John McGahern

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McGahern, John (Vol. 9)

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McGahern, John 1935–

McGahern is an Irish novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. Like Joyce, McGahern is exacting in his portraits of the Irish experience and his use of the language, and, like Joyce, his countrymen have both honored and banned his work. He is concerned with individual action in society, and he places his protagonists in conflict with their Irish backgrounds. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

There is such a strong family likeness between Joyce and John McGahern that it is almost too obvious to be worth remarking on. To wander from McGahern's new novel, The Leavetaking, into Portrait of the Artist, Exiles, and the first hundred or so pages of Ulysses is like listening to four movements of a single symphony. There are changes of pace and emphasis and key, but the theme, whatever variations are played upon it, remains essentially the same; and McGahern's and Joyce's prose styles bleed imperceptibly into one another like the voices of kissing-cousins. (p. 77)

McGahern's writing works in collusion with Joyce's, drawing strength from the echoes it evokes. It is not a case of imitation or pastiche so much as a bold statement of a common concern. At his best, McGahern writes so beautifully that he leaves one in no doubt of his equality with Joyce: the similarities between the two writers spring from a sense of tradition which is thoroughly and profoundly shared. And that is something which one is so unused to encountering in 20th-century literature that it is tempting to mistake what is really a glory for a shabby vice.

For the novel's formality, its assured seriousness, its air of ritual are dependent on this conviction that it is possible to share a history and a language. Every phrase gathers weight and darkness from the past on which it feeds so confidently. The heart of the book is the sequence in which the child watches his mother die of cancer and spies from a distance on her funeral. It is written with extraordinary purity and exactitude and it makes the desolation which it records at once fiercely unique to the child in the novel and universal. It would be barbarous to give a quotation from it, but it should be said that its rhythm is as stately as that of a requiem, its vocabulary has a dignified simplicity, yet it is always miraculously alert to the particular. A wren flitting among the branches of a laurel interweaves with the mourners and altar boys, bringing the general tragedy of everybody's dying into sudden unbearable sharp focus. McGahern has a genius—and that word does not overstate what he does—for mediating between the deep currents of feeling which belong to myth and history and the exact texture of the moment, seen so freshly that it comes off the page in a vivid cluster of sensations.

As long as The Leavetaking stays in Ireland, it reads like a masterpiece. Its landscapes, set in Leitrim and Dublin, build up powerfully, soaked in the grey drizzle of Catholicism and its priesthood. The young man and the boy he once was grow from this dank country mutinously and inevitably. When people talk, they do so in sentences as brief and formalised as versicles and responses. Every paragraph of McGahern's writing is able to draw on a deep reservoir of nuance.

But, quite unexpectedly, the novel suddenly goes adrift when it moves to London and the love affair with the American girl. One symptom of this is the new explanatory amplitude in the dialogue…. We have been...

(This entire section contains 5354 words.)

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suddenly ejected from that world where everything is known, and needs only to be hinted at to come alive, into a place, a country, a state of mind, where everything needs to be explained. And McGahern, so brilliant on the familiar, turns out to be surprisingly clumsy when it comes to dealing with strangers. He simply has very little gift for making people talk outside the phatic code of the family. And Ireland in his work is a vast extended family of dull relations who know too much about each other for their own comfort. England, a neutral territory, is a place of long creaking sentences and incomprehensible characters. The girl's father, who gets too much space to himself in the crucial middle of the book, is a ramshackle creation out of cultural science fiction, a bug-eyed monster. The girl herself is too beautiful, too tender, too evanescent to be real; a dream or a muse rather than a person.

On things—the feel of walking on a street or sitting in a room—McGahern's splendour is undiminished. But this leads to some very odd effects indeed. One watches a real cigarette and a real glass of beer in ghostly motion against a background of real furniture and a real floor. But the people who activate these objects are at best smeary, at worst transparent. It is as if out of Ireland they had ceased to exist except as shadows in suits of clothes.

