On the book "Creatures of the earth", here
Memoir by John McGahern (1935-2006)
John McGahern died March 30, 2006. See obituaries, here.
A family touched with madness
He's been denounced from the pulpit and seen his work banned as pornographic, says Sean O'Hagan. Now Ireland's greatest fiction writer, John McGahern, has published a moving memoir
Sunday August 28, 2005
The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column,
Sunday September 4 2005
John Donne did not write 'Let us make one little room, and everywhere', as stated below. He wrote: 'For love, all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere.'
'One thing you find out while writing a memoir,' says John McGahern, 'is what an uncertain place the mind is.' I am sitting in the half-dark of a Soho bar listening to Ireland's greatest living writer of fiction describe some of the unexpected difficulties he underwent while writing his first factual book. His soft voice and carefully wrought sentences echo the cadences and craft of his prose so much so that it is as easy to be mesmerised by his spoken words as his written ones.
'There is not the same freedom in the memoir as there is in the novel,' he continues. 'Fiction needs to be imagined. Even events that actually happened have to be reimagined. With a memoir you can't imagine or reinvent anything,' he says, sighing, as if this runs counter to all he believes in. 'You have always to stick to the facts.'
McGahern's memoir is called simply Memoir, and it sticks always to the cold, bare facts of his young and troubled life. It has been a long time coming, and, as it unfolds, you can see how the events recalled in it impacted on his fictions, shaped him as a supreme chronicler of human experience. Now 70, and with six acclaimed novels and four short-story collections behind him, McGahern has created a work of personal testimony that brims with remembered detail, and possesses an emotional intensity that, in places, is almost overwhelming.
Memoir is ostensibly about his childhood in the small rural Irish community which he left as a young man, but has since returned to, and settled in. The landscape - small unkempt fields, still lakes, lanes bordered by hedges of ash, blackthorn and sycamore - will be familiar to readers of his fiction, mapped out initially in The Barracks, his first novel from 1963, and delineated in all is subtle, shifting ordinariness in his last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002). The shadows that stalked those stories are here made flesh, and, at times, one wonders how McGahern survived to tell the tale.
The biggest, most foreboding presence in the book is his late father, a policeman, who was a bully and a pedant. The narrative is punctuated by scenes of often random brutality, retold in a matter-of-fact, almost detached, manner that makes them all the more disturbing. In one scene, McGahern describes his father beating one of his sisters senseless with a spade, but there is none of the judgmentalism or wallowing in victimhood that tends to characterise the contemporary survivor's memoir.
'I never felt a victim,' he says, calmly. 'To be a victim is a failure of intelligence. One becomes responsible for one's own life, however difficult that life may be.' He closes his eyes, as if trying to catch a thought that is hovering on the edge of his consciousness, then says something that sheds fresh light on all his writing. 'No matter what happens to you, no matter how depressing the material, if it becomes depressing to write, or indeed, to read, it's no good. I firmly believe that unless the thing is understood it's useless, and that the understanding of it is a kind of joy. It's liberating.'
In autobiography, as in fiction, McGahern adheres closely to Flaubert's guiding ethos that the writer should 'be present everywhere, but not visible, like God in nature'. I ask him if writing about his life was a more difficult process than writing a novel. 'It was certainly a different process, much quicker, but the difficulty always is in getting the words right. In fiction, the most powerful weapon the writer has is suggestion. I think that nearly all good writing is suggestion, and all bad writing is statement. Statement kills off the reader's imagination. With suggestion, the reader takes up from where the writer leaves off. A memoir is tricky because one was itching to alter it so that it conforms to a certain vision, but one is stuck with what happened.'
The most profound thing that happens in his constantly arresting chronicle is the early death of his mother, Susan, a kind-hearted and devout schoolteacher, whose passing leaves a hole in the young McGahern's life that, one suspects, has not ever been truly filled. He describes climbing into a cupboard-sized room under the stairs to weep out his sorrow among 'old clothes and ravelled sweaters', the writing suddenly ablaze with the intensity of reawakened grief.
'I remembered her in the world,' he writes, 'walking those lanes to school. To Liscairn, to Beaghmore, to Aughawillan; on the train, in Maggie's, going from shop to shop by her side in the town, watching with her the great fires of sticks in Aughawillan evenings, the flames leaping around the walls and ceilings. She was gone where I could not follow. I would never lay eyes again on her face.'
It struck me, while reading the book, that I had never before encountered an author who wrote about his mother with such a sense of unconditional love. She seems, in many ways, an idealised figure, her absence as palpable as his father's overbearing presence. 'Well, I know that consciously and unconsciously she had an enormous influence on my life. The book was as much a way of acknowledging that as it was about my father's presence. If I am in any way successful, I think that both sides are given fair play.' How, I ask, did his sisters react to the book? 'They thought I was too easy on him,' he says, laughing, then suddenly serious. 'But judgment has no place in the writer's trade. I think an ounce of sympathy is worth a ton of judgments.'
His father, he says, remains 'unknowable' despite the words he has expended on trying to understand him: a man so self-absorbed as to be utterly lacking in any kind of self-awareness. 'He put great store in outward appearances, always in the front row at mass. Appearance was everything to him.' He thinks on this some more, then says almost as an afterthought. 'He was a very strange man, maybe even a little mad. There was certainly a strain of madness in the family. I think, too, that part of my father's violence was sexual frustration. That was such a force in Ireland then, the battle between sex or love of the world, and the love of God. People forget already that that was such a powerful dynamic.'
The attraction of opposites, too, is one of the many mysteries touched on in the book, the greatest of which is why such a charming and popular woman should marry such a charmless and hated man. 'Well, who knows what physical attraction is?' he says, shaking his head, 'My father, for all his faults, had a great deal of physical presence, even charm. But, one of his many mysteries was that he would never let go of a relationship no matter how bad it was. There was a strangeness in him that, even I, who probably knew him more than anyone, could not fathom. Even the writing of the book has not really made me understand him any better.'
In person, McGahern looks more like a farmer than a novelist. He lives with his second wife, Madeline, whom he married in 1973, in a small house on a lake in rural Leitrim, near the border with Northern Ireland. 'I'm closer to Enniskillen than to Sligo,' he says enigmatically, as if the proximity of the north may have some bearing on his creative mindset. As he has grown older, his writing has become more grounded in that tangible sense of place that underpins much Irish writing to the point where, in That They May Face the Rising Sun, the few miles of land surrounding the lake is a microcosm of a rural Irish society caught between tradition and rapid modernisation.
'Ireland has changed more in the last 20 years than it did in the preceding 200 years,' he says. 'From 1800 until 1970, it was a 19th-century society. It was only then that the Church started collapsing. I think that it is by focusing on the local that you can best capture that change. If you were to focus on the universal, you'd end up with vagueness. John Donne said, "Let us make one little room, and everywhere." That's what I believe, really, that everything interesting begins with one person and one place.'
McGahern is clearly at home in Ireland, and seems to have experienced none of the problems of belonging peculiar to many returning exiles. It was not always so. His second novel, The Dark, published in 1965, was banned in Ireland, and denounced from the pulpit as pornographic. He was forced to quit teaching and left the country that had damned him. He lived in England, France and America before returning five years later. Forty years on, his best-known book, Amongst Women (1990), is taught on the syllabus of the Irish Leaving Certificate. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1990. Does he feel vindicated? 'No. I don't think about it in that way. For me, all that matters is whether a book is well written or not. Once a book is published, the less a writer has to say about it the better. That's why I never protested the banning. I thought it was a joke, the Censorship Board, and by protesting I would give them too much honour. Besides, a book has a life of its own. Once it is written, it belongs to its readers. Without readers, it won't live. Without readers, a book is a dead thing, just a bundle of words between covers.'
