The first letter – five lines written to his father in April 1943 when John McGahern was eight years old – could take an entire book to gloss:
Thanks very much for the pictures. I had great fun reading them. Come to see us soon. We got two goats. Uncle Pat does not like them. Will you bring over my bicycle please and games. We are all well. I was gugering for Uncle Pat Thursday.
Goodbye from Sean to Daddy
At the time, McGahern and his siblings were living in Aughawillan, County Leitrim, with their mother. Their father, a sergeant in the Gardaí, lived some distance away and visited occasionally. He appears in McGahern’s early novels – The Barracks (1963), The Dark (1965) – and in some of his best short stories. ‘Gugering,’ Frank Shovlin explains in a footnote, ‘is the act of dropping seed potatoes into holes in the ground.’ Uncle Pat, he suggests, is a model for the fictional character ‘The Shah’ in McGahern’s final novel, That They Might Face the Rising Sun (2002). There, McGahern offers a portrait of this bachelor uncle: ‘He was intensely aware of every other presence, exercising his imagination on their behalf as well as his own … Since he was a boy he had been in business of some kind but had never learned to read or write. He had to rely on pure instinct to know the people he could trust.’ Just as the word ‘gugering’ belonged to a world that was disappearing, the Shah is someone whose manners and habits are part of a time that has almost passed.
The figure at the centre of That They May Face the Rising Sun, however, is Joe Ruttledge, who has come home from London to live in this isolated place. He is both insider and outsider, watching and noticing just as a novelist does. His house resembles the one McGahern lived in, and some of the novel’s characters are lightly fictionalised versions of neighbours and friends. ‘It was a little strange to be so public again,’ McGahern wrote after the book appeared. ‘People were talking about the characters in the book as though they were real people. That was even stranger.’ After the sudden death of a neighbour’s brother, Ruttledge and another character have to lay out the body and prepare it for the wake: ‘They closed the ears and the nostrils with the cotton wool, and when they turned him over to close the rectum, dentures fell from his mouth. The rectum absorbed almost all the cotton wool. The act was as intimate and warm as the act of sex.’ In 1981, in a letter to his French translator, Alain Delahaye, McGahern describes laying out the brother of a neighbour in the company of a chemist from Dublin who kept adjusting the mouth: ‘I knew this pursuit of perfection could go on all night. The murmurs outside the door were rising, people restless to start drinking, which they couldn’t do decently until they had viewed the Departed.’
After the funeral, Ruttledge has a conversation with the undertaker, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, a version of John Joe McGirl, a former IRA leader and a local undertaker and auctioneer in County Leitrim. McKiernan, in the novel, has overseen Ruttledge’s purchase of his small house and farm. McGirl must have done as much for McGahern, who mentions him in a letter to a friend as ‘the one I dealt with, more interested in machine guns than in coffins’. In the novel, when McKiernan asks, ‘You don’t seem to have any interest in our cause?’ Ruttledge replies: ‘No. I don’t like violence.’ It is tempting to read the argument about Northern Ireland that follows as one that must have taken place, since so much else in the novel can be traced to facts. I know it didn’t happen only because I once asked McGahern about it – who, with some satisfaction, assured me that it was pure fiction.
Despite the autobiographical elements in his fiction, McGahern wasn’t especially interested in exploring his own psyche. He rowed in familiar waters because the cadences in the prose and the resonant images came more naturally to him. And it was cadence and image that energised him, not self-revelation. In a letter from 1960, before he had published anything, he wrote: ‘The common notion that you can make art out of your life, refinement of pleasure etc, is pure moonshine as far as I see it. There must be some morality. You might as well call the philanderer a lover.’
One day in the mid 1990s, after lunch in McGahern’s house overlooking a lake in County Leitrim, the house from which many of these letters were sent, the house at the centre of That They Might Face the Rising Sun, McGahern handed me a sheaf of typed pages and indicated that I could take them with me. They contained a story, perhaps his best piece of fiction, called ‘The Country Funeral’. In it McGahern writes about Philly, home from the oil fields, and his ‘delight in the rounds of celebration blinding him to the poor fact that it is not generally light but shadow that we cast’. The story treats ‘light’ and ‘shadow’ and ‘poor fact’ not as events taken from life, but as suggestive and potent words that move the narrative out of its own particular time, beyond its own ordinary occasion. By the end, Philly sits alone in his dead uncle’s house, thinking: ‘Tomorrow he’d lie in the earth on the top of Killeelan Hill. A man is born. He dies. Where he himself stood now on the path between these two points could not be known … He must be already well out past halfway.’
