An Irishman's Diary
It is surprising how little attention Bryan MacMahon’s last work, published in 1998, the year of his death, has received. Born in Listowel in 1909, MacMahon’s prolific writing career, lasting over half a century, produced dramas, novels, two volumes of memoirs, a translation from the Irish of Peig Sayers’s famous autobiography, and no less than six collections of short stories. His last work, A Final Fling, is the culminating collection in a lifetime’s commitment to the short story form.
This lack of critical attention is all the more regrettable given that, in A Final Fling, MacMahon was intent on breaking new ground in the short story. All 19 of the stories in the collection are written in the form of dialogue, with the occasional addition of interior monologue.
All consist, moreover, of dramatic exchanges between a male and a female.
Sole reliance on dialogue to carry the import of the story poses a particular kind of challenge. No recourse to a narrative voice is available; and that in turn means that such details as setting, time of the day or night, and the nature of the speakers can be revealed only through a discreet disclosure of information that neither overloads nor impedes the evolving dialogue. Nor can the author insinuate or imply, through the stance of the narrator, any evaluation or moral judgment on the characters. This, though, as we shall see later, is very much in keeping with MacMahon’s “neutralist”, non-judgmental stance.
The other challenge posed is that, where there are recurrent exchanges between the sexes, the writer must be careful to avoid any sense of repetitiousness. MacMahon meets this challenge triumphantly, through the sheer range and audacity of his imagination. For besides the expected verbal fencing between wife and husband or potential lovers, we are offered a dazzling variety of characters: a mother berating her son because he has decided to leave the priesthood (and, yes, as the mother quickly intuits, there is a woman involved); or an old man telling his adult granddaughter how he had to seduce her grandmother on their honeymoon because of her timidity and inexperience. An old couple in their 70s, both single and friends for decades, robustly tease each other yet clearly retain a deep bond of affection. A priest and a housekeeper face a major decision when the priest is about to move to another parish. In Magdalen College, Oxford, an Irishman meets a woman from Zimbabwe, their shared interests suggesting a basis for further intimacy; gazing on a famous statue of Christ and Mary Magdalen, they seem to see the lips of the statues move, and we are treated to a second dialogue between the Redeemer and the sinner.
In First, another tour de force, Adam and Eve recount the story of the Fall. Significantly, this eventuates not in tragedy, but in an almost wilfully comic acceptance, Eve recognising after the Fall that “life is a jest”, and Adam anticipating “Stirring times ahead”. It is a moot point as to whether MacMahon should be seen as a predominantly comic writer; and The Far Land, for example, manages to be deeply affecting without losing touch with a sense of humour.
Yet in the tense brevity of The Wheels there is a tragic awareness as the train driver responsible has to inform his wife of an accident in which a 10-year-old girl has died. Perhaps we should bypass the terms comedy and tragedy and accept that, for MacMahon, these are subsumed into a more neutral recognition of the miscellaneous, unexpected and, in addition, not always explicable experiences that life offers.
Some of the stories, consequently, provide us with the delightful surprise of unsuspected developments. The outstanding example is The Clock. On a summer’s evening, an ageing doctor is visited in his surgery by a single woman in her late 30s who is determined to have a child. We think at first that what she wants is donation of his sperm (she clearly admires the doctor’s character and intelligence, and the genetic guarantee these suggest); but unflinching and explicit, as so many of the female characters in these stories are, she wants more than that.
The majority of these stories are open-ended: because, one suspects, MacMahon does not trust neat conclusions or succinct deductions. As one of his more intellectual males puts it, in Maudlen: “The most memorable experiences of mankind cannot be filed under the heading of value or usefulness. They should be filed under the heading: For Rumination”. The artistic credo which advocates mere “rumination” makes for an openness not only to experience, but to its elusive import. And there is much more here to provoke “rumination” than I have had the opportunity to indicate.