BOOKS / Private isle: Novelist John McGahern has survived both praise and censorship. In the poorest county in Ireland, he farms the 'terrible' land that nurtures his work

Linda Grant
Saturday 10 October 1992 23:02

The journey from London to Laura Lake, where John McGahern has lived for 20 years, begins at 6am. A taxi to the station, a train, a plane, a few hours to kill in Dublin, then the Sligo train, which leaves Connolly station three times a day and takes two hours to travel the 100 miles to Dromod, in County Leitrim. It is from Dromod that McGahern has arranged to drive me the remaining few miles to his house.

The land here doesn't look as if it could do the violence to people that farm labour inflicts on the characters in McGahern's novels and stories. The train runs on past orderly stands of trees starting to colour, a lake with pebbles clear on the bottom, heathland, a ground-cover of heather, dramatic changes of weather, carpets hanging out for a breather on the fence of the station house at Mostrim. McGahern's fictional world is harsher than this, a peasant society of farmers and minor officials and sons trying to escape, of stones and soil choking the life out of a beaten-down people. Enemies have described it as an erotic, morbid portrayal of an Ireland that does not exist.

Its characteristics are death, isolation, the loss of love or its impossibility. An old IRA man struggles to exert his authority over a family of women. A teacher's marriage to a divorced woman leads to his dismissal from his job, in a country in which all schools are run by priests. A woman thinks that a writer of pornography is her last chance of marriage, and refuses to believe that he will not love their child when she becomes pregnant. McGahern writes about Ireland as it was before the Virgin store in Dublin started selling condoms.

His publicity photograph has prepared me for a dark ironist, but the man on the platform is dressed in black corduroy trousers and fashionable brown tweed jacket, his long legs looking too frail to support the upper body. The impression is slightly blurred, the features of the face arranged just out of focus. His voice is soft and pronunciation of certain words unfamiliar.

We drive through fields up a track. The country is beautiful, but we are in the poorest county in Ireland, he says: 'There is a local saying, 'When the crow flies over Leitrim, it takes along a packed lunch.' ' At the end of the track, on a hillside above a lake, is the house in which McGahern has lived since the early Seventies. Visitors often remark that it must be depressing in the winter, but he does not find it so. His social life is much busier in the country than in Dublin, where he has a small, rarely visited house. His neighbours, like him, are farmers, no longer young. McGahern has some land, terrible land, he calls it, and some cattle. There is an interdependence here, everyone helping each other out. A neighbour once asked McGahern why he didn't go to Mass: he told him that he would like to, but that he was no longer a believer and would feel hypocritical. The neighbour replied that none of the congregation believed either, and that he himself went only to look at the pretty girls. The people here are pagans, McGahern says.

The house is one-storey, originally with three rooms, now extended. There is a small spare room with a black and white television, in case a guest wishes to watch. The kitchen is much like a middle-class farmhouse kitchen anywhere, with its Aga, great wooden table, bunches of herbs, wine stowed away. McGahern's wife, Madeline, a tall, elegant New Englander, tells me of her family history. It's a little too cold, having tea, to sit on the porch and watch the sunlight fade. McGahern puts on a grey loose-knit sweater with a tremendous hole at one elbow.

The reason for my visit is the publication of his complete short stories, which include two that have not appeared before, 'The Creamery Manager' and 'The Country Funeral'. The stories aren't given dates, and there is no author's introduction. 'That would have been pretentious,' he says, laughing. Certainly people don't seem to mind: even before its official publication tomorrow, the collection has sold out and is being reprinted.

He gave few interviews until 1990, when his novel Amongst Women (his first for 10 years) won the Aer Lingus Prize, was shortlisted for the Booker, and became a bestseller in Ireland. This in turn led a generation of young Irish people who felt they'd been born 100 years after McGahern to rediscover The Pornographer (1979), a masterpiece of sexual repression, a novel which shows men and women at war with each other, the man looking at the woman as a rat looks at cheese in a trap. In the year of the Booker, McGahern gave 15 interviews. One literary editor from another London Sunday newspaper came, interviewed him, and - says McGahern, astonished - 'we never heard from him again'. Journalists don't expect interviews to spark friendships: you slink off and think yourself lucky if you don't get a letter of complaint about being misquoted. McGahern's reaction is typical, though - the reaction of a man utterly lacking in artifice, a man seemingly no different from the people he writes about - trapped policemen, sensitive wives, alcoholic teachers, philandering football players, and all those for whom the sun is only another burden on the back.

He was born in 1934 in Roscommon, just a few miles from where he now lives. His mother was a teacher, the first person from the surrounding Iron Mountains ever to get a secondary education. His father was 'a guerrilla', a member of the IRA in 1916, and a sergeant in the Garda when the new state was declared. There was a rule then that a sergeant couldn't have a wife who worked, so the couple never lived together. His mother died when John was 10, after nine years of marriage and seven children, and the family went to live at the barracks.