In the three years since its publication, McGahern's last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, has taken on a life of its own, becoming that rare thing, a formally experimental work of literature that is also a global best-seller. 'In Ireland,' he says, proudly, 'some people have read it who don't read books. Which is surprising given that, in the strict sense of the word, it is an anti-novel.' In America, too, it has become a best-seller by word-of-mouth following a spate of reviews comparing McGahern to Chekhov, Balzac, and even Beckett. The New York Times called him 'the most accomplished novelist of his generation'. Having just reread it, I tell him that I am intrigued by the spell it weaves, given that it is a novel that seems to have no discernible plot, and in which nothing really happens, and yet, as one reads on, a whole world emerges, familiar and new.
'Well, it's a deliberate attempt to deal with a whole society,' he says, sipping on his mineral water, and looking both flattered and uncomfortable at my praise. 'One of the problems a writer always has with material is how to dramatise it. In a way, I thought that the act of taking drama out of it, if it was consciously done, could be dramatic in itself. My whole idea was to take plot and everything else out of the novel and see what was left.'
How, then, did he structure the narrative? 'Oh, the day, the seasons, the community. The rhythms of the everyday. In a way, nothing happens, and everything happens. You have to follow your own life. That's what I wanted to do, anyway.'
He writes for two or three hours a day, with 'a lot of time looking out the window in between'. Each book, at least until the memoir, seems to have taken longer than the last. There was a 12-year gap between Amongst Women and That They May Face the Rising Sun. 'That was the longest,' he says, 'but it began like all the rest with certain images entering my head and refusing to go away until I wrote them down. Sometimes, I've spent three months writing them down only for them to come to nothing, to disappear into the page. There have been times when I have not written anything for two or three years. I think,' he says laughing, 'I was exhausted by all that staring out the window.'
Could he imagine a life without writing? He closes his eyes and thinks about this for a long moment. 'In a way, yes. Certainly, I wouldn't write if I didn't need to. One of the unexpected pleasures of writing is that it makes anything else seem attractive. You'd almost do anything to avoid it. It would be easier, too, to go on writing different versions of the same book, but that wouldn't do for me. I think,' he says, finally, getting to the very heart of his greatness, 'that you need to always raise the fences.'
A rough guide to John McGahern
· Born 12 November 1934, Dublin.
· Attends the Presentation Brothers College in Carrick-on-Shannon, then St Patrick's Teacher Training College, Dublin.
· Works as a primary schoolteacher from 1955 to 1966.
· Marries Annikki Laksi, a Finnish theatre director, in 1965. They divorce soon after. He later says: 'It was hopeless. I wouldn't live in Finland and she wouldn't live in Ireland.'
· In 1973, marries Madeline Green, an American photographer. They live in Co Leitrim.
· His first novel, The Barracks, is published in 1963. It's followed by The Dark (1965), which causes a furore when it is banned in Ireland for being 'pornographic'.
· Goes on to write The Leavetaking (1975), The Pornographer (1979), Amongst Women (1990) and That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002).
· Amongst Women is shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1990, and wins the Irish Times/Aer Lingus fiction prize the same year.
September 11, 2005
Memoir: Memoir by John McGahern
REVIEWED BY JOHN CAREY
by John McGahern
Faber £16.99 pp272
John McGahern’s warm-hearted idyll of Irish country life, That They May Face the Rising Sun, was rapturously received when it appeared in 2001, especially across the Atlantic where it was titled By the Lake. “No wonder we celebrate the Irish,” crowed one American reviewer. It will be interesting to see if the picture of the Irish in Memoir prompts similar celebration. For this, McGahern’s first non-fiction book, returns to the Ireland of his early novels, The Barracks and The Dark, a guilt-ridden, ignorant, repressed, violent land, in the grip of a corrupt and venal church.
The Catholic clergy controls everything — schools, hospitals, orphanages. At his teacher-training college McGahern finds that it is “dangerous” not to belong to a religious society — and there are no non- religious ones. Once in a job, teachers have to pay an unofficial “tax” to the local priests at Easter and Christmas. The Dark, published in 1965, was denounced from pulpits as pornographic, and McGahern was sacked from his teaching post on the orders of the archbishop. He appealed to the board of the Irish Teachers’ Union, but the general secretary backed the archbishop’s ruling, adding that McGahern had put himself beyond the pale by marrying a “foreign woman” (Annikki Laaksi, the Finnish theatre director). He left for England where he worked on building sites.
But most of Memoir is about his earlier ordeals. Born in 1934, he was the eldest of seven children. His father Frank had served with the IRA, joined the new Irish police force with the first batch of recruits, and was quickly promoted to sergeant. He took his duties seriously, insisting on a regime of polished buttons and strict patrols, and living all but two days a month at the police barracks, 20 miles from the small farm where his schoolteacher wife and growing family were parked. The sleepy corner of Ireland he held sway over was, in fact, completely crime free, and perhaps it was frustration that drove him to domestic violence. At all events, the children came to dread his visits, and when their mother died of breast cancer (McGahern was 10 at the time) they no longer had any defence against him. Quartered in the police barracks, they became his slaves.
From March to September each year, they dug and carted turf from a nearby bog to meet the terms of a contract their father had signed with the local convent. The proceeds allowed him to buy a car. They were kept close to starvation. Each month, he lined them up and read out the grocery bill, berating them for the amount they ate. To economise he took to feeding them on cows’ heads, described by McGahern with vivid disgust. They were beaten almost daily, and with a savagery that seems close to insane. One sister received such a terrible thrashing that she had a cataleptic fit, and a doctor was called. Another girl was beaten for sleepwalking and had to spend two months in hospital. No action was taken against their father, although the situation must have been clear to the medical authorities as well as to the local clergy. This does not surprise McGahern. Ireland at the time was so brutalised, he explains, that violence against children was taken for granted. All schools depended on the terror of physical punishment, often administered by priests. The policemen who served under his father also connived. When he battered one daughter almost senseless with a spade, in full view of the barracks, they threatened to report him, perhaps fearing they would be accessories if he killed her. But no complaint was ever lodged.
In the eyes of the community he was a model citizen and a good Catholic. He sat in the front row at Mass every Sunday, silver buttons gleaming. Every evening the children had to kneel with him on the cement floor to recite the Rosary, before kissing him goodnight. Young McGahern was as intimidated as the rest. He supervised the turf digging, threatening to report slackers. When his father attacked him he never hit back, though there came a day when he rebelled to the extent of deliberately laughing while his father repeatedly punched him in the face. After that, he says, things improved. But it seems that violence continued, for later on his younger brother Frank, then aged 16, had the courage to retaliate and knock his father down. Soon after he left for London, and had a successful career, becoming financial controller of BBC Radio.
Perhaps the lurking suspicion that he ought to have been more combative intensifies the cold hatred with which McGahern portrays his father. But what most feeds his loathing is his love for his sensitive, intelligent mother, and the realisation that he had to share her affection with such a brute. That she could have brought herself to marry him seems a kind of momentary baseness — “as if the sexual instinct craved a rougher cloth”. Going through their letters after their deaths, he finds that they were “still risking sexual intercourse” after her cancer had been diagnosed, a disclosure of their need for each other that shocks his priorities. To him she was a saint. They walked the lanes hand in hand, and the landmarks they passed — the quarry, the bridge, the pool — recur as a poetic refrain at intervals in the narrative. The wild flowers and vetches that covered the banks are precious to him still because she gathered and named them for him. The countryside he has settled in, and from which all his writing springs, was hers. On the first page of this book he writes of the little lawns beside the lakes, speckled with fishbones, where the mother otter feeds her young. On the last page he returns to them, and adds that the otter whistles for her mate when she wants him, and “chases him back again to his own waters when his work is done”. An ideal arrangement for small oedipal otters.
