The Letters of John McGahern, Frank Shovlin (ed), Faber, 851 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0571326662
I never met John McGahern. For a long time I had no desire to do so. When I was a young man, I read and disliked The Barracks and then, later, The Dark. It was not that they were not great stories, but they reeked of an Ireland from which I wanted to escape. It was the 1960s. My orientation was to London and Europe. There was little in McGahern land that belonged to me.
As I grew older, I warmed to him. I imagined him as a recluse who let his writings do the talking. And then, some years ago, I came to live in McGahern land. Slowly, all that he had been writing about began to make sense. He had an ability to draw out the essence of people and the places in which they live, their encounters with each other, the rituals of everyday life, the landscape and the weather. He revealed the way people in this part of the world see and understand life. He captured the emotional and material conditions of their existence. It is something that many sociologists strive to achieve but very few succeed.
McGahern was an atmospheric writer. But he was also a realist. He told the truth about the people who live here. For many it was an unwelcome truth. He lifted the rug of holy Catholic Ireland and showed us a myriad of nasties getting away with power and abuse. But there was also an underlying sympathy, as if he realised and accepted that people are often caught in times and circumstances not of their choosing.
In my first years here, I reread his writings. They became a guide to the people I met, to their manners, habits and concerns. They also helped me to appreciate the landscape. How to develop a love of the seasons, the vistas, the changing light and the brutality and beauty of nature. His writings became a sort of guide to living here.
I was, therefore, excited at the prospect of reading his letters. I assumed there would be more insights into the intensity of living in the local, of living with people who are as beguiling as they are charming, in a land where the wind and the rain wear me down only for the sun to come and restore my faith. I imagined vivid descriptions being written to friends and loved ones. I imagined him sharing thoughts with them about life, its meaning, beauty, sorrows and cares.
My dreams did not come true. I had thought that he would write about the trials of being a farmer, of the demands of looking after cows and sheep, of the anxieties and rewards of rural life. I imagined descriptions of characters in pubs, of walking leafy lanes with his dog, of the slow drip of everyday life in which, as he said, nothing much happens other than the pleasure of being among intimate things and people. I imagined lengthy correspondences with fellow writers about the differences between fiction and autobiography, between romanticism and realism, of the difficulty of living with people but also of writing the truth about them.
Unfortunately, my dreams did not come true. Part of the reason is revealed by Frank Shovlin in his introduction and announced by McGahern himself ‑ he did not like writing letters. He did not like the form. He thought it was difficult to be honest. This helps explain why, though often fascinating in subject matter, the letters are often dull and prosaic. There are some small passages within the hundreds gathered here, occasional blasts of beauty, reminders of his ability to compose a scene. But, sadly, the majority are about the problems, anxieties, considerations and frustrations of a writer trying to make his way in the literary world. There are good descriptions of the people he meets along the way, those who helped and hindered him, the endearments, vagaries and shenanigans of editors, publishers and fellow-writers.
The letters are presented in chronological order. The first was written to his father in 1943 when he was nine years old. McGahern was living with his mother, sisters and brother in Cooramahon. It is a simply a thank you letter that any child might have written at the time. But there is a poignancy to this one. As he writes, his mother, the love of his life, is dying of breast cancer. His father, who was to become the bane of his life, is living more than twenty miles away. There is a sense of emotional as well as physical distance, as if he was writing to some aged uncle.
The next letter, written fourteen years later, to Tony Swift, who, along with his brother Jimmy, was to become a life-long friend, is remarkable because it is so personal and insightful. One can already see glimpses of the great writing he was to produce. A letter to Tony Whelan in 1958, reveals his alienation from being a teacher: “I often fear I shall grow old among the Primers and children who care as little about learning as I do about teaching.” There were a number of poems attached to this letter, the only ones by McGahern that have survived. While he admired many poets, and while many of his writings could be seen as extended poems, they became a form in which he did not feel at home.
A year later, there is a letter to his sister Dympna which is full of insight and advice about life. He tells her that there is no such thing in life as freedom, only the freedom to choose. He writes about the danger of letting servile work eat into the soul. The only way to avoid alienation is through critical thinking, discipline, honesty and work. Otherwise, he tells her, we can end up no different from a lily, a piece of wood or a pig. We lose “our consciousness or our souls”.