His father was, he says carefully, 'very much a man of his time. I can honestly say that I never knew him well. He'd come straight off the killing-fields and he was a very taciturn man. Men and women had so little to do with each other. The women looked after the children and the domestic animals, and the men looked after the fields; a woman's emotional life went to the children and a man's emotional life went to other men and to the bars.' Living at the police station wasn't easy: 'As a child there was a certain sense that I was going back to the fortress of the enemy, of living in an alien place.'

He escaped into the library of a nearby family of eccentric Protestants, beekeepers who lived in a dishevelled mansion and who are drawn in the story 'Eddie Mac'. The father had a long beard. 'Once, he had come from the hives,' McGahern recalls, 'and we were drinking tea and eating bread with raspberry jam and the jam fell into his beard and it set off a buzzing, because three or four bees were caught. He went to the door and he took the bees out of the beard and never once interrupted the conversation.' Despite his parents' Catholic distrust of the literature John was consuming, he was permitted to stay and read as much as he wanted: Protestants, everyone knew, were harmless and to be pitied, for they would eventually go to Hell.

It was a childhood which taught him about corruption - the corruption of the Church, but also of child abusers: his story 'Lavin' features a man who dreams of young girls' pubic hair; in The Dark, a widower finds a form of comfort in his son's bed. McGahern won a scholarship out of the mire, to university. He would have liked to study medicine, as Joyce did, but the money wasn't enough to keep him and he didn't take it. He wanted to be a writer (although he had never heard of Joyce and had read only the early, romantic poems of Yeats) and he went to teacher-training college for the short hours and long holidays. Then he left Ireland to wander, first to London, where he worked on building sites or as a supply teacher, then to the Continent, where he met his first wife, a Finnish theatre director.

His first novel, The Barracks, was published in 1962. His second, The Dark, came three years later and was banned in Ireland because of its subject, child abuse. (The censors were also outraged by the rumours that McGahern had married a foreign woman in a registry office abroad.) A petition was got up in Paris. Samuel Beckett wrote and asked him if he wanted a protest: 'I wrote back and said that I didn't, because there is nothing worse than giving a foolish argument too much honour.' He thinks that writing should speak for itself - that the purpose of art is to abolish time and establish memory. Every novel takes several years to complete. An early version of Amongst Women was 700 pages long. 'Bank Holiday', a recent story, was rewritten 60 or 70 times. He has described it as a breakthrough for him. It ends in happiness and hope.

McGahern hates the cult of the artist as much as he hates nationalism. He also thinks Ireland is a poor country in which to be a novelist, because 'the novel is a social form and while Ulysses is a remarkable work, it's not a novel in the traditional sense, not part of the unbroken tradition from Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Celine.' The novelist he most admires is Jane Austen. In Ireland, contrary to received opinion, people 'write as badly as everywhere else'. But he does concede the power and influence of Gaelic, which he speaks fluently: 'One is aware that inside English there is the ghost of the dead language. A lot of the rhythms are directly from the Gaelic, which is quite a savage language, rich on abuse and short on praise.'

Every book of his fights for the right to speech in a country where language is frequently silenced. Despite the stage Irishman's blarney, the Irish are brilliant at concealing their real thoughts. 'Anyone who speaks has to be aware of silence,' he says. 'Silence is very important for the prose writer. Paragraphs and punctuation are very much the same as how a poet uses rhyme. It's very close to what is called tact in manners, the sense of how much the other person can bear to listen to. I have never had any interest in attacking my society. I have tried to find words for an inner world, and I think that the writer who succeeds in doing that will automatically reflect his society.'

Madeline has cooked dinner: roast lamb, salad, French cheese, grapes, a Portugese wine. They have no children, and she describes herself as having 'no profession'. The phone rings a number of times during the meal. McGahern enjoys catching up on literary gossip. He employs no agent, but he likes to find out from other writers if his advances are high enough.

After dinner he drives me 20 miles through the dark to a hotel in Longford, in the next county. It's a deserted and unlikely marble palace with a disco, he informs me, owned by the brother of Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister. On the outskirts of the town, passing through a road of suburban villas, he says: 'This is the Guermantes Way of Longford.' I wonder whether he is thoughtfully supplying me with 'good copy' or just sharing a joke. At the hotel he demands of the receptionist the time of breakfast and the time of my train the next morning. And he takes my address so that a Dublin journalist he knows can send me a book about the Kerry Babies case.

He hasn't written anything since he finished 'A Country Funeral', the final story in the new collection, eight months ago, I ask him what he does all day. 'Nothing,' he replies. 'Watch the cattle.' I say how much I hate people who have got into the cult of busyness, who always have appointments and work late. He nods: 'Moral idleness.'

'The Collected Stories' are published by Faber, pounds 14.99. John McGahern will be reading at the Purcell Room, South Bank, London SE1, at 7.30pm on 20 Oct. Tickets pounds 4. Tel 071-928 8800

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