The second letter in this book is from 1957, when McGahern was working as a teacher in Dublin. ‘I hope to go home about Wednesday,’ he writes to a friend. A footnote explains: ‘Home, at this point, was still the garda barracks in Cootehall, Co. Roscommon,’ where McGahern and his siblings were brought up by their father after their mother died in 1944. Over the next few years McGahern would explore the many levels of darkness and violence in this ‘home’. In the meantime, though, he was a young writer in Dublin, gleefully attacking his elders. On Seán Ó Faoláin: ‘I have had no contact with him except through his work and it has always seemed phoney to me.’ On the novelist Kate O’Brien: ‘I find literary people bore me to almost the point of violence.’ On Austin Clarke, the reigning high priest of Irish poetry: ‘a sentimentalist gone sour’.
Among McGahern’s circle was the painter Patrick Swift, who in 1960 was in London, co-editing a magazine called X. The following year Swift published an extract from McGahern’s unpublished first novel. It was spotted by Charles Monteith at Faber, who went on to oversee the publication of many of McGahern’s books. When Swift read the first part of another novel – to be called The Barracks – he wrote: ‘It’s a real advance. Very exciting. I still think the first book worth preserving but this is clearly a finer job, sharper and keener.’ Faber published The Barracks in 1963.
By then, McGahern’s father had retired and moved to Grevisk in County Roscommon with his second wife. ‘It is constantly tense,’ McGahern wrote to a friend about the atmosphere in the house. ‘Egotism both greedy and afraid, once savage, wasting away as a kill-joy, gnawing at its own loneliness and despair.’ McGahern told Monteith: ‘My father says that [The Barracks] is an immoral disgrace and has called here from the country with that priest of my adolescence. I am afraid I am just living on my nerves. I would wish the next days out of my life.’ The novel tells the story of Elizabeth Reegan, the second wife of a sergeant, who is slowly dying of cancer in a police barracks in the Irish midlands. It would not have been lost on McGahern’s father that the disease that killed John McGahern’s mother had been given to his stepmother. But the book’s offence arose more from the frank and unsparing way it dealt with the privacy of family life and its intimate domestic spaces.
‘I am afraid my family are not reconciled and won’t,’ McGahern wrote to one of Monteith’s colleagues at Faber. ‘I am not wanted at home this Easter. It’s strange how one learns to be alone. It was such a nightmare house to grow up in too.’ Three weeks later, he wrote to Monteith describing a family meeting in which
I was formally expelled from my home and poor inheritance … It was then I realised that the old blackguard [his father] was enjoying himself as never before in his life. He made speeches. ‘If he can write, why can’t he write about South America or some of those exotic places, and he’d make more money’ … The local bumpkins say they’ll ‘dip’ me if I ever show my face again in Cootehall. The priest in Ballinamore removed the book from the County Leitrim library where my aunt lives as unfit for parochial consumption. It’s such an absurd country, but from a safe distance I am as well to enjoy it quietly too.
Later that year, McGahern wrote to Monteith again: ‘Images of old horror started to come at me without warning and with horrible violence, atmospheres of evil. For weeks I lived in a state of pure panic. They’d always come suddenly. And the only time I was free of them was strangely when I was working with them.’
As Faber prepared The Barracks for publication, Monteith wrote to McGahern to discuss the use of the word ‘fucking’ in the book’s dialogue. Having warned about the loss of sales to libraries in the English provinces, he suggested that ‘the retention of this word would of course almost certainly lead to your novel being banned in the Irish Republic.’ McGahern replied: ‘I have gone through the “fuckings”. I could eliminate all Reegan’s, indeed every one except three or four in Chapter 3, the doctor’s dialogue, used to shock Elizabeth’s awareness into a harsh despairing world of a particular consciousness. I don’t know how I can really leave out these without harming the work.’
Despite Faber’s concerns, The Barracks wasn’t banned in Ireland, but it seemed more than possible that McGahern’s next novel, The Dark, would fall foul of the censor. In May 1964, McGahern wrote to Monteith to say that a Guardian journalist had told him ‘the novel should make a very interesting test case with the censorship here, they’re growing very self-conscious about it and might let it through … And if they did ban it would attract outside attention.’ Monteith expressed his worry about a description in the novel ‘of the father in bed with the boy where the father uses the boy to excite himself sexually and eventually has an orgasm’. He believed that if the scene were to remain, ‘an Irish banning would be a near certainty,’ and worried further about a possible libel action. ‘I remember you telling me how violently your father reacted to the publication of The Barracks; and I wonder if there’s any possibility that he might identify himself – or be identified by his friends – with Mahoney [in The Dark].’ McGahern replied: ‘I had actually started to change the passage you mentioned … I was very disturbed by the possibility of the legal business, it’d be for me the last horror, I’d rather not publish. It’d never occurred to me and I think it extremely unlikely … But what I will do is I will quietly investigate the position, in my own family first.’