His love for his mother complicates his attitude to the church. For she was deeply devout, and believed that her cancer was sent by God: “He has taken my health away. It must be for some inscrutable reason of His own to test my faith.” Influenced by her, he became an altar boy, captivated by the magic, holding a plate under each communicant’s mouth to catch crumbs of the sacred Host. Together they dreamt of his becoming a priest. Although he lost his faith long ago, he still misses those ceremonies. They gave meaning to his life, and taught him all he knows of “mystery, grace and ornament”. He likes to think there are two Catholic churches, one dark and bigoted — his father’s — the other, his mother’s, reaching outwards to understanding, freedom and joy. Tragically, of course, they are one and the same — united as his parents were, and awareness of this adds continual tension to McGahern’s complex and beautiful book.
Issue: 17 September 2005
Peace under the Iron Mountain
Faber, 272pp, £16.99, ISBN 0571228100
Reviewed by Victoria Glendinning
When he was little, John McGahern’s mother took him with her to the school where she taught, through the lanes with flowering hedges linking the small reedy lakes of Co Leitrim, in the lee of the Iron Mountains. This physical and emotional geography is in his bones, and the source of ‘an extraordinary sense of security, of deep peace’. Over and over, in this memoir as in childhood, he goes
up the cinder path to the little iron gate, past Brady’s house and pool and the house where the old Mahon brothers lived, past the dark, deep quarry and across the railway bridge and up the hill past Mahon’s shop.
A similar litany-like repetition was a disconcerting feature of his novel For They Shall Face the Rising Sun. It is his way of conveying unquestioned continuity.
‘People did not live in Ireland then. They lived in small, intense communities.’ Neighbours’ eyes glazed over at any news which was not local. It was only when people died that the ‘illusion of endless continuity’ was threatened, and the loss of his mother is the core of McGahern’s book.
The father of the family, a police sergeant, lours over the narrative. Understanding nothing, McGahern writes, is one of ‘the great miseries of childhood’; he still does not understand his father, and does not judge him, though versions of him recur ominously in the novels and stories. There is a contemplative quality about this book, and a willingness to yoke farce to tragedy, which separates it from recent ‘terrible Irish childhood’ memoirs of which Angela’s Ashes is a prime example.
The father lived in police barracks 20 miles away, visiting the family at intervals, begetting seven children of which John, born in 1934, was the eldest. The sergeant could charm when he chose, but was unpredictable, suspicious, secretive and violent. He beat his children with his fists, a stick or a spade, or shook them savagely enough to make them ill, while railing against heaven, ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God.’ The children’s energies were expended in surviving his irrational rages.
McGahern’s parents belonged to the ‘new class’, the first intake of policemen, teachers and civil servants of the independent Republic of Ireland. The Catholic church in those bleak decades controlled education, hospitals, culture (through censorship) and everything to do with sex. ‘Much has been written 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.’ At his teacher-training college, McGahern found that willingness to conform was virtually all that was required. Learning Irish was prioritised in schools, at a time when hundreds of thousands emigrated to find work. ‘The men sold their physical strength, the women their willingness to work long hours.’ McGahern’s first experience of England was on a building site, and most of his sisters came over to become nurses.
‘In the beginning was my mother.’ At home, the day began with prayers and ended with the Rosary. Heaven was more real than Australia. His gentle mother had a profound religious faith, and the Church gave the young McGahern his first experience of luxury, ornament and ceremony. The dream he shared with his mother was that he would become a priest. When she died, a neighbour assured him, ‘She’ll be able to do more for you there’, as if heaven were head office. But the boy was desolated: ‘I had but the one beloved.’ Afterwards the young family lived in the barracks, enduring their father’s abuse. John found privacy fishing from a boat on the river, in books, and in his allotted tasks, cutting turf and lifting potatoes: ‘I have always liked the mindless absence that physical work gives.’
He rejected the academic and literary Dublin of his young manhood as a closed world, ‘believing that everything of importance took place in their own circle’, while constantly looking outwards for validation, and ‘not seeing the contradiction’. This contradiction was in him too. The dream of priesthood was overtaken by the dream of ‘love and sex and worldly happiness’ and of being a writer. Success in both categories came fast, and his breakthrough book Amongst Women won major prizes and was shortlisted for the Booker. He travels everywhere, his work is read and respected worldwide.
His second novel, The Dark, was banned in Ireland, and got him sacked from his teaching post: ‘You have ruined your life,’ said the school manager. But tagged now, with justification, as Ireland’s greatest living novelist, McGahern chooses to live where he began. No contradiction after all, perhaps, but a lyric reprise. Most of us live inconclusively linear lives. If he could walk with his mother again among the flowers in the unchanged lanes, he would tell her the local gossip, and leave her faith in God undisturbed. The ‘illusion of continuity’ is sustained. If he is rankly sentimental, then so are Wordsworth and Yeats.
My own separate life, in so far as any life is separate, I detailed only to show how the journey out of the landscape became the return to those lanes and small fields and hedges and lakes under the Iron Mountains.
John McGahern Faber & Faber, 272pp, £16.99
Reviewed by Carmen Callil
John McGahern has always been a mesmerising writer of fiction. His ravishing
Memoir discloses the source of his genius, telling the story of a little boy
and his growth to manhood after his mother, "my beloved" - a schoolteacher who
gave birth to seven children in nine years - died of breast cancer when he was
McGahern was born in 1934 in an Irish Free State where the ever-powerful Catholic Church had effortlessly expanded into every crevice of command left behind by the British. In a "climate of suppression and poverty and fear", Ireland, by 1950, was a near-theocracy in which church and state worked hand in hand, rather like Franco's Spain.
McGahern comes from County Leitrim in the north-west. Poor, wet, its citizens blessed with no running water or electricity and only the occasional radio, Leitrim becomes almost heavenly in McGahern's enchanted descriptions of walks with his mother along its country lanes: "In their branches the wild woodbine and dog rose give off a deep fragrance in summer evenings, and on their banks grow the foxglove, the wild strawberry, primrose and fern and vetch among the crawling briars."
Susan McGahern was the kind of devout believer whose masochism required her to accommodate a brutal husband, willingly hiding her head in God: "In Him and by Him and for Him I live and place my trust . . ." This trust was placed in the Catholic Church of that time, indicted now by so many witnesses to its child abuse and brutality. John, Sue's eldest, had been her loving shadow. As she lay dying in an upstairs bedroom, her husband, who did not visit her, sent a lorry to pick up their children and the family furniture, leaving his wife to listen to the sound of everything she loved depart. McGahern conveys this misery with shimmering beauty; you can almost hear his heart crack as the lorry drives away.
From that time on, he was subject - as were his six siblings - to his father's sudden rages and regular beatings. Scoldings, shouts and blows poured over the children like holy water, repeated daily, as was the saying of the rosary. There were beatings at school. They lived off cows' heads so large they could not fit into the pot - McGahern had to quarter them with a hacksaw and cleaver. He was also put to work in the woods and fields of Leitrim. Throughout these years, the place sustained him, as did its people, who would comfort him as they dug potatoes, saying: "The country will be full of auld spuds and eejits long after we are dead and gone".
The eejit in question, his handsome, hypochondriac father, who would remove the scabs of childhood impetigo with a sharp knife, was as autocratic as the Church. John shared his father's double bed until he was nearly 16, fondled by him as he lay there - on thigh and belly only.
There is nothing dramatic about McGahern's accounts of such frightfulness, and no outright condemnation either. He rejects the violence of his father and the Church, but "religion and religious imagery were part of the air we breathed". McGahern describes the primitive Irish Catholicism of hell, purgatory, limbo and the small red lamp burning before the ubiquitous and gory picture of the Sacred Heart with such detachment, that it becomes clear that a good part of his own sacred heart stopped the day his mother died. After that, he could survive anything.
His unblinking gaze both rejects and honours his mother's world. And so he describes a church that gave him much through its ceremonies and imagery. Its litanies live in his writing and he often uses repetition - of a walk, a time of year, a circumstance - like an incantation, or a decade of the rosary. The old Irish ways live on in his prose and he relishes the language of his people, as in this advice to a father of too many children: "Dump the priest and put a cap on that oil well of yours."
