John McGahern: ‘one of the greatest prose writers of the twentieth century’

When John McGahern passed away in March 2006 his body of published work comprised six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, two volumes of collected stories and one play (an adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness). He had also scripted a small number of radio and television adaptations. Reviews and other prose essays were brought together in an edited collection after his death.

Given that his writing career spanned five decades, McGahern’s output was not prolific. The relatively low volume of work can be explained by his creative imperative: he once said that “rather than write novels or stories I write to see”. This perception of writing as an act of seeing, of discovery or self-discovery, did not lend itself to a steady flow of finished work – or work that he was satisfied with. McGahern also continuously refined and edited his work, believing that it was the writer’s primary duty to write well.

Having found a publisher for his first novel, he made the unusual and courageous decision to withdraw it: dissatisfied with the work, he offered The Barracks in its place. He later rewrote the second half of his third novel, The Leavetaking, and republished it 10 years after it first appeared. This lack of complacency about his writing was characteristic of McGahern for whom complacency was the writer’s enemy.

What McGahern wanted “to see”, the quest for clarity, could only be achieved through painstaking attention to detail. He shared with Henry James the belief that “responsible lucidity can be wrested from [the darkness] only by painful, vigilant effort, the intense scrutiny of particulars”. And what he sought to apprehend – and gloriously succeeded with such lucidity – was how the individual might best negotiate her or his place in the world. The forward momentum of McGahern’s life’s work was driven by this need.

In The Barracks this negotiation is realised through the consciousness of a dying woman for whom any attempt to invest her death with meaning yields to a recognition that “what is happening is enough in itself”. This debut novel revealed McGahern’s preoccupation with the innate dignity and value of human life in its actual living, rather than in any transcendent meaning. In his often overlooked novel, The Pornographer, the bereft eponymous hero expresses the brief hope:

“That all had a purpose, that it had to have, the people coming and going, the ships tied up along the North Wall, the changing delicate lights and ripples of the river, the cranes and building, lights of shops, and the sky through a blue haze of smoke and frost. And then it slipped way, and I found myself walking with a light and eager step to nowhere among others, in a meaningless haze of goodwill and general benediction and shuffle, everything fragmented again.” This fleeting grasp at meaning, framed – as such moments often are in McGahern’s work – by an aesthetic response to the environment, leaves no residual sense of loss. Instead, there is acceptance of the ways things are, and a palpable sense of relief that the burden of seeking a higher purpose to life is lifted.

Notoriously reticent when discussing his novels and stories, John McGahern likewise refused to yield to any interrogation that sought to ascribe particular significance or meaning to his work or to offer the reader any guide to how it might be interpreted. Nor did he like to claim too much authority for his own work, suggesting that a book is “a coffin of words” until opened by the reader.

While loved by readers, he is often referred to as a “writer’s writer”, in the way that a craft is sometimes best appreciated by those who recognise the graft behind it – the constant stretching toward the elusive image, the struggle to get the “words right”.

When he wrote Amongst Women, published 11 years after The Pornographer, many readers and reviewers believed he had found the perfect words. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and for many it remains his finest work. Now that we can assess his work in its entirety, it becomes clear that the work that followed Amongst Women had to look beyond the self, turning away from the “pool of narcissis”, toward a connection with the wider world.

The novel’s tightly controlled prose, in a clear alliance of form and content, is reflective of Moran’s desire to contain himself and his family, itself a microcosm of Irish society. But Michael Moran’s hermetically sealed environment is a rejection of the world that previous McGahern characters had struggled so hard to come to terms with, and with which an accommodation must be reached. Moran had refused any form of negotiation.

Turning outwards, McGahern’s last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, and a number of late short stories continue his scrutiny of the individual’s relationship to one’s environment, but the focus shifts from the private to the public, or common, realm. As the yearning for self-knowledge through others – through the broader community of mankind – is explored, McGahern’s awareness of the need for responsible lucidity is not compromised. The writer never becomes complacent.

Each of the later works contains its warnings: about the consequences of narcissism; about the absence of shared understanding; about trading achievement for feeling. They also propose that when we leave the past behind we should bring its insights with us. But wanting to live, in McGahern’s world, demands reflection on how to live.

The quiet power of McGahern’s prose should not be underestimated. This became even clearer to me when working on a collaborative project to dramatise two of his short stories for performance. As the script writer, concerned too with finding the “right” words, I did not fully grasp the audacity of the undertaking until the first dramatisation was completed. Great care had been taken, but was it enough?

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