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.
Brian Moore was born in Belfast, and in this novel he has returned to his native city. He still knows the place, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he has learned to know it anew, for the Belfast of today is very different from the one in which he grew up, despite the persistence of the entrenched attitudes of the fanatics on both sides of the religious and political divides. The gunmen of the 1940s and 1950s were ruthless amateurs; their present-day descendants are ruthless and professional. Moore is an enemy of the IRA, seeing them for what they are: at best misguided, at worst sectarian murderers bent on destroying the two Irish states and setting up in their place a new, “pure,” fascist Ireland. Yet for all the forthrightness of its denunciation of violence, Lies of Silence does not succeed in catching, as McGahern does more obliquely, the precise shade of murderousness that has broken out at intervals again and again in Ireland since the 1920s.
Michael Dillon is the manager of a large and successful hotel in Belfast. He is middle-aged, trapped in an unhappy marriage, and engaged in an affair with Andrea, a young Canadian woman who works for the BBC in Belfast. On the day on which the novel opens Andrea brings the news that she has been offered a transfer to London, and Dillon decides finally to break with his wife Moira, and move to “the mainland” and start a new life there with Andrea. He has lived in London before, and been happy there, and came back to Belfast only to please Moira. He cares nothing—or thinks he cares nothing—for the North and its immemorial hatreds.
Dillon is oddly anomalous. We are told that in his youth he had aspired to be a poet; since Brian Moore has pared his narrative to the bone, cutting out all but the most necessary information, one assumes this poetic streak is meant to be significant, but if so, the significance has failed to register with this reader, atleast. Is it that the author feels that a girl as young and pretty as Andrea could not love a mere hotel manager unless there was a touch of the poet in him? Or that only a “cultured” person would be sensitive enough to perceive the subtleties of the moral dilemma into which the plot pitches Michael Dillon?
This dilemma is meant to be the crux of the book, but even here there is a curious slackness. Dillon returns home determined to break the news to Moira that he is going to leave her. He puts off the fearful moment, and in the middle of the night the house is invaded by a gang of IRA men intent on assassinating a bigoted Protestant clergymen. The IRA plan to place a bomb in Dillon’s car, which in the morning he will drive to the hotel where the clergyman is due to speak. To ensure his cooperation, Moira will be held hostage at the house, and will be killed if Dillon alerts the police.3
Dillon drives the car to the hotel, but then, unable to countenance the likely loss of many innocent lives, he telephones the police, and the building is cleared before the bomb goes off. Despite his fears, Moira has not been harmed—the gang, somewhat implausibly, left the house before the bomb was due to go off—but she is deeply wounded by Dillon’s decision to save the lives of strangers and leave her to the mercy of the gunmen.
By now Brian Moore must be sick of hearing repeated his statement that his unconscious method in his novels is “to find the moment of crisis.” Certainly the choice which Dillon has to face (or choices, one should say: there is a lot of plot packed into this short book) is a critical one. Somehow, though, we do not feel for him, or with him, as we should. There is an unfocused quality in the portrayal of this man; here and there, at the “moments of crisis,” he fades before our eager gaze, grows attenuated to the point of transparency. This is the danger of using the thriller form, as Moore does; in order for the plot to progress at a satisfactorily cracking pace, character must give way before the demands of action. Lies of Silence is wonderfully exciting to read; the trouble is, for the most part it seems little more than that.
There are surprising lapses. The accents of working-class characters and of the terrorists are indicated by the dropping of final gs in feminine endings (“Mornin’, Mr. Dillon”; “Get inside, you, or I’ll fuckin’ kill you,” etc.). Certain events from early on in the book have no apparent consequences; for instance, on page 38 Dillon is punched in the stomach and kicked on the shin by one of the terrorists, but if these assaults leave a mark, none is mentioned, and Dillon is able to go through his day seemingly without feeling even a twinge from his innards or his bruised shinbone.
There is something amateurish too in the way that the characters are made to mouth extended disquisitions on the Northern Ireland troubles:
“You’re not fighting for anybody’s freedom [Dillon’s wife tells one of the terrorists]. Not mine, not the people of Northern Ireland’s, not anybody’s. The only thing you’re doing is making people hate each other worse than ever. Maybe that’s what you want, isn’t it? [sic] Because if the Catholics here stopped hating the Prods, where would the IRA be?”
