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 the lake happy? The evidence of McGahern’s previous fiction suggests the question wouldn’t have much meaning for them. Getting Through (the title of one of his short-story collections) is the best they can hope for. Born in Leitrim in 1934, the son of a police officer, McGahern took the bright boy’s route to University College in Dublin, and went on to become a teacher. His first novel, The Barracks, was published in 1963, and reflects something of his own upbringing. It is the story of a policeman’s wife, confined to the police barracks of the title as she dies slowly of cancer, consumed by the corrosive drip of her own thoughts. Elizabeth Reegan has no regrets, because she is too tired for them, and too tired to make any protest against what her life has become: the chopping of cabbage and the washing of dishes for her stepfamily and her restless, distant husband: the oppressive round of conversational interchange, the rain dripping into the silence when the interchange stops. For a first novel, it is a performance of an awesome grim confidence.
Two years later McGahern published The Dark. Its early pages contain a raw account of the physical and sexual abuse of the young boy at the center of the narrative. Desperate to escape his home and his domineering father, the boy manages to negotiate the formidable obstacles of the examination system. He wins a scholarship, but his academic success is not enough to win him a new life. At university in Galway, he finds the violent transactions of family life have so scarred him that he cannot respond to a change of circumstances, and he settles for a safe government job that will not stretch his talents or nerves. His sister, meanwhile, has become a domestic drudge in the family of a “respectable” shopkeeper in a nearby town, but has to flee back to her father’s house because she can’t fight off her boss’s wandering hands.
The Dark is a harsh portrait of family violence and clerical hypocrisy, and of the cozy collusion between the Church and the kind of Catholic family able to fill the Sunday collection boxes. The novel was banned by the Censorship Board, and in 1966 McGahern was refused renewal of his contract as teacher. He left Ireland for some four years, and then in the 1970s published The Leavetaking and The Pornographer. Meanwhile he refined his craft as a short-story writer—he has published three collections—and added to his gallery of characters, who are men and women beset by lifelong perplexity. It is the struggle to escape rural poverty that shapes (and deforms) many of them. Their own efforts are not enough; they believe you have to have influence, and connections, “the pull,” if you are to escape the land. In The Dark the father tells his struggling son, “It’s not what you want to be, it’s what you’ll be let be.” He prophesies his son’s fate: “He’ll wear out his bones on the few acres round this house and be buried at the end of the road.”
This is a country where, as an old drunken schoolmaster says in the story “High Ground,” there are men digging ditches who might have been philosophers, only for want of opportunity. But however intelligent they are, these people believe they don’t deserve much, and are reticent and timid in the face of the chances that do come their way. The brightest of them have been warned strenuously against intellectual pride. They have never learned to inhabit their own lives; vaguely compromised by the choices they have made, they have sinned mostly by omission, failed to make relationships or never tried them, failed to reach out of their own self-absorbed uncertainties to grasp at some chance that might be passing. The young man in The Dark thinks of entering the priesthood—if he can force himself to say he has a vocation, the Church will offer him status, but he dreads the lifelong loneliness of celibacy. Religion is a habit and a duty; it preserves the social order. For some it is a protection against deeper thought. McGahern’s people suffer from that old Catholic malady, accidie—emotional paralysis, spiritual sloth. They live most powerfully in anticipation and in memory. Experience is constantly giving them the slip; what they get is usually much less—for better or worse—than they anticipate.
The scholar gone wrong, the failed seminarian, the writer afraid of his material; these are disappointed men. They are joined in McGahern’s fiction by the gunman disarmed: men like Reegan in The Barracks and Moran in the 1990 novel Amongst Women. These men fought for a free and independent Ireland and do not feel well rewarded; baffled, they feel that something has been stolen from them, filched from under their noses. They have the imperious nature of those who were men when they were only boys, and the restlessness of warriors in a waste of peace. They are formidable patriarchs; their houses and families, farms and parishes are their new battleground. The most meaningful things in their lives have happened already when McGahern takes up their story.
This is also true of the characters in By the Lake. Many histories are digested into this simply constructed and gently paced book. It is a portrait of a community rather than a family, and most of its inhabitants are elderly, with the struggle of their lives behind them. Their task now is to come to terms with their memories and to find a place in a modern Ireland where “with people living longer there’s a whole new class who are neither in the world or the graveyard.” At the center of the story are the Ruttledges, who have spent many years in London before buying twenty acres and settling by the lake. Their farm doesn’t support them wholly and they still take freelance work from the London advertising agency that used to employ them. Kate is an Anglo-American, but Ruttledge is a native of the place. His uncle, “the Shah,” is a local businessman, the wealthiest man in those parts. Ruttledge himself had a good education. Opportunities have opened out for him, yet he has not been at ease with them. There is nothing wrong with his London life, nothing he could pinpoint, but “it’s not my country and I never feel it’s real or that my life there is real.” And nowadays the flow from Ireland isn’t all one way; exiles can return. Yet how do they fit in?
Ruttledge is an outsider by virtue of his professional status and his years away. His ambivalent status seems to hold him in a posture of diffidence. He is considerate and a good neighbor, well liked, sometimes condescended to in a friendly way. His neighbor Jamesie Murphy urges him to attend mass, because that’s how you find out what’s going on in the neighborhood. To Ruttledge’s protestation of unbelief, he says, “None of us believes and we go.” But Ruttledge will not return to the Church, or settle for any shortcuts in human affairs. Cautious and guarded, it is he who holds the moral center of the story, with his belief that “happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all.”
Jamesie and his wife Mary have not spent a night away from the lake since the wedding of their son seventeen years ago. Their son has prospered and lives in Dublin, and they accept without resentment that they have little part in his world. Jamesie’s main characteristic is his appetite for news. The neighbors say that a strange bird flying across the lake is enough to put him on the alert. “I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world,” he says. Jamesie has a brother, Johnny, who comes from England to visit him every year. His return gives a shape to the summer, like the annual rebirth of some small pagan god. His brother and sister-in-law whitewash and paint the house, air the unused bedroom, pick flowers to stand in the open window; as Jamesie sets off for the station to bring the exile home, Mary stands by with the sirloin, ready to sear it in the pan. Twenty years before, Johnny went to Dagenham to work on Ford’s assembly line. Ireland’s recent economic boom may have ended forever her colonial status as supplier of cheap labor to English factories and building sites. But an older generation of McGahern’s characters accepted emigration and the depersonalization that followed, in a country where you were always a Paddy or a Mick, and the butt of jokes or outbursts of blue-collar rage.