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Review: Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist by Denis Sampson

The intensely internalised focus in John McGahern's novels and short stories, set against the spare, precise beauty of his poetic prose, lead inevitably to the critical conclusions which have been made about him.

His insistent secular spirituality engaged critics throughout his writing career, almost to the exclusion of anything else. It created a kind of literary theism around him. Except that theism is by definition clubbable; and McGahern was anything but. From the earliest years of his resolve to embrace a literary career, he found himself recoiling almost in horror each time he ventured into what most people imagined he should have found to be convivial company (artistically, rather than socially speaking).

But each time he sat at the feet of the gods, he saw the clay and walked away in disgust. John McGahern was perhaps the loneliest artist of his generation. Critics and readers alike have recognised this and sympathised with the loneliness, perceiving it as a kind of personal victimhood. They did not -- and still do not -- recognise it as a free choice dictated by fierce intellectual rigour: an isolation of growing anger and disgust at the shoddy and the hypocritical.

Criticism of McGahern's work has striven to categorise him, thereby putting him safely in some kind of acceptable "dissident canon". There seems to be an unwillingness to look at the progressive criticism which McGahern himself indulged in, as he saw the flaws in his contemporaries and dismissed them for what he saw as their betrayals of the purity of literature until he isolated himself on a moral high ground, unbending and unyielding. This rage was, and remains difficult to comprehend against the texture of his work with its intense concentration on the interior life.

He repeatedly mines the dominant theme of his life: the woman turning to a supportive god in death, watched by the boy child who already dimly perceives the emptiness beyond and who must then turn from the deathbed and find a spirit that will endure fiercely in this life, but needs no sustenance beyond the grave. This repetitive theme has frequently blinded critics to what motivated McGahern.

While acknowledging his early "conversion" to atheism, they read him in the terminology of "spirituality". Indeed, he frequently used the term himself, a silent acknowledgement of the manner in which language is limited by cultural mores. We have no term in English to define the unknowable, mystic combination of heart and intellect other than a word synonymous in western culture with Christianity.

And in those terms, McGahern's literary god was one of wrath: where writing was concerned, he never forgave betrayal. He was judgmental, ungenerous, and fierce.

And this is the quality which Denis Sampson, in his otherwise informative, well-researched, and almost exhaustive study of McGahern's literary and personal influences in the decade between leaving Cootehall and publishing The Barracks never quite comes to terms with. He studies the young McGahern in the years at St Patrick's Teacher Training College in Drumcondra, where the authoritarian anti-intellectual ethos completed the student's journey away from his mother's simple but intense religious faith.

Then and in the years immediately following, he completed his alienation: increasingly an unbeliever in the supposedly benign Christian god during the years of what can justifiably be called his martyrdom at the hands of his brutal "good Catholic" father, McGahern, until then almost a reluctant agnostic, allowed reason to take over his life and came to deny the existence of a god or an after life. As a result, grace and good taste came to inhabit an even more important place in his life. This was all there was, and we could not afford to wait for fulfilment and/or ecstasy. The beauty of the word was all there was, and it increasingly became a credo with the young McGahern, repeated in various ways in his letters and as he became established, in interviews, that we betrayed all we had of eternity if we betrayed rigour and excellence in art: they alone were the morality that could guide us.

During his years as a primary teacher in Clontarf (where Sampson has the honesty to mention the memories of some pupils of the late Fifties that McGahern was often a bad-tempered and physically violent teacher) and his excited discovery that he was, in fact, not alone: not, as the mother in his story The Leavetaking, in "a secret society of one". McGahern's already well-developed rigour allowed him to accept the rituals of religion placidly while absolutely rejecting its tenets and core beliefs (the exact opposite of the Irish literary intelligentsia of the time, who were anti-clerical, but meekly married, baptised their children, and died in the arms of Mother Church). McGahern on the other hand, suddenly found himself at one with the "follow-on" tenets of intellectual freedom: the rejection of cultural nationalism being a prime factor as exemplified by Beckett, who was to become, along with Joyce, one of his prime influences, (as was Yeats, despite the poet's all-embracing nationalism).

But the "knowledge of reality" made life difficult, and would continue to do so, increasingly in terms of social, intellectual, and above all, moral isolation (the influence of Eliot is not often acknowledged, but it was he who wrote that "humankind cannot bear very much reality" (as Sampson notes) just as he also wrote that all art is derivative, influenced in one way or another by what has gone before. For McGahern, the Holy Grail was an isolation of morality which he achieved, paradoxically, in works that mined the mundane: country life, loss, survival, death, rejection, all crucibles in which to find the moral spirit. In this, Sampson notes, he was greatly influenced from an early stage by Stanislaus Joyce's My Brother's Keeper published in 1958, as McGahern was already gestating The Barracks. In it, Joyce wrote that "when the Irish artist begins to write he has to create his moral world from chaos, by himself, for himself ... it proves to be an enormous advantage for men of original genius, such as Shaw, Yeats, or my brother". Or, as we now know, for John McGahern, who having read it, practised it. Or as he said shortly before his death concerning Proust's essay on Chateaubriand: "While he is saying that he will have no second life, that is the one moment when he does have an immortal life." That, McGahern said, was "what we read Chateaubriand for".

It is also what we read McGahern for: that sensibility which has moved beyond the concerns of "Irish writing" and which caused him to reject, or perhaps more kindly to grow away from, so many early literary friendships such as those with Micheal McLaverty and Mary Lavin as he discovered the limitations born of their Catholic "simplicities" and green nationalism.

Sampson notes all of these in this absorbing compendium. But for some reason, while drawing numerous conclusions throughout, he never makes the quantum leap to acknowledge the Jove-like quality of McGahern's unyielding moral rage.

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