Sacred Weather by Niamh Campbell: a John McGahern study of verve and daring
Review: a sophisticated look at the Leitrim writer’s work and his critical reputation
John McGahern in 1990 near his home in Co Leitrim. Photograph: Frank Miller
Sacred Weather: Atmospheric Essentialism in the Work of John McGahern
Cork University Press
In this latest study of John McGahern, Niamh Campbell uses the critical reception of the writer’s work in order to analyse the devices employed to interpret his reception within Irish Studies in general, and literary criticism in particular.
It is a study marked by verve and daring, but one that comes with a health warning: this is a highly sophisticated and academically challenging study that does not lend itself to casual reading.
Campbell knows McGahern’s work intimately, having completed a PhD on him in King’s College London, and, furthermore, she is a highly regarded cultural theorist and academic. Those working on McGahern will be well aware of her already invaluable contribution to the area.
The introduction is magisterial and will therefore take up the bulk of our attention. Also, it is key to understanding what the book is trying to achieve. Campbell begins by exploring the way in which certain writers are associated with specific traits and qualities. Thus, the term Joycean denotes “something lyrically inventive and perhaps scatological”, whereas Beckettian evokes the ideas of “austerity and absurdity, with a few stage props”.
Whereas one may harbour misgivings about these interpretations, the point is nevertheless well made insofar as Joyce and Beckett are canonical figures associated with universally acknowledged preoccupations. But what about McGahern? Is there a word McGahernesque, and, if not, should there be? Campbell argues there should be and even ventures to offer her own definition of the term, proposing that it: “… conjures a time, a place, and above all an atmosphere: mid-century Leitrim, understatedly oppressive in social terms, but beautiful, unspoilt and semi-wild”.
The word “atmosphere” is important here (hence the inclusion of the adjectival form in the title of the book); it is “somewhere between fantasy and place-world” and is “testament to McGahern’s enduring and careful concern with its contours and complexities, as well as to the degree of repetition in his writing”.
It is also linked to his carefully sculpted style and to a critical reception that ensured the writer had become a canonical figure long before his death in 2006. Finally, the term relates to how he “lovingly reconstructed” through memory many of the places and incidents that he borrowed from real-life experiences and moulded into a highly polished art form.
The reason for the numerous direct quotations is simple: first of all, this is technical material and then there is the inescapable fact that Campbell expresses things so well that any attempt to paraphrase will fall dismally short of giving an accurate description of the thesis she is propounding, a thesis which, as is stated at the end of the opening paragraph, consists of interrogating the McGahernesque.
Already, the reader will be aware that this is a fresh and original critique of McGahern’s position in the artistic firmament. Taking the example of Cathal Black’s Korea, a black and white film adaptation of the McGahern short story of the same name, Campbell shows how the rather sparse plot of the story is supplemented in the film with details and dialogue from the author’s other works, particularly The Dark. This is possible, she argues, because all McGahern’s work has “a recognizable texture” which consists of rather bare rural homesteads – usually adorned with pictures of the Sacred Heart and its ever-burning lamp on the wall – lakes, rivers, churches and schoolhouses.
Then there is the weather, a mixture of frost, rain, sunshine and cloud – particularly rain in Black’s adaptation. Such faithful reproductions can give the impression that one is reading a “chronicle” of life in rural Ireland at a particular point in time.
The classic, non-judgmental style used by McGahern often gives the impression that he is “innocent of ideological impetus”, a point that was sharply criticised by Joe Cleary, who questioned how a person dealing with the obvious political themes broached by McGahern could have avoided offering any solutions or possible escape, political or otherwise.
Campbell seems to favour Cleary’s reading over that of other critics (such as Sampson and van der Ziel) who applaud “the apolitical or pastorally redemptive message” one finds in McGahern’s writing. (We will return to Cleary and van der Ziel at a later point).
Cathal Black’s Korea, therefore, is an example of what Campbell refers to as “interpretative arrestment, limitation and bafflement”, an approach she wishes to transcend by adopting the idea of “atmospheric essentialism”.
In explaining what she means exactly by atmospheric essentialism, Campbell shows how many artists, philosophers, tourists and citizens believe there is such a thing as “essential Irishness”. Apparently, when that possibility is taken seriously, there results something she refers to as “Sacred Weather”, the last part of the jigsaw contained in the title of the book. This concept is captured in an exquisite formula, “the poetics of peatsmoke”, a metaphor she uses for a system that she conceives as “hosting and promulgating similitude but not verisimilitude; a system governed by contingent and imperfect vectors for ‘meaning’”.
Atmospheric essentialism when applied to the work of John McGahern “is determined in the space between authorial intention, historical context, and reception, or meta-textually”. At this juncture, I would point out that I never claimed this was going to be straightforward! Once the concepts are understood, however, one does have a very different and revealing way of reading McGahern.
The author states that unlike many established commentators of McGahern’s work, she never had personal knowledge of the writer, which she finds liberating. Her point that a literary work is a creative collaboration between writer and reader is one that McGahern made on several occasions, but that collaboration has to be affected when the reader is acquainted with the creative artist.
