Wednesday 18 September 2019

John McGahern: Authority and Vision - Impressive tribute to the 'first laureate of Leitrim'

Essays: John McGahern: Authority and Vision

Edited by Zeljka Doljanin and Maire Doyle.

Manchester University Press, €24.00

Acclaimed writer John McGahern at a graveyard near Mohill, Co Leitrim. Photo: Tony Gavin
Acclaimed writer John McGahern at a graveyard near Mohill, Co Leitrim. Photo: Tony Gavin
John McGahern: Authority and Vision

Deirdre Raftery

This is an exceptional volume of essays in many ways. That the editors, Zeljka Doljanin and Maire Doyle, managed to bring together the work of some of the finest contemporary writers is impressive.

The book contains chapters by writers Paula Meehan and Frank McGuinness, historian Roy Foster, sociologist Tom Inglis, journalist Melvyn Bragg and several literary critics and academics, including Declan Kiberd and Catriona Clutterbuck.

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While McGahern had a relatively small literary output, the contributors unpack many of his themes, including politics, culture, education, love, marriage, sex, death and redemption.

The book also adds immeasurably to our understanding of John McGahern the man.

While some of the essays show how he was revealed through his writing, there are two pieces that are more directly revelatory.

One is an account by Melvyn Bragg of a television interview that he did with McGahern in 1966. The other is the script of an interview with McGahern, undertaken by Stanley van der Ziel in 2004.

Bragg described McGahern as "far and away the most confident young writer I… have ever met". McGahern "carried his own church with him wherever he went", Bragg writes.

"It all went back to [his] primary intention to be a priest… he was still dyed in the spiritual mystery of things."

Even McGahern's speech had "an incantatory tone… like a chant".

Bragg confesses some autobiographical similarities with McGahern, as he too was "snared by the Church young and served at the altar". And Bragg, like McGahern, was "unusually close" to his mother.

Only very occasionally, on relaxed evenings in the pub, did he see McGahern "cast aside the cassock".

Bragg's essay, despite its brevity, is an intimate account. It points to the personal elements of McGahern's life that shaped him as a writer: his relationship with his mother, the Catholic Church, County Leitrim.

Stanley van der Zeil's interview with McGahern steers away from the intimate and personal, and explores literary influences and authorial style.

Proust, Beckett and Kavanagh are discussed, and McGahern praises John Williams, author of Stoner, as "a wonderful writer". McGahern is amusing in his reflections on translations of his own work, and the problems that his intricate syntax create.

His French translator told McGahern that it cost her money to have his work translated, because it took "three times longer to translate than any other novelist".

Throughout the interview, McGahern is honest about his shortcomings, including his initial inability to write for television. He is frank in his discussion of Kate O'Brien, who was initially dismissed as "just a woman's magazine writer". When McGahern finally read her work, he recognised "how good she was".

Although this interview appears at the end of the volume, in many ways it benefits enjoyment of the other essays to read it first. It attunes the reader to McGahern's thoughts: he is honest, careful, generous in praising those who deserve praise, unflinching in his criticism of himself. How his literary output gave expression to his thoughts is deftly explored in the other essays.

Tom Inglis argues that McGahern's work helps to interpret the Ireland in which McGahern lived. It especially helps to expose the way in which the Catholic Church dominated "the State, the market and the media", and "colonised homes, schools, communities, organisations and civil society generally".

Kevin Williams, focusing on the educational vision of John McGahern, writes that some of McGahern's work offers a "finely textured insight into the nature of the activities of learning and teaching".

McGahern reminds us that education "takes place in multiple contexts", and shapes our identities. From an early stage, he had been taught about nature by his mother, as they walked along the lanes to school. As a boy, he learned to relish manual work, farming, hunting and fishing. Schooling was "bookish" and rigid, and there was the "persistent threat of corporal punishment". However, by the end of primary school, McGahern's new-found love of reading had opened worlds to him, and "he was happy to swap turf cutting for study".

"Leitrim had no laureate before McGahern", Nicholas Allen reminds us. When McGahern took up his pen, it was to show how an "intimate attachment to a particular place and the social codes of the surrounding community can generate conflict and claustrophobia".

As many of the very fine essays in this volume demonstrate, John McGahern wrought his refined and precise prose from his observation of social codes, conflict and claustrophobia.

He was, as Nicholas Allen concludes, "a master draftsman of the taut lines that join character, setting and the reader in his stories".

This edited volume of essays pays tribute to McGahern while deeply enriching our understanding of the man, the writer and the work.

Professor Deirdre Raftery, UCD

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