Cows and cadences
Robert McCrum remembers John McGahern, a dedicated novelist
he John McGahern I knew was more than the author of Amongst Women, Ireland's foremost contemporary novelist. To me, he was a keeper of cows, a farmer in his native Leitrim, living on the edge of a tranquil brown lake, the setting for his last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002). He liked to joke that he was an amateur farmer who wrote to defray the costs of the herd. This was a characteristic McGahern irony. In truth, he had a deep affinity for the land and its creatures, and he was instinctively a dedicated novelist who found in his isolated farm the solitude he needed to write, described with typical modesty as a process of staring out of the window. The rural landscape of his youth was the source of his inspiration and its stories his stories. He could find meaning in the exchange of glances in an empty room, and was emphatic that it was the half-expressed word that was truly eloquent. He saw the writer's job as conjuring suggestions in the reader's mind, and understood fiction as an imaginative collaboration between the novelist and his audience, especially in Ireland.
McGahern devoted himself to his art with extraordinary single-mindedness. His home had an almost monkish simplicity, illuminated and cheered by the queenly grace and candour of his wife, Madeline. I remember staying at Aughaboneil one springtime, shortly after the international success of Amongst Women, his greatest novel. Sprays of hawthorn were frothing in the lanes, and he responded to the fresh green lanes of the countryside, more poet than novelist, speaking in that wry, humorous brogue. As we walked the blind fields of his land, he repeated its stories, some of them tracing back to the potato famine. McGahern had an extraordinary memory for telling detail, and, slightly at odds with the stripped-down austerity of his prose, a wicked sense of humour.
Behind the mask of the country farmer come to market was a sharp, cosmopolitan intelligence alert to the foibles and vanities of the literary world. McGahern certainly knew the price of cows, but not many Irish writers of his generation had such a sure command of English prose and its subtleties. He often said he lived midway between Sligo and Enniskillen. It was the magic of his writing, expressed most powerfully in his valedictory Memoir (2005), to evoke the soft breath of the Irish language, which he knew intimately, while making the complex, and sometimes painful, translation to the dominant cadences of the English.