On one occasion, McGahern said to me that “personality is style”, a phrase that has always stuck with me because of how it rings true. When one hears and sees someone and then reads their work, it is rare for there to be a real dissonance between the “voice” used in both instances.
Using McGahern’s Credo, The Image, as a starting point in determining what constitutes beauty in art, Campbell opines that it is “an objective event between subject and object and not a purely subjective phenomenon”. This is a lesson that McGahern learned from the great French master, Flaubert, whose mantra he often paraphrased, or misquoted: “The artist is like God in nature, always present but nowhere visible”. Objectivity was the touchstone of McGahern’s artistic vocation, commentary and self-expression the pitfalls he sought to avoid at all costs.
Thus armed with the concepts that form the basis of this study, one can approach the four chapters that emerge out of them. Briefly, they are entitled Being Green: Atmospheric Essentialism (a type of eco-reading of McGahern’s literary undertaking); Place-World and Refrain: John McGahern and ambient poetics (which is probably the strongest chapter and shows a wonderful grasp of the various critical methodologies used to critique McGahern’s work); A Child is Being Beaten: Anatomising The Dark (which is self-explanatory); and Fascinating Francis: A Preposterous History (on the author’s problematic relationship with his father, and a lot more besides). I am going to confine myself to making a few general comments about what I found particularly relevant in some of these chapters.
For Campbell, the “Aesthetics of Redemption” is a term she views as being synonymous with a “conservative interpretation” that can be found in existing approaches to McGahern. It is a reading that sees the work as having a historical relevance.
She does a skilful comparison of Stanley van der Ziel’s interpretation of this aesthetic as exemplified in That They May Face the Rising Sun, McGahern’s last novel, which has a pastoral, celebratory feel that is totally absent in his early novels, and Joe Cleary’s very different approach in Outrageous Fortune (2006).
Whereas the first is “an aesthetic meditation on form” (van der Ziel) and the other “a Marxist account of McGahern’s contribution to Irish culture” (Cleary), they both intersect with history. Cleary takes issue with the manner in which McGahern’s “naturalist exposé of the quotidian catastrophes of mid-century Irish history constitutes a moral reckoning”.
What Cleary finds disappointing is the extent to which a fictional world that deals so centrally with Catholic morality and class oppression offers no real “reformative or critical energy”. Instead, what one encounters is an existentialist acceptance of the human condition and an inability to envisage how this can be altered by action on the part of the individual or society.
Van der Ziel, on the other hand, maintains that memory and rhythm can render what McGahern refers to in The Image as the “totally intolerable” somewhat tolerable by reshaping it into “a consolatory artistic event”. According to Campbell, van der Ziel purports that the reading process leads one to a more “historical/formal analysis rather than historical/sociological”. Campbell’s argument is that it is possible to bridge the two and thus respond to the challenge laid down by Cleary.
Where Campbell excels in in her ability to re-imagine the current scholarship on McGahern (she is completely au fait with the various strands of criticism that exist) and identify some shortcomings. She does this gently (as when dealing with the views of this writer’s work on McGahern) and with such elegance that one has some difficulty deciphering whether there is any real criticism there or not – there is, by the way!
Her main achievement, in effect, is to underline the need for “new” appraisals of what exactly makes McGahern the special and canonical writer that he is, namely his openness to multiple readings on different levels, none of which is necessarily more revealing than the other.
So rather than rejecting the autobiographical, sociological, aesthetic, or literary approaches out of hand, this book dares to suggest that they do not necessarily need to be seen as the best, that they can, in fact, inform and enrich each other.
Which is exactly what happens in this book: it takes numerous readings of McGahern and melds them into the Sacred Weather that is at the heart of Campbell’s interpretation of what constitutes the “McGahernesque”.
Interestingly, the book contains a dialogue with a less well-known commentator on McGahern’s work, Peter Guy, who in a 2010 article entitled Reading John McGahern in Light of the Murphy Report, quoted McGahern’s comment on how people “do not live in decades or histories”, but rather “in moments, hours, days”, as a means of warning against the tendency to judge past events through the lens of the present.
Campbell claims that this “retrospective judgement” is being used by Guy to revise recent history and to give the impression that “child abuse” is something that might be ‘dangerously’ extended to include parents, teachers, siblings and society in general, because of the widespread use of violence in Irish society in the middle decades of the last century.
The problem with such a claim, according to Campbell, is that it makes abuse “a null category and constructs those who would call for it to be recognized as hysterical”. Such an approach risks exonerating the acts of abusers as mere representatives of the spirit and morality of the time.
This is the type of forceful commentary that makes Sacred Weather such a welcome addition to the ever-growing corpus of work on McGahern. I would warmly recommend it to anyone with an academic interest in McGahern as well as to readers of a philosophical or literary bent. It is not for the general reader.
It is interesting that Campbell’s debut novel This Happy will be out in June of this year. The critical reception it receives will be of great interest. In 30 years from now I wonder if some literary critic be asking what is meant by “Campbellesque”? That would not surprise me in the slightest.
Eamon Maher is the author of two monographs on McGahern and most recently co-edited with Derek Hand, Essays on John McGahern: Assessing a literary Legacy (Cork University Press, 2019)