By the Lake
by John McGahern
Knopf, 336 pp., $24.00
This is a novel about a private and particular world, which the reader enters as an eavesdropper. The writing is so calm that it seems the text is listening to itself. Its accent is a dying fall and its only tricks are tricks of the light. It is set in rural Ireland, in a country of mist, cloud, and water. The daily events of the lakeside are the swans and dark cygnets gliding by, the rippling of perch beneath the surface of the water, the movement of the breeze through the leaves of the alders. The air is scented, wild strawberries glow in the banks, and the heron rises silently from the reeds. The dead are under the feet of the living, and it is their presence—the repressed, repressing generations—that makes the people whisper.
John McGahern is as attentive to their low voices as to the nuances of the shifting light. By the lake are the ruins of an ancient monastery—in traditional Irish poetry, an object of contemplation as fruitful and somber as Gray’s country churchyard; through the whole text, the spirit of the Irish language moves within English, like a ghost within a sheet.
Yet the tenor of the book is profoundly anti-nostalgic. In his novels and stories, McGahern has never provided Ireland with comfortable images of itself. The good old days, in this district, are days that never were. This is Leitrim, where the author lives, a country of many lakes, of deserted cottages on mountain slopes, and of small farmers; it is a poor and depopulated country, its western border formed by the River Shannon. McGahern tells the story of the lake dwellers through a whole year, from summer to summer. The time, roughly speaking, is the present day, though contemporary events seem as distant as the “bad old bitter crowd” in the north. Though Ireland is a country of creeping suburbanization, this place is still so remote that the people by the lake have no telephones till near the end of the story.
Extremes of poverty and ignorance have given way to modern prosperity, yet it is a place where a “seventh son of a seventh son” still does good business as a healer. Most people have several trades as well as a little land, and inequalities of wealth are not confused with social distinctions. There are few Protestants and they “have to keep their heads low.” Religious conformity keeps everyone comfortable. The older people don’t like going away—they come back exhausted from a holiday or a visit to relatives, and Dublin is an alien place to them. “Abroad” is where your grown, thriving children go during the summer holidays; one character, his wife mocks, doesn’t know Italy from Mullingar. There is a sense of a dying community, soon to become a “green wilderness.” It seems to be the last of the particular places, its character burning off like morning mist on a summer day.
Are the people by …