John McGahern McGahern, John (Vol. 5) - Essay

McGahern, John (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McGahern, John 1935–

McGahern is an Irish novelist in the Celtic literary tradition. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)

"What a coffin this schoolroom would be without the long withdrawing tide of memory becoming imagination," reflects Patrick [in "The Leavetaking"], an Irish schoolmaster on the day he is fired for having married a divorced woman. This insistence on death in the face of love is a constant of Patrick's personality. Perhaps it is traceable to the deathbed of his young mother, from which he was torn by an insensitive father. Or perhaps this perception of mortality is a Celtic literary tradition going back to Joyce's "Dubliners," which includes a memorable celebration of the funeral. In any event, Patrick thinks of life as a collection of "small deaths," and he is obsessed with the big sleep even in the act of love. His somber memories are a lowering backdrop for his attempts to free himself from an unhappy past.

John McGahern paints an almost Victorian family portrait of heavy father, submissive mother, and the cruelties they inflict on each other. The author has a lyrical touch that translates his hero's hard times into some dark imagery that lingers long after you have closed the book. (p. 10)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 2, 1975.

I doubt there is another practicing writer of fiction in English as good as John McGahern who is so little noticed in this country. You would have to poke around, even among those who read books for a living, to find the few who have read him. I infer this in part because the jacket of his fourth book ["The Leavetaking"] carries four excerpts from American reviews, one of them revised to make it exquisitely ungrammatical, but all once written by me. An embarrassment for all of us, surely, yet the Irish know him: they awarded his first novel, "The Barracks," their highest prize and then banned the publication of his second, "The Dark." Censors, more than most of us, believe in the efficacy of literature and take steps accordingly. The English know him, too: the Times Literary Supplement has put McGahern "among the half dozen practicing writers of English prose most worthy of our attention."

Perhaps this new story, lighter and more optimistic than its predecessors, will fare better here. It is romantic, a love story, unfashionable in its concern for dignity and courage. An Irish schoolteacher and an American divorcee—his background is poor and mean, hers rich and mean—find, after many wrong loves, a right love, an ecstatic pleasure in living. After a period of concealing their delight in each other and their marriage from those who have an economic hold on them (her father is possessive, his school will dismiss him for marrying a "married" woman), they elect to cut free their moorings and embark on their own course. (pp. 90-1)

In summary it is the stuff of soap opera. McGahern was never an innovator. What makes the story significant, even compelling, is the design that he has imposed upon it, the precision of his observation, and his care for the language of Joyce and Yeats. McGahern means us to read slowly, to hear the sounds, feel the weight of his words. The story begins with the teacher brooding on his imminent dismissal. Moving through the school day's routine he remembers the loss of his mother, whom he greatly loved, and that involuntary, life-denying loss is set against a voluntary, life-affirming decision to lose his job. For the loss of love (I suspect this is the story's undeclared message) cannot often be repeated before it becomes the loss of life. McGahern's novel, then, is about the conscious decision to recover life, and it is done very elegantly indeed. (pp. 91-2)

Peter S. Prescott, "Super-Soap," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1975, pp. 90-2.

McGahern's exquisitely written book [The Leavetaking] reminds us that the brutality and despair of much modern fiction is not the whole or the only story. Sex is not necessarily an existential booby-trap, and some of the promises life holds out may even, once in a while, be realized….

A writer must convince his readers that he has truly earned the right to speak, as McGahern does at the end, in the accents of exaltation; that he has reason for proclaiming, in D. H. Lawrence's words: "Look, we have come through!" The Leavetaking compels our assent—as brilliant literary art alone can do, and as soap opera cannot. McGahern's imagery, for all its haunting melancholy, is flawlessly precise. Like Nadine Gordimer, he can fuse past and present in a dazzling stillness of thickly layered time.

But this burnished eloquence derives its weight from the bitter fidelity that stamps McGahern's rendering of Ireland. It is a country as holy and narrow, as intransigent and seductive, as the Ireland that drove Stephen Dedalus to arm himself with silence, exile and cunning…. The choice made by McGahern's lovers seems insignificantly private set beside Joyce's Promethean defiance in the cause of art. Still, the taproots, deep in Ireland's incorrigibly tragic experience, are the same, and so is the luminous purity of the novelists' courage. (p. 18)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), March 31, 1975.