Love of the World: Essays, by John McGahern, Faber, 350 pp, ISBN: 978-0571245116
Gustave Flaubert once wrote that to write well is everything. John McGahern quotes this sentence, and many others, from Flaubert – one of his writerly heroes –in the course of an essay on Dubliners published in this collection of his non-fiction work which, appearing three years after his death, provides a new aspect to a voice familiar until now through fiction and autobiography.
In the essay, McGahern’s chief concern is to consider the quality of Joyce’s prose, which the author himself described as being “a style of scrupulous meanness” and to which McGahern ascribes an “authority and plain sense” that clearly reflects how he believes fiction – indeed all writing – should be approached. For McGahern, Flaubert’s dictum is an imperative: that is why he quotes him so liberally throughout. In order to be able to write well, he believes, one needs to find “a unique expression, endlessly reworked and enriched, until it is pared down to an individual style, to the point where the man behind the work is his work and eventually becomes one with it”. Dubliners is a great work of art, he concludes, because, in the book “the method is that people, events, and places invariably find their true expression … Everything is important in Dubliners because it is there and everything there is held in equal importance.”
There is serious attention paid to the art and craft of writing in Love of the World, reflecting McGahern’s priorities as a writer. He did not write quickly – taking twelve years between his greatest literary success, Amongst Women (1990), and his next publication, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) – and he constantly rewrote his work, even after it had been published: he regularly reworked his short stories and revised The Leavetaking (1974) ten years after its first appearance. He was also a ruthless editor, paring Amongst Women down to two hundred pages from its original twelve hundred, in the process creating spare, exact prose in which no word or phrase is redundant.
The workings of his craft are evidenced in “Five Drafts”, the first piece in the collection, in which he writes and rewrites a paragraph on sexuality, love and the church, but his thoughts on that which is inherently important within good prose reappear time and again throughout the collection. In “The Solitary Reader”, he recalls his early writing years: “Words had been a physical presence for me for a long time before, each word with its own weight, colour, shape, relationship, extending out into a world without end. Change any word in a single sentence and immediately all the other words demand to be rearranged. By writing and rewriting sentences, by moving their words endlessly around, I found that scenes or pictures and echoes and shapes began to emerge that reflected obscurely a world that had found its first expression and recognition through reading.” The short stories of the Canadian Alistair MacLeod he finds to be written in a “language of precision and deep eloquence”; referring to the concluding story in one of MacLeod’s collections, he writes that “everything is right and sure-footed as the story reaches its delicate and inevitable ending”. In his discussion of Dubliners, he criticises George Moore as a writer of “self-expression: he constantly substitutes candour for truth”. Dubliners, on the other hand, has no self-expression: “its truth is in every phrase”.
Nor is good prose necessarily something that is found only in fiction: in an essay commemorating Irish Times journalist Dick Walsh, McGahern notes that “the style he forged is highly individual. Mixing the language of the street and field and public house with clear English, it is immediately engaging”. He also admires Walsh’s dedication to uncovering sloppy language in pieces that drew attention to the way in which governments and other organisations attempted to divert the public’s attention from reality. “He saw Orwell’s reference to the effect of Stalinism on western thinking as equally applicable to the 1990s,” writes McGahern, “and he detailed how ‘slovenliness of language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’.”
For McGahern, there is no difference between how a writer writes and that which he chooses to write about. Aside from Flaubert, he also quotes Henry James, who wrote that “art and morality are two perfectly different things, and that the former has no more to do with the latter than it has with astronomy or embryology. The only duty of the novel was to be well written; that merit included every other of which it was capable.” At the end of “A Literature without Qualities”, he writes that while serious work can be written out of a conflict such as the Northern Ireland Troubles, it can only be so in so far as “it attracts a writer of talent, and given no more or less importance than a comparable talent[’s] interest in a woman combing her hair or adjusting or … someone tending their garden or getting ready to meet their beloved”. Finally he concludes that: “All good writing is local and is made universal through clear thinking and deep feeling, finding the right expression and in so doing reflects all the particular form is capable of reflecting, including the social and the political.”
