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In Violent Times

Lies of Silence

by Brian Moore
Doubleday, 197 pp., $18.95

The Innocent

by Ian McEwan
Doubleday, 270 pp., $18.95

These three novels deal with violence, in one form or another. This is not the only thing they have in common. Indeed, there are more similarities than differences between them. However, one of them, Amongst Women, is utterly unlike the other two in one respect, that it is that rarest of things in contemporary fiction in English, an achieved and almost perfect work.

John McGahern was born in Dublin in 1934, the son of a policeman, and was raised in County Roscommon, near the border with Northern Ireland. After college he took up work as a teacher in Dublin. His first novel, The Barracks, was published in 1963. Two years later his second novel, The Dark, was banned by the Irish Censorship Board, and McGahern was dismissed from his job without official explanation; the word is that the then archibishop of Dublin, a poisonous person called McQuaid, engineered his dismissal, not only because of the banning, but because the author had been married in a registry office and not in a church, and to a foreigner, at that.

Knowledge of these unsavory matters will contribute nothing to an appreciation of McGahern’s art, but may help non-Irish readers to understand something of the country in which Amongst Women is set. McGahern is remarkably free of bitterness toward those who banned his work and drove him from his job and out of Ireland, and regards the affair with some amusement.1 He has taught abroad, in Britain and at Colgate University in the US, and lives now with his second wife on a farm in County Leitrim, not far from where he was brought up. Amongst Women is his fifth novel, and was on the short list for this year’s Booker Prize; he has also written some of the finest short stories to have come out of modern Ireland.

McGahern works within a narrow compass. The bulk, and perhaps the best, of his writing is set in rural Ireland, among small farmers, village policemen, teachers; even when he moves to the city it is countryfolk he writes about, those who live in digs and dingy flats and go “home” for the weekends; Dublin has many such, on building sites, in factories, in government offices. McGahern understands these people, their loves and longings, their hatreds, their fierce loyalties, and captures in his work the harsh poetry of their lives. He neither romanticizes nor simplifies; his is an immensely subtle and sophisticated art.

While Brian Moore and Ian McEwan are out to tell a story—something which they do with very great skill—McGahern has no plot to speak of, except the “plot” of life itself. Amongst Women is remarkable in that in a very brief span, and without the faintest trace of strain, it manages to portray a particular world. At the center of the book is Michael Moran, patriarch of Great Meadow, a proud, dominating man whose life, as the action opens, is drawing to a close. Around him, lesser stars, move his wife and his three grown daughters and, at a farther remove, his sons, one of them estranged, the other a rebel in the making.

His women need Moran far more than he needs them:

On the tides of Dublin or London they were hardly more than specks of froth but together they were the aristocratic Morans of Great Meadow, a completed world.

The portraits of the three daughters are superb. Through these pages they grow from schoolgirls to married women, never wavering in their fierce love for their tyrannical father; at the end, when he is dead, a kind of metamorphosis has taken place: “Now, as they left him under the yew, it was as if each of them in their different ways had become Daddy.”

In his youth in the 1920s Moran had been a gunman in the IRA, fighting against the British for independence. He has no illusions about those days of glory:

Don’t let anybody fool you. It was a bad business. We didn’t shoot at women and children like the Tans [British soldiers] but we were a bunch of killers…. Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes. The war was the cold, the wet, standing to your neck in a drain for a whole night with bloodhounds on your trail, not knowing how you could manage the next step toward the end of a long march. That was the war: not when the band played and a bloody politician stepped forward to put flowers on the ground.

What did we get for it? A country, if you’d believe them. Some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen. More than half of my own family work in England. What was it all for? The whole thing was a cod.”

The most telling, and most chilling, sentence in the book is this, spoken by Moran when he is reminiscing with an old comrade about the war: “The closest I ever got to any man was when I had him in the sights of the rifle and I never missed.” (Note how effective is the suppression of the comma we might have expected after “rifle”; McGahern is a master of prose rhythm.) It is a mark of this writer’s extraordinary skill as a novelist that we can understand the women’s regard for such a man—indeed, that we can at times share it. Moran may be a monster, but he is a monster with principles.

