A family touched with madness
He's been denounced from the pulpit and seen his work banned as pornographic, says Sean O'Hagan. Now Ireland's greatest fiction writer, John McGahern, has published a moving memoir
Sunday 28 August 2005 11.33 BST
John Donne did not write 'Let us make one little room, and everywhere', as stated below. He wrote: 'For love, all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere.'
'One thing you find out while writing a memoir,' says John McGahern, 'is what an uncertain place the mind is.' I am sitting in the half-dark of a Soho bar listening to Ireland's greatest living writer of fiction describe some of the unexpected difficulties he underwent while writing his first factual book. His soft voice and carefully wrought sentences echo the cadences and craft of his prose so much so that it is as easy to be mesmerised by his spoken words as his written ones.
'There is not the same freedom in the memoir as there is in the novel,' he continues. 'Fiction needs to be imagined. Even events that actually happened have to be reimagined. With a memoir you can't imagine or reinvent anything,' he says, sighing, as if this runs counter to all he believes in. 'You have always to stick to the facts.'
McGahern's memoir is called simply Memoir, and it sticks always to the cold, bare facts of his young and troubled life. It has been a long time coming, and, as it unfolds, you can see how the events recalled in it impacted on his fictions, shaped him as a supreme chronicler of human experience. Now 70, and with six acclaimed novels and four short-story collections behind him, McGahern has created a work of personal testimony that brims with remembered detail, and possesses an emotional intensity that, in places, is almost overwhelming.
Memoir is ostensibly about his childhood in the small rural Irish community which he left as a young man, but has since returned to, and settled in. The landscape - small unkempt fields, still lakes, lanes bordered by hedges of ash, blackthorn and sycamore - will be familiar to readers of his fiction, mapped out initially in The Barracks, his first novel from 1963, and delineated in all is subtle, shifting ordinariness in his last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002). The shadows that stalked those stories are here made flesh, and, at times, one wonders how McGahern survived to tell the tale.
The biggest, most foreboding presence in the book is his late father, a policeman, who was a bully and a pedant. The narrative is punctuated by scenes of often random brutality, retold in a matter-of-fact, almost detached, manner that makes them all the more disturbing. In one scene, McGahern describes his father beating one of his sisters senseless with a spade, but there is none of the judgmentalism or wallowing in victimhood that tends to characterise the contemporary survivor's memoir.
'I never felt a victim,' he says, calmly. 'To be a victim is a failure of intelligence. One becomes responsible for one's own life, however difficult that life may be.' He closes his eyes, as if trying to catch a thought that is hovering on the edge of his consciousness, then says something that sheds fresh light on all his writing. 'No matter what happens to you, no matter how depressing the material, if it becomes depressing to write, or indeed, to read, it's no good. I firmly believe that unless the thing is understood it's useless, and that the understanding of it is a kind of joy. It's liberating.'
In autobiography, as in fiction, McGahern adheres closely to Flaubert's guiding ethos that the writer should 'be present everywhere, but not visible, like God in nature'. I ask him if writing about his life was a more difficult process than writing a novel. 'It was certainly a different process, much quicker, but the difficulty always is in getting the words right. In fiction, the most powerful weapon the writer has is suggestion. I think that nearly all good writing is suggestion, and all bad writing is statement. Statement kills off the reader's imagination. With suggestion, the reader takes up from where the writer leaves off. A memoir is tricky because one was itching to alter it so that it conforms to a certain vision, but one is stuck with what happened.'
The most profound thing that happens in his constantly arresting chronicle is the early death of his mother, Susan, a kind-hearted and devout schoolteacher, whose passing leaves a hole in the young McGahern's life that, one suspects, has not ever been truly filled. He describes climbing into a cupboard-sized room under the stairs to weep out his sorrow among 'old clothes and ravelled sweaters', the writing suddenly ablaze with the intensity of reawakened grief.
'I remembered her in the world,' he writes, 'walking those lanes to school. To Liscairn, to Beaghmore, to Aughawillan; on the train, in Maggie's, going from shop to shop by her side in the town, watching with her the great fires of sticks in Aughawillan evenings, the flames leaping around the walls and ceilings. She was gone where I could not follow. I would never lay eyes again on her face.'
It struck me, while reading the book, that I had never before encountered an author who wrote about his mother with such a sense of unconditional love. She seems, in many ways, an idealised figure, her absence as palpable as his father's overbearing presence. 'Well, I know that consciously and unconsciously she had an enormous influence on my life. The book was as much a way of acknowledging that as it was about my father's presence. If I am in any way successful, I think that both sides are given fair play.' How, I ask, did his sisters react to the book? 'They thought I was too easy on him,' he says, laughing, then suddenly serious. 'But judgment has no place in the writer's trade. I think an ounce of sympathy is worth a ton of judgments.'
His father, he says, remains 'unknowable' despite the words he has expended on trying to understand him: a man so self-absorbed as to be utterly lacking in any kind of self-awareness. 'He put great store in outward appearances, always in the front row at mass. Appearance was everything to him.' He thinks on this some more, then says almost as an afterthought. 'He was a very strange man, maybe even a little mad. There was certainly a strain of madness in the family. I think, too, that part of my father's violence was sexual frustration. That was such a force in Ireland then, the battle between sex or love of the world, and the love of God. People forget already that that was such a powerful dynamic.'
