June 30, 2006
I spent the morning finishing John McGahern's Amongst Women, a cramped, pinched, claustrophobic novel about family ties that is as hard to put down as it is to keep reading. There were many other things I should have been doing in my little garret in my remote, undisclosed Irish location, and morning tends to be my best time for getting things I should be doing done. But this novel was too terrible to be deferred. It needed to be dispatched with as much speed as several cups of strong milky tea could make me read. By "terrible" I should clarify that I don't refer in any way to the quality of McGahern's writing--quite the opposite. McGahern has an awesome ability to conjure up the minute but powerful tensions and pleasures of daily life in mid-twentieth century rural Ireland. His fiction is quiet and unassuming--if you aren't completely focussed on it, you miss it entirely and think you've read nothing but a gray and shapeless narrative of bland and uninteresting people doing bland and uninteresting things. But if you are properly attentive to his prose, he draws you into a world where domestic life is both more important and more painful than anything else. His characters live and die by the strength of their family ties--but more often than not, those ties are mediated less by uncomplicated love and affection than they are by power, fear, obligation, longing, and a loyalty that surpasses all reason and sometimes even takes the form of a truly committed, unflagging hatred. What's terrible about McGahern's portrait of rural Irish life lies not in his craftsmanship, but in his subject.
John McGahern is writer of place and tone, of geographically particular sensibilities and historically specific temperaments. He is not at all showy, and I suspect that for his writing to register fully, you should have spent some time in the kinds of places with the kinds of people he writes about. This might sound like a sharp criticism: Isn't the best art the sort that transcends time and place? We tend to assume so, at any rate. But what makes McGahern's work resonate is precisely its fidelity to time and place--a quality that means the more the reader can bring to his evocations, the more he or she will be able to grasp the special character of McGahern's literary skill.
That has at least been true of me--I was given The Leavetaking for Christmas one year, before I had ever visited Ireland or studied its history much. I dutifully read the novel about a schoolteacher who loses his job for not being moral enough, but it did not strike me much one way or another. A couple years later, while spending the summer in a tiny Irish village, I read The Dark, a coming-of-age novel about a poor country boy who gives up his university scholarship in order to appease his controlling and insecure father. I was blown away. What was devastating about the novel was not so much the giving up, but the way it was, after a struggle, gladly and willingly done, the son sacrificing his future to preserve the father's illusions. It was, like so much of McGahern's work, a terrible, terrible novel, and a hauntingly beautiful one, too. It was also, in its presentation of conflict and choice, quintessentially Irish in ways I was just beginning, by virtue of spending time in Ireland, to understand.
McGahern writes with restraint and understatement about some of the worst uglinesses of family life--children who spend their lives tip-toeing around the potential violence of their father's changeable moods; a son who forfeits his scholarship so that his father will not feel abandoned or surpassed; a wife dying of cancer while her husband furiously works the fields, unwilling to admit what is happening and incapable of offering support. The families in McGahern's novels are all poor, hardworking, insular, rural, and Catholic; they are all riven by tension, loss, and denial; they are all also powerfully knit together by their interwoven failures, secrets, and needs. In other words, the picture of Irish life McGahern draws in his fiction is both immensely deep and crushingly narrow. There is no real sense of wider alternatives, of imagined possibilities, of inspiration or hope (when Moran, the patriarch of Amongst Women, becomes engaged to the woman who will become his second wife, McGahern describes his feeling as that of a door quietly shutting). And yet what redeems them--and what also makes them deeply disturbing, as hard to keep reading as they are to put down--is how McGahern manages to write about such families with genuine, unassuming sympathy. He sees his characters for what they are, and yet he does not despise them; he writes without judgement, with an almost impassive acceptance--and he does so quite consciously: "Judgment has no place in the writer's trade," he said in an interview near the end of his life. "I think an ounce of sympathy is worth a ton of judgments."