In the next letter to her, he talks about his lack of interest in the history of the IRA, war and politics and tells her that the real drama of life is the way our consciences weigh up the triumphs and disasters of each day. “Somebody,’ he writes, “could make a walk through the woods as passionately vivid as an ambush, provided he loved it, that is all that matters.”
There are lyrical passages in these early letters. In 1960, he wrote to Jimmy Swift from Grevisk (the house in which his father lived after retiring), saying that he could not write from there (presumably because of the tension) and yet goes on to describe that Easter Sunday as being a golden dream, “the sun on the fields around the house, bunches of wild daffodils between the tall, churchyard evergreens, and here and there patches of forget-me-nots . . . making blue the coming green of grass. The shell of a blackbird’s egg, so palely blue, fallen under the trees.”
The early letters also reveal something about his immersion into the Dublin literary scene of the time. He does not hold back. Referring to a short story by Benedict Kiely, he says it is bad, “not really a story at all”. He criticises Sean O’Faolain because his skilful manipulation of words blurred his characters, emotions and simple situations. The result was that his beautifully turned phrases melted into one another like clouds. He thought that one of Maeve Brennan’s short stories reflected her sense of superiority and indifference to people. He wrote that he couldn’t enjoy one of Mary Lavin’s books, adding that there were some parts which he actively disliked. He wrote that a poem by Richard Murphy, later to become a good friend, was “competent rubbish”.
Following an evening in the Hibernian, a private club in Dublin, he said that “literary people bore me to almost the point of violence”. McDaids pub, a different world from the salons of Mary Lavin, was “such a jungle that it’s impossible”. There is a description of a scrap between Anthony Cronin ‑ for whom McGahern had little time – and Patrick Kavanagh.
In the beginning McGahern saw Kavanagh as “an irresponsible critic and a careless poet”. But later he was to change his opinion and declare that he was “a real poet and that’s rare”. He declared that after Beckett he was probably the only writer of that generation who was distinctive.
Image and memory are central elements to McGahern’s approach to writing. Memory is dependent on a particular image that develops a personal significance. For him, image is made up of rhythm and vision. The vision is that still and private world which each of us possesses and which others cannot see. It is brought to life in rhythm, which is the instinctive movement of the vision as it comes to life.
I have often wondered how McGahern saw, read and appreciated the world. We become enveloped in his images through his writings. But when, where and how did these images emerge? Like Wordsworth, the image becomes fiction in memory. I realise that even if I was with McGahern, I would never see the image as he did. It is part and parcel of his style.
In August 1959, he wrote to Jimmy Swift: “I saw a very beautiful scarf on a young girl at Mass last Sunday, softly black like a pall, hung with cloth bells, exactly like fuchsia bells, only they were green and yellow as well as that lovely velvety red of fuchsia.” And so I have an image of him as a twenty-six year old at Mass on Sunday and he is enchanted by the sight of young girl and her scarf which stays with him and which he recalls later in writing to his friend.
There is much to be learned from these letters. I had always wondered why his first attempt at a novel, “The End or the Beginning of Love”, was never published. It seems, however, that much of it, although from a different angle and context, was used in The Barracks. I never realised how much writing and publishing that book took out of him. His father thought it was an “immoral disgrace”. As a consequence, McGahern was not invited home the following Easter. At a family conference, he was “formally expelle”’ from his home and inheritance. He was “emotionally ill” for most of that year.
There are important insights about The Dark. McGahern felt it was more honest and real than The Barracks. He seems taken aback when it is confirmed that the book will be banned. Could it have been a surprise? But what about his father? If he thought The Barracks was bad, how would he react to The Dark and its depictions of emotional domination, physical violence and sexual abuse? McGahern showed and discussed the manuscript with two of his sisters. They agreed that there would be little trouble with their father. Too much of it was true.
There are many aspects of his life that are rarely mentioned, let alone explored, in the letters. I had thought that there would be more about politics, particularly about the state, the North and what it is to be political. But there is very little. In Amongst Women and other writings, there is a disenchantment with the state and what the country achieved with independence. It is evident from his writings and these letters that he had little time for republicanism. But the extent to which he was a socialist or passionate environmentalist is not clear. These issues are rarely raised.
Similarly, he wrote extensively about the Catholic church and religion and yet they hardly get a mention in the letters. He rarely refers to his disenchantment with institutional religion. We get no insight into his personal beliefs, or the spiritualism that pervades parts of Memoir and That They May Face the Rising Sun. He may have denounced the church, but he had a close relationship with his cousin Fr Liam Kelly and with Fr Frank McCabe, the parish priest of Fenagh.