Perhaps, writing from Dublin, I am unfair to criticize Moore for providing these explanatory passages for the benefit of his international readership, but they jar. Worse, however, is the thinness of characterization. While the solidity of the portrait of Dillon waxes and wanes, figures such as Andrea are granted no more than a flickering existence, and seem mere ciphers put there to progress the plot. The exception is Moira; she is the best portrait in the book, a tough, vivid, sexy woman with a mind and a will of her own; it is a pity the novel was not built around her instead of her less convincing husband.
Brian Moore once worked with Hitchcock. Lies of Silence has that air of drab menace which the director brought to even the least of his films. The priest who comes to Dillon supposedly to plead for reasonableness in the matter of identifying one of the gunmen, but who in reality is carrying a death threat from the IRA, is spendidly horrible in a Hitchcockian way (and reminiscent, too, of the sinister priest who “helps” the heroine of Cold Heaven).
I wish I could like this novel. It is a courageous (no one should underestimate the vengefulness or the long reach of the IRA) attempt to give non-Irish readers a true picture of how things are now in Northern Ireland. However, right-mindedness has never been a guarantee of good or convincing fiction. Lies of Silence reads less like a novel than a film treatment.
Ian McEwan’s The Innocent was not on the short list for the 1990 Booker Prize—and should have been. This is not to say that I think very highly of the novel; that damn prize, which obsesses us so much on this side of the Atlantic, is no certain measure of literary worth; McEwan’s book, in a poor year for novels, should certainly have been among the finalists; but, then, Booker judging panels are notorious for the eccentricity of their decisions.
Ian McEwan is one of the younger generation of English novelists who learned their craft at Malcolm Bradbury’s creative-writing course at the University of East Anglia—indeed, McEwan was Bradbury’s first student. The creative-writing course is an institution in the United States, but in England the East Anglia school was revolutionary and, to many, a preposterous venture: preposterous because it struck at one of the cherished tenets of English life, which is that professionalism is bad, or in bad taste at least, and that only the gentleman amateur can achieve anything worthwhile. East Anglia, however, was a further stage in the rebellion against the old order begun in the late 1940s by the “red brick” generation of writers (Amis père, John Wain, John Osborne, etc.) which aimed at ousting the Oxford and Cambridge swells and setting in their places the new literary meritocrats. (How far off the whole business seems now, a Spenserian mock-battle played out in fields not yet paved over; never such innocence, as Philip Larkin has it, never such innocence again.)
Much was expected from Ian McEwan. His collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, was one of the most startling debuts since the war. Here was a talent as cold and gleaming as a new alloy, the potential of which no one could be quite sure of yet. A second story collection, In Between the Sheets, showed that the first was no fluke. However, the novels that followed—The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, even the very powerful The Child in Time—somehow did not live up to expectations. There is ice at the heart of these books; however, the cold they exude does not thrill, but numbs, rather.
If Brian Moore set out to write a moral fable in the form of a thriller, Ian McEwan in The Innocent seems to have done the opposite, though this is unlikely to have been his intention. The book is set in Berlin in 1955, with the cold war at its coldest. Leonard Marnham, the innocent of the title, a young technician from the British Post Office, arrives in the city as part of the Anglo-American secret intelligence team which is engaged in digging a tunnel into the Russian sector in order to tap the phone link between East German security services and their masters in Moscow. His liaison officer is the egregious American Bob Glass (another grotesque out of Hitchcock).
On a pub crawl one night in the company of Glass, Leonard meets and falls in love with a young married German woman, Maria. Their affair, literally a source of warmth in one of the worst winters Berlin has known, is described with tender precision. Of course, the idyll, like all literary idylls, cannot last. Maria’s sot of a husband turns up, and the affair ends in violence.
Remarkable violence, in fact. The high (or low, depending on the state of your nerves and your digestion) point of the book is a long and clinically detailed description of the murder of Otto and the dismemberment and disposal of his body. It is a chillingly bravura passage, which McEwan has brought off with steely confidence and skill.
