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McGahern And Tradition

Denis Sampson

John McGahern: The Imagination of Tradition, by Stanley van der Ziel, Cork University Press, 320 pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1782051640

John McGahern died ten-years ago. The reviled figure who rocked many boats in the Catholic establishment when The Dark appeared in 1965 was at the same time a heroic artist figure and the subject of no less than four editorials in The Irish Times in 1965-66. Protesting against the unorthodox procedure of banning the novel before it entered the country, the first editorial referred to McGahern as “clearly a dedicated writer, not a dilettante” and almost a year later, when news of his dismissal from his teaching position in Clontarf became public, the novel had already entered public discourse: “The dark, that feeling of claustrophobia described by Mr. McGahern is a real and pressing phenomenon. Nothing short of honesty will dispel it.” The Barracks, his first novel, had already exemplified his belief that art and honesty were conjoined, although the many layers of honesty present in The Dark were not immediately recognised or discussed.

For most of the following decade, he became a silent exile, then a recluse in Leitrim, and in his final decades a figure loved by many who were charmed by his public readings. He passed up the opportunity to become a figure like Sean O’Faolain or Frank O’Connor, who devoted almost a generation to becoming crusaders against censorship and the repressive Catholic order. McGahern withdrew to follow his own artistic ambitions, and he won the respect of many, especially in France and the UK, including the admiration of a new generation of Irish writers, such as Neil Jordan, Colm Tóibín and Joseph O’Connor. Other readers too recognised that he had been a truth-teller before his time (even before the publication of Memoir in 2005), but he seemed prepared to let the scandal become an historical footnote, and his bemused and ironic sense of humour lightened the bleakness of much of his work.

Neither the banishment and silencing nor the acclaim seemed to matter. In the literary world in which he came to maturity, the notion of “the ten-year test” was surely well known to him. Cyril Connolly’s expression had become popular as a signpost of enduring aesthetic quality. As new books came and reviewers went, influential promoters and literary critics moved their attention elsewhere, and authors themselves changed direction, a classical quality remained. Connolly, one of the most influential editors and reviewers himself, was especially focused on what happened to a writer’s reputation in the decade when contemporary popularity fades and a sense irrelevance or déjà vu settles in.

McGahern’s death in 2006, premature as it seemed at the time, was the first of a generation of writers, including Heaney and Friel, who came to prominence in the mid-1960s. And now in the years ahead, the “test” will inevitably sort out many things regarding each writer’s overall stature and the place of particular works within the whole career. Literary history will take over from the hype, the prizes, the celebrity, and from the political commentaries and themes of the times that often foreground some passing preoccupations. Sooner or later, however, the dust does settle over traditions and canons, even over Nobel prizewinners, and the notion of the classic displaces the “test” and all the versions of “relevance” that keep some books in the public eye. Most books and authors are buried, and some are dusted off and given another chance, as in the remarkable case of Stoner by John Williams, McGahern himself being the one who played a role in dusting off the American novel.

In McGahern’s case, his books are all in print, and so they continue to win new readers. Love of the World, the edition of essays, reviews and occasional prose prepared by Stanley van der Ziel, was a well-received complement to the fiction, and no doubt the edition of letters to be edited by Frank Shovlin will give an enriched sense of how life and work are conjoined. He continues to receive tributes from younger writers in Ireland and the UK. Stories and novels are studied, and academic criticism expands; new critical books have appeared, and others are in the works. His career is seen from different angles, some favouring the earlier work, some the later, for what is clear is that the long gaps between books were times of renewal and redefinition – a decade passed before Amongst Women was published, and longer still before That They May Face the Rising Sun. There are a number of McGaherns then, and few have challenged the evaluation that he evolved from being a minor writer of great talent to a major writer with an inherently complex oeuvre.

McGahern has easily passed Connolly’s test, and for now his high standing among Irish writers of fiction is secure, but he was himself a severe critic in the choice of work he considered of lasting importance, and at an early age he made a decision that he would read little contemporary fiction or poetry. In fact, it might be said that his duration for the “test” was not ten-years but closer to a hundred. Over and over the decades, the same writers remained central touchstones for him: Yeats, Proust and Chekhov. Only a handful of his near contemporaries passed: Beckett, Kavanagh, Auden, perhaps Larkin, perhaps John Williams. Is it possible to apply his own standards of the classic to himself, and is this the time to do so?

