William Styron is reported as defending the sexual activity in his recent Sophie’s Choice on the grounds that ‘the battle to write explicitly about sex was fought long and hard. We must never begin to surrender that victory.’ The argument strikes one as considerably less silly when removed to the context of John McGahern’s fiction.
One may never know why the narrator of McGahern’s new novel chooses to write pornography for a Dublin magazine – one may never quite believe that such a decent sad fellow would so choose – but, such is the prevalent gloom, one is able to believe that pornography does serve some useful purpose. (A dangerous line of thought: it might lead one to wonder whether Ireland didn’t need the IRA.) It is in part, of course, the narrator’s wretchedness that allays our disapproval: at least he isn’t enjoying it. And also – McGahern seems to be running a risk here – the possibility that the samples given of the narrator’s art hold a greater vitality than the rest of the novel.
‘Our average reader,’ says Maloney, the magazine’s editor and a failed poet who doesn’t much believe in poetic effects, ‘is already so inflamed that he or she would get a rise out of a green tree in Gethsemane.’ To be thus inflamed implies a remarkable degree of frustration. ‘One of the reasons of art’s supremacy,’ Maloney explains, ‘is just because of the very limitations of life.’ He is regretting that he lacks the constitution to live up to Colonel Grimshaw. Mavis Carmichael and the Colonel form the narrator’s dramatis personae, the ideal coupling-couple of ‘straight’ porn: gorgeous soft mounds, stiff pink nipples and remorseless throbs, and to be distinguished from the ‘new pornography’ of polar bears, decapitators and sword-swallowers. They do it here, in the next instalment they do it there, they do it everywhere, with enormous gusto and unhampered by what Maloney terms ‘life’s unseemly infirmities’. Age does not wither them nor custom stale their less than infinite variety – and, considering what nastinesses happen in real life, the holy priests might be prepared, if not to bless them, at least to refrain from cursing them. In The Dark, McGahern’s second novel, the growing boy had only an ad torn from a newspaper (‘Remove Superfluous Hair’) to facilitate his sexual fantasies.
In real life the narrator starts an affair with a 38-year-old near-virgin, ex-Legion of Mary, who like all good Irishwomen has marriage in mind. He meets her at a dance, ‘like most of Ireland meets’. She too works for a magazine, a different kettle of fish called Waterways, for barge-buffs, and the two of them spend a weekend on a boat on the Shannon. Subsequently the narrator (it wouldn’t hurt and it would certainly help reviewers if the author would give his characters names) uses the trip for one of his stories, ‘Mavis and the Colonel Take a Trip on the Shannon’. Mavis and the Colonel have a jolly good time, and the porn version has the funniest crack in the book: the Colonel asks the boatman if he feels like an aphrodisiac and he replies: ‘To tell you the truth, I never sooner one drink more than another.’ The real-life version is less rewarding: the narrator’s woman-friend is averse to condoms, and gets pregnant. Such things happen in real life, at any rate in Ireland. Whiskey, High Mass, palais de danse, condoms, backs of cars, fear of pregnancy – McGahern’s Ireland will remind older readers of England in the 1930s, except perhaps for the High Mass, the whiskey and the backs of cars.
Rather more life-enhancing than the story of the narrator’s affair (she wants marriage more than ever, he wants marriage with her less than ever) is the interwoven account of his aunt, who is slowly dying but fighting valiantly, and whom he does truly appear to love. The one aspect of real life we can hope to admire, it seems, is its ending, real death, faced bravely. The narrator himself attributes his melancholy to a lost love, but we see that he can only want what he cannot have. ‘When I had loved, it had been the uncertainty, the immanence of No that raised the love to fever.’ The certainty, the immanence of Yes, turn him off. When the woman tells him in her innocent way, ‘I love you. I often cried out for you … I want to eat and drink you,’ he shudders away in distaste. ‘I thought nobody could tell anybody that, and I listened to the loud street.’ This fastidiousness does not deter him from some fancy prose in his own thoughts: ‘I willed all sense down to living in her wetness like in a wound.’
This isn’t the Great Hunger, and with lashings of good food and drink around – to go no further – it is hard to see why McGahern’s hero is so relentlessly miserable. The woman not unnaturally blames his lack of feeling on ‘writing that pornography stuff’, but the porn is more an effect than a cause. He carries a ‘verbal scapular’ – what is a freethinker doing with that metaphor? – in his mind: ‘Everybody must feel that a man who hates any person hates that person the more for troubling him with expressions of love.’ When people have nothing to complain about except being loved by someone they don’t love, they are lucky. When people have nothing worse to complain about than the famous human condition – we are born, the days go by, we die – they are still not too badly off. The hero’s enervation is almost comic on occasion. He summons up a picture of visits to relatives in the country – smiles of surprise and delight, sweet medley of hypocrisy, tea and talk, relieved departure, ensuing criticism by each family of the other – simply to tell us that such boring practices are ‘the way we define and reassert ourselves, rejecting those foreign bodies as we sharpen and restore our sense of self’.
But perhaps the sense of self is never sufficient, the roles never so secure as with Mavis and the Colonel. Perhaps what is missing is simply religious faith – which the Irish, always having had more of, always miss more than the rest of us. Cradle atheists though they may be, they inherit loss of belief like original sin: what they don’t have is the biggest thing they have. Religion still has its great uses. In a story in McGahern’s previous book, Getting Through, a priest is attracted to the priesthood ‘as a way of vanquishing death and avoiding birth’.
So pornography is a way of avoiding birth? And likewise of vanquishing the other ‘unseemly infirmities’? One may wish McGahern’s characters could be, if not less miserable, more explicit about their misery. His prose might be more helpful in this respect if it were a little less poetic. But perhaps it would all be less Irish then, for it seems that the comic Stage Irishman of the old days has yielded to a tragic one, and instead of laughing with foreign jaws we outsiders now cry with foreign eyes. At all events, a sense of genuine if not surely explicable sorrow wins through, and a conviction (rather surprising in the circumstances) of purity of intention. For that reason The Pornographer reminded me of Sean O’Faoláin’s touching novel of 1936, Bird Alone. Permissiveness has boomed since then, happiness is as scarce as ever. There the young man fought the Church and lost his girl to guilt and suicide. Here the Church has fled the field, and the young man is fighting a trickier enemy – one more difficult to define. At the close he has taken up with another girl, a nurse, who thinks life is sweet: ‘Just to see the day and the sky and the night seems to me amazing. I can’t imagine anybody wanting to let that go.’ Possibly he will marry her and go to live in the country. Possibly he will give up Mavis and the Colonel. Possibly not, for those people were some sort of a solution.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.