McGahern promised his mother he would become a priest when he grew up. He promised her he would never change his mind. He did, but only in a fashion. This memoir is his offering to her, and a mass for his own people, the Irishmen and women of decades ago, those who left to earn money in England, those who stayed behind in poverty, working all the hours their God allowed. "Mine was a silent generation and it disappeared in silence," he writes. Now, in this account of his and their "precious" lives, he has spoken out, exquisitely, for all of them.
Sat 10 Sep 2005
Darker side of Irish charm
Memoir by John McGahern is published by Faber, price £16.99.
TO TRAVEL THE BYWAYS OF COUNTY Leitrim is to invade the fictional world of John McGahern. Riffle the pages of his debut novel, The Barracks, or his masterpiece, Amongst Women, and taste the wind among the hedgerows, hear the recalcitrant murmur of bee-words, the hum of the rosary, a church clock chiming distantly over the water of a lake like a flaw in the wind. A piercing "ting" - it banishes every carefree thought.
Here summer is choked with cumulous green. A tractor chatters above the meadows and, in the distance, past the bog, a slate-blue triplet of gentle peaks denotes the Iron Mountains, McGahern's mother's place. Getting lost is a state of mind.
"I'll meet you in Fenagh," he'd said, "I'll be parked outside the bar." There are two bars in Fenagh. McGahern was parked outside them both. You can't be too careful.
Where else but in Ireland, with its legendary hospitality, would a writer bother to ferry you to his den? To give you tea; to promise wild salmon, yesterday's catch, with home-grown potatoes to follow, for lunch. This class of civility is rare. But then, McGahern is unique, a man broaching 70 who spring-hops when he walks, with conversation equally limber.
He owns 50 acres, half in pasture to feed the cattle, the rest forest. He and Madeline, his wife, have enjoyed the view across the lake for 30 years. As we settle to talk around the table alongside the stove, beside an unoccupied white rocking chair, Madeline busies herself, bringing tea and a plate of scones. A welcoming, vital, conspicuous presence, she fills the room with her forthright warmth. When someone arrives in a 4WD she shoos them away. "Some woman in pink - she just wanted to see you, to tell you she didn't like your last book." McGahern laughs and Madeline grins; a playful amusement flits between them.
They never had children. "Not a deliberate choice," he says. "It just never happened. It never bothered us. We were in our thirties when we married. It would have been nice." Each phrase is spoken matter-of-factly.
Even when sitting he gives off an energy; and he sits, like the best writers do, with his back to the wall to take in the whole room. When they came here first there were interruptions, neighbours calling. "That's part of the charm. And you had to drop everything. If you didn't, well sure, it wouldn't have been forgiven. Now, with cars and television, all that's changed."
The seasonal rites and daily rhythms of country life have pervaded six novels and three collections of bracing short stories. The world of these narratives is harsh, relieved by small tokens of tight-lipped love and the reassurances of faith. McGahern himself, brought up as an altar boy, somehow drifted away from the church. Nonetheless, he's grateful, he says, for the cardinal decencies it taught him, "the sense of mystery" not least. This reminds him of a quotation - he reels it off - which describes the spire of a church directing one's gaze "from the avaricious earth". When you read the books you detect the grit and sap and honesty of that earthiness, yet somehow he hovers above it, taking it in, half man, half god.
He seems shyly modest, deflecting compliments. During the course of our conversation he never dodges a pointed question, or bends an answer; he's just as scrupulous in talk as he is on the page. His gaze both searches and appraises. You sense the man's mettle, a kind of constancy and resistance to bogus sentiment borne of a childhood during the course of which his psychological strength and physical courage were constantly tested.
He dislikes literary fuss, the wary, unctuous conviviality of writers gathered with drinks in their hands in a room filled with false bonhomie, and in some cases, malice, carefully stalking each other's egos. "I remember going to McDaids [a pub in Dublin frequented by writers] the morning after Brendan Behan died. Patrick Kavanagh was there with up to 15 to 20 newspapers searching for any derogatory reference." He gloated at some barbed phrase. "All that is pathetic," McGahern says.
He revisits his childhood in the course of his latest book, Memoir, at the heart of which lies a homage (almost a pilgrimage) to his mother, and a trip around the thicket of thorn and damage that was his monstrous, forbidding father, a physical brute with a cruel tongue who, as a police sergeant, ruled the barracks in Cootehall, with its handful of guards.
Devotees of McGahern's books will undoubtedly recognise seminal scenes, hear ghosts of past fictional voices. But writing Memoir was crucially different. "You have to honour the facts. I gave it to my sisters and they remembered important scenes that I had left out. One such concerned my mother's dying, when she would wake my sister Rosaleen at 6 o'clock ... and I would then take myself downstairs and put on the fire and we'd mix her medicine. We think it was morphine. I was nine at the time and Rosaleen was eight." On another occasion Rosaleen's twin, their sister Breedge, "got catapulted off her bike to where he [their father] was digging the garden, and she said 'Howya'. And he thought that was incredibly familiar, and he beat her with a spade." McGahern's head shakes in astonishment. Did the family have reservations about the book? "No, not at all, in fact they thought I went a bit easy on my father."
While the father figure looms for the length of the story, the book is a hymn to the mother's goodness. It sketches her suffering, her slow dying, the faith and fortitude she exemplified and expressed. McGahern writes beautifully and movingly, recalling how his father had left her to languish unattended in her death throes and banished the children from her funeral.
"I never could understand that." McGahern uses this phrase often during our two-hour conversation, confronting the mystery of the impenetrable father. "I think he was really quite disturbed, and I've never fully understood him. Without his letters it would have been difficult to make him seem believable."
The letters are punctuation marks, a prose voice from the dead that skips with unexpected life. "He'd a very good prose style," McGahern says. "And he was handsome. And intelligent. And he could have enormous charm, but he couldn't stick at it for very long. The charm was put on for other people, and disturbing to us as children. We knew it wasn't the man who was with us most of the time."
The bullying ended, nailed for good, when the teenage McGahern, felled by his father without due cause - "There didn't have to be a reason" - took him on. The book recalls how he "went straight up to him, my hands at my sides, laughing. He hit me. I fell a number of times and each time rose laughing ... I had passed beyond fear." McGahern, reflects upon this and confirms: "He never hit me after that, and when I was home he never hit anyone in the house. I would have gone for him and I would have done him very bad damage."
Anger shakes him. "I used to find if I got angry or excited at all, I couldn't write for two to three days. Violence is an excessive feeling. Sentimentality is too, in the other direction. I think a dull life is to be recommended for the writer." A smile plays across his lips.
Memoir concludes with a gentle epiphany, calling his mother back from the dead to walk by his side in the summer lanes: "We probably would not be able to speak, though I would want to tell her all the local news," he writes. A stringent loneliness fills those words. A living absence. Where does he walk? Perhaps he visits a favourite haunt? "No, not really. If you go looking you won't find it. I have a wee boat, but I haven't fished for at least two years. I have five cattle. A man is coming to cut the meadow this afternoon. It's a nice time of year." His voice trails off. In the kitchen a clock chimes, a single note, and he calls me to join him, heading through to where Madeline stands amid pots and pans and sounds of life.
Tales out of school
John McGahern describes how he was banned as a writer in Ireland and then as a teacher after falling foul of the Catholic church
Saturday September 3, 2005
I was working as a teacher in Dublin in 1963 when my first novel The Barracks was published and widely praised. Against this small but general tide of approval, a young priest, Father McKiernan, who was principal of the new secondary school in Ballinamore, removed the novel from the town library on the grounds that it was unfit for public consumption. Each morning Father McKiernan dropped into my Aunt Maggie's shop to buy cigarettes. When she learned he had removed the novel, he was told bluntly, "Until you put Sean's book back in the library, I'm afraid, Father, you'll have to buy your cigarettes somewhere else."
