Donal Ryan on John McGahern: ‘Amongst Women’ almost finished me. How could a book be this good?
John McGahern, who died on March 30th, 2006, set the bar for the rest of us
John McGahern photographed in 1990 by Frank Miller
There is a particular type of silence that precedes the creative process: unbroken, empty of struggle, imbued with a very temporary immaculateness. All silences except the final one are broken eventually. This silence allows the extension of human empathy to a point beyond its natural limit, so that it surpasses its own potential for connection, and allows a glimpse of the truth of the human condition. There is a particular type of darkness that attends this silence: where the light that’s required to see isn’t refracted or prismed or compromised by ambient conditions; this is a darkness that allows worlds to be imagined that don’t exist, for them to be cast in the sharpest relief. John McGahern, I imagine, existed for much of his creative life in this fecund place of silence and darkness of a particular quality, beyond the limits of empathy, beyond the boundaries of easy explanation, beyond the reach of his peers.
The only ambition I ever had was to be a writer, so for 30 years I did everything except write. The short spaces of time where I did write were darkened by secrecy and shame
We live in a world that demands a lot from language. As malleable and pliable as language is, it can still be broken. There are a million words that humans use and, therefore, as good as an infinity of ways of saying any one thing. Language can be twisted and tortured into any shape, to any end. The obfuscatory language of politics is used daily to encourage us to swallow all sorts of unpalatable things; the closed, joyless, terminal language of rationality is used to denigrate faith in God; the language of macroeconomics is used to parse humanity into mathematical units of various values; the strident, trenchant language of dogma is used to build prisons of faith.
John McGahern was one of the rare writers who manned the breach between the language of truth and beauty and the language of control, dogma and power
John McGahern was one of the rare writers who manned the breach between the language of truth and beauty and the language of control, dogma and power. His work allows his readers a profound relief. His pristine sensibility is a beacon for writers. Here is life, portrayed in words, where each unit of language is used for its ideal purpose, for its intrinsic meaning; here is literature set to its highest task, in its most immaculate form, fuelling a flame that casts light not just on the parts of us most in shadow but on all the open plains and occluded crevices of the quotidian, on the terrain we all negotiate. Here is existence, in the place where ink meets paper, without abstraction or wilful opacity, without agenda or trick. Here is ease to our minds and our souls.
I read Amongst Women in 1995 or 1996. It almost finished me as an aspiring writer. How could a book be this good?
I read Amongst Women in 1995 or 1996. It almost finished me as an aspiring writer. How could a book be this good? Existence is inchoate and incoherent and senseless. How could this representation of existence feel so resolved, so correct, so like it hadn’t been written at all but alchemised from flesh to paper and ink. How could this Moran character have seared his mark so indelibly on my consciousness? Why could I still see Rose months later in my mind’s eye and hear her gentle voice? Michael “out in the front garden among his flowerbeds”, Luke, and the terrible chasm that couldn’t be bridged. And worse: I had thought of my idiotic young self as “a fella who was well able to do a nice description of landscape” – until I came across this subtle, perfect, achingly beautiful description of the morning of a day when hay could be saved: “a white mist obscured the dark green shapes of the beech trees along the head of the meadows and their sandals made green splashes through the cobwebbed pastures. A white gossamer hung over the plum and apple trees in the orchard. A hot dry day was certain. Not even by evening would there be a threat of rain. No work could be done until the sun burned the mists away and dried the swards.”
I resolved there and then never to try to match John McGahern. To put him away. He was dangerous to my brittle sense of myself and my abilities. His bar was far too high. It took me years to shake off the sense that there was no point in trying; that McGahern had said already all that needed to be said, had created art of such clarity and pristine beauty that no paltry offering of mine could or should share the same shelves.
And yet I’m grateful for every sentence he left in this world.
The Dark was, for many, almost unbearable to read. For many it still is. Lines like the following strike a chord, with their description of a son anxiously awaiting the arrival of his widowed father, with whom he shares a bed: “The worst was to have to sleep with him the nights he wanted love, strain of waiting for him to come to bed, no hope of sleep in the waiting – counting and losing the count of the thirty-two boards across the ceiling, trying to pick out the darker circles of the knots beneath the varnish. Watch the moon on the broken brass bells at the foot of the bed. Turn and listen and turn. Go over the day that was gone, what was done or left undone, or dream of the dead days with her in June.
