“As they were controversial, they won him a sort of fame: some thought they were serious, well made, and compulsive…bringing things to light that were in bad need of light; but others maintained that they were humourless, morbid, and restricted to a narrow view that was more revealing of private obsessions than any truths about life or Irish life in general.”
Thus is described the work of the documentary film maker who is the central character of one of John McGahern’s stories: it is also, whether consciously or unconsciously on the author’s part, an accurate account of popular and critical attitudes toward McGahern’s own work. Throughout his career, beginning thirty years ago with his novel The Barracks, one of his best, to Amongst Women, which was nominated for a Booker Prize in 1990 and brought him the broad recognition that should have been his from the start, he has also produced a steady stream of short stories. These he has now collected into a single, substantial volume, adding two new tales, one of them surely a masterpiece.
McGahern is, at fifty-eight, one of the last Irish writers to have suffered directly at the hands of a Church-dominated state. In 1965 his novel The Dark was banned by the Irish Censorship Board for its sexually explicit language—essentially, the use of a few four-letter words—and as a result he was dismissed from his job as a teacher in a Dublin school. For the next decade or so he lived and worked abroad, returning in the 1970s to Ireland, where he now lives on a small farm in County Leitrim, in the northern part of the Republic near where he was born, one of the poorest and most mournfully beautiful parts of the country.
It is this muted little corner of the world that provides the setting for McGahern’s most convincing fictions; the best of his novels and the best of his stories are set there, on the fringes of Gloria Bog, with the Iron Mountains in the distance and the River Shannon flowing past on its long journey south. He writes of the lives of small farmers, agricultural technicians (there is in this volume a wonderful, grotesquely funny story about a drunken group of artificial inseminators attending a formal dance), country schoolteachers, priests. Yet McGahern is not a fond pastoral writer casting a sentimental eye over a nest of simple folk; his is a dark, relentless vision: he is far closer to Samuel Beckett and James Joyce than to Frank O’Connor or Sean O’Faolain. Here is the embittered spurned lover of “Parachutes”:
I came to a quiet side street where I sat on the steps of one of the houses. There were five steps up to each house. The stone was granite. Many of the iron railings were painted blue. Across the street was a dishevelled lilac bush. They’d taught us to notice such things when young. They said it was the world.
Earlier in the same story, the narrator describes a grim luncheon at his girl-friend’s newly married sister’s house.
It was as if we were looking down a long institutional corridor; the child in the feeding chair could be seen already, the next child, and the next, the postman, the milkman, the van with fresh eggs and vegetables from the country, the tired clasp over the back of the hand to show tenderness as real as the lump in the throat, the lawn-mowers in summer, the thickening waists. It hardly seemed necessary to live it.
No dates are attached to the stories; the convention is unnecessary here. McGahern is one of those rare artists (Philip Larkin is another) who do not “develop.” His style and his vision seem to have been already formed when he started to write. An early story such as “Strandhill, the Sea,” from his first collection, Nightlines (1970), has the same decorous authority, sly humor, and oddly stilted grace as the final, extended tale here, “The Country Funeral,” written after Amongst Women.
A characteristic of McGahern’s work, criticized by some reviewers over the years, is that it is set in no clearly identifiable period. The emotional atmosphere of his novels and stories is an unending 1950s, even when internal evidence indicates a later decade. He seems to operate within a Proustian conception of time: the work is set in a stylized childhood landscape through which the adult narrator wanders as in a vivid dream, and just as in A la recherche du temps perdu we never quite know what Marcel’s age is at any stage of the action, so in McGahern’s fiction we cannot say exactly what period of the past forty years we are in.
This floating quality can be very effective in the stories with a rural setting, but in those that take place in Dublin, or Spain, or Finland, it sometimes creates an undermining sense of dislocation, a fuzziness around the edges which detracts from the force of the narrative. In one story, however, “Oldfashioned,” he performs a small miracle of chronology; the story should not work, but it does. It begins with a marvelous portrait of a kindly Protestant couple who “take up” the son of the local police sergeant and offer to arrange a career for him in the British army. The plan is thwarted by the intransigence of the father, a former Republican guerrilla fighter. Any other writer would have stopped there and been satisfied with a small, well-wrought vignette of Irish life, McGahern, however, extends the story over another few pages, drifting with deceptive ease through three decades of change and disillusion, until the sergeant’s son, now a film maker, returns home (or “home”) to shoot a program called My Own Place.
The camera panned slowly away from the narrator to the house, and continued along the railings that had long lost their second whiteness, whirring steadily in the silence as it took in only what was in front of it, despite the cunning hand of the cameraman: lingering on the bright rain of cherries on the tramped grass beneath the trees, the flaked white paint of the paddock railing, the Iron Mountains smoky and blue as they stretched into the North against the rim of the sky.
In its quiet force and melancholy acknowledgment of what life will and will not offer, this story can stand beside the best of Chekhov or Turgenev.
