One of John McGahern’s stories begins thus: ‘There are times when we see the small events we look forward to – a visit, a wedding, a new day – as having no existence but in the expectation. They are to be, they will happen, and before they do they almost are not: minute replicas of the expectation that we call the rest of our life.’ The story ends: ‘I was free in the Sligo morning. I could do as I pleased. There were all sorts of wonderful impossibilities in sight. The real difficulty was that the day was fast falling into its own night.’ In between, nothing happens (the girl doesn’t want the narrator ‘the way some people cannot eat shellfish or certain meats’), albeit the opening sentence is, not wholly unexpectedly, borne out.
A sentence in McGahern’s most recent novel, Amongst Women (1990), is similar; it concerns Moran, the farmer, on the occasion of his second wedding: ‘During the entire day he felt a violent, dissatisfied feeling that his whole life was taking place in front of his eyes without anything at all taking place.’ The lives McGahern customarily describes are narrow – by the standards of fiction, narrow in the extreme; what discontent is felt is far from divine; thoughts of what might have been, though painful, are not trusted far and hence not unduly wept over. These stories might be termed tragedies, but inaccurately, since whatever expectations arise and collapse are small and contained by a sense of impossibility closely akin to stoical resignation. ‘If everything was right, we’d appreciate nothing.’ But we read on in fear, not of any vulgar, stock sexuality or physical violence, but in fear of further unhappiness. We hope for small mercies for McGahern’s characters.
He is something of a Samuel Beckett writing in relative longhand, less emblematically and, I would say, more humanly. One of his ostensibly more enterprising characters, who has escaped to work in the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, comes home on leave with habitual expectations, with the intention of standing rounds of drinks and distributing presents; after a few days the excitement dims into a recognition of ‘the poor fact that it is not generally light but shadow that we cast.’ The great event of his leave turns out to be organising an uncle’s funeral: one of those pieties which, someone in another story says, ‘are sometimes substitutes for life in this country – or life itself’.
Sexual passion is extramarital and short-lived, or for young fellows feeling their oats, in whom repression largely accounts for its fierceness. Otherwise love – or some sort of drive that serves in its place – means marriage and children, wanted or not: ‘an old con trick of nature’ which, one man reflects, never fails. (Although the widower who advertises in the papers for companionship ‘view marriage’, and meets a decent gentle soul, slings his hook when he finds she has a dicky heart.) The narrator of McGahern’s novel of 1979, The Pornographer, ponders that when he had loved, it was uncertainty that gave an edge, the ‘immanence of No that raised the love to fever’; when Yes is spoken love prepares to fly out of the window. This truistic view is much reiterated by the narrator of Proust’s novel, whose experience has it that painful anxiety alone keeps love in existence: ‘We love only what we do not wholly possess’; a state of affairs which, looked at with eyes less jaundiced, ought to ensure love a reasonable lease of life. And the editor in The Pornographer touches coarsely on a Proustian theme when he proposes, with a rueful glance at the sexual athletics displayed in the fiction he prints, that one reason for art’s supremacy is ‘just because of the very limitations of life’. (Such philosophical generalisations are in keeping with the characters who utter them: to wit, never stunningly original, lofty or amplified.) In McGahern’s ‘Sierra Leone’ – a deceptively exotic title – a character muses that the rich dream of life he enjoyed during the Cuban crisis, ‘the last quiet evening of the world before it was all consumed by fire’, had dissolved the next morning when the world was safe again. There is a close parallel in Proust’s La Prisonnière: as a man prepares to fight a duel, life suddenly acquires a higher value in his eyes, there are pleasures to enjoy, important work to do. He escapes without a scratch, and at once finds the same old obstacles standing between himself and life’s pleasures and labours.
Little though there is to be said for a solitary life, family life seems harder to endure; it is something to be run away from, often into another form of family life: which admittedly can be richer or easier at times, as Moran’s daughters in Amongst Women testify. One of the grimmest trials suffered by those of McGahern’s people who have broken away is ‘going home’. Moran’s daughters, who do love their father, that unstable mixture of tyranny and charm, brave it collectively; his son Luke firmly refuses to go home. ‘Unfortunately the best part of these visits is always the leaving,’ says a young woman in one of the stories, a law graduate working in Dublin: ‘After a while away you’re lured into thinking that the next time will somehow be different, but it never is.’ Parents expect you to live in their present, your past: a bullying no more acceptable in being to some extent superfluous, for you’ve never altogether broken free. But the children, no longer children, still go home; even the obdurate Luke, safe in London, at least meets his father half-way, at the wedding in Dublin of one of his sisters; family ties, begrudged loyalties, must be another of nature’s old con tricks.
Another writer McGahern brings to mind is the poet Patrick Kavanagh. McGahern’s story ‘Bank Holiday’, despite its curious but endearing earnestness (‘I find myself falling increasingly into an unattractive puzzlement,’ the chief character says, ‘mulling over that old, useless chestnut What is life?’), is a notably happy one, even – given the prevalently low temperature – heart-warming. All the same, Kavanagh’s lines in ‘One Wet Summer’, ‘As it is I praise the rain/For washing out the bank holiday with its moral risks,’ does chime with much in McGahern’s world. It was noted of Moran that ‘Anything easy and pleasant aroused deep suspicion.’ The succeeding lines in Kavanagh’s poem admit, ‘It is not a nice attitude but it is conditioned by circumstances/And by a childhood perverted by Christian moralists.’ It’s hard to be sure, in McGahern, whether religion is a burden or a blessing. Probably both; the Lord takes away with one hand and gives with the other. If those pieties were abandoned, what would replace them? The woman’s question in Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ – ‘Who bent the coin of my destiny/That it stuck in the slot?’ – echoes throughout the stories, and while there are partial or contributory answers, there is no convincing one. Bent coins are just another old con trick, which no one is grandiose or presumptuous or priestly enough to refer to original sin. One visionary gleam is manifest, to a glum, listless priest: the evening light on snow, renewed (Proustianly again) thirty years later by another evening’s watery light falling on white chips of sawn beechwood. The priest would rather have his dead mother back. The priesthood attracted him not for any spiritual exaltation it might bring but as ‘a way of vanquishing death and avoiding birth’. Possibly – the prose is so tentative or indeterminate here – the image of light and his thoughts of his mother leave traces of reconcilement and a muted joy.