In the winter of 1963-64 I wrote The Dark, a novel about a boy growing up in the Ireland of that time, too quickly. Among other things, it dealt with masturbation, the conflict between the call to the priesthood and sexual desire; and there is a scene which may have caused the subsequent trouble: when a priest enters the boy's bed. I also won the Macauley, a prize of £1,000, which stipulated that the winner travel abroad for a year. It was a large award for the time, as £1,000 could purchase a small house in Dublin. In the summer I met the Finnish theatre director Annikki Laaksi in Paris. That October I was given a year's leave of absence without pay by the school to avail of the Macauley. I went to Helsinki and later in the year married Annikki. Finland was not a country I felt I could ever live in, and after Christmas we moved to London and then to Spain, where we had been given the loan of a house on the Almeira coast.
While we were there The Dark was published in London in May of 1965 but seized by Customs and banned in Ireland. This gave rise to violent controversy, and I was glad to be in Spain and out of the storm. In Dublin, we had looked on the Censorship Board as a joke. Most banned books, like most books published, weren't worth reading and those that were could easily be found. I somehow never thought that it could have anything to do with me or my life. Now that I was in the middle of it I found it childish and unpleasant, and I was a little ashamed that our own independent country was making a fool of itself yet again. I wondered privately if the novel had been written less quickly and with more care spent on the writing they might not have noticed. I refused to take part in any protest on the grounds that it would do the whole sorry business too much honour. Back in London I wrote to the school stating my intention to return at the end of the year's leave of absence. The headmaster replied that there would be difficulty if I tried to return to the school.
He advised me to obtain a position in London, and would be only too happy to write references. While I wanted no part of the censorship row, I was determined, as the school had been my work and livelihood for many years, not to go quietly. In awkward situations in Ireland, great pressure is brought to bear to do the so-called decent thing and go quietly away. I was not prepared to go quietly.
I crossed to Dublin and turned up at the school on the day I was due to return. I informed nobody and there were no journalists at the school. All the staff were on edge but everybody welcomed me back with great friendliness. When the bell rang for classes, a deeply embarrassed Mr Kelleher, the headmaster, read out a legal letter from the manager, Father Carton, the parish priest of Clontarf, saying I was barred from entering the classroom. He read this out in the corridor with his back to my old classroom door. Father Carton had gone on holiday to avoid the unpleasantness. I spent the rest of the day in the school. Now that our ordeal was over, the headmaster did his best to make me comfortable. He gave me a newspaper to read. "Hardly a day goes by but there's something about you in the paper, A Mhaistir," he said pityingly. I drank endless cups of tea. I had a pleasant lunch with all my old colleagues and at 2.15 we all left together as if it had been just another school day.
When he returned from his holidays, Father Carton saw me reluctantly. In a roundabout way he told me that he wasn't to blame, as the order for my dismissal had come from the archbishop who would not tolerate having a banned writer working in his schools. "You have gone and ruined your life," the old priest told me. "And you have made my life a misery as well. I can't put my head out the door these days but I'm beset by bowsies of journalists." When pressed by the Teachers' Union for a reason for my dismissal, he replied in writing, with this single sentence: "Mr McGahern is well aware of the reason for his dismissal."
I met the full board of the national Irish Teachers' Union in the late middle of an afternoon. They were careful and hostile. Some of the men had taken whiskey to brace themselves for the meeting. Word had leaked out through the newspapers that I had married a Finnish woman in a register office. The General Secretary, another Kelleher, who had also braced himself with whiskey, allowed his irritation with me to overcome his caution. "If it was just the auld book, maybe - maybe - we might have been able to do something for you, but with marrying this foreign woman you have turned yourself into a hopeless case entirely," he said. "And what anyhow entered your head to go and marry this foreign woman when there are hundreds of thousands of Irish girls going around with their tongues out for a husband?" he added memorably, especially since not many of them had been pointed in my direction.
There were letters for and against me in the newspapers, debates on television and radio, and I was glad to get back to London. The protest against my dismissal that mattered most to me came from the parents of children I had taught. Outside of that I didn't greatly care. In the Dail, the Minister of Education was asked by the Leader of the Labour Party, Brendan Corish, about what had become known as the "McGahern Case". How is it, the question ran, that while the State pays for the training of teachers, their salaries and the running of the schools, it has no say when it comes either to the hiring or firing of teachers, irrespective of their rights as citizens; and could he give a satisfactory reason to the House for Mr McGahern's recent dismissal. The question was crafted carefully. While it was a statutory offence to sell or try to sell a banned book, it was not an offence to have written that book. "When the Church decides on a course of action, it generally has a good reason for that action," the Minister replied. It turned out that my case was unique only because it had been played out in public.
Following a BBC television programme, I received letters from men who, like me, had been trained in St Patrick's but were now teaching in Birmingham and Glasgow and Newcastle. According to their letters, they had been sacked because they had run foul of a bishop or a priest, or had infringed some article of Catholic dogma and had no recourse but to disappear silently into Britain.
This is an edited extract from Memoir by John McGahern, published by Faber on September 15 price £16.99
Sunday December 30th 2001
A light in the darkness
'That They May Face the Rising Sun' is published by Faber and Faber at stg£16.99
When his novel 'The Dark' was banned in 1966, John McGahern lost his job as a national school teacher on the orders of Archbishop McQuaid. But he bears no bitterness his latest work treats the Church with affectionate distance. Patricia Deevy met a writer who knows how to balance toughness and tenderness
BACK and forth, John McGahern and I toss favourite scenes from his new book, That They May Face the Rising Sun. "Do you remember the bit when ?" we say to each other.
He reminds me of incidents, telling details, characters' funny lines not to invite admiration for his writing but for the glorious variety of human beings and human doings.
This chronicle of a tiny universe a south Leitrim lakeside community is finely balanced between toughness and tenderness. For the calf that rises shakily to its feet, there is the tiny black lamb trampled to death. For the antics of a John Quinn, a creep who uses weasel words in his ridiculous pursuit of women, there is a Jamesie Murphy, who talks earthily ("the boggy hollow" is his deliciously crude expression for a woman's genitalia) but is full of affectionate respect for his wife, Mary. For any act of calculation (the local critic who visits his dying brother in hospital only to avoid being criticised), there is another of luminous purity (two men's reverent laying out of a neighbour's body before his wake). That They May Face the Rising Sun is hardly out and already "beloved" is its proper description because of its abiding respect for humanity, for nature and for the rhythm of time. ("It grew out of the lake and bog. I think families and localities are stronger in Ireland than any sense of national identity.")
McGahern feels the affection swirling around the book. Delight is in the air about him as he sits in a Dublin hotel doing his publicity work. "The publishers said that there was a London Review of Books party the other night and that it was the whole talk of the party. It's got enormous generous responses here so far, hasn't it?"
He has a round, pink, merry face, he laughs a lot, and in his tweedy jacket and V-neck pullover he looks the part of the farmer visiting the big smoke. But he is not some rustic abroad, nor merely gentle and charming and full of stories, but also self-assured (as well he might be, with the cream of publishing in London and New York at his feet), mischievous, earthy and gossipy.
Over drinks, after his day's interviewing is done (pint of stout followed by a whiskey for him, gin and tonic for Madeline, his wife), he proffers something vaguely naughty about a gay acquaintance making it clear by his sidelong glances at Madeline that he mightn't really mean it but is just trying to get a rise out of her. He succeeds.
Six novels along and 12 years since his last one, the magnificent Amongst Women, McGahern has allowed grace to be his subject. The previous five came out of the world of forbearance and "offering it up" so what happened?
"There is a line of Yeats it was a favourite line of Joyce's as well that I often think of as I get older: 'As a man grows older his joy grows more deep day by day and he has need of all that joy because of the increasing night."'
Word for word he repeats the quote, as if no further explanation is needed.