Nor are there many revelations about himself. There is little that is personal and intimate in the letters. There is little about his sense of self. Nothing about the moral dilemmas, or the angst of being, that dominate The Pornographer. There is little sense of a writer in search of meaning.
We learn a little about his family life. He has regular visits and communications with his sisters and brother and there are references to his father, but given the centrality of family life in his writings and his ongoing attempts to understand his father through numerous fictional versions, I thought there would be more insights.
For someone who got deep into the emotional being of his characters, who captured their anxieties, frustrations and anger, and how these were manifested in the nuances and vagaries of personal interaction, the letters are, then, quite impersonal. He has no soulmate to whom he writes, with whom he tries to understand himself, with whom he shares the secrets of his being. This is perhaps most evident when it comes to his son Joseph and the relationship he had, or did not have, with him and his mother Joan Kelly. He had a brief affair with her in 1962. She was, he wrote in 1979, after having met her and his son “as beautiful and as impossible as before”. Joan had been a gossip columnist for the Irish Press. She went to England when she became pregnant. But there is no mention of the affair in his letters of the time. It is coincidental that 1979, the year he visited them in Portsmouth, was the year in which The Pornographer was published. Perhaps we get a deeper and better understanding of the trauma of the affair in his fiction.
It may well be that he did not see letters as a form of self-realisation and reflection. In 1991, Sophia Hillan King, who was working on a book about McGahern’s friend Michael McLaverty, wrote to him about a letter McGahern had sent McLaverty in 1961. He refused her permission to use or quote from it. He wrote: “I think that the difficulty with letters is that they are never quite honest. Often out of sympathy or diffidence or kindness of affection or self interest we quite rightly hide our true feelings.”
Letters, he suggests, are, by their form, never truthful. They are full of mental reservations. Things cannot be written because they may be hurtful or misread. They are beset by the need to be caring and polite. There are then approximations, signs that have to be read through the lines. But did he mean this to refer to all letters or, as in this case, letters to and about fellow writers. Does it extend to friends and family members?
What happens when one is writing to a loved one or soulmate? Did he believe that we cannot ever really tell or write the truth about ourselves? Is it that all we do is create representations of ourselves. That whatever stories we tell are always, necessarily, fictions? And does this mean that Memoir is just another story, another fictionalised version of himself?
He had his doubts about letter-writing as a form from early on. In 1964, he wrote to Mary Keelan. “I am no good at letters, I have written to you more than anyone ever, there’s something unreal about them, they’re neither life nor anything, but it’s nice for them to come.” But there is evidence of a struggle. In an earlier letter to her, he wrote: “It is late, and I love you, but I cannot tell you that I love you utterly, it is what I want to do. But I cannot – and it is for the first time in my life – say that love needs less care than words, less discipline.”
His early letters to Madeline are full of emotion and angst. In the beginning, he feels threatened that their love might not last and asks her why she wrote “For these days at least.” There are passages in these letters in which he defies the limits of the form. Some have the same tone and lyricism of his other writings, particularly in Memoir, particularly at the beginning and end when he remembers his mother.
I wish I could walk over the park with you, and sit in the old part of the bridge, and talk of where we have choices of going and doing, and go across the Marshes, you’d drink Guinness and get stared at, we’d meet when I’d the cheque cashed, and eat 2 plates of cheese with beer, and fuck each other to rest.
But passages such as this are exceptions. It would seem that, for him, form overcame content. He could not write openly and honestly about himself, about love and his own sexuality. This helps explain the prosaic, factual nature of most of his letters. But he liked and admired those who broke the mould, especially Proust, JB Yeats, Joyce and Rilke.
This leads to another question. McGahern regularly makes reference to the wide range of European and American writers he has read and liked. However, with some exceptions, notably Beckett and Kavanagh, he rarely mentions Irish writers, unless it is writing in response to letters from them. There are many big names in Irish writing which would have been contemporaries who barely get a mention and, if they do, it is simply in passing. One is left with the impression that he did not consider them worthwhile.
The letters do reveal McGahern’s place in the world of publishing. He had a very long, deep and rewarding relationship with Charles Monteith of Faber & Faber which began when McGahern sent him some draft chapters from The Barracks in 1961. They developed a great trust in and admiration for each other. McGahern stuck with Faber all his life. However, the letters reveal the trials and tribulations he had with the numerous American publishers of his works as well as with editors of various journals, magazines and newspapers.
