Like his hero, Marcel Proust, John McGahern was deeply mischievous as well as fastidious, writes Declan Kiberd
'Dying must be very hard," a friend once said to Gustave Flaubert. "It is," responded the weary author, "but not half so hard as writing a novel." John McGahern loved Flaubert for his humour, his exactitude of language and his willingness to treat his owsufferings with irony.
McGahern himself remained alert to the end, as if dying were the one experience he had not yet had, but one which would need his absolute attention. If there is another world, he will by now be conveying his accurate chronicle of a death foretold, in all likelihood to his beloved mother. But all of his major writings, from The Barracks to Memoir, were meditations on death. They express, though they cannot solve, the mystery of our presence in the world. The pity is that no artist gets to record his own death, for that, from the pen of McGahern, would be something well worth reading.
Although his passing last Thursday was sudden, John McGahern had outlived the gloomier predictions of his doctors when first the cancer was diagnosed.
"I'm a brilliant student in a hopeless class," he joked.
The quip recalled his early days as a teacher at Belgrove School in Clontarf, where he taught eight-year-old boys spelling and tables, Irish and catechism (myself included). But he also loved to break into the usual timetable and read stories aloud. He read through a whole set of German fairy tales in one memorable term. He wasn't gifted with a singing voice, but his class made verse-speaking contributions to each school concert. "Put more jizz in it," he would entreat as we went through another attempt at Up the Airy Mountain.
At year's end he gave books as prizes, which I'm sure were paid for out of his own pocket. He was often seen talking with another teacher, Donnchadh Ó Céilleachair, one of the foremost short-story writers in Irish. Many gifted writers worked as primary teachers in those days - it was all but impossible then for an author to live on writing alone. Belgrove boys were lucky to have such teachers and, by a beautiful irony, one of them, Neil Belton, ended up editing McGahern's final book, Memoir, just last year at Faber.
Because McGahern didn't sing, he swapped classes with a fine teacher named Tom Jordan, who did. When the archbishop decreed that a man who had married a divorcee in a registry office was unfit to teach catechism, my father and some other parents suggested that McGahern and Jordan do a second swap. It never happened.
McGahern, forever alert, knew every student intimately and kept in close touch with many. Long after the controversy over his secular wedding led to his eviction from Belgrove, he remained close to Tom Jordan (who was famous in the school for saying the Angelus with his eyes shut tight - on one notorious day, he blessed himself so forcefully that he somehow set a box of matches in his jacket pocket on fire). After his retirement, Jordan went for a holiday with John and Madeline in Co Leitrim every year, hoping to convert them to the ways of the righteous, but never succeeding. But they loved his visits and the tenacity of his conviction.
At lunchtime in Belgrove, when other teachers talked of the GAA, McGahern often sat in a corner of the staff-room and listened to John Arlott's cricket commentaries. After a few weeks of this, he removed the earplug from the transistor and soon half the colleagues had become Arlott addicts.
One of McGahern's favourite books was Ernie O'Malley's memoir about the War of Independence, On Another Man's Wound. He was amazed one day to find that a pupil was doing his homework on the empty pages of a jotter which contained early draughts of O'Malley's works. He contacted the family to ensure that the priceless jotters were saved for the nation - but somewhere in an archive the youthful exercises of Brenny O'Malley can be read alongside his uncle's lyric prose.
McGahern was hurt by the sacking, but taught for a time as a supply-teacher in London. There he found the English working class so ground down - and this in the heyday of the welfare state - that half of the boys in one class couldn't remember the colour of their own front doors.
Later, he forgave Archbishop McQuaid and quipped: "Whenever I pass a school and see the teachers' Volkswagens parked outside, I say a silent prayer of thanks to John Charles." In fact, his own sense of aesthetic form and beauty is hugely indebted to the ceremonies of preconciliar Catholicism, the high Masses and benedictions with their choreography and symbolism. His mother had wanted him to be a priest - and in a way he was, a priest of the imagination. And like the priests after Vatican II, when the altars changed location, he also in his later years abandoned his privacy and became a public man, turning to face "the ultimate mystery - his own people". Yet he was always tactful, recognising that every single person remains finally indecipherable - and his art had the energy of a powerful reticence, knowing when silence is best.
He was a keen student of social change. The energy expended by many bright Leaving Cert students in moving from country to city as civil servants, teachers, nurses, had so drained many of them that they never fulfilled their intellectual potential in Dublin - that was often left to the next generation, untroubled by such adjustment. McGahern was interested in France because it had undergone the transition from a mainly Catholic, agricultural society to a secular democracy in the decades before Ireland made the same transition.
Marcel Proust was one of the authors to whom he gave unqualified praise; and John was himself a rather Proustian figure - fastidious, with beautiful manners, but also deeply mischievous. He wasn't at all as bleak as readers of his early books sometimes thought. After the medical diagnosis, he was in no way resentful at the prospect of being deprived of life - "the amazing thing, when you think about it, is that any of us is here at all". The chances against it in each human case were probably millions to one. By a somewhat similar logic, he was always genuinely surprised when hearing that a book of his had fallen into a new reader's hands. Yet, at the end, he knew he was loved - sales of his last three books broke all records.
A few years back, he gave a course to my students at UCD; and I couldn't resist eavesdropping on some sessions, to experience once again the old feeling of being taught by the master. At first we found it hard to find a link between the very different books he chose - An tOileánach by Tomás Ó Criomhthainn, O'Malley's classic, Synge's Aran Islands, Kavanagh's Monaghan poems, Purgatory by Yeats and If This Is a Man by Primo Levi. Then it dawned upon us that there was a link - they were all about the end of various traditions (Gaelic islands, rural Ireland, the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the Jewish people in central Europe). And their lesson was that a tradition can live, even in the very lament for its passing. This would also be the central intuition of his last fiction, That They May Face the Rising Sun, as it was of Alistair MacLeod's short stories, which McGahern helped to bring to the attention of the world.
Too serene for self-assertion, he never spoke directly to the students about his own work, but used the designated books as a way of expressing himself.
By the course's end, the links between O'Malley and the father-figure in Amongst Woman were manifest. McGahern was most illuminating of all on Levi's Auschwitz: if the suffering had gone on much longer, it would have needed a wholly new language in order to capture the experience.
He was a great reader, constantly telling friends about under-appreciated books: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott or Stoner by John Williams. It was a passion he shared with his wife Madeline Green. Their love for one another was simple and majestic, rooted in the belief that life is best shared quietly, day by day. The pleasure which they took in one another's company was constant source of inspiration and hope to their many friends in this uncertain world. Some aspects of their life together might be inferred from the mellow, golden pages of That They May Face the Rising Sun, a book of days and seasons in which happiness is - most astonishingly in contemporary literature - actually felt and fully conveyed. It is a book which, like their life together, would lift any human heart.