John McGahern: how language made life more real

Sat, Mar 3, 2012, 00:00

BIOGRAPHY:Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist By Denis Sampson Oxford University Press, 176pp. £25

THE NEWS OF the death of John McGahern, on March 30th, 2006, was greeted with a mixture of shock and sadness. As a writer, he had held up a mirror to a nation that did not initially welcome his raw portrayal of the harsh, oppressive atmosphere he experienced in the northwest midlands during his childhood and early adulthood. He was perceived somewhat negatively by the dominant religious and political hierarchies, which contributed to the banning of his second novel, The Dark, in 1965, but his reputation nonetheless gradually grew as people came to recognise the authenticity of the situations and characters he depicted in the clear, simple style that was the hallmark of everything he wrote.

Since 2006 McGahern’s work has continued to attract new readers and has been the subject of monographs and PhD theses. The author of this latest study, Denis Sampson, was the first to produce an in-depth study of McGahern’s fiction, in the highly regarded Outstaring Nature’s Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern(1993). Readers of Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelistshould not expect an equally ambitious offering on this occasion. Instead, Sampson concentrates on the decade or so that preceded the publication of The Barracks, in 1963, but far from exhaustively.

Sampson probably does as well as can be expected, given the paucity of primary sources pertaining to this crucial phase in the development of McGahern’s aesthetic approach. There is little new to be found for those who have read the oeuvre carefully. For example, one hears again about the influence of Frank Mannion, McGahern’s English teacher at the Presentation Brothers secondary school in Carrick-on-Shannon, who “was committed to introducing his students to the pleasures of reading and to teaching the recognition of those qualities that make for good and weak writing”.

Equally well known is the story of how his Protestant friends the Moroneys gave him unbridled access to their library. Sampson explains the upshot of these experiences: “Literature offered a ‘ceremony’ that linked the individual to the common experience of humanity at large. And so the obvious next step was to discover through reading how one might become a writer who could share this moral experience, as well as a liberating joy, with others.”

McGahern used literature as a means of dealing with events and traumas that he could not articulate in other ways. He wrote in the essay Playing With Words:“Through words I could experience my own life with more reality than ordinary living.”

Sampson quotes regularly from McGahern’s published correspondence with Michael McLaverty when tracing the figures he admired most during his early years as a teacher in Dublin. The Russians Chekhov and Tolstoy loom large, but even more important were the French writers Flaubert, Proust and, to a lesser extent, Albert Camus. Among the Irish, he admitted that Kavanagh and Beckett were “the two living writers who meant most” to him. He recognised in the Co Monaghan poet certain traits he would seek to emulate, especially the idea of poetry or good writing being a form of prayer. Kavanagh’s boisterous public persona did not appeal to McGahern, however, which meant that the pair were never close.

In Beckett, Sampson points to “voice, language, the difficulties of communication” as the main points of convergence. In fact, Beckett’s essay on Proust was a huge influence on McGahern’s literary credo, The Image.

A chapter devoted to McGahern’s first, unpublished novel, The End or the Beginning of Love,is where people will find the most revealing insights. The painful opening scene, where a young boy discusses religion with his dying mother, will be familiar to anyone who has read The Leavetakingor Memoir. Sampson notes how “McGahern’s interest in the scene is less in the dying mother, in the fact of her death, than in her impact on the boy”.

In The Barracks, however, one can see a different approach: “The most remarkable advance is that the narrator situates the boy’s experience in a richly textualised family context.” This allowed for more detachment and objectivity. In the unpublished novel, the story of the failed relationship between the young protagonist and Kathleen lacks the control and intensity of the earlier scenes. Nevertheless, Sampson acknowledges that the “accomplishment of the writing is extraordinary already, years before McGahern finds the form in which to situate it”.

At around the time The End or the Beginning of Lovewas unsuccessfully doing the rounds of publishers, negotiations with Faber and Faber for the publication of The Barracks were at an advanced stage. McGahern had been angered by the comment of a publisher that The End or the Beginning of Love was autobiographical and offered the counterargument in a letter to Patrick Swift that all his work was of necessity “autobiographical” in the sense that “the individual style of a work of art draws on everything the artist has experienced and known”. This is interesting new material, and Sampson goes on to observe that “much of McGahern’s fiction is grounded in the material given to him by his own experience, and confirms that the redemption of the personal life is central to his whole work”.

Loyal readers of John McGahern will undoubtedly find much of interest in this new study by someone who has made a major contribution to explicating the work of one of Ireland’s foremost writers of the 20th century. Notwithstanding this, there will also be some disappointment that so many gaps and unanswered questions remain. But while one can always find fault with any book, Sampson’s undoubted enthusiasm for his subject, which is expressed in an engaging style, allied to the Oxford University Press imprint, makes this a significant addition to McGahern scholarship.


Eamon Maher is director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies, at Institute of Technology Tallaght, and the author of The Church and Its Spire: John McGahern and the Catholic Question