Yet The Leavetaking asserts a quite opposite truth: that only by leaving can life begin. Its moral force is all directed towards exile; but its style stays stubbornly at home, refusing to budge from the landscape out of which it has grown. It asserts a salvation in the marriage between two separate refugees—a sacramental marriage which supplants all the hopeless pieties of Irish history…. But the wife is a ghost-bride. One feels at the end that the man's leavetaking is really just as solitary as Stephen Dedalus's was; that his wife is a phantom in his breast. In Joyce she was called Art; in McGahern she is said to be an American divorcée, but the language of his novel is too truthful to be fooled by such a thin disguise. Strangely, with honour, and often with immense power, The Leavetaking eventually turns itself inside-out. Like Joyce and Flann O'Brien, McGahern reveals that leave, however much it may be ached for, cannot be taken. (pp. 78-9)

Jonathan Raban, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), June, 1975.

McGahern's primary concerns are … social: he is interested in depicting the features of contemporary Irish life, both rural and urban, and in the novels he focuses on a conflict between one central character and the social environment….

The Barracks is set in a small village in the west of Ireland. At the center of the novel is the Reegan family: Elizabeth, her husband (no Christian name given), and three children—from Reegan's previous marriage. From the outset, McGahern suggests that the family's environment has an atmosphere of tension and drabness about it…. (p. 5)

Elizabeth Reegan is not a young woman; she is in her late thirties and fears that she may have cancer. She realizes that her marriage to the village police sergeant was based on an illusion: she believed that she could find love and happiness in the small world of the village, but she now questions her decision…. Her dream—or illusion—has been shattered. She is trapped in a family and a community where she can find no personal solace, no answers to the questions she is continually asking herself. As she concludes later, she is "shut in a world of mere functional bodies."… Elizabeth's preoccupation now is to try to understand the meaning of her place in the world. With her fine sensitivity she has divined that whether she has cancer or not, whether she dies or not, "nothing could ever change" …, the world will go on. She needs to understand, to find out what life is about.

These somewhat vague aspirations McGahern succeeds in making credible for Elizabeth. Through flashbacks we discover the complex nature of her past…. (pp. 6-7)

Not only by her dreams has McGahern set Elizabeth apart from the other characters in the novel. She is a deeply sensitive person, fully appreciative of the natural beauties around her, but she is unable to share her feelings with others. (p. 8)

To a large extent, however, McGahern has ordained that the bleakness of a sensitive woman's life will be emphasized by placing her in a withering environment. (p. 9)

Little relief is given from the emphasis on Elizabeth's alienation from this restricting community, a community in which the unusual is suspect and the commonplace exalted….

Irish society, Thomas Kilroy asserts, "is a very restricted and restricting society with little room to manoeuvre, no elaborate scales and … novelists are at their best when they are recording with accuracy these features of Irish society." His comment certainly applies to The Barracks. That drabness and pressure to conform within a village community is only part of the picture. McGahern is also concerned with national issues, and his opinions on Irish society in general emerge through his depiction of some of the characters….

Reegan is a somewhat enigmatic figure. He has been a country sergeant for many years and now at fifty sees no possibility of further promotions…. Reegan's hopes have not been fulfilled, and he complains about younger men being promoted ahead of him and talks about "this balls of a country."… McGahern does not make clear, however, whether Reegan's failures are due to character weakness or to some fault in Irish society as a whole. (p. 10)

McGahern is more successful, however, in deriding the bourgeois mentality of some of his minor characters. The mockery of the woman in the hospital who had risen into the middle classes is one example…. One feels that McGahern almost enjoys exposing the pretentiousness of the woman. (p. 11)

The conclusion of the novel contains no relief for the central character; the harshness of McGahern's vision is unrelieved. On one occasion, as Elizabeth enjoys the fragrance of roses, she reflects on her understanding of love:

Things had to be taken in small doses to be enjoyed, she knew; but how that means of measurement degraded and cheapened all passion for life and for truth, and though it had to go through human hell, a total love was the only way she had of approaching towards the frightful fulfillment of being resonant with her situation and this was her whole terror and longing….