“The dreams and passing of time would break with the noise of the hall door opening, feet on the cement, his habitual noises as he drank barley water over the dying fire, and at last the stockinged feet on the stairs.
“He was coming and there was nothing to do but wait and grow hard as stone and lie.”
Fiction serves a noble purpose, to oust secrecy, to obliterate shame, to use narrative as a blessed valve to relieve the awful pressure of the pent-up, unspoken pain of existence
The Dark caused John Charles McQuaid, then archbishop of Dublin, to denounce McGahern, labelling him a man who “had an obsession with dirty books”. And yet from The Dark springs nothing but hope. The hope that writers have and will follow in McGahern’s wake and push and push towards the truth of things. That fiction serves a noble purpose, to oust secrecy, to obliterate shame, to stand as mirror to the soul of man and reflect him back to himself; to delineate his terrible propensity for violence and abuse and to use narrative as a blessed valve to relieve the awful pressure of the ignored, pent-up, unspoken pain of existence. John McGahern had the guts to write of people “stripped down to the last squalor” and for his pains was sacked, censored, censured and exiled. He endured this with stoicism. He took care of his sentences. He was a hero in the truest sense, and never sought to be seen as such.
To be tongue-tied should be no burden for a writer. To be unable or unwilling to take part in exhaustive, intensive interrogation of one’s own work. To be unable or unwilling to justify oneself in public, to give reasons for writing what one has written. A literary work should need no accompaniment, no scaffold, no reinforcement. As the great poet Michael Hartnett said of Dylan Thomas in Poets Passing:
“By a perverted act of will
the poet injects limelight in his veins
till what was exhilaration
has become the poet’s opium.
Soon in some public place
he must explain and must reshape
the very gift he has
as if the public were the giver,
refine his accent, modify his speech,
must jingle literary cap and bells
and end with insulted brain and liver
far from Wales on a mortuary slab
or with an exhausted heart
in a New York taxi-cab
or out of human reach
in the last of his self-inflicted hells,
by the Mississippi river.”
John McGahern, I think, would have concurred with the sentiment so powerfully expressed here. Writers should be allowed to choose public silence in the spaces between works. What purpose does a work of art serve if its creator must stand beside it, explaining its elements? A thing dismantled and exposed and reassembled repeatedly loses some of its integrity each time, and will eventually be sundered completely, rendered useless.
My mother and father met John McGahern once, in the mid-1990s, in a guest house on Achill Island. He was having supper with his wife, and my father noticed him and was struck by a most uncharacteristic attack of shyness. McGahern was one of his great heroes. He finally worked up the courage to strike up a conversation, and McGahern told him he was reading that evening in a converted church down the road. “You should come along,” he said. But Dad’s alien shyness persisted, and he felt embarrassed and self-conscious, and so they didn’t go to the reading. To this day he regrets his strange refusal to take up the author’s kind suggestion, and often speaks of it.
“What got into me at all?” he wonders. I think if they’d met again afterwards that McGahern would have understood. That sometimes it’s difficult to be easy and free. It’s difficult to cast off doubt and fear, even of the most unreasonable kind.
To be happy with the truth of oneself is an aspiration now, overtly expressed in all sorts of media. There are people, and businesses, and all kinds of mentors and pedagogues and shamans who will assist you on the path to self-knowledge, and self-improvement, and some kind of commercialised version of peace and fulfilment. In That They May Face the Rising Sun Patrick Ryan delivers this pithy philosophy: “I would not swap with a lord. We all want our own two shoes of life. If truth was told, none of us would swap with anybody. We want to go out the way we came in. It’s just as well we have no choice.”
Truth, of course, is a nebulous concept. All fiction is guesswork; each portrayal of a human transaction is created with no real certainty, because certainty cannot survive in the cold vacuum of human experience; each of us experiences the world in our own unique way, and none of us can be certain of the quality of the next person’s experience. We are all, essentially, unknowable. It’s the privilege of poets to wait for the muse to alight on their shoulder and whisper encouragement. The novelist has to force it, has to take an extended, elliptical route towards resolution, finding when he or she gets there that he or she isn’t there at all, that the journey is only starting, that nothing can ever be fully resolved.