McGahern avoids stylistic showiness, a weakness of many Irish writers past and present, eschewing the florid metaphor and the stately cadence in favor of a plain, in places awkward, direct prose. He sticks with confidence and tenacity to a handful of themes and situations: life’s opportunities lost, love sought and rarely found, the evanescence of passion, moments of glimpsed beauty, the bitter passions that hold families together and apart.
This last is a constant in all his work. The oedipal urge is especially strong, and surfaces in story after story. Behind almost everything McGahern has written stands the lowering figure of the father, who achieved his most convincing and powerful incarnation in the character of Moran, the monstrous, iron-willed, much-loved, and much-feared old IRA man who dominated the novel Amongst Women. In the stories he appears most memorably and most chillingly as the old farmer in “Gold Watch,” who regards kindness as a sign of weakness and whose son’s marriage “might even make him happy for a time if he could call it my betrayal.”
Read in sequence as they are arranged here, the stories follow what seems an autobiographical trajectory; yet if they are recounting the story of a life they do so in the only legitimate way, by a heightened detachment. The best of these tales manage a magical blend of the specific and the general, and the result looks eerily like life itself, not in the drab sense of social realism, but in the distillation of moments of stillness and insight that are like those moments, rare and precious, when we seem to ourselves most acutely and receptively alive. When he makes an occasional lurch into clumsy philosophizing (“But all of life turns away from its own eventual hopelessness, leaving insomnia and night to lovers and the dying”), what in a lesser writer would be no more than a wrong note sounds like a whole chord gone out of tune. Such discordances are the more startling for being so rare.
This collection of half a life’s work in the short-story form would be a very considerable achievement even without the addition of the two new stories. “The Creamery Manager” and “The Country Funeral”; with them the book mysteriously takes on a shape and a unity that transform it from a mere collection into a satisfying whole. In the “Country Funeral,” which runs to more than thirty pages and is the longest story in the book, as well as the most recent, he achieves a further refinement of the spareness that is the hallmark of his talent. The tensions and barely contained extremes of anger and sorrow that will modulate throughout the story are introduced with a sureness of touch in the opening paragraphs.
After Fonsie Ryan called his brother he sat in his wheelchair and waited with growing impatience for him to appear on the small stairs and then, as soon as Philly came down and sat at the table, Fonsie moved his wheelchair to the far wall to wait for him to finish. This silent pressure exasperated Philly as he ate.
“Did Mother get up yet?” he asked abruptly.
“She didn’t feel like getting up. She went back to sleep after I brought her tea.”
Philly let his level stare rest on his brother but all Fonsie did was to move his wheelchair a few inches out from the wall and then, in the same leaning rocking movement, let it the same few inches back, his huge hands all the time gripping the wheels. With his large head and trunk, he sometimes looked like a circus dwarf. The legless trousers were sewn up below the hips.
With the force and surface simplicity of a folk ballad the story recounts a trip to the country—yet again, Gloria Bog and environs—by three brothers to attend the funeral of their Uncle Peter, their mother’s brother, in whose forbidding house on the edge of the bog they had spent the summers of their youth: “They were coming into country that they knew. They had suffered here.” The characters of the brothers are sketched with skill and cunning, and the portrait of rural life and its enduring ceremonials of birth and death has great emotional power. As Uncle Peter’s wake begins:
Maggie Cullen made sandwiches with the ham and turkey and tomatoes and sliced loaves. Her daughter-in-law cut the sandwiches into small squares and handed them around on a large oval plate with blue flowers around the rim. Tea was made in a big kettle. There were not many glasses in the house but few had to drink wine or whiskey from cups. Those that drank beer or stout refused all offers of cup or glass and drank from the bottles. Some who smoked had a curious, studious habit of dropping their cigarette butts carefully down the narrow necks of the bottles. Some held up the bottles like children to listen to the smouldering ash hiss in the beer dregs. By morning, butts could be seen floating in the bottoms of several of the bottles like trapped wasps.
With honesty and directness, John McGahern has fashioned a world as unmistakable as Beckett’s or Proust’s or Faulkner’s. In stories such as “The Country Funeral” he shows an unsentimental respect for the people whom he has made his subject. He has held to hard-won truths and made a great thing out of simple components. Patrick Kavanagh, a poet whom McGahern admires, might be speaking for both of them when he says in his poem “Innocence”:
That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges
Of the little farm and did not know the world,
But I knew that love’s doorway to life
Is the same doorway every- where….
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these white- thorn hedges….
Adam Thorpe too stays close to a small place, in his case Ulverton, a fictional village on the Wessex Downs of England. Thorpe, who was born in 1956, was already known as a poet before he published this, his first novel, which was highly praised when it appeared in Britain last year. It is a big, dense work which moves from 1650 to 1988 in twelve sections varying greatly in style and content. The first episode tells of the return to Ulverton of one of Cromwell’s soldiers back from the Irish campaign. The narrator is a shepherd who first spies the ragged trooper in the cold of dawn;
He appeared on the hill at first light. The scarp was dark against a greening sky and there was the bump of the barrow and then the figure, and it shocked. I thought perhaps the warrior buried there had stood up again to haunt us. I thought this as I blew out the lanterns one by one around the pen. The sheep jostled and I was glad of their bells.
