John McGahern’s Memoir: Eloquent Rage

A memoir from McGahern was a surprise to me when it first came out. I didn’t expect it from him. He had told the stories of his father and mother in other forms, and his writing is so close to a kind of creative sociology of Leitrim that I thought he had covered the ground.

A memoir from McGahern was a surprise to me when it first came out. I didn’t expect it from him. He had told the stories of his father and mother in other forms, and his writing is so close to a kind of creative sociology of Leitrim that I thought he had covered the ground.

What could he add to the already magnificent collection of books focusing on all those things that broke his heart in his childhood?

Was it that he didn’t understand his father, even in old age, and sought to make one final attempt to place him? Was the wound still there, and did he want to take a final swipe at the old fellow?

These were questions I had when the book first came out, and to be truthful I didn’t warm to it at the time. I read it too fast, and thought his persistent attention to the father was almost tiresome. But last month I was in hospital and took the book with me and read it again. As I lay back on my bed, concerned about my own health, I could hear more clearly the voice of someone making a final statement about his life.

I sensed that even though he says he didn’t understand his father, he tries with powerful truthfulness to describe him, and in a way reveals him deeper than ever, and with unsentimental compassion. The brutish man watching his own image in the mirror as he eats his breakfast, or sucking jaffa oranges on a bench to mark his excitement on the day his fiancé finally accepted his proposal of marriage, all leave one with a sense of a terribly damaged human being, but a human nonetheless.

McGahern is a writer whose life makes me grateful; not just grateful that I read him, but that he was a writer in our time, for our time, working and living in Leitrim.

I didn’t know him well, and only met him a few times but I cannot walk the roads of Leitrim without thinking of him. I cannot pass the bridge in Leitrim Village, or the crossroads at Drumboylan without seeing his boyish shape in the shade of some tree.

Each writer lives in a private universe. And each writer takes on the revelation of that universe in their own lifetime, and McGahern has done this in fiction, revealing a complete idea of the world’s beauty and sorrow in meticulously phrased remembrance and story.

But at the end of his life he may have felt that the fiction didn’t quite finish the work of revelation. That’s not surprising because some of the world’s greatest literature has been written as memoir rather than fiction. And a good conversation always arises out of the question - what is fiction anyway?

McGahern does for Leitrim’s sad fields what O’ Flatherty did for animals. He imbues the landscape with a stillness that is almost sacramental. The lane up the road, and the white thorn bush, the wild flower in the field, and the sound of a spade hitting a rock, all graph out a presence in things that resonates for the reader with the barely audible music of transcendence.

But McGahern stops short. He’s not a 19th century writer. His point is always that the unexplainable exhilaration that he found in the company of his mother, or the lyrical embrace of nature, or any other moment of human joy and awareness are always attended by the pain of knowing that the moment will pass.

But it’s not the philosophy or sociology or indeed the psychological analysis of family life that makes McGahern a great writer. It is his prose, his style, and the elegance of his mind made into words.

And I think he must have written this last book with a powerful sense of his own impending death, and a desire to make a final eloquent statement about the matter. Those who are dying, he says are marked out by the rest of us, because they threaten our illusion of endless continuity.

“The world of the dying is different. When well they may have sometimes wondered in momentary fear or idle apprehension what this Time would bring, the shape it would take, whether by age or accident, stroke or cancer, the list is long. Then that blinding fear could be dismissed as idle introspection, an impairment to the constant alertness needed to answer all the demands of the day. Inevitably, the dreaded and discarded time arrives and has it’s own shape; suddenly, the waitress pouring coffee at tables, the builder laying blocks, a girl opening a window, the men collecting refuse, belong to a world that went mostly unregarded when it was ours but now becomes a place of unobtainable happiness, in even the meanest of forms.”

It’s the shape of the sentences that makes McGahern great. The words and their defiant eloquence that was his fitting way to rage against untimely death.

Michael Harding was born in Cavan in 1953. He is a playwright, newspaper columnist and fiction writer and his work has been performed in Dublin, Cork, Edinburgh, New York and Chicago. He is a past recipient of the Stewart Parker Theatre Bursary and the Bank of Ireland/RTÉ Award for excellence in the Arts (both 1990), and was writer-in-association with The Abbey Theatre in 1993. His play ‘The Tinker’s Curse’ was nominated in the Best New Play category at the Irish Times Theatre Awards in 2007. As an actor Harding took the award for Best Male Performer at the 2003 Dublin Fringe Festival. He has published several novels: ‘Priests’ (Blackstaff Press, 1986), ‘The Trouble With Sarah Gullion’ (Blackstaff Press, 1988), and ‘Bird in the Snow’ (Liliput Press, 2008). Michael Harding is a member of Aosdána.