Such total fulfillment has never been hers, and she knows it never will be: she cannot break out of the confines of her existence. Elizabeth is not being fatalistic, rather she is accepting what is inevitable for her. (pp. 11-12)

The vision of despair continues to the end; Elizabeth's death is followed by Reegan's final battle with Superintendent Quirke and his resignation from the force. No lifting of the gloom, no expression of hope for the future of the expoliceman and his family…. (p. 12)

In several respects John McGahern's second novel, The Dark, has a great deal in common with The Barracks. They have similarities in location, family grouping, and in the isolation of what Kilroy called the "suffering, sensitive figure at the center." The location is again the rural west of Ireland, an area of small farms and villages dominated by the "river" (the Shannon). The Mahoney family consists of a father and several children (three, one boy and two girls, are featured, another similarity with The Barracks). The wife is dead and rarely mentioned; the father is a small farmer—in these aspects The Dark could be regarded as a continuation of the first novel. More significant, however, is the fact that young Mahoney (we never know his first name) is, like Elizabeth Reegan, a character apart in temperament and in sensitivity from the other characters. The differences between the two novels lie principally in novelistic techniques, especially those presenting the central character.

We first meet young Mahoney in a brutal confrontation with his father. He is accused of saying "fuck" and is taken upstairs to be whipped before his sisters. The barbarity of the incident is unmistakable—the father is compared to an animal—and we are directed immediately to the cruelty and lack of affection in the household. Succeeding short chapters reinforce the initial impression: the Mahoney family is one without real affection or love. As a result, the growing boy keeps his innermost thoughts and hopes to himself. He is isolated within his own family.

Although Elizabeth Reegan and young Mahoney differ in many respects, they share a sensitivity to nature, a sharp intellect, an awareness that life is not simple, and most importantly a dream. Elizabeth's dreams of a life of love and happiness, first with Halliday and then with the village police sergeant, came to naught—and in the chilling reality of approaching death she tried to come to terms with the meaning of her life. Mahoney, too, has dreams, first of becoming a priest and then of acquiring a university scholarship. As with Elizabeth, the failure of the first dream leads indirectly to the growth of the second. The difference between the two is one of perspective: Elizabeth was looking back, remembering and reassessing the dreams she had had; a young boy must look forward and try to comprehend what life will mean for him. Although the difference in perspective leads to problems with the form of the novel, we should examine how McGahern presents the boy's first dream.

In Chapter Five we find young Mahoney looking at a Memoriam card for his mother and reflecting:

On the road as I came with her from town loaded with parcels and the smell of tar in the heat I'd promised her that one day I'd say Mass for her. And all I did for her now was listen to Mahoney's nagging and carry on private orgies of abuse.

I'd never be a priest. I was as well to be honest. I'd never be anything. It was certain.

There was little to do but sit at the fire and stare out at the vacancy of my life at sixteen.

The promise, the dream of saying Mass for his dead mother, is followed by an admission that he will never be anything. A temporary feeling of failure and frustration is understandable and in character for a sixteen-year-old boy, but McGahern, trying to emphasize again that pessimistic vision, goes further—the note of despair about the boy's future is an indication that McGahern has predetermined that he will fail. (pp. 12-14)

Although young Mahoney occasionally feels attracted to the priesthood because he desires the special powers conferred on a priest,… he sees it as fulfilling a more basic psychological need…. Like Elizabeth Reegan, he is concerned with establishing a meaning to life before he leaves it—but on another level … he is searching for security, something which he feels does not exist in the secular world and which he has certainly not found in his own family.

The culmination of the first part of the novel comes when the boy visits a clerical cousin, Father Gerald, for the purpose of deciding whether he will become a priest or not. (pp. 14-15)

The scenes at the priest's house are among the best in the novel. McGahern effectively reinforces the atmosphere of tension between the two people by setting the scenes during a period of unusually hot, sultry weather. He also, here more than elsewhere, enriches the prose with symbols and patterns of imagery. Young Mahoney sees the priest's house as full of an "utter sense of decrepitude and dust" …; the bookcases are full of tomes—only one book, Tolstoy's Resurrection, has "more green leaves and living light of day about it than the dust and memory of the others."… The garden around the house is a "green prison" …; life, in the shape of vans, cars, people talking, goes past outside—but within the house and garden all was quiet: "here was only interest of the graves."… In the descriptions of the church and garden mention is frequently made of the "cactus" and the "bellrope dangling before the church door." "Bellrope" recalls that moment in Chapter Four of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when the priest twisted a blindcord around his finger as he discussed the priesthood with Stephen. McGahern, like Joyce, appears to associate the priesthood with the strangulation of life. "Cactus" initially appears to be incidental, but Mahoney wonders if it has "religious significance" and concludes that "to look at the yellow cactus long enough was to come to silence and fear."… It is associated in the boy's mind with the aridity of the priestly life and, with the "artificial roses and lilies" …, becomes identified with death. As though in affirmation of his decision not to become a priest, young Mahoney turns away from these symbols of death towards the "red rose of life" and the "tree of life."… Although the use of somewhat conventional symbols would support the view that McGahern is not innovative, he nevertheless employs the symbols effectively: the texture of the prose is enriched and so, too, is our understanding of the complex mental torments in the mind of the protagonist.