The attraction of opposites, too, is one of the many mysteries touched on in the book, the greatest of which is why such a charming and popular woman should marry such a charmless and hated man. 'Well, who knows what physical attraction is?' he says, shaking his head, 'My father, for all his faults, had a great deal of physical presence, even charm. But, one of his many mysteries was that he would never let go of a relationship no matter how bad it was. There was a strangeness in him that, even I, who probably knew him more than anyone, could not fathom. Even the writing of the book has not really made me understand him any better.'
In person, McGahern looks more like a farmer than a novelist. He lives with his second wife, Madeline, whom he married in 1973, in a small house on a lake in rural Leitrim, near the border with Northern Ireland. 'I'm closer to Enniskillen than to Sligo,' he says enigmatically, as if the proximity of the north may have some bearing on his creative mindset. As he has grown older, his writing has become more grounded in that tangible sense of place that underpins much Irish writing to the point where, in That They May Face the Rising Sun, the few miles of land surrounding the lake is a microcosm of a rural Irish society caught between tradition and rapid modernisation.
'Ireland has changed more in the last 20 years than it did in the preceding 200 years,' he says. 'From 1800 until 1970, it was a 19th-century society. It was only then that the Church started collapsing. I think that it is by focusing on the local that you can best capture that change. If you were to focus on the universal, you'd end up with vagueness. John Donne said, "Let us make one little room, and everywhere." That's what I believe, really, that everything interesting begins with one person and one place.'
McGahern is clearly at home in Ireland, and seems to have experienced none of the problems of belonging peculiar to many returning exiles. It was not always so. His second novel, The Dark, published in 1965, was banned in Ireland, and denounced from the pulpit as pornographic. He was forced to quit teaching and left the country that had damned him. He lived in England, France and America before returning five years later. Forty years on, his best-known book, Amongst Women (1990), is taught on the syllabus of the Irish Leaving Certificate. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1990. Does he feel vindicated? 'No. I don't think about it in that way. For me, all that matters is whether a book is well written or not. Once a book is published, the less a writer has to say about it the better. That's why I never protested the banning. I thought it was a joke, the Censorship Board, and by protesting I would give them too much honour. Besides, a book has a life of its own. Once it is written, it belongs to its readers. Without readers, it won't live. Without readers, a book is a dead thing, just a bundle of words between covers.'
In the three years since its publication, McGahern's last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, has taken on a life of its own, becoming that rare thing, a formally experimental work of literature that is also a global best-seller. 'In Ireland,' he says, proudly, 'some people have read it who don't read books. Which is surprising given that, in the strict sense of the word, it is an anti-novel.' In America, too, it has become a best-seller by word-of-mouth following a spate of reviews comparing McGahern to Chekhov, Balzac, and even Beckett. The New York Times called him 'the most accomplished novelist of his generation'. Having just reread it, I tell him that I am intrigued by the spell it weaves, given that it is a novel that seems to have no discernible plot, and in which nothing really happens, and yet, as one reads on, a whole world emerges, familiar and new.
'Well, it's a deliberate attempt to deal with a whole society,' he says, sipping on his mineral water, and looking both flattered and uncomfortable at my praise. 'One of the problems a writer always has with material is how to dramatise it. In a way, I thought that the act of taking drama out of it, if it was consciously done, could be dramatic in itself. My whole idea was to take plot and everything else out of the novel and see what was left.'
How, then, did he structure the narrative? 'Oh, the day, the seasons, the community. The rhythms of the everyday. In a way, nothing happens, and everything happens. You have to follow your own life. That's what I wanted to do, anyway.'
He writes for two or three hours a day, with 'a lot of time looking out the window in between'. Each book, at least until the memoir, seems to have taken longer than the last. There was a 12-year gap between Amongst Women and That They May Face the Rising Sun. 'That was the longest,' he says, 'but it began like all the rest with certain images entering my head and refusing to go away until I wrote them down. Sometimes, I've spent three months writing them down only for them to come to nothing, to disappear into the page. There have been times when I have not written anything for two or three years. I think,' he says laughing, 'I was exhausted by all that staring out the window.'
Could he imagine a life without writing? He closes his eyes and thinks about this for a long moment. 'In a way, yes. Certainly, I wouldn't write if I didn't need to. One of the unexpected pleasures of writing is that it makes anything else seem attractive. You'd almost do anything to avoid it. It would be easier, too, to go on writing different versions of the same book, but that wouldn't do for me. I think,' he says, finally, getting to the very heart of his greatness, 'that you need to always raise the fences.'
A rough guide to John McGahern
· Born 12 November 1934, Dublin.
· Attends the Presentation Brothers College in Carrick-on-Shannon, then St Patrick's Teacher Training College, Dublin.
· Works as a primary schoolteacher from 1955 to 1966.
· Marries Annikki Laksi, a Finnish theatre director, in 1965. They divorce soon after. He later says: 'It was hopeless. I wouldn't live in Finland and she wouldn't live in Ireland.'
· In 1973, marries Madeline Green, an American photographer. They live in Co Leitrim.
· His first novel, The Barracks, is published in 1963. It's followed by The Dark (1965), which causes a furore when it is banned in Ireland for being 'pornographic'.
· Goes on to write The Leavetaking (1975), The Pornographer (1979), Amongst Women (1990) and That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002).
· Amongst Women is shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1990, and wins the Irish Times/Aer Lingus fiction prize the same year.