Gabby Cobbold, away at the wars for five years, had been presumed dead by everyone in the village, including his wife, Anne, who by now is remarried. He has come home to reclaim his old life, bringing gold rings taken in plunder from the sacked towns of Wexford and Drogheda. No sooner does he arrive than he disappears again, along with his valuables, done away with, apparently, by his wife and her new husband. The narrator is the only other to have witnessed Gabby’s return, and he makes a tacit bargain with Anne by which she will trade sexual favors in return for his silence. It is a comfortable arrangement.
And this went on, oh, for years, until I couldn’t see the bedwine plumes in her hair no longer before I blew them off. Then she sickened and died one winter. Sometimes she would whisper the name of Gabby in my ear. And I an old man!
She was the last witch I ever knew.
I was a little mad, probably.
That’s the story.
It is a very stark and powerful opening, with occasional glints of gruesome humor. Thorpe’s style is rich, tough, inventive: a poet’s prose, but with no trace of that clinging gauze that some poets spread over their fiction. Perhaps taking his inspiration from the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in Joyce’s Ulysses, Thorpe progresses through his twelve historical episodes with a style appropriate to each: “1689: Friends” is in the form of a sermon by one of the English divines (“You shalt see how deep to the heart hath this poison entered, my children, when this true history is wound up”). The episode “1712 Improvements” is written as a sort of husbandman’s calendar (“I have spent this day constructing a dry hedge for the protection of my young trees that I am to plant about my top field”), “1743: Leeward” is in epistolary form, and is followed by a courtroom testimony, a series of captions to photographic plates, a memoir, a diary, and, in the closing section, “1988: Here,” a documentary film script.
The method works, with surprising lightness and smoothness, though some sections are by no means easy reading; here is the opening of “1887: Stitches”:
gate ope now maunt lope about in Gore patch wi’ they crusty bullocks yeeeeeeeeeow bloody pigsticken them old hooks jus yowlin out for grease haaf rust look yaa that old Stiff all pinch an screw all pinch an bloody screw aye shut he fast now hup ramshackles old bugger see med do with a stoop spikin onto post wi’ that hang yaa a deal more years nor Hoppetty have a had boy eh…
However, even such a seemingly impenetrable thicket of dialect becomes easier the farther one penetrates into it. Thorpe’s odd and occasionally broad strokes of humor are a help. “1803: Rise” is an account of an elaborate practical joke recalled by an old-timer (“Heh heh”) in a pub as he touches a visiting stranger for free beer.
An he says, all quiet, but wi’ a mouth as big as a saw-pit:
Then he comes to it, like, as though he be on a sudden doushed in cold water, an gets down on his knees, an claps his two hands into one, an makes a gugglin noise out o’ his throat, an coughs, an starin upperds he says:
“Lord, dost thou forgive me?”
Aye. An we were quiet as the grave. I tells thee. Sir.
The slyest and most cleverly and darkly humorous chapter is “1775: Dissection,” done as a series of letters from a grief-stricken Ulverton mother to her ne’er-do-well son away in London who is to be hanged for thieving. Poor Mrs. Shail, dying of cancer, dictates the letters through the barely literate “john Pounds tailer” who, unknown to the mother, adds his own increasingly baleful postscripts:
P.S. I hev not red to hur al you rote God forgif thee thy tung asll soon bee lillin oute al rite…by God wen thee bee slicd upp & throne too the doggs I ool be in heaven al rite with thy mamy soein a fine net in & oute wen thee bee danglin wotch thy cokk it don go upp itt shll al rite but thee ooll be pissin thy sole in too the dust you hev yr jus regard i hev mine al rite.
john Pounds tailer
yr mam think this bee a praier soitt bee.
The final letter, however, written through the agency of “Mr John Bate our Curate,” rejoices at the son’s pardon and imminent return to Ulverton. “Mr. Pounds trembled with Shock as if he had seen a Ghost. This is the power of Prayer.”
Thorpe weaves the sections together with great skill and greater restraint, avoiding the determinism that might tempt a lesser writer. The threads that run from one historical period to the next in the end form a subtle and convincing pattern in the narrative. The single failure in the book is, I think, the final section, a “post production script” of the film documentary “Clive’s Seasons,” one of a series called “A Year in the Life.” It is heavy-handed and gimmicky, and takes nearly eighty pages to say not much more than John McGahern did in the single paragraph from the story “Old Fashioned” I have quoted from earlier. Thorpe himself makes an appearance in the script, which has a rather feeble “green” message.
It is a pity this section is so weak, since what has gone before is truly original and moving. At the end, the murdered soldier Gabby Cobbold reappears, closing the circle of the book with a satisfying rattle of bones, and we see the significance of a remark in the opening paragraph nearly four hundred pages earlier: “I thought perhaps the warrior buried there had stood up again to haunt us.” Ulverton is one of the finest novels to have come out of England in a long time.
April 8, 1993