Such thoughts are prompted by Stanley van der Ziel’s new book, John McGahern: The Imagination of Tradition. It is the most important book written about McGahern to date because it provides us with the means to understand the qualities of classic writing that guided him in his art. His own work is located in a dynamic sense of literary history, and van der Ziel’s scrupulous reading of specific stories and novels is integrated into an awareness of the ways McGahern’s art participates in many of the great and lasting preoccupations of literature. The critic does not follow the career chronologically, book by book; rather, the originality of The Imagination of Tradition is embedded in the debate of ideas about art of many different periods that inspired and focused McGahern’s fictional style.

Van der Ziel has devoted more than a decade to preparing the groundwork for such a study. He completed a PhD at UCD under the inspiration of Declan Kiberd and went on to edit the non-fiction of McGahern for Faber and Faber. This volume, Love of the World, assembled fugitive essays, reviews and talks prepared by McGahern over forty years, almost the whole extent of his career, although so keen had he been to foreground only his fiction, to make his art stand apart from the circumstances of his life and other work, that these occasional pieces remained in the shadows. Van der Ziel’s methodical work in sifting through versions and revisions of this prose served McGahern’s readers well, but it also brought the editor close to McGahern’s working methods. In addition, he has quarried the archive of the novelist’s papers at NUIG, and there too he came to recognise the contours of McGahern’s imagination. More than this, he came to appreciate how his composition of fiction was inextricable from his powerful and well-informed conceptual intelligence as well as the comic and ironic genius that modulated his sense of suffering and mutability.

This study of the mind of the artist is grounded then in a capacious knowledge of the fiction itself, of McGahern’s reading, of his manuscripts and notes, and of the work of other critics. It seems that van der Ziel incorporates the best insights of others and weaves them into a web of his own making, for this scholarly work comes alive most of all through the author’s original intellectual reflection on the novelist’s whole self. He is up to the task after all those years of preparation, for this work is surely the book that will allow us to assess McGahern’s enduring reputation fifty years after the career began and a decade after its end.

Van der Ziel acknowledges the poetic qualities that have permeated the novels and poems – the precision of observation, the rhythm of the prose, the reflective inner worlds of his characters, the radiance of the vision of time and nature. But it is his perspective on McGahern’s thinking about the nature of literature itself that adds an extra dimension to the fictional art. He situates this in relation to some of the most important ideas about art that have animated European traditions, but rather than treat him as a novelist of ideas, with philosophic or moral concepts to elucidate, he traces how such thinking is embedded in the fiction. If art is a way of seeing, a way of knowing, and a way of engaging the reader in a comprehensive reflection on the nature of human experience, then McGahern’s fiction is less a commentary or a statement than an aesthetic experience informed by profound ideas. Stanley van der Ziel’s book provides us with the means to appreciate this. It is why it is the most significant book on McGahern and why it is timely.

Each chapter begins by setting out echoes and allusions to predecessors, and a less able writer might be content with such tracing of McGahern’s awareness. It is a surface kind of detective work, and it does confirm that the novelist has been reading and perhaps learning technique or deliberately echoing Yeats or Proust, for instance, to allow the reader to share their inspiring presence. But this is only the beginning of van der Ziel’s work. It is far from a kind of name-dropping and is closest, perhaps, to Eliot’s idea of “tradition and the individual talent”. In fact, van der Ziel is probably alluding to Eliot’s essay in his title, for his larger goal is to study how the individual talent of McGahern was inspired and honed, educated and deepened, by his engagement with significant figures and ideas. In the introduction, he writes with reference to McGahern’s reading of Sons and Lovers: “In his assimilation of Lawrence we can clearly see at work a process which operates more generally throughout McGahern’s fiction: … the basic outlines of biographical events are fused with apposite, illuminating literary allusions which are just as deeply grafted in the writer’s consciousness.” In other words, reading and writing are inextricable at the deepest levels of the imagination at work.

Van der Ziel’s extended interest first focuses on Shakespeare. He reminds us of how often the great tragedies, King LearHamletMacbeth, are alluded to and adds to this the awareness of certain comedies. It is not simply, in the critic’s view, that McGahern memorised many lines and passages during his school years, and so they are a part of his literary memory; rather, he argues that it is the nature of the dramatic imagination, and of the realisation that “all the world’s a stage”, of identity seen in terms of self-conscious performance, that McGahern investigates in his maturity. More than this, van der Ziel emphasises the comic aspects of McGahern’s vision and personality, and it is in this comprehensive view of how McGahern engaged with ideas of the theatre, dramatic genres, and vivid characterizations, that our sense of the complex interrelationship between different aspects of McGahern’s reflections on our human condition and its social contexts emerges. Although McGahern had only a passing interest in writing drama for radio, television or the theatre, he had a deep interest in silence and “talk”, in drama as a way of seeing and of being in the world that is integrated into the fiction.