The Dark, however, is not without its technical faults. Principally, these center on the inappropriateness of the confessional form for McGahern's pessimistic vision. The absence of flashbacks, made necessary because of the youth and inexperience of the protagonist,… [reduces] the effectiveness of the presentation…. Furthermore, McGahern places the boy in a hostile but unreal environment…. One often feels that McGahern is determined to force his bleak world on the reader—the scene must be gloomy, the minor characters must be frustrated, and come what may, young Mahoney must live out a life of despair. In addition, McGahern seems unsure of the confessional form; he varies his narration, for example, from first to second to third person. Presumably, he wishes to make the reader more intimate with the deepest thoughts of the protagonist, but such variation in narration is not successful.

In the second part of the novel the boy is involved in working for a university scholarship…. Although the dream is based on an illusion, McGahern does not allow his character to experience any joy at the thought to taking up a successful career. The university "dream" is thought of rarely and then only in vague idealistic terms. Emphasis is placed on the drudgery of cramming, the uselessness of most of the subjects, and the boy's continuing gloomy introspection about the future. Mahoney feels trapped—feels that he is a prisoner in a hideous system.

The final chapters, dealing with the aftermath of the exams, the award of the scholarship, and the rejection of the university, are complex but not altogether satisfactory…. The authorial uncertainty in these final chapters is all too evident. (pp. 15-17)

One searches in vain for a … reasonable explanation of why [Mahoney] fails to come to terms with university life. Remembering Elizabeth Reegan's understanding of her loneliness and alienation, we expect the boy to try to articulate some understanding of how the local community has moulded him in a certain way…. The relative poverty of the Mahoney family could obviously be linked to the boy's mental torment over his decision to leave the university, but such social points are not considered by McGahern. Since the emphasis remains firmly on the gloom and futility, the presentation of young Mahoney's character in the second half of the book is narrow and incomplete.

In focusing his attention on the protagonist, McGahern has neglected the presentation of that rich environment from which Mahoney comes. It was successfully presented in The Barracks and is so again in The Leavetaking; similarly, the wider implications of the darkness in Irish society is examined in these two novels but not in The Dark. Our view of "the lonely frustrated figures" who make up the other characters is limited; we see little of their personal opinions…. The novel presents no awareness of local and national mediocrity, so pervasive in the earlier novel and so appropriate a context for the sufferings and mental anguish of its protagonist.

The Dark has many good things in it: the enriching of the prose with symbols and the exploration of Mahoney's rejection of the priesthood. But much of it is unsatisfactory: the poise of the earlier book is missing; the assurance with which Elizabeth Reegan was presented is not carried over to The Dark; the problems with the confessional form are never overcome; the presentation of the minor characters is incomplete; and in the second part of the book McGahern has allowed his pessimistic vision to distort his presentation of the central character. (pp. 18-19)

The central character [of The Leavetaking], Patrick Moran, has many of the qualities already associated with McGahern's major protagonists. He is from the west of Ireland, the product of a small village; his father is a callous police sergeant, his mother a refined, sensitive individual (she dies of cancer while the boy is young); his many sisters are mostly unnamed. Patrick is sensitive and imaginative, has a feeling for the beauties of nature, and is opposed to the restricting parochialism of Irish society. Patrick's conflict with the society is important for the plot—although the plot is not of great significance. Because he gets married in a registry office, he loses his job teaching in a Dublin school: the Catholic hierarchy will not accept anyone who deviates from its strict ethical principles. McGahern's antipathy for this bourgeois Catholic society is again in evidence, and through his first-person narrator he handles the portrayal of the society with skill and subtlety [in the words of Peter Straub]: "The Leavetaking's most convincing moments have to do with the protagonist's awareness of Irish aridity and confinement."