McGahern too lives in a lakeside community in south Leitrim his mother's country. He has a few cattle and a lot of trees on his 40-odd acres. Writing takes up about three hours a day: an hour to make himself do it and two hours' graft. Nothing is left to chance. The story of the black lamb's death, for instance a page or so came right after rigorous attention. "I must have written that scene about 20 or 30 times, because it was too much and I had to get it right."
Writing requires discipline with time and with emotion: "I learned, very early on, especially when I was teaching, that you couldn't allow yourself to get upset by anything. If you lost your temper or you became angry for some reason, that had taken away the emotional energy that you write out of. Because in order to write you need to feel as well as to think."
To those who pick up biographical echoes in the work dead mothers and strict fathers recur McGahern points out the difficulty of making good art from mere facts. Where he concedes an influence on the life he made from the events that befell him, it is in his mother's death when he was nine.
"It was the most important thing, in the worst sense of the word, that ever happened to me, and I have wondered often would I have been a writer if it had not happened, and sometimes I think that maybe the long and complicated journey of art may be a simple activity to try to recover that world that I lost at her death. But I don't know that. One writes because one needs to, and it's an instinct, and though I've done nothing else for the last 40 years much, I still don't understand it."
Susan McGahern was a teacher and Francis McGahern a Garda sergeant, and since the rule was that a sergeant couldn't have a wife who worked, the McGaherns lived separately during the school year Susan McGahern and the children wherever she was working, Sgt McGahern at the barracks in Cootehall, Co Roscommon. After her death, the seven children moved to live with a father who was stern and belligerent.
In Cootehall, a local Protestant family, the Moroneys, took a shine to young McGahern and gave him the run of their library. "I certainly would never have been a writer except I got access to that 19th-century library."
McGahern would become a fierce if controlled chronicler of the pious hypocrisies of Forties and Fifties Ireland. But he has also celebrated Catholicism because he believes its rituals and mysteries are worthy of celebration. "It was the first ceremony, and sacrament, and grace and even luxury, in the sense of the candles and the flowers."
THOUGH many of his generation have been agitated about the role of "the Church" in their lives, few have had more cause to be agitated than John McGahern. In 1966, he lost his job as a national school teacher at the behest of the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, after his second novel, The Dark, was banned (for, it seems, its adolescent narrator's challenging thinking and masturbatory escapism). He remained calm wilfully and unhelpfully calm, it seemed to some would-be champions when his life was the stuff of public controversy and his career was debated in Dáil Éireann. He doesn't know if that calmness is nature or nurture.
"I know when The Dark was banned I went on The Late Late Show and it was from the King's Hall in Belfast and Gay Byrne was very disappointed that I wouldn't attack the Church and I said it was the weather of my early life and I could no more attack that than attack my own life.
"And then a man stood up in the audience and he said: 'There's a man whose book was banned by the government in the republic and who was sacked out of his job by the archbishop, and he comes down here to Belfast and gets up on his hind legs and praises the Catholic Church; could Moscow do a better job of brainwashing than that?' What could you do only smile?"
Perhaps along the way his father's cussedness and mother's stepping out of the mainstream taking a Trinity scholarship, continuing to work gave him the confidence to step outside the grubby politicking, whether for or against him. "I was very clear about it: we had nothing but contempt for the censorship board and I never protested against it."
(Good to keep in mind that steely will and intellectual confidence when charmed by the jolly chuckles and that boggy voice which seems to replicate the landscape from which it springs, with vowels which are wide and loose and shallow. Words like complicated, education, gratitude acquire a soft "h" sound to become "compli-hated", "educ'hation", "grahatude".)
When The Dark was published, McGahern's wife, Annikki Laaksi, was a Finnish theatre director. They had met in Paris and married after a few weeks. In all, the marriage lasted about half a decade but their time together was much shorter. She worked in Finland but McGahern couldn't live in Finland. She hated Ireland. The marriage consisted of occasional meetings in London after he went to live there. The end was inevitable but not easy.
"I was looking back at the amount of stupidities that the right-wing people said when divorce became possible here because anyone who has gone through a divorce, as I have, it's a terrible experience, because it's almost like having a death without a body and one has an incredible sense of personal failure: you won't get married to someone unless you make some sort of commitment; you have let yourself down and let somebody else down."
In the late Sixties, he got a telegram from an American university asking him to fill in for a visiting lecturer who had let it down. So began his association with Colgate University, a small private college in upstate New York, from which he is just returning to find himself feted. While in America, he met his second wife-to-be, Madeline Green, who was the childhood friend of an editor he had in New York. Profiles describe her as a photographer. "Well, she really wouldn't call herself anything. I think she's a very good photographer," he says. (Later I ask her and he's right: she doesn't call herself anything.)
Madeline McGahern is slim, grey-haired and quietly friendly, someone who, as much as her husband, gently blends into the scene. "She never comes to readings or anything that I do. Our lives are separate from my work. I think there's nothing she'd dislike more than to be known as the writer's wife." The way he talks of their shared life suggests a relationship which accommodates distance and privacy. He agrees wholeheartedly: "I think it's Proust that describes men and women as the creatures that can't emerge from themselves. Even between people that live together, there's an enormous [private] zone. I think that most of us inhabit private worlds that others cannot see, and that's the world that we read with. And write out of, too."
McGahern thinks his next project will be to develop an essay he once wrote about the Catholic Church's meaning to him. That They May Face the Rising Sun is set in post-Enniskillen-bomb Ireland, sometime in the late Eighties, and in it the Church is treated with affectionate distance. An essay will try to get to the root of its collapse in the Nineties. He would never have predicted that.
"In some ways I think it's not a bad thing because I think that the Church had too much power,political power, and that it wasn't good for the State and it wasn't good for the Church, and I think religion probably will turn to its true vocation, which is spirituality."
Talking of this, he is reminded of a priest he met who was drummed out of the Philippines by Marxist colleagues. McGahern wondered how Marxism and Catholicism would have merged and was given this example. When leading the Stations of the Cross a radical priest might say to the congregation: "Christ falls the third time and if he was as badly fed as you lot, he'd be dead by now." He shakes with laughter.
Somehow McGahern will always write of religion and belief with this attitude of mischief and wonder, because to him the former is often human and ridiculous and the latter a wondrous thing, touched by the transcendent innocence of childhood. "I used to think that heaven was in the sky and I started to climb towards the sun [across fields] and got tired and fell asleep and caused enormous family commotion. I was three, I think."
A quiet climb towards the light, a striving for goodness in life, is the moral core of That They May Face the Rising Sun. One evening Joe Ruttledge, a copywriter who has settled back in Leitrim after many years in London, is wandering home after watching the All-Ireland with his neighbour and friend Jamesie Murphy. Coming close to his house he hears the voices of his wife, Kate, and uncle, the Shah. It occurs to him that this moment one of contentment and connection with the place and people he loves is happiness.
"As soon as the thought came to him, he fought it back, blaming the whiskey. The very idea was as dangerous as presumptive speech: 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."
FABER £16.99 (272pp) £15.99
In this superb reminiscence, John McGahern irradiates Irish country life in the mid-20th century, with its long bog roads; its market days in humble towns with names, like Dromod and Ballinamore, of a faded, rain-washed allure; its clerical domination. At the same time, his generic material is filtered through an intensely individual apprehension of the world around him, at once enchanted and disabused.
In a sense, McGahern has thought himself back into childhood, even while activating an adult consciousness that goes about the business of correcting and elucidating. Along with the sensuous recapturing of lost time comes a precise delineation of local elements of the past, with "religion and religious imagery" as "part of the air we breathed".
Many of the ingredients of this book will be familiar to readers of McGahern's novels and stories, a part of the air they generate. His early fiction, for example, contains several versions of his father, each more or less tyrannical as the emphasis is adjusted to accord with a theme. Even as late as 1990, the widowed farmer Moran in the novel Amongst Women has borrowed a republican past and a few emphatic traits from the real McGahern senior, a sergeant attached to the barracks at Cootehall, Leitrim.