Van der Ziel is not fundamentally interested in what might be referred to as the tracing of influence, “anxiety of influence”, or intertextual connections. Having established the extent of the artist’s wide reading and his reflection on a set of authors and preoccupations in European literature, he presents a series of arguments on how McGahern’s work consciously participates in perennial debates beginning in ancient Greece and Rome. He is interested in how Enlightenment moral principles are enshrined in the local community or the “little platoon”, for instance, and here van der Ziel links McGahern’s thinking to Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” and the novels of Jane Austen. The novelist’s investigation of manners and a civil society is grounded in Austen in particular, although van der Ziel shows that McGahern’s interest in philosophers such as Hume and Burke frame the wider concerns of Austen’s vision of the rural. This is the context in which he situates That They May Face the Rising Sun.

Similar concerns inform the treatment of Romanticism, for it is a particular, Wordsworthian, strand that drew McGahern’s interest, although, of course, he was aware of how deeply George Eliot and Proust were similarly focused on Wordsworth. The return of the poet to rural settings, to memory, and an evocation of the meditative consciousness all interest him, but he is careful to modify any sentimentality or nostalgia associated with the rural strand of Romanticism. Throughout his career, McGahern spoke of the image and of vision – “that still and private universe which each of us possess but which others cannot see” – and van der Ziel grounds the common human gift of “seeing” in a Wordsworthian visionary Romanticism which has come to be called “natural supernaturalism”. While it is facilitated by a meditative rural setting, this transcendent power is essentially different from a passive appreciation of the beautiful; rather, it is an active faculty which creates meaning and anchors the individual in his or her own powers of observation, as is demonstrated in the very first novel in the final year of the cancer-stricken Elizabeth.

While McGahern’s thinking is grounded in such visionary aspects of Romanticism, Realism is necessarily a central preoccupation of the writer of fiction, especially in the teasing out of the well-known metaphor “the mirror in the roadway”. Through allusions to Stendhal, Tolstoy, Flaubert and Chekhov, van der Ziel’s investigation shows McGahern’s ambivalence towards that strain of realism that is closely linked to history and reportage. He is interested in accumulating precise observations of the physical and social environments, but they are scrupulously selected. The novelist’s success with the general reading public rests on the felt accuracy of his evocation of daily life in rural Ireland, for the most part. People recognise the veracity of his rendering of time and place, mid-twentieth century Ireland, but van der Ziel argues that what is rendered is seen with mixed feelings and mixed perspectives, so that a simplistic or programmatic realism is subverted. This chapter is entitled “The Limits of Realism”, and that is an apt signpost to McGahern’s involvement in and detachment from literary movements so that the “individual talent” will prevail.

Two chapters are devoted to Modernism, to exploring a set of ideas anchored in the work of Proust, and then in his engagement with Yeats and Joyce, Irish versions of Modernism, as it were. Predictably, in the first chapter, Proust’s ideas on time, memory, and the narrative self are rehearsed so as to reveal McGahern’s deep and lasting consideration of them. In the cases of Joyce and Yeats, and to a lesser degree, Kavanagh’s poetry, and Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s The Islandman, their local, Irish, dimensions are acknowledged, but van der Ziel is interested in situating them in broader strands of the traditions of writing. He wants to understand how they, and perhaps even more generally, Beckett, all deepened McGahern’s thinking, so that he could embrace literary techniques and visions from Homer, St Augustine and Lucretius right up to post-war figures such as Camus. All participate in the debates about literature as a means of grasping the essential and perennial elements of the human condition which is what, finally and from the outset, marked McGahern’s artistic ambition.

Van der Ziel picks up clues from the critical writing and notebooks, but even in arguing for McGahern as an acute reader of literary texts and traditions, he is interested in persuading us that the fiction itself includes concretely his debates with his literary peers. In the novelist’s elaboration of style and genre, of characterisation and dialogue, in narrative voices and plotting, in shifting points of view and vision, in all the literary means available to him, McGahern drew on the deepest resources of his “individual talent”. He was such a perceptive and original reader that he created his own “tradition”, as Eliot and Borges argued all major artists must do. The novelist who emerges is not interested in voicing ideas in philosophical terms, but the ideas of a philosophic mind are nonetheless woven into the making of his fiction. It is in this way that the novelist grows in stature through van der Ziel’s treatment. He emerges as a critical reader who is constantly evaluating how his own vision may need to be sharpened through reading and rereading his predecessors, in short, as a major writer whose absorption of European moral, philosophical and literary traditions is what allows us to gauge his enduring stature.


Denis Sampson is the author of ‘Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist’  His  memoir ‘A Migrant Heart’, was published last year.



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