The time frame of the novel is cunningly constructed. We begin and end with Moran’s dying; in between, we range back over the life of the family not in flashbacks—McGahern would never be guilty of anything so ordinary as a flashback—but a series of chronological shifts which merge and separate with such fluid grace that we have the impression that we are not engaged with words on a page, but rather experiencing life itself: that we are not reading, but living. This sense of the organic, of things growing and flowering and fading, is what marks Amongst Women as work of a high art.

Of Moran’s first wife, the mother of his children, we are told nothing. In this omission, McGahern has taken a large risk, but it pays off, for, far from damaging the book, it somehow lends it a dark weight; this nameless woman’s absence inhabits the air of the novel like an old grief or an old hurt buried too deep to be spoken of. Moran’s silences are more eloquent than words. The section near the start of the book in which he woos Rose, his second wife, is a masterpiece of artistic reticence. Rose is drawn with the most delicate of strokes:

She was in her late thirties, lean and strong, too neat and plain of feature ever to have been beautiful but her large grey eyes were intelligent and full of wilfulness and energy.

The giveaway here is her age; in a rural community, a woman in her late thirties is hopelessly beyond marriageable age. Rose, however, has seen something of the world—she has lived in Glasgow—and anyway Moran likes to do things that will spite the people among whom he lives. “He saw with bitter lucidity that he would marry Rose Brady now. As with so many things, no sooner had he taken the idea to himself than he began to resent it passionately.”

McGahern is utterly unsentimental in his portrayal of his people, yet he allows them their dignity and their sense of themselves and of their place in the world. The relationship between Moran and his estranged son Luke is sketched in a few lines scattered through the book—Luke makes the most fleeting of appearances—yet the struggle between them is elemental, fraught with anger and thwarted love. Moran if he loves anyone loves Luke, yet he will not bend, and the son will not bend.

Meanwhile the second son, Michael, is going to the bad. While still in his teens he learns the pleasures of drink and, more importantly, of the flesh. He takes up with, or is taken up by, Nell Morahan, a young local woman home on holiday from New York:

She was twenty-two and home for a few months with money of her own…. She was as far from ugliness as she was from beauty and she was young and strong and spirited. Michael Moran was only fifteen but he had good looks and sexual charm. All through her childhood she felt that farms like the Morans’ had a richness and greenness in spite of her father’s tired assertions to the contrary.

The affair between Michael and Nell Morahan is described with much honesty and tenderness. When it is over, Michael and his father quarrel, the quarrel turns violent, and the boy runs away; the connection is never explicitly made, but we perceive behind Moran’s blusterings the fear that he has lost another son. Now all that is left to him is his women, whom he loves yet despises.

It was like grasping water to think how quickly the years had passed here. They were nearly gone. It was in the nature of things and yet it brought a sense of betrayal and anger, of never having understood anything much. Instead of using the fields, he sometimes felt as if the fields had used him. Soon they would be used by someone else in his place. It was unlikely to be either of his sons. He tried to imagine someone running the place after he was gone and could not. He continued walking the fields like a man trying to see.

Rarely nowadays does one come upon a novel that one senses will outlast one’s own time. Amongst Women, despite the quietness of its tone and the limits deliberately imposed upon it by the author, is an example of the novelist’s art at its finest, a work the heart of which beats to the rhythm of the world and of life itself. It will endure.

Lies of Silence is, by my reckoning, Brian Moore’s seventeenth novel.2 In the past he has produced some marvelous books—my own favorites are his first, the heartbreaking The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, and the very frightening Cold Heaven (1983)—and for this reason if for no other one would wish to find warm words for his latest. However, Lies of Silence (also on the short list for this year’s Booker Prize) is thin stuff, an anecdote spun out to novel-length and peopled, if that is the word, not with characters but character sketches. I picked it up with some excitement and put it down with a heavy heart. The publisher describes it as “a culmination of an extraordinary literary career”; one trusts there will be higher points than this in Mr. Moore’s writing life.

  1. 1

    See Banned in Ireland: Censorship and the Irish Writer, edited by Julia Carlson (University of Georgia Press, 1990), a volume of essays and interviews with John McGahern and Brian Moore, among others.

  2. 2

    For the record: his first four novels were banned in southern Ireland: no wonder he left Ireland and in 1948 took Canadian citizenship.

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