The "awareness" is evident at the very beginning of the novel. The opening scenes are set in a Dublin primary school, and from the narrator we begin to visualize the society from which he is about to take leave…. McGahern's "precision of observation" is nowhere more in evidence than in these opening pages. Details of characters and scene contribute to a picture of that constricting society which is convincing, not exaggerated nor distorted.

Patrick's victory in the final scenes of the novel also involves McGahern in criticizing the society but with a maturity in the presentation. McGahern does not resort to frustrated, unrepresentative figures as he did in The Dark. The headmaster and the parish priest—both involved in Patrick's dismissal—are amiable men; they are not perverted or even vicious, but simply people upholding a system they are unwilling or unable to change. Nor does McGahern place his central character in a position where he has to resort to feeble excuses or blame Fate in order to justify his actions. Patrick's actions spring directly from his personality—he makes no bitter outbursts against the absurdity of the decision to dismiss him…. The absence of strident criticism reinforces the impression that such a society is beyond salvation. Like Stephen Dedalus, Patrick's solution is to escape.

The theme of The Leavetaking is again concerned with dreams. The incident in Patrick's childhood which stands out in his memory is the promise to his mother to be a priest—the same promise that young Mahoney made to his dying mother. The dream was his mother's, never Patrick's, and when he cannot live up to his promise he turns to teaching: "out of guilt I chose second best. I followed her footsteps to the Training College."… The dream of a pleasant life in the country, happily married to a girl who conforms to his mother's image, is then contemplated and rejected. The girl did not love him. After a period of futility, a period in which sex but not love is important to him, he comes eventually to discover a new dream: "If I was lucky I'd find someone I liked as well as loved, the dream of a friend and a beloved in one, a person as well as a body."… He attains his dream through a relationship with an American girl, Isobel, dealt with in the second part of the book. It is the first occasion in a McGahern novel that a personal dream has been realized.

Throughout The Leavetaking one is constantly aware of the importance of time. The novel opens and closes on the same day, the day of Patrick's dismissal. In the body of the novel are the memories, the recollections of the past, the telling of events that have led to this day. The novel ebbs and flows in time, from the recounting of events that happened two generations ago down to the mundane affairs in the present-day classroom. (pp. 19-21)

John McGahern is concerned not just with the passing of time but with the influence of time on the memory and the imagination. He presents his schoolteacher as a man coming to terms for the last time with his past life and all the social forces which have made him what he is. The re-creation of the past involves imagination as well as memory:

My mother's dream for my life, the way that life happened down to the schoolroom of this day, my memory of it and the memory of her dream, and so the tide is full and turns out to her life; and what a coffin this schoolroom would be without the long withdrawing tide of memory becoming imagination….

The lyrical rhythms of the prose with the balanced sentences and the long drawn-out sounds reinforce a nostalgic tone. The concern for memory and how it can lead to an imaginative re-creation of the past are uppermost in the character's mind…. The fascination which Patrick displays for the power of memory and imagination is of more than passing interest. One is made aware of the character's past life and of his desire to understand it before he leaves it.

John McGahern discussed some years ago the importance of images in reaching an understanding of what our lives mean. He saw our lives taken up with the search after "the one image … the lost image that gave our lives expression, the image that would completely express it again in this bewilderment between our beginning and end." Images are of great significance in The Leavetaking, working at different levels in the novel; for example, certain episodes in Patrick's memory can be regarded as "images." His early conversation with his mother about becoming a priest has traditional images of mother caring for child…. Such symbolic associations give these episodes a representative quality; McGahern is underlining the universal implications of Patrick's experiences.

