“I don’t like writing letters,” wrote John McGahern. “So I seldom do.” “It is so easy to be anything except honest” in them, that letter writing must be “the art for the saint or the madman”.
That personal exchanges might carry such freight suggests something of the intensity of McGahern’s art, in which each word leads by necessity to another, his characters and his settings a consequence of the language and not the other way around. This prospect led to occasional exasperation, as when he struggled to write the television script of The Pornographer: “I swear I’ll never put couples into bed again. It’s so hard to get them out.”
McGahern’s reticence related to his aversion to self-promotion. Anyway, he possessed such a strong sense of his own self that letters offered little opportunity to reflect or expand on his experience, or his art, with one telling exception: the correspondence he sent to his younger sister Dympna after he had moved to Dublin and she remained at home.
These are among the most moving letters in the book, and a rare revelation of McGahern’s philosophy. “We have only one brief life to live; we can live no other here,” he warned. “So why trouble too much with how the others live? You must live your own: and what it is will come to you if you have patience: and you will need much courage and discipline.”
These were truths hard won from a brutal childhood that followed their mother’s death, and the more disturbing letters relate these experiences directly, in particular as responses to Charles Monteith, McGahern’s editor at Faber, who worried that the father might identify himself in the fiction and go to law as remedy.
Monteith was a benevolent patriarch for the young novelist. The correspondence with him forms the spine of this collection, telling us much of McGahern’s attitude to his writing, from the serial difficulty he had with titles to his frequent unhappiness with their design, grumbling that one proposed cover for Nightlines looked like “a schoolgirl’s book”. Monteith always took McGahern seriously, and in turn the writer took this as evidence of the editor’s fundamental honesty, a quality that overcame McGahern’s reserve.
His letters to Monteith are one of the book’s many riches, and point to unexpected coordinates for the life and the work. The North, for example, is a persistent focus for McGahern, first through his admiration for Michael McLaverty, and later through his letters to and about Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. After McGahern lost his job teaching following the publication of The Dark (a book he later referred to wryly as “the Auld Sock”), he even applied to teach at Stranmillis College in Belfast.
Friel was an early enthusiast, but their friendship was wary. McGahern was easier with Heaney, despite being no familiar of the literary scene that Heaney trod so lightly: “I’m glad Séamus got the Nobel,” he wrote dryly. “Nobody will enjoy it more.”
McGahern travelled widely through the course of his life, to England, to America and to France, in particular to the Paris apartment he shared with Madeline, his second wife and closest companion. Before that there was Spain, and Finland, the home of his first wife, the radio and theatre producer Annikki Laaksi, who married McGahern not long after they met.
The suddenness of this relationship is a surprise and suggests one of the stranger textures to the correspondence, which is its belatedness. There is one mention of Laaksi before we find McGahern on the way to their wedding, just as we read in 1979 of a son, Joseph, born of an affair with Joan Kelly in 1962, a fictionalised version of which relationship editor Frank Shovlin identifies in The Pornographer.
The interweaving links between the fiction, the life and the society remain partly obscure in the letters, in large part because McGahern chose it to be so, investing his self in his art, and in chosen company. For this we badly need a biography that further describes more of McGahern’s social and literary life, in particular of the writers McGahern loved, Lawrence, Hardy, Kate O’Brien and WS Graham among them. For McGahern was not a solitary. However, he was private, and self-made in a style comparable to WB Yeats, who he revered.
Adamantine and unrelenting, McGahern’s view of art was uncompromising, as expressed in the letters to Colm Tóibín, which delineate sharply between what McGahern approved of and what he did not. There is warmth in the letters to Caroline Walsh, who we all miss, Belinda McKeon and others. Some suffer severely, and the passages that describe McGahern’s relationship with Richard Murphy are provocative, not least when he comments on Murphy’s private life in Sri Lanka. McGahern had wearied of “Kissy Dicky” as he knew “nothing… except about the world”, which was deep damnation.
In contrast, the advice to Tóibín was well given, and taken, and such exchanges point to the depth of feeling that McGahern inspired in others. This is true most of all in his correspondence with Madeline, and in his reports of their comings and goings to friends and contemporaries. If the early letters are the trying on of masks, the later letters after their marriage are a slow and steady release of the tensions that marked both their family upbringings, and a testament to the balance the two found together.
Settlement came for McGahern in a kind of homecoming to the house by Lough Rowan, where he and Madeline found community and a sustaining, neighbourly rhythm of life.
Towards the end, and on the verge of his last illness, McGahern retained his sense of a life’s work as self-revelation, as he had advised his sister so many years before. After all, “[T]he literary stuff doesn’t matter. Literary reputations last as long as the body of work they represent remains useful, whether to one reader or to many, and will disappear into the long night like ourselves, eventually. What matters is the spirit to which they give utterance.”
That spirit animates McGahern’s letters in magnificent style, and all credit to Shovlin, and to Faber, for bringing the artist, neighbour, friend and lover to such brilliant, refracted light.
Nicholas Allen is a professor in humanities at the University of Georgia . His latest book is Ireland, Literature, and the Coast: Seatangled