John McGahern, writer: born Dublin 12 November 1934; Research Fellow, Reading University 1968-71; FRSL 1979; married 1965 Annikki Laaki (marriage dissolved), 1973 Madeline Green; died Dublin 30 March 2006.
Censured for The Dark (1965), which was banned in his native Ireland, but feted for Amongst Women (1990), which was short-listed for the Booker, John McGahern was not a revolutionary nor a "pop" writer. Neither in formal nor thematic terms did he break from the tradition of modern Irish fiction established by George Moore with The Untilled Field (1903). He grew up in an obscure part of rural Ireland, counties Leitrim and Roscommon, to which he returned for the last three decades of his life.
From the television documentary John McGahern - A Private World (2005), several images persist. One was a shot from inside the country house where he had lived for years. Another showed the novelist on a tree-lined and very green lane, with a long-ish lope, walking endlessly. Another was of his tweed-capped head and thinning face, with cars and tractors passing in a small-town street; McGahern talking silently to a man with his back to us, then his long finger waving gently but insistently at some object out of sight.
McGahern had come home to Ireland in 1970 as a writer and as a (very shy) public image after fruitful but rather rootless years abroad. Now, in this celebratory film, he was seen in a domestic setting, comfortable, notably unpretentious, discreet. Or, we were given an objective correlative of his lonely vocation as the spiritual patrolsman (or night-nurse), not at all censorious or priestly; on the contrary, caring and observant of every kind of little life. Finally, there was the countryman, gossiping on a Saturday afternoon in a neighbouring town, being helpful, but also being indirect. Nobody could give vaguer directions to his own territory than McGahern: he always pointed away.
The film anticipated publication of Memoir (2005), a hugely successful and beautifully written intrusion into his own past. It was written, I believe, because he needed to give some explanation of what would soon be ended: the diurnal, mundane life of getting up, putting pen to paper, loving another human being, eating, walking the dog.
The dominant voice in the film had been McGahern reading aloud; in Memoir, the dominant (inaudible, dead) prose voice was that of the Father, a legendary, too demanding, silence. The novelist, at one almost casual moment, said that, on a particular occasion he supposed he had been "seduced" by his father. It was not an accusation; it was not a matter of crime either in its gross or its casual registers. McGahern's uncanny mastery of language allowed him to be truthful and discreet in the same word.
He was born in Dublin in 1934, the only boy in a family of six children. His father, a policeman, had been active in the IRA during the war of independence. His mother, whom he adored, was a teacher, shortly to die of cancer. What happened in childhood, in young manhood, was the stuff of McGahern's work, from the earliest novel (The Barracks, 1963), through a series of short-story volumes, to the two last novels, Amongst Women (1990) and That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002).
There were other novels - The Dark (1965), The Leavetaking (1974) and The Pornographer (1980). In the mid-1960s, when he was a primary school teacher in north Dublin, publication of The Dark, with its simple descriptions of sexual ignorance and improvised relief, proved too much for the terrible twins of Irish authoritarianism. The book was banned by the state, and the teaching job was scuttled by an even crasser Church. Dublin's Catholic archbishop of the time was John Charles McQuaid, whose influence brooked no democratic or "cultural" opposition.
As a demonstration of force, the archbishop suborned the Teachers' Union, leaving the young writer-teacher stranded. A very few politicians protested, among them Brendan Corish, leader of the Irish Labour Party. The inevitable happened: McGahern emigrated. It had happened a million times to young Irishmen and women before him. In a sense, he had joined his spiritual constituency. In the same year he moved to London, he married in a registry office, compounding his offence in the eyes of clerical authority.
Change was arriving or occurring in the Irish Republic, but too late to keep the author of The Barracks and The Dark at home. Manifestly these were not innovatory novels. No comparisons with Joyce or Beckett were warranted on that score. Through his short stories, McGahern kept in touch with the well-established tradition of Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain. Northern poets, such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, were beginning to have an impact on southern Ireland as, within a few years, would northern Troubles. The dramatic possibilities for fiction were not to McGahern's taste, though, here and there, one comes on characters or situations which have been nudged out of place by the storm.
The connection ran, like a patient fishing-line, under the surface. Fishing plays a significant role in McGahern's depiction of rural life, its pastimes and economies. Nightlines (1970) is one of the most distinguished of the short-story collections. The early story "Korea", filmed by Cathal Black in 1995, tells of how a young man discovers that his father has calculated the pension which will accrue when the son is killed on service with the US Army. Without any schematic plotting, the story intimates how worms the men use for bait are essentially the same worms which will consume the dead son's body and sustain the older man.
The distant locus of predictable death in battle, the immediacy of farmhouse and water, have together encouraged some critics to discern an existentialist at work. Certainly, the details of Irish rural life are held in check, never made too much of. If McGahern has any affinity with writers generally proclaimed existentialist, then Albert Camus and not Jean-Paul Sartre is his colleague.