Otto appears, not as a deus ex machina but a diabolus ex wardrobe (this is a nail-biting and undeniably comic chapter-ending), and a fight ensues between him and Leonard:
He put his fists up, the way he had seen boxers do it. Otto had his hands by his side, like a cowboy ready to draw. His drunk’s eyes were red. What he did was simple. He drew back his right foot and kicked the Englishman’s shin. Leonard dropped his guard. Otto punched out, straight for his Adam’s apple. Leonard managed to turn aside, and the blow caught him on the collarbone. It hurt, it really hurt, beyond reason. It could be broken. It would be his spine next.
Despite Otto’s superior fighting skill (Leonard’s shin will not recover as quickly as Michael Dillon’s did), Leonard wins the fight, and Otto goes down: “The cobbler’s last still protruded from his head, and the whole city was quiet.”
At Maria’s urging, and out of his fear of being convicted as a murderer and sent to prison, Leonard with Maria’s help sets about cutting up Otto’s corpse. In writing the description of this dissection, McEwan, it is said, consulted a pathologist—and it shows:
He took up the saw and untucked Otto’s shirt, exposing the back just above the waistband of the trousers. Right on the spine was a big mole. He felt squeamish about cutting through it and positioned the blade half an inch lower. His saw cut now was the whole width of the back, and again the vertebra kept him on track. He was through the bone easily enough, but an inch or so further in he began to feel that he was not cutting through things so much as pushing them to one side. But he kept on….
There was a glutinous sound that brought him the memory of a jelly dessert eased from its mould. It was moving about in there; something had collapsed and rolled onto something else.
At length he gets through to the last bit of belly:
The top half swung on its hinge of skin toward the floor, exposing the vivid mess of Otto’s digestive tract and pulling the bottom half with it. Both tipped to the floor and disgorged onto the carpet.
I hasten to say that I have spared you the severing of the legs and arms, the removal of the head, and much else. The entire process takes up some seven closely detailed pages.
This passage, and the horridly funny one that follows, in which Leonard staggers off through the streets of Berlin with Otto’s remains in a pair of suitcases, left me with a feeling of unease, an unease that was more than mere squeamishness before the prospect of all that blood and hacked bone. Something is out of balance in this book, some moral weight is missing. Here, one must tread warily. Certainly I am not looking for a “message,” for profound coments on East-West relations, or on anything else, for that matter (the artist, says Kafka, is the man who has nothing to say). All the same, a work of art is by nature a moral act.
Perhaps my worry is that Ian McEwan has concentrated too much of his artistic energy on the surface of his story, has burnished it to such a high finish that not only the eye but the mind slides over and, ultimately, off the page.
Despite all that, I have to say that The Innocent is marvelously entertaining, filled with dark irony, with horror and regret. McEwan catches the period with what feels like uncanny precision; the book fairly reeks of bad food and sour underwear. The characters of Leonard, of Glass and Maria, are superbly drawn; even real-life figures, such as the spy George Blake, are convincing, a fictional trick that is always difficult to bring off. Yet for all its artistry and cunning, my feeling at the end of this book was very like that queasy sensation one sometimes experiences after hearing an elegantly recounted but singularly tasteless joke.
December 6, 1990
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. ↩
For the record: his first four novels were banned in southern Ireland: no wonder he left Ireland and in 1948 took Canadian citizenship. ↩
“Proxy bombing” is a favorite tactic of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. For example, on October 24, five British soldiers were killed in three separate such attacks on army checkpoints at the border between the North and the Republic. The IRA kidnapped three men and forced them to drive the bombs to the checkpoints. One of the drivers, Patsey Gillespie, was blown to pieces when the bomb went off under him, as the IRA had intended it should do; a second, a sixty-year-old man, escaped with a broken leg; the third man, who had been strapped to his seat, managed to get loose and flee before the bomb exploded. The IRA justified the use of “human bombs” by pointing out that the three men all worked in some way for the security forces—Mr. Gillespie was a porter in an army canteen. Inured as we in Ireland are to such horrors, we found these acts of cruelty and cowardice peculiarly shocking. ↩