. The Ruttledges’ situation as relative newcomers gives characters and novelist alike a useful vantage point. They recollect in conversation their first meetings with each of their many neighbors, offering McGahern a stage to mount characters in virtual monologues or short vignettes. We meet the simple Bill Evans, pauper, holy fool, cadger; Patrick Ryan, mimic, builder, digger of graves; the rogue, John Quinn, who begs introduction to any acquaintance from England who might oblige his sexual needs (albeit sanctified in marriage); and the Murphys, Jamesie and Mary, whose interaction with the Ruttledges stands at the center of the novel.

Time in By the Lake lasts a seasonal cycle: we watch the lambing, the cattle sales, the haymaking; have Christmas, go to weddings and funerals, drink a great deal of whisky and tea. McGahern is at pains, with a work predominantly of dialogue, to render a little world with its distinctive voices and patterns in their unique but universal comedy. He performs the task taken on by J. M. Synge in The Aran Isles, portraying a world on the point of disappearance, already losing its next generation to Dublin or London. Significantly, all of the characters in close focus are older and nearing retirement. No children are born, but there are leavetakings and funerals, as the world beside the lake stills into a mellow Celtic twilight:

Weeds had to be pulled in the garden, carrots, lettuce, onions, beets, parsnips were thinned; the beanstalks supported, the peas staked, the potato stalks and the fruit trees sprayed. These evenings they ate late. In the soft light the room seemed to grow green and enormous as it reached out to the fields and the crowns of the trees, the green banks and the meadow and trees to enter the room with the whole fullness and weight of summer.

Within this glow, the Ruttledges walk the circular path to stop in and “Be welcome!” with Mary and Jamesie. Little happens by way of conflict; the thematic peak of the novel comes with the preparation of Jamesie’s brother, Johnny, for burial, with Joe Ruttledge volunteering to lay the body out. McGahern’s third-person narration is sympathetic but distant and precise; and the effect, for those of us who know only the American way of death, proves starkly ennobling. And with the companion scene in the graveyard, when the grave opening must be redone to allow the head to face the rising sun, McGahern takes his reader to an understated but deeply human conclusion. Ruttledge is an agnostic who refuses to attend Mass or receive the sacraments, yet when Patrick Ryan asserts that the dead must face east (“It makes every difference,” he insists), Ruttledge can conclude only that “The world is full of things I don’t know.”

Our ends have to face beginnings, McGahern asserts, and circularity of structure and theme, pervasive if unobtrusive in Amongst Women, becomes overt and elegiac in By the Lake. So too does the end of this writer’s vision face its own beginning. As the early works exploit thematic alternations of darkness and light, so the later ones take up the cycle of the seasons, the last vestiges of agricultural life, set to a pattern that finds its seeds in and before the nineteenth century. While McGahern’s earlier fiction is provocative, in the literal sense of a calling out, and betrays the profound influence of church and family, his last two novels, Amongst Women and By the Lake, take ceremony and ritual as simply another feature in lives set to deeper patterns-to experiences of identity, loss, and family, of which the church is simply part. By the Lake closes with a resignation that feels serene, a stasis evolving from the fixed center of the lake, the tethering point of lives that circle in gritty but genial orbits toward an acceptance of life and death.

But this resignation was in McGahern from the start. “The sea and the bell, nothing seems ever ended, it is such nonsenses I’d like written on my gravestone in the hope that they’d sow confusion”: so muses the narrator of “The Recruiting Officer,” an early story about a religious order trawling for vocations among the ranks of a boys school. The riddling nature of the sentence, its status as a fictional epitaph, and its hint of a narrative squint at the absolute—death and beyond the grave—are all characteristics of McGahern’s deeply Catholic and Irish art. McGahern caught the ear and eye with the intensity of voice that arises from a steadfast examination of conscience, and the intimacy of laying naked the soul before the All-Seeing. The material world opens easily to the spiritual, even if the significance of the relationship between the two remains obscure. McGahern was a realist, skeptical and riddling. Faith and ritual function in his narratives as patterning forces, parallel with that of the natural cycle, but the vision is scarcely sacramental. Families assemble for weddings and funerals, haymaking, or coursing; the greyhounds take out rabbits, and bleak seaside hotels site love affairs that often end in stalemate. McGahern shows us life against constraint, conveyed by narrators confessing resignation before daily limits.

What remains perhaps foremost is the honesty of the prose. His stories, in particular, open the intimacies of thought that cottage doors can obscure, while the later novels offer a version of rural idyll, registering, in unostentatious ways, life lived and felt deeply. Above all, McGahern was a storyteller, one who entertained, jabbed, and left his mark, speaking disquieting truths. The world of his fiction, while tightly focused, is extraordinarily full. He is gone now, but his invitation to “Be Welcome” in this world remains open to us, and should not be refused.

Published in the 2006-05-05 issue: 

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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