If the heavens split open and gave me a chance, a moment to speak to this greatest of writers, all I’d be able to say is, “Thanks, John, for the truth of your words, for the gifts you left behind”
A writer should never feel he or she has arrived at an indefatigable, unassailable truth. Certainty is terminal. A writer can only take care to listen, to be still and silent and to wait for that soft settling of words, for that moment, however fleeting, of rightness. I’ve heard writers claim they feel sickened by everything they’ve written, that they are ashamed of their sentences’ imperfections, apparent to them only in retrospect. I’ve made this claim myself, and I’ve wondered afterwards how I could forget how important it is to tell people about the joy I feel sometimes, how those small moments of rightness make their pursuit worthwhile, how the world can sometimes seem taut, and balanced, and settled; how existence can seem to have a cause beyond chance. There isn’t a line I’d write the same, if I was to start again, but still I’m glad I wrote them as I did.
I lived in a flat once that approximated in my mind a garret apartment on the left bank of the Seine. Except my flat was on the outskirts of Limerick city. Which is a better place to be a writer than bohemian Paris, untainted as it is by self-consciousness, by a spiritless presumption that location will somehow magically generate inspiration.
I was mostly alone there, and I had a broken heart for a little while, and a view of swaying trees. Conditions were perfect then for writing. And still I couldn’t write a line. I didn’t become a writer until I met my wife, Anne Marie. She has a soft, musical voice and an artist’s heart. She was born and reared in Kilmeedy and in Newcastle West, places where poetry lives in every exchange, where every utterance has a slight twist, a playful cadence, an undertone of gentle mocking, of questioning; where it’s hard to be very serious for very long. Where it’s impossible to take oneself too seriously.
The only ambition I ever had was to be a writer, so for 30 years I did everything except write. The short spaces of time where I did write were darkened by secrecy and shame, and a sense that I’d been given a longing to write and no gift for it; that I’d been cursed. And then my self-generated clouds of doubt and misery rolled back, and there was Anne Marie, and she was laughing at me, and saying, “Of course you’re a writer. Stop talking about it, just do it. Stop worrying.”
I told this story to my colleague at the University of Limerick, Giles Foden, over a few pints of Guinness, and he pointed out these lines to me from Seamus Heaney’s Station Island, lines that contain the same sentiment that Anne Marie gifted to me, lines that should echo always in the minds of writers:
His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me, though he did not speak yet,
a voice like a prosecutor’s or a singer’s,
cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib’s downstroke, quick and clean,
and suddenly he hit a litter basket
with his stick, saying, ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.
The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’
It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
already. Raindrops blew in my face
as I came to
It’s easy to imagine John McGahern as the subject of these lines. Dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast. I imagine John McGahern all the time; his eye and his ear and his heart. I imagine my father, awestruck in his presence, and I feel the same awe, every time I read his faultless, gleaming prose. If the heavens split open and gave me a chance, a moment to speak to this greatest of writers, all I’d be able to say is, “Thanks, John, for the truth of your words, for the gifts you left behind.”
The final words I have to give to him, as in Memoir he imagines walking again with the woman who gave him life: “If we could walk together through those summer lanes, with their banks of wild flowers that ‘cast a spell’, we probably would not be able to speak, though I would want to tell her all the local news.
“We would leave the lanes and I would take her by the beaten path the otter takes under the thick hedges between the lakes. At the lake’s edge I would show her the green lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otter feeds and trains her young. The otter whistles down the waters for the male when she wants to mate and chases him back again to his own waters when his work is done; unlike the dear swans that paddle side by side and take turns on their high nest deep within the reeds. Above the lake we would follow the enormous sky until it reaches the low mountains where her life began.
“I would want no shadow to fall on her joy and deep trust in God. She would face no false reproaches. As we retraced our steps, I would pick for her the wild orchid and the windflower.”
Donal Ryan’s works are The Spinning Heart, The Thing about December, A Slanting of the Sun: Stories and All We Shall Know. A version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming Assessing a Literary Legacy: Collected Essays on John McGahern (1934-2006)
Also marking the anniversary of John McGahern’s death, Máire Doyle’s stage adaptations of the McGahern stories A Slip Up and All Sorts of Impossible Things run at The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon on Friday, March 31st and Saturday, April 1st. See www.thedock.ie