All this, of course, is merely an illustration of how and why McGahern wrote. Colm Tóibín once said in an interview that “John McGahern taught me that it’s OK to write repeatedly about the same things”. Those things involved a tracing and retracing of the story of his own life, incorporating into his fictions the places and memories of that life, along with the rhythms of a daily existence. He wrote most fully the story of his childhood in Amongst Women, his tale of Irish family life in which the dictatorial Michael Moran operates as a tyrant within the family home but is a frustrated, impotent character in the outside world, but the same themes of violence, abuse and the power of the Church are also in evidence from the beginning of his writing career: in his first published novel, The Barracks (1962), through to The Dark (1965), The Leavetaking and The Pornographer (1979). At the end of his life, he left aside the mask of fiction to write Memoir and tell his own story directly – the heartbreak of losing his beloved mother at a young age, the cruelty of a tyrannical father, his early years as a teacher and writer, during which The Dark was banned and he was dismissed from his job because of the book and his marriage, in a registry office, to a Finnish divorcee ‑ but what is striking about this work is how closely it mirrors, in theme, in style, in description, the preoccupations of the world of his imagination: he was constantly retreading the same ground.
His essays make clear that this was a conscious decision, and it is this clarity of thought that allows his work to avoid parochialism or narrowness of focus. In a short essay, “The Local and the Universal”, delivered as a lecture at Listowel Writers’ Week in 2004, he says: “Everything interesting begins with one person in one place, though the places can become many, and many persons in the form of influences will have gone into the making of that single woman or man … The universal is the local, but with the walls taken away. Out of the particular we come on what is general, which is our great comfort, since we call it truth, and that truth had to be continually renewed.”
He sought this “truth” from other writers: reviewing the work of Alistair MacLeod, whose short stories centre on people and a way of life in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, he writes: “The work has a largeness, of feeling, of intellect, of vision, a great openness and generosity, even an old-fashioned courtliness … The small world on Cape Breton opens out to the vast spaces and distances of Canada … Unwittingly, or through that high art that conceals itself, we have been introduced into a complete representation of existence, and the stories take on the truth of the Gaelic songs their people sing.” And it was at the heart of his own work. For example, in writing that MacLeod’s “careful work never appears to stray outside what quickens it, and his uniqueness is present in every weighted sentence and the smallest of gestures”, McGahern could be referring to his own fictions.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the novel That They May Face the Rising Sun, which is, on the face of it, a gentle account of quiet rural life, McGahern’s depiction of the place and people that surrounded him in the sparsely populated area of Co Leitrim where he lived and worked. But although the countryside is depicted with meticulous, loving accuracy, as it is in Memoir, in some of his short stories and in the essay “County Leitrim: the sky above us”, the book is no rose-tinted retreat from the reality of life. The rhythms of the novel may be slow, careful and unashamedly rural, but its considerations are universal. A conversation, for example, between Joe Ruttledge, who has come back from England with his wife, Kate, to the place of his childhood, and a local character, Patrick Ryan, in which Ryan discusses the people of the rich houses he has worked for in the past, reflects the limitations of a country mentality, where everybody knows everybody and their business, but also something much more fundamental about the human condition.
When he turned to speak of the rich houses he had worked for, his voice changed: it was full of identification and half-possession, like the unformed longing of a boy. “Most of the people in this part of the country will never rise off their arses in the ditches. You have to have something behind you to be able to rise.” Rise to what? came to Ruttledge’s lips, but he didn’t speak it. “I suppose they’ll move around in the light for a while like the rest of us and disappear,” he said. “They wouldn’t like to hear that either, lad,” Patrick Ryan replied trenchantly, “All the fuckers half-believe they are going to be the Big Exception and live forever.”
The tone is contemplative, subtle, but not evasive, and it is the same tone that suffuses his essay on County Leitrim, published originally as a foreword to a book of photographs. In the piece, McGahern celebrates the rural landscape in the same manner as he has done in his fiction and autobiography, writing of: “the low drumlins around the countless lakes” where “the soil is hardly an inch deep” and of the “irregular hedgerows of whitethorn, ash, green oak, holly, wild cherry, sloe and sycamore” that “divide the drumlins into rushy fields”. Echoes of the beginning of Memoir abound when he writes: “Along the lake edges and river banks there are private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells, where the otter feeds and trains her young. The foxglove is here, and the orchid, with thousands of other wildflowers.”
But, like all his work, the piece goes further than the merely elegiac. He describes stopping at the British army checkpoint on the way to Enniskillen, a town he and his wife visited regularly, and the description is as detailed and accurate as his considerations of the countryside. “There are ramps and screens and barriers and a tall camouflaged lookout tower. A line of cars waits behind a red light. A quick change to green signals each single car forward. In the middle of this maze armed soldiers call out the motor vehicle number and driver’s identification to a hidden computer. Only when they are cleared will the cars be waved through. Suspect vehicles are searched. The soldiers are young and courteous and look very professional.”
Only once were formalities broken at that checkpoint, when an officer asked if the couple could bring him two loaves of wholewheat bread upon their return from Enniskillen. Later, the soldiers were edgy until the situation was explained to them.