Tonally, the work moved away from the harsh Leitrim landscape with its hills built seemingly of wet anthracite, towards the lake-and-river countryside of Roscommon. This was less a matter of fictional setting, more of personal atonement within the writing. Both counties were invoked in the documentary, when McGahern spoke of the Leitrim country lanes, how they gradually gathered like streams before finding a main road.
Amongst Women, the title of what has become McGahern's most successful novel, alludes to the Catholic ritual of "saying the Rosary", a household round of prayers and invocations addressed through the Blessed Virgin. The book, however, secularises the allusion, while telling the story of a man - the Father in another guise - and his place in familial and national events. Church and state don't prosper in McGahern's spiritual accountancy; habit becomes tyranny while tyranny is gradually accepted as merely habitual in both parties. Amongst Women was short-listed for the Booker Prize.
A guilty country bestowed many awards - the Macaulay Fellowship in 1964, an Arts Council Award in 1980. Great Britain was no less generous, its Arts Council recognising McGahern's contribution to literature in 1966, 1968, 1971 and 1978. In 1989, the French elected him Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. His fiction was widely translated, and he was particularly well known in France.
He was an unassuming man, attentive to the duties that came his way (including membership of the Arts Council of Ireland from 2003), courteous in the countryman's way. Just weeks before his death, he made representations in person on behalf of all Irish artists to the Minister for Finance, defending a tax-exemption scheme under threat. The minister was privately amused that so few beneficiaries took the trouble to lobby him: McGahern, however, was the perfect delegate, though seriously ill and unused to phalanxes of the press.
He had been Writer-in-Residence at Trinity College Dublin in 1993, occupying a set of rooms still lacking a lavatory. (He was to be seen occasionally with a tea-pot in hand, making his way up or down the communal stairs, as in some pre-modernised farmhouse of the 1950s.) St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, where he had trained for the teaching career that never blossomed, granted him an honorary doctorate in 2003. His speech of acceptance combined humility with honest speaking, trademarks of McGahern's literary intelligence.
W.J. Mc Cormack
On Wednesday night I sat down with a book I had read last year: Memoir by John McGahern, writes Joseph O'Connor. I had read parts of it in Granta magazine before the finished book was published and had been awestruck, as so often before, by the simplicity and elegance of his prose. I did not know then that his remaining hours were so few.
The apartment was quiet. The night was warm and still: it was a beautiful spring evening in New York. The windows were open and you could hear the sounds of the street. To read McGahern is always a pleasure; to read him on such a night was wonderful. His descriptions of the natural world, of hedgerows and lakes, and of Irish country people of a forgotten time. His hardness and lack of sentiment; his clear-eyed truthfulness.
I was introduced to John McGahern's short stories as a teenager by my parents. I can still remember the first time I read "Sierra Leone". The sentences in that story were so simple and forceful that they made me wonder what it was like to write them. "Her hair shone dark-blue in the light" was one of them. The strange ache in the heart caused by quiet, precise words.
Later I discovered his bleak, spare novels: The Barracks, The Dark, The Pornographer, and then Amongst Women, the most important Irish novel of the late 20th century. The magnificent short stories continued to come. The last piece in his Collected Stories (1992), a jewel called "The Creamery Manager", is one of the finest short stories imaginable, a model of understated power. It rivals James Joyce's "The Dead".
Readers will remember John McGahern as a writer whose work touched them, or changed their point of view, casting light into the everyday corners. Literary fashions came and went; he ignored all of them, absolutely. He was a writer whose work resonated in whatever part of our souls needs to be touched by beauty. You read McGahern and you said, "that's true".
Like Heaney, or Patrick Kavanagh, or Raymond Carver, or Joyce, he was able to take the stuff of ordinary lives and create of it the highest art. This is why his books were so frequently best-sellers in his native Ireland. His work spoke to readers about their own lives; its silences were also ours. It crackled with a kind of hopefulness, though it offered no tricks. Integrity and a sense of place cohere in his writing; his way of looking at the world was unique. This, he always stressed, was the most important thing the writer needs to find. Not a voice alone, not the words alone, but a way of seeing into lives.
McGahern was an exceptionally modest man, but his standards were the highest. There were often many years between his books. He was one of the very few Irish writers of recent decades who only published masterpieces.
In his novel That They May Face the Rising Sun, McGahern describes one character as "a man of intense sweetness". It's a description that could have been applied to its author. I met John McGahern a couple of times and found him warm-spirited, great company, far more mischievous than I would have imagined. He was funny, a wicked mimic, extremely generous towards younger writers.
His memoir is beside me now as I write; many of its pages are dog-eared, some of its passages underlined. My son is toddling around the office, crayoning on a copybook. To think I will be able to one day show him John McGahern's work brings a fierce kind of pleasure on such a sad day.