John McGahern 1934-2006
Irish novelist, short story writer, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of McGahern's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 9, and 48.
A controversial and provocative Irish literary figure, McGahern writes traditionally structured fiction in which he challenges many of his homeland's conventional social, sexual, and religious values. Focusing on protagonists for whom life in modern Ireland has become restrictive and repressive, McGahern examines such themes as the failure of love, the erosion of marital compatibility, the difficulty of maintaining hope, and the burden of Irish parochialism and religious conservatism. Often employing religious diction, imagery, and motifs, McGahern presents a vision of contemporary Ireland characterized by symbols of death, darkness, infertility, and impotency. His writings have been compared to those of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, and Anton Chekhov.
McGahern was born in 1934 in Leitrim, Ireland. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father served as a police officer. Due to their jobs, McGahern's parents lived apart and after the death of his mother from cancer McGahern went to live with his father in the police barracks. For seven years, McGahern taught at St. John the Baptist Boys National School in Clontarf. The Barracks (1963) won two of Ireland's most prestigious literary awards—the A. E. Memorial Award and the Macauley fellowship—enabling McGahern to take a leave of absence from his teaching post in order to write full time. In 1965 McGahern married Finnish theatrical producer Annikki Laaksi. That same year his second novel, The Dark, was banned in Ireland by the Irish Censorship Board due to content which portrayed a young boy's dawning sexuality and his conflicting desire to become a priest. McGahern's well-publicized battles with the Censorship board and with the Catholic school hierarchy made him anxious to leave Ireland. McGahern also came under scrutiny by the Catholic church for marrying Laaksi, a Protestant. For several years McGahern travelled throughout Europe, teaching at universities, writing, and lecturing in the United States, Ireland, Canada, and England. In 1974 he returned to Ireland to live on a small farm in County Leitrim with his second wife, Madeline Green, whom he married in 1973. In 1989 the president of France awarded McGahern the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, and in 1990, his novel Amongst Women was short-listed for a Booker Prize and won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Fiction Prize. In 1992 Amongst Women was also given the GPA Award by John Updike for the best book written by an Irish writer during the three previous years. John McGahern died of cancer on May 20th 2006.
In his first novel, The Barracks, McGahern introduces many of the themes and motifs that recur throughout his works. In this intimate portrait of a middle-aged woman's physical, psychological, and spiritual struggle with cancer, McGahern explores such subjects as alienation and despair, conformity, the search for self, and the transience and apparent meaninglessness of life. His next book, The Dark, is regarded by many as more technically adventuresome than his first novel. Featuring an episodic structure, shifting points of view, and passages of stream-of-consciousness prose, The Dark focuses on an adolescent boy's problematic relationships with both his widowed father and the provincial Irish society. Censorship and marriage outside the church are both topics forming the foundation for The Leavetaking (1974). The novel is an account of Patrick Moran's dismissal from his teaching position at a Catholic boy's school because of his marriage to a non-Catholic American woman. The work concludes with an assertion of the power of love to overcome prejudice and rejection. In The Pornographer (1979), a young Irish author enlivens his mundane existence by creating autobiographical stories embellished with the erotic escapades of the two lead characters. Utilizing allusion, symbolism, and a conventional narrative style, McGahern focuses on the writer's confrontations with birth, love, and death in his emotionally and morally corrupt milieu. After the publication of The Pornographer, McGahern did not publish another full novel until Amongst Women (1990). Amongst Women opens with the approaching death of the central character, Michael Moran. The narrative then moves backwards and follows the relationships between Moran, his children, and his second wife, Rose. Moran is an abusive man—both physically and verbally—to his family, but his daughters and his second wife are fiercely loyal to him, whereas his sons have distanced themselves from his presence. Amongst Women deals with several of the recurring motifs seen in previous McGahern works, including the power struggles between fathers and sons and the role of women as victims or heroines. In his short story collections, McGahern pursues thematic concerns that are similar to those presented in his novels. In Nightlines (1970), the cycle of life and death is portrayed as a disappointing pattern from which escape is impossible. The stories in Getting Through (1978) display some of the guarded optimism that McGahern revealed in The Leavetaking, although the dominant mood remains bleak. High Ground (1985) continues to explore McGahern's focus on relationships between fathers and sons, the banality of conformity and compromise, and sexual and religious conflicts. The Collected Stories (1993), a collection of thirty-four of McGahern's short works, deals with the turmoil inherent in family relationships.
Critics have noted many common traits in McGahern's works such as the use of first-person narratives, rural backgrounds, young and educated Irish protagonists, and the backdrop of failed relationships. Reviewers have found it significant that McGahern's father figures are typically described as abusive and authoritarian, while the mothers in his works commonly have short life spans and are used as symbols of escape. The Barracks and The Leavetaking have reminded many critics of the writings of French existentialists, in that the novels focus on characters who quest for answers in their seemingly futile and meaningless lives. McGahern is known for his often bleak characterizations and Lindsay Duguid has described McGahern as having the ability to “wring melancholy from a stone.” Several commentators have praised McGahern's use of both a lyrical and stark “realist” prose to augment the dreariness of his characters' positions in life and to describe the banality of their existence. Although McGahern has been faulted by those who consider his portrayal of characters dominated by rural values a misrepresentation of Ireland's more cosmopolitan identity, critics have generally praised his incisive delineation of Irish parochialism and his commentary on the vacuousness of modern life. Praise for McGahern's Amongst Women and The Collected Stories has been nearly unanimous, with fellow writers such as John Banville and Penelope Fitzgerald complimenting his prose. While reviewing Amongst Women, Banville stated: “It is compact but not dense, spare yet rich, and brimming with tension.” Fitzgerald has lauded McGahern's ability to capture the small things in which his characters seek refuge in the face of hopelessness, and praised his poetic touches. Duguid summed up much of McGahern's career in a review of the novel, asserting that it is a “portrait of a particular era and a survey of a nation's past and future.”