Although he spent most of his time describing the people and landscape of Leitrim-Roscommon, he was intensely cosmopolitan. He loved to eat out. In his letters he describes the food he ate in restaurants in Dublin, London and Paris. The latter was his favourite city, but he also liked Dublin, London, Barcelona and Newcastle, which he found almost exotic. He was a jetsetter, flying regularly to and from the States. In a letter to Niall Walsh in 1973 he suggests where Walsh should go and what he should do in London. Of one Gerrard Street restaurant he wrote that it was “expensive but worth it. Rely for everything but the main course on the trolleys. I like especially the marinated herring but you can’t go wrong with anything there except your wallet.” Later that year, he described a lunch he had with Monteith at All Souls College in Oxford, “whitebait to begin, a bottle of claret, pheasant in chestnuts, a cheese soufflé, coffee and a cognac.”
The letters reveal other things about him. He was a keen follower of English soccer. In the beginning, he followed West Ham but then switched to Tottenham Hotspur. He admired George Best, whom he called “Blackie”. He took Madeline to the West Ham against Manchester United game in September 1967. It was their first date as a couple. But he was not a one-dimensional lover. One of his first gifts to her was a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters.
McGahern did not type. He seems to have tried it early on but gave up. After they married, Madeline typed most of his manuscripts. So almost all of the letters are handwritten. Deciphering his handwriting must have been a labour of love for Madeline and Shovlin. In 1961, John Montague wrote to McGahern and told him that while he often thought he himself had bad handwriting, it didn’t “come within an ass’s roar of yours for incomprehensibility”. Such is Shovlin’s skill and persistence that there are just a small number of occasions when he has not managed to decipher the script.
This is meticulous, well-researched, well-produced collection. The index is one of the best I have ever used. However, Shovlin’s greatest achievement is his footnotes. I suspect that they are as long as the letters themselves. Every time there is a reference to someone in the letters, he provides a very good short, but detailed and accurate, biography. What emerges, then, is a map of the literary world in which McGahern moved. But Shovlin also provides important background information on other people, places and events. The amount of research is astounding. It is as if every single plant in the McGahern garden had to be named and classified. The smallest, most insignificant visitor is carefully catalogued.
For example, in 1971, in a letter to Niall Walshe, McGahern wrote: “Mary Hutchinson came last night.” Shovlin tells us in a footnote: “Mary Hutchinson (1889-1977) a member of the Bloomsbury Group, was a key supporter behind X, the literary magazine that saw McGahern’s first publication in 1961. A friend of Samuel Beckett and well connected in the arts both in London and Paris, she was also largely responsible for the publication of Nightlines by Mercure de France. She stayed in Cleggan for a week, gifted John a copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters and offered John and Madeline the use of her daughter’s Little Venice house in London to which they moved briefly in the autumn. She also presented them with a bottle of champagne to celebrate the purchase of the Foxfield property.”
But the footnotes are not just about people. They are about restaurants, pubs, place and events. The following is a good example. In 1973, McGahern wrote a standard, formal letter to Matthew Evans, an editor at Faber, about a cheque to be paid to him by Atlantic Monthy Press. McGahern was concerned about tax liabilities. But at the end he wrote: “And I wish I could see the match tomorrow.”
The reader might wonder what match. Shovlin has written a detailed note. The match was a World Cup qualifier between England and Poland. It ended in a scoreless draw, which denied England a place in the finals. The villain of the game for England was the Polish goalkeeper Tomaszewski, labelled a “circus clown in gloves” by Brian Clough on television before the game but who was central to the Polish defence: England took thirty-six unsuccessful shots at goal.
The detailed footnotes form a book of their own, about the life and times of a young boy who from learning to read and imagine in the barracks in Cootehall, went on to become not just one of Ireland’s best writers but a significant player in the literary fields of Europe and America. While he became a cosmopolitan who enjoyed good company and the pleasures of life, his sense of self, his meaning and understanding of life, was rooted in rural Ireland. He wrote extensively about this in his novels, short stories and essays, but not in his letters.
Tom Inglis is professor emeritus of sociology in UCD. His most recent book was To Love a Dog: The Story of One Man, One Dog and a Lifetime of Love and Mystery.