Of course, the more conventional images work through the language and need to be explored in some detail. The opening paragraph of the novel begins: "I watch a gull's shadow float among feet on the concrete as I walk in a day of my life with a bell, its brass tongue in my hand and think after all that the first constant was water."… The "shadows" and "gulls" figure prominently in Patrick's mind in the opening sections of the novel. The gulls are, first, associated with escape—Patrick's escape from this restricting community; for Stephen Dedalus, too, birds symbolized flight from Ireland. They undoubtedly also remind Patrick of Howth where his love awaits him in rooms overlooking the sea. The gulls swooping down for scraps of food have been seen as "greedy shadows in turmoil, an Irish nation in miniature." The image of "shadow" is more complex. Although they are here seen "floating," elsewhere they are "calmly crossing" …; later they are "thinning and drifting over the trees."… The movement of the shadows has an intoxicating effect; they provide a contrast to the squawking and shrieking of the gulls and the noise of the boys in the school playground. As the shadows drift across the playground, Patrick "drifts away from the classroom" … into his reveries, and gradually the shadows take on a deeper significance. The young boy found himself more in sympathy with his mother, "away from the cold shadow my father cast" … an early memory which he recalls. The "shadow" from his mother soon became cold, too, after the first leavetaking:

A shadow was to fall forever on the self of my life from the morning of that room, shape it as the salt and wind shape the trees the tea lord had planted as shelter against the sea, for in the evenings they do not sway as other trees in the cooling wind, but stay stubbornly bent away from their scourge the sea, their high branches stripped of bark and whitened, and in the full leaf of summer they still wear that plumage of bones….

The shadow is now associated with death and with the sense of guilt which shapes Patrick's life as relentlessly as the salt and wind shape the trees. At the end of Part One he reflects that by this evening his life "would have made its last break with the shadow and would be free to grow without warp in its own light."… The religious undertones in these passages are unmistakable; one notes immediately that the rhythms in the language with the carefully balanced clauses are reminiscent of the Psalms. The references to "bones," to trees resisting the wind, and to life growing "in its own light" have Biblical connotations. Patrick sees himself as living in "the shadow of death" from which he will emerge after this last day at school. (pp. 22-4)

A liveliness and lightness about the prose in Part Two contrasts with the wistful tones of Part One, appropriate for the protagonist's change of fortune. On the night of his dismissal Patrick can state with assurance: "The gulls' shadows will not float this evening on the concrete. The sky has filled. I can see it is already raining out on the bay."… The shadows have dispersed; Patrick and Isobel are ready for their flight.

The use of "bay" and "raining" calls our attention to another reference in the opening paragraph—"the first constant was water." The image of water is one which gathers accretions of meaning as the novel develops. When Patrick's mother confirmed his suspicions that Santa Claus did not exist,

It was the first break in the sea of faith that had encircled me, for what if God were but the same deception. I shuddered as if I already felt that the journey would be dark and inland through sex and death, the sea continually withdrawing….

The constant "sea of faith" has been broken. Patrick foresees that he will have to set out on a journey, a journey of darkness towards death. We can also note that "sex" is associated with death, but "love" with light…. In the closing scene of the novel Patrick sees himself as setting out on a new sea:

The boat has slipped its moorings and is leaving harbour to trust to the open sea: and no boat needs so much trust to put to sea as it does for one body to go human and naked and vulnerable into the arms of another….

                                          (p. 25)

McGahern has … succeeded with the form of [The Leavetaking]. As in The Barracks his use of flashbacks for the revelation of the past of the central character is appropriate for the explication of the central theme: that a man can successfully resolve to cut the ties of family, country, and heritage—and set his life on a new course.

Some critics have noted similarities between John McGahern and James Joyce…. McGahern's vision, however, has not always encompassed the possibility of happiness outside Ireland. Elizabeth Reegan had lived in London, and young Mahoney knew that for a "fiver" any fool could go to England—their lives were no happier for such experience or knowledge. The malaise in Irish society of the first two novels is intimately linked to McGahern's deep and almost bitter pessimism—he will not countenance any escape for his protagonists. A lifting of the gloom, however, has occurred in the latest novel. McGahern, like Joyce, may continue to look to his native land or, like his character Patrick Moran, seek for inspiration elsewhere. (p. 26)

F. C. Molloy, "The Novels of John McGahern," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1977), Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1977, pp. 5-27.


McGahern, John (Vol. 5)