If we are to speak in such terms it is sex, rather, that is the opium of the people, of the male section; though not a very potent drug. Sex and work, or work instead of sex. In ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ it is observed of two men that they slave away all year as labourers in England in order to squander their earnings during one summer month back in Ireland. ‘As men obsessed with the idea that all knowledge lies within a woman’s body, but having entered it find themselves as ignorant as before, they are driven towards all women again and again, in childish hope that somehow the next time they will find the root of all knowledge, and the equally childish desire for revenge since it cannot be found.’ McGahern’s women are customarily and distinctly the superior sex, more direct, more simply affectionate, open and resilient, actually made of sterner stuff and yet more sensitive to others; and certainly free from any obsession with ideas about where knowledge is to be found. They stand up to the men as bravely as they may, bowing before the storm but not breaking, while the men bluster, bemoan, strike out, or sulk.
It is not that they are shallow, nor that they are sweetened or sentimentalised; they know the depths, they are more modest in assessing the attainable heights and nimbler in rising to them. Rose, Moran’s second (and barely deserved) wife, receives an oddly phrased but powerful tribute: her ‘tact was so masterful that she resembled certain people who are so deeply read that they can play with all ideas without ever listing books.’ The story ‘A Ballad’ begins squalidly enough, and then a forced marriage turns into a successful one, another tribute to a patient, strong-minded woman. Elsewhere a nurse spends a night, one night only, with a young man, then announces that she is about to enter an Order, the Medical Missionaries. Enlightened though he is, a teacher of Latin and History, this startles him: surely an incongruous preparation for her new life? She argues that women have been known to spend the night before marriage with another man: ‘We were free. That’s the way it fell.’ Now she is not free, and he still is. He has no beliefs, only preferences – for decency, affection, pleasure, good steak; she believes in one thing.
The occasional lyrical passages that have been noted in McGahern, seemingly extraneous, as if he is going to turn poetic on us, are transient and more often than not add to the melancholy, the sense of loss. The woman whose hip-bones ‘gave promise of a rich seedbed’ remains a virgin, technically. A barman watches his wife’s face, ‘beautiful in its concentration, reflecting each move or noise she made as clearly as water will the drifting clouds’, only to make sure she won’t spot him helping himself to the whiskey. While there is nothing in the stories, or elsewhere in the novels, as broadly comic as the moment in The Pornographer when the porn-fictional Colonel asks the boatman if he fancies an aphrodisiac, and the boatman replies. ‘To tell you the truth, I never sooner one drink more than another,’ there is a scattering of quiet jokes, or ambiguous ones. Such as the second-hand tractor described as ‘not fit to pull you out of bed’. Or the schoolboys from the Christian Brothers walking out in threes because there is less risk of buggery than if they walked in pairs. (These are boys who cross themselves before jumping into the sea.) More elaborately, and wryly, the retired man in ‘A Slip-Up’ waits for his wife as usual outside Tesco’s in London, but this time she has forgotten him, and he stands there for hours, in his fantasy back in Ireland on the farm they gave up, working there, getting on with what had been his real life. And, a simpler brand of humour, the trendy young priest mentioned in passing in ‘Oldfashioned’, who instructs his congregation that God wants them to want children, a bungalow, a car, and colour television; he plays the guitar in hotels, and to show how little the Roman collar means to him, he pulls it off and drops it into the soup: when fished out, it is found to be plastic and made in Japan.
Rarely can anyone have depicted a small and constricted world in such detail and with such unfussy cogency, a world moreover which is at once remote, for many readers, and yet strangely familiar. Familiar at any rate to people of my generation, of a time before expectations were formally established as a right presumably given by a non-existent God. Interconnections abound. Mahoney, the hated and loved father of The Dark (1965), looks like a preliminary sketch for Moran of Amongst Women. The same or very similar characters recur. ‘Sierra Leone’ has a stepmother called Rose, a querulous father, and an inconvenient visit home. ‘Gold Watch’ features a tyrannical father, another stepmother Rose, a son going home for the summer, another tense confrontation. In ‘Wheels’ a son visits his alienated father and his uneasy stepmother, Rose. One might wonder whether McGahern didn’t have himself in mind when he told in that first-rate story, ‘Oldfashioned’, how the Garda’s son went on to make a series of television documentaries about ‘the darker aspects of Irish life’, which some viewers thought a serious and valuable exposé while others considered them ‘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’.
The short story is exactly the right form for McGahern’s ‘documentaries’; the assiduous reader is surprisingly unaffected by the sameness, the overlapping of theme, feeling and figures, the pinched circumscription, the almost dogged, almost perverse embracing of disenchantment, the quiet desolation. In fact – much to the reader’s, or this reader’s, disbelief – one story gives an appetite for the next. There must be some truth in what someone says in The Barracks, his first and most purely tragic novel: ‘All real lives are profoundly different and profoundly the same.’ To which, in the corrective tone characteristic of the author, the speaker adds: ‘Sweet Jesus, profoundly is an awful balls of a word, isn’t it?’