Going back to The Barracks (1963), we get a sergeant's wife who is dying of cancer, just as the author's mother died when he was ten, leaving him - like the boy in The Dark (1965) - exposed to the tantrums of his harsh remaining parent.
Other emblems and incidents recur: McGahern has never made any secret of his reliance on experience for the bare bones of his fiction. His creative impulse is tied up with the domestic and low-key, with a concomitant refusal of elaborate plot-making or myth-making. But if the memoir returns us to the source of his preoccupations, it's with a difference. The novels' narrower focus tends toward a concentrated misery, frustration and privation, whereas the memoir's more relaxed and harmonious handling of its subject matter has a sense of luminosity. Its articulation is resourceful and evocativ
What are the attributes of this particular Irish upbringing? McGahern was born in 1943 in Leitrim, first of seven children of an intermittently bullying police sergeant and an engaging schoolteacher. The earliest part of his life was passed in blissful security, for the most part - but not for long. Two things, Elizabeth Bowen wrote, are terrible in childhood: helplessness, and the sense that something is being kept from you because it is too bad to be told. Both afflicted the young McGahern in relation to his mother's illness and eventual death, an event whose description here is charged with the utter desolation of bereavement.
The keenest sense of a lost haven is captured, very subtly, in the a litany of densely freighted landmarks, repeated like a mantra: "We'd walk again past Brady's pool, past Brady's house and street, and the street where the old Mahon brothers lived, past the deep, dark quarry, across the railway bridge and up the steep hill past Mahon's shop to the school".
After their mother's death, the children of the family - McGahern, his five younger sisters and baby brother - come together in an unspoken alliance to counter the worst excesses of their volatile father, in whose personality charm, brutality, self-pity, moroseness and impressiveness were oddly mixed. One of McGahern's aims in writing this book is to get to the bottom of his unfathomable father, whose actions are sometimes strange indeed. In fact, the sergeant emerges as a great fictional character. But it's the spirit of his mother, vivid, responsive and indomitable, that presides over McGahern's wonderfully felicitous and heartening exercise in autobiography.
Patricia Craig's life of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury
Faber, £16.99, 273 pp
The bad old days turned to gold
Hilary Mantel reviews Memoir by John McGahern.
"Knowledge is power and all understanding is joy, even in the face of dread", says John McGahern. This book is the chronicle of a search for understanding, for a light by which to look at the poor bare materials of one's own life. It is a story about a lost country, for McGahern's Ireland is not found on a map; and a story about innocence and grace, power and the abuse of power. It illuminates his work - six novels, four story collections - and confirms his status. Simply, McGahern is the best writer; this is his best book.
John McGahern was born in Ireland in 1934, and for a long time he was the only boy in a large family. His mother was gentle, educated, loving; his father was one of those men who wished his son to understand the harshness of the world, before he understood anything else. He was a rural policemen, living apart from the family in a police barracks, visiting them a day or two a month, and bringing with him a capricious and violent temper which had the children frozen into postures of permanent vigilance. His daily work consisted of pursuing people for having no lights on their bicycle, or an unlicensed dog. His penchant for physical brutality had to be exercised at home.
His son is still trying to work him out; still asking, "why?" In part the answers lie in the wider society. In theocratic Ireland, McGahern says, men married for sex, as marriage was the only way they could get it. Children were the often unwanted consequence - not so much God's blessing as diabolic burdens, expensive little parcels of wilfulness and sin. His mother, a teacher, never beat her charges; she was singular in that. McGahern notes: "I have seen men my own age grow strange with anger when recalling their schooling: 'Often we wouldn't be able to hold tools in the evening, our hands would be that black and swollen.' " There is a world in that half-sentence, a world well-lost, where children come home to work not play, where they are often the equivalents of adults in responsibility, but without status, without rights, without information.
It was when John was seven that his mother first disappeared. She had gone to hospital in Dublin, to have surgery for breast cancer. No one told him, just as no one explained that a few years later, her condition exacerbated by two more pregnancies, she was going to die. At the end her husband stayed away. He sent a lorry to fetch the children to the barracks, and the household was broken up, each stick of furniture and each pot and pan packed up, as the dying woman lay in the room upstairs and listened. "What must she have thought when she heard the lorry leave?" Two days later news came of her death, and only then did the sergeant apply for compassionate leave.
John McGahern did not become a priest, as his mother hoped. He became a teacher, but had to quit in 1965 when his second novel, The Dark, was banned in Ireland. He went on his travels then, and saw the mother country through fresh eyes. In time he settled back in Leitrim, on the land where he grew up. He looks back on that place, that time, with no nostalgia but with a great capacity for showing us why things were so.
This is an unsentimental book. It is frequently desolating, but it is also witty, and it is never bitter, even when bitterness might be warranted. His prose, the vehicle for so much feeling, is deceptively mild, careful, refined; his cadence is pure and never loses the rhythms of speech. This memoir is a mirror which reflects the landscapes through which his writer's eyes have moved, for 50 years now, like the eyes of a fugitive god: those lake margins, those small, poor fields, those classrooms heavy with the smell of fury and fear, those desolate farmhouses where a death is awaited or a death has taken place.
John McGahern is a slow worker; his last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, is said to have taken him 12 years. And this book has taken him a lifetime; it is autobiographical writing at its best. McGahern's memory is long, his eye unsparing, his depiction exact. His story works deeply within the reader, leaving behind a sadness which is almost bracing. It communicates his own hunger for experience, his keenness to feel the breath of life on the page. It shows us how he formed his purpose, his intention to survive, to thrive, to make art out of bewilderment and pain; and this purpose shines through the book as it shone through his childhood, distant but "as clear as a single star".
Hilary Mantel's latest novel is 'Beyond Black' (Fourth Estate)
Memories from the shadows of the past
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst reviews Memoir by John McGahern.
According to John McGahern, whose tales of sleepy rural Irish life have charmed readers for more than 40 years, there is an old country saying that "the shady places are the safest". It's a nice piece of folk wisdom, but on the evidence of this memoir it seems about as accurate as believing that a watched pot never boils or a dimple on the chin shows the devil within.
For a boy like McGahern, growing up in County Leitrim in the 1940s, Ireland was a dark and dangerous place, where "a climate of suppression and poverty and fear" was made gloomier still by the sort of ignorance and casual violence that was either silently condoned, or in some cases actively encouraged, by an all-powerful Catholic church. The whole country seemed to be suffering from a form of arrested development. If anything, things were getting worse: in James Joyce's depiction of a writer's childhood in turn-of-the-century Dublin, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there is a grim scene in which a schoolboy is beaten with a pandybat, "his face contorted with pain"; in McGahern's case, a priest thrashes a "pale, whimpering boy" into bloodied submission with a length of electric flex.
But for McGahern, the longest shadow was cast by his father Frank, a devious and manipulative bully who seems to have embodied all these institutional horrors in his own substantial frame. A sergeant in the newly formed police force, who had joined after a successful stint in the IRA, he was a man of savage contradictions. Vain of his own appearance, with his badge and buckles always brightly polished, he was too mean to treat his children with the same respect, and would nail strips of old bicycle tyre to their leaking boots to save buying expensive leather soles - an economy that, as McGahern levelly recalls, "made walking difficult".
At the end of every month, he would line up his children and tell them how much they had eaten, ordering them to cut down on luxuries such as butter, and encouraging them to eat cheaper alternatives such as cows' heads. He demanded absolute trust from his family, but routinely lied to them, inventing imaginary illnesses in order to keep himself at the centre of attention even while they were nursing the bruises and welts he dished out with his fists, boots and, on one horrible occasion, a spade. Never was a man less aptly named than Frank.