As such, McGahern is an interesting writer for an American reader encountering Ireland to encounter. He offers none of the easy charms that tend to distinguish Ireland in the romanticized eyes of Americans--about forty million of whom are of Irish descent--who often get their idea of the island from a highly selective and distorting popular culture filled with beer and whiskey, ah begorrah accents and nice cups of tea, emerald green fields dotted with sheep, thatched cottages, peat smoke, and potato patches. McGahern sets his writing in just the sorts of places among just the sorts of people that, for example, feature in John Ford's The Quiet Man. McGahern's novels have all the trappings of the pastoral Irish archetype--the alcohol, the architecture, the turf, potatoes, fields, and sheep. They are awash in tea, punctuated by reverent repetitions of the rosary. But the effect is far from pastoral, and the stories are far from quaint. McGahern is a realist, depicting a certain strain of Irish life with as much fidelity as he can. Along the way, without ever seeming to be mindful of the stereotypes that mar perceptions Irish culture and history, he gently but decisively destroys them.
But it would be a big mistake to think that McGahern was in any way writing with an eye to educating anybody, or to dismantling stereotypes, or to doing much of anything at all in the way of making statements, aesthetic, political, or otherwise. McGahern's work was, from the outset, relentlessly, unapologetically personal. The self-enclosed quality of his fiction shows itself in an utter lack of concern about audience--the painstaking care with which he writes is thoroughly detached from any palpable sense that his writing is meant to entertain, or to please, or even to instruct. Again, this is quite conscious on McGahern's part: "In fiction, the most powerful weapon the writer has is suggestion," he said in the same late interview. "I think that nearly all good writing is suggestion, and all bad writing is statement. Statement kills off the reader's imagination."
A little over a year ago, McGahern was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He responded by writing his autobiography, which was published in the U.S. last winter, weeks before his death. I ordered the autobiography the moment I found out it had been written, and I finished reading it--without knowing that McGahern was sick--on the day he died. All Will Be Well is a striking piece of work, at times elegaic (especially in early passages about his mother, who died of cancer when he was quite young) and at others bitterly frank (especially in passages describing his overbearing, abusive father) (an excerpt is here). What was most striking about it, though, was not the work itself--though the work is very fine--but how much it reveals about the origins of McGahern's fiction. McGahern's father appears throughout his works, as do his mother and siblings; from novel to novel and plot to plot, the unifying themes of McGahern's works are strung together by way of faithful recreations of his family members, and the inwardness of the fiction proves to be, in retrospect, the inwardness of memoir by novelistic means. In a sense, McGahern's audience was ultimately himself; in his fiction, he endlessly retold the story of his childhood, endlessly recreated the disturbing character of his father, endlessly traced the twisted knot of his family's intensely disfunctional bonds. In his autobiography, McGahern revealed that he had no more stories to tell than the ones he had already told, and that in devoting his life to writing fiction, he had been writing autobiography all along.
This explains the cramped quality of McGahern's work, the obsessive return to a restricted number of themes, ideas, character types, and even moods. It also explains the tone of the fiction, which labors--gracefully, almost imperceptibly--to accept, if not redeem, characters who deprive others of certainty, security, and hope ("I never felt a victim," he said when asked about his childhood. "To be a victim is a failure of intelligence"). McGahern used his fiction to practice a kind of transcendance that is more easily, if less urgently, done, perhaps, in art than in life: In establishing aesthetic distance between himself and his subject, he moves beyond the limited act of remembering to the limitless work of creating. This, in turn, is a move away from personal limitation--the unchangeable facts of one's past, the immoveable force of one's relations--to an almost impersonal expansiveness: "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."
McGahern ended by rejecting that liberation in favor of a final, frustrated concentration on the facts from which so much of his fiction stemmed. His decision to spend his last months writing a memoir was a decision to confine himself to the memories he had spent a lifetime converting into story. "There is not the same freedom in the memoir as there is in the novel," he reflected afterward. "Fiction needs to be imagined. Even events that actually happened have to be reimagined. With a memoir you can't imagine or reinvent anything. ... You have always to stick to the facts." The strange thing about All Will Be Well, though, is that it reads less like a memoir than like another literary meditation on McGahern's eternal themes; by the time he came to write his autobiography, he had already so thoroughly explored the governing ideas of his existence that his attempt to "stick to the facts" is indistinguishable in style, setting, and tone from his earlier efforts to move beyond them. This, too, though, he seemed instinctively to know: "One thing you find out while writing a memoir," he said, "is what an uncertain place the mind is."