‘Oh that nutcase,’ a soldier said, just as the officer himself appeared, pulling money from inside his combat jacket. ‘Thank you very much indeed. We were completely out of wholewheat bread.’ When the money was refused – ‘with the compliments of the country’ – he looked at a loss for a moment, before coming to attention and honouring us with one of the sharpest salutes I have ever seen, out there beneath the mountains, in the middle of the wilderness. I wish the whole commerce of Northern Ireland could be as simple as that human request.
McGahern was at times criticised for not being political in his writings. Indeed he was avowedly not so: in a tribute written after his death, Colm Tóibín discussed how, at a literary conference where writers were urged to display political commitment, McGahern firmly dissented. “It is a writer’s job to look after his sentences,” he said, “nothing else.” He remained exacting in this focus: he refused to get involved in any protest about the banning of The Dark because, in the words of Chekhov, “The minute the writer takes up a pen he accuses himself of unanswerable egotism and all he can do with any decency after that is to bow.” In “The Solitary Reader”, he recounts an incident at the Booker Prize dinner in 1990, the year Amongst Women was shortlisted. As Kenneth Baker, then chairman of the Conservative Party, paused to tell McGahern how much he had enjoyed his work, the writer and critic AN Wilson called out: “Do you realize, Mr Baker, that the novel glorifies the IRA?”. McGahern knows better: “Amongst Women glorifies nothing but life itself, and fairly humble life … All the violence is internalized within a family, is not public or political; but is not, therefore, a lesser evil.”
What he did not do was avert his eyes. The subtle comment made about the North in the Leitrim essay becomes a kind of refrain, both in that essay, where he writes that a feud between two local farmers stretching so far back in time that both have forgotten the cause is “not dissimilar to what is taking place on a larger scale in Northern Ireland”, and in others. In the essay “Life as it is and Life as it Ought to be”, in which he remembers the Protestant farmer Willie Booth, he writes that when he is asked about the North, he says that it wasn’t part of his experience, and that one can only speak of what one knows. What he does know is that to him it is “now stranger than France or Britain or the United States … Behind all the surface good manners, I feel much of it is deeply hidden, even aggressively so. All that one hears at first hand or notices seems to emphasize that sense of difference.”
He is less oblique, even coldly furious, in his discussions of his own society. The essays “It’s a Long Way from Mohill to Here” and “Shame in a Polling Booth” seethe with disgust for the contemporary political system and are as relevant today as when they were written. Time and again he refers to the sectarian theocracy into which he was born, which demanded subservience and discouraged individual speech and thought. But even as he unflinchingly details the results of that suppression: compulsory retirement upon marriage for women, the breaking of pelvic bones during difficult births in hospitals, the bitterness of the emigrants on the building sites in Britain, he avoids easy certainties. In the essay “Whatever you Say, Say Nothing”, he reminds us that many ordinary people living in that climate “went about their sensible pagan lives as they had done for centuries, seeing all this as just another veneer they had to pretend to wear like all the others they had worn since the time of the Druids” and notes that “many who entered the Church at the time were victims themselves”. It is these opinions, held but not worn like a mantle, that underlie his non-political fictions – Joe Ruttledge speaks out against violence towards the end of That They May Face the Rising Sun – making them much more than a lament for an old way of life.
What he does lament, most particularly in the essay “The Church and its Spire”, is the loss of the spiritual solace offered him by the religion of his youth, writing that: “I have nothing but gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing, the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven. That is all that now remains. Belief as such has long gone.” In that same essay, he writes that after independence Church and State became inseparable, with “unhealthy consequences for both”, but that the “spiritual need will not go away”. “If it is no longer able to express itself through the Church,” he writes, “it will take some other form.” For McGahern himself, that form was clearly the art of writing.
John McGahern was first and foremost a fiction writer – as Declan Kiberd writes in his elegant and informed introduction, he hoarded his best energies for his stories and novels ‑ and this collection is at its best when the essays give insight to the voice behind those writings. Some of the work included here is too short or incidental, and a less unwieldy, more focused book might have served writer and reader better. When it is good, however, the book serves as a glimpse into the workings of a thoughtful and dignified mind, who has left us, once again, and as he surely would have wished, with the well-written word.
Rachel Andrews is a writer and critic based in Cork city. She writes about arts and culture for publications including The Sunday Business Post and Irish Theatre Magazine, and is a regular contributor to RTE Radio 1’s Arts Show. She lectures in Literature and Journalism at University College Cork and Griffith College Cork.