The only light dappling the young McGahern's life came from his intelligent and sensitive mother. McGahern clearly adored her, and for a time contemplated becoming a priest, on the understanding that this would increase his chances of joining her in heaven. No doubt he would have preferred to keep her to himself, describing with feeling how the female otter "whistles down the waters for the male when she wants to mate and chases him back again to his own waters when his work is done", but in the end this wasn't to be. She died of breast cancer when he was still young, leaving him to the untender mercies of his father and his second wife, a woman who seems to have been a far more suitable match, once remarking that "I don't think you'd be able to stand people if you didn't know they have to die."
The rest of this memoir shows McGahern planning his escape to Dublin, and rehearsing it through his developing love of reading, having discovered that just as it is possible to lose yourself in a book, so it is possible to discover yourself in one. But all the way through, it is his mother whose presence, and then whose absence, shapes his perceptions. If his father is the centre of this memoir, then she is its heart.
In clumsy hands, this could easily turn into a self-righteous fable about good overcoming evil, and the writer's imagination triumphing over the unpleasant mess of real life. What prevents this from happening, and sustains comparison with the very best descriptions of childhood, from Wordsworth to Proust, is the unsentimental brilliance of the writing.
Even when he is describing the most savage beatings, McGahern manages to preserve a studiously flat tone, one that hovers uncomfortably between traumatised numbness and icy contempt. And throughout, there is his eye for the strange, haunting poetry of the everyday: noticing the hawthorn as it "foams into streams of blossom"; sticking his hand out of a lorry window "to comb the rushing air with my fingers".
McGahern's fiction has always been steeped in this sort of local detail, much of it in the context of stories that were autobiographically as well as geographically close to home: The Barracks depicts a police sergeant's wife dying of cancer, while Amongst Women describes a dominating father's effect on his children.
It will be interesting to see if Memoir finally lays these family ghosts to rest. It seems unlikely, given that what animates McGahern's writing and turns this into a profoundly beautiful meditation on the nature of loss is not so much the past he experienced as the one he missed out on - a past in which his father had been chased away by his mother, and he was "safe in her shadow".
THE TLS N.º 5352, OCTOBER 28 2005
THE LONG ROAD HOME
272 pp. Faber £ 16.99
0 571 228100
When his second novel, The Dark, was banned to Ireland in 1965, on the grounds of “obscenity”, John McGahern adopted an unexpected course of action, which proved highly revealing. Although he lost his primary-school teaching post to Dublin as a result of the ban, he refused to allow the matter to he whipped up into a cause célèbre, and he even declined an unsolicited offer of support from Samuel Beckett. His silence, as he explains in his new autobiography, Memoir, was largely a product of embarrassment: “I was a little ashamed that our own independent country was making a fool of itself yet again”. He was to spend several subsequent years abroad, through necessity, but he never accepted the prospect of long-term exile, to the time-honoured Irish tradition. After the dust had settled he returned quietly, not just to Ireland but to the same rural parish in County Leitrim where he had grown up and drawn most of the inspiration for his fiction.
The first sentence of Memoir lands us in the thick of that native terrain, where McGahern has lived and worked ever since. “The soil in Leitrim is poor, in places no more than an inch deep.” The blend of economy, precision and ambivalence is characteristic, but the ensuing description is a reaffirmation of an enduring affection. Dense with intimate detail, it is very much a countryman’s vision of land he has worked himself, and it goes some way to explain the magnetic attraction of the place. The landscape of innumerable small lakes and smaller fields, where hawthorn-edged lanes “wander into one another like streams, until they reach some main road”, will be familiar to readers of his six novels and four story collections. Here again, to his first work of non-fiction, it appears less as background scenery than as a character to its own right, a presence that colours the human characters throughout the narrative.
The story unfolds in roughly chronological order, with no chapter divisions. Boyhood and adolescence occupy about nine-tenths of it, but it is essentially a family group-portrait, which places his remarkable parents squarely at the centre of the composition. John is the eldest of their six children, and we first encounter him as a precocious three-year-old walking to school hand to hand with his mother, Susan, a village schoolteacher deeply versed to the local flora and fauna, who appears at this stage as the soul of kindness, patience and piety. “God”, she assures him placidly, in response to a question about their relative poverty, “is more important than the world.”) There is a haunting sense of artificial lustre in these early images, which contribute to a mounting foreboding. Subtle shifts of tone alert us to an impending tragedy, long before we learn that his mother has contracted an incurable cancer. We soon realize that it is the intense aura of a lost paradise that suffuses these ordinary memories — of a grand-parents cottage, a blacksmith’s forge, or a ritual daily walk to collect the milk.
Her lingering death is the emotional centre of the book, like the still eye of a storm. It occurs when the narrator is only nine, and McGahern has to summon all of his famously laconic honesty to confront the moment without mawkishness. To the boy’s lasting regret, he has prematurely broken off his last conversation with her.
“I came to say goodbye, Mammy.” Her eyes were fixed on my face; she seemed to be very tired. I bent to kiss her. She did not move. I was bewildered. Both Maggie and the nurse turned away. I tried to hurry. If I did not get away quickly I’d never be able to walk out of the room. I wanted to put arms round the leg of the bed so that they wouldn’t be able to drag me away and they’d he forced to leave me in the room with her for ever. I went out the door, crossed the landing, went down the stairs and out into the blinding day.”
Susan’s unquestionable virtues are starkly underlined by the contrast with his father, a Gardai sergeant and ex-IRA soldier, who prefers to live in the police barracks at some distance from the house where he has installed his family. McGahern père is a vain, capricious, draconian egotist with a vivid streak of paranoia and a dangerously violent temper. He is capable of inflicting peculiar refinements of cruelty to the name of duty, justice and thrift; and his irregular visits inspire an increasing dread in his children His failings plumb new depths during his wife’s illness, when he callously avoids her sickbed for months fusses endlessly over the design of her tombstone, and soon after her death begins to advertise in Lonely hearts columns for a replacement. The subsequent years, when the bereaved children are forced to live with their father in the barracks permanently for the first time, without maternal protection, prove to be purgatorial beyond their worst imaginings. “We had no defence against the sudden rages, the beatings, the punishments, the constant scolding. Many of us began to walk in our sleep…” It is soon clear that the eldest son, whose bond with the mother has been closest, is set on a lifelong collision course with him.
It is equally clear that this Oedipal conflict has served McGahern as a source more than once, in more than one sense. We are encouraged to identify the origins of both the stiff-backed police sergeant and the stoical invalid, Elisabeth, in his first novel, The Barracks (1963), as well as the domineering father, Moran in Amongst Women (1990) who alienates his son. A novelist who discloses the well-springs of his fiction in this manner is obviously taking a certain risk, but McGahern’s familiarity with this material has probably worked to advantage here. Memoir is sometimes bluntly irreverent on awkward political subjects (“a great many school hours were wasted on the teaching of Irish”), but it is strikingly free of retrospective bitterness with regard to his father, whose role as a real-life villain can hardly be denied. Most of the anger seems to have been worked off in the heat of the novels, and the tone now tends to be coolly neutral or gently satirical, in a manner that is often surprisingly funny.
McGahern is visibly conciliatory even when dealing with a liberal’s bête noire such as the dominance of the Catholic Church during that time. Although he himself was to become an eminent victim of its cultural repression, he is more ready to acknowledge it as a source of comfort and enchantment to his early life. Nostalgia plays a part in this, no doubt, as he meticulously recreates a rural world that has now abruptly vanished; but his .attitude also conforms to a larger principle of reconciliation with one’s origins, which is one of the most persistent themes of his fiction. For the main character in The Pornographer (1979), “The road away became the road back”. Memoir testifies to a glum period of Irish history, when too many stories ended in leave-taking and exile; but its own story, culminating to McGahern’ s afterlife as an adult, eloquently dramatizes the sense of a final homecoming -the solution so often proposed for his own characters’ dilemmas.
The book in the U.S.A. here