Two of McGahern’s sisters read the manuscript and ‘felt practically certain that there would be no trouble. They said that there is only a spiritual resemblance between the man and the character … the house was a great deal worse than the house of the book. One of my sisters was temporarily paralysed by a beating … my father would never dare risk this becoming public.’ In December 1964, Monteith sent a memo to a colleague at Faber: ‘I’m sure it would be wise, wouldn’t it, not to distribute review copies of The Dark too widely or too far in advance to some of the Irish papers … We want to avoid a ban if possible – which is, I fear, probably inevitable.’ In New York, the editor at Macmillan who had published the US edition of The Barracks wrote to Faber and McGahern: ‘It is a most unpleasant book with details that make the skin creep … John is young and no great harm would be done, if he did put this manuscript away, forgot it completely, and went on to his next book.’
McGahern, on a year’s leave from teaching in Dublin, was writing from Helsinki, where he had married the Finnish theatre producer Annikki Laaksi in a civil ceremony. Laaksi remembered being taken to meet McGahern’s father: ‘The moment I entered the McGahern family house … I sensed the horror and the violence. It was stifling. I could hardly breathe and I refused to stay a second night in the place.’ By May 1965, The Dark had been banned. ‘It’s disturbing but there’s nothing to do,’ McGahern told a friend. The book was seized by Irish customs before the Censorship Board even saw it. ‘I was more disturbed than I could have known by the seizing,’ McGahern told Monteith. ‘It was fortunate that the reviews were favourable, or I’d have no protection, I don’t know what’ll happen as it is if I go back.’ At the end of July he wrote to Brian Friel: ‘The Appeal Board have now rejected the Faber plea to revoke the ban. So I may get sacked [from his job as a teacher]. I intend to return as if nothing had happened and I have no other plans. I am anxious to live in Dublin for some more years if I can. If that’s not possible I think I’ll go to London.’
The Irish censorship laws were a godsend to amateur moralists and general busybodies. The Censorship Board didn’t read every book that was published but waited until a member of the public or a customs or police officer complained about a book or a passage in it. Although enthusiasm for banning books was waning by the time The Dark appeared, novels by Edna O’Brien, Maurice Leitch, Brian Moore and J.P. Donleavy were banned in the same period, as was Catch 22. (Ulysses, oddly enough, never was. And while the original Irish version of Brian Merriman’s 18th-century poem ‘The Midnight Court’ was freely in circulation, Frank O’Connor’s 1945 translation into English was banned. The censorship laws were reformed somewhat in 1967.)
Since the Board didn’t have to explain its decisions, there is no way of knowing precisely why The Dark was taken out of circulation. It would not have helped that the word ‘fuck’ is spelled out (as F-U-C-K) on the very first page in a scene where the father strips his young son naked before threatening him with a strap. It might not have helped either that the boy in question learns to masturbate. But there is another scene likely to have caused the board to sit up straight. Although McGahern wrote to Monteith to say that he had introduced ‘vagueness’ into the scene in Chapter 3 in which the father and son share a bed, it’s clear that some sort of sex takes place between them. The chapter opens: ‘The worst was to have to sleep with him the nights he wanted love.’ By the morning, there was ‘shame and embarrassment and loathing, the dirty rags of intimacy’. McGahern adds: ‘There were worse things in these nights than words.’ The father’s hands ‘drew him closer. They began to move in caress on the back, shoving up the nightshirt, downwards lightly to the thighs and heavily up again, the voice echoing rhythmically the movement of the hands.’
That autumn, when McGahern returned to the school where he had been teaching, he was told that he was fired, and that the instructions to remove him had come from the archbishop of Dublin. Like most Irish schools, it was effectively controlled and managed by the Catholic Church. When McGahern approached the teachers’ union, they said they were willing to fight the sacking on the basis of the novel, but would not defend his civil marriage. McGahern wrote to Michael McLaverty: ‘The union is a paper tiger, the Church has all the power.’ One of the union officials asked him what had come over him to marry a foreigner when there were thousands of Irish women ‘with their tongues hanging out for a husband’. McGahern could easily have become an important presence in the debate about censorship and liberalism, or indeed sex abuse, in Ireland. Instead, he went to London, worked as a temporary teacher, and stayed silent.
McGahern was thirty when he began his period of exile. He found London bleak. ‘Remorseless fog, blue where it can’t be penetrated, utterly depressing,’ he wrote to a friend in January 1966. ‘In Dublin there’s always an expectation of some change or there’ll be some crack in the sky, to little virtue certainly, but not here. I always want to laugh when I see a sun or moon over London, it seems always they’ve come to the wrong place.’ He found writing ‘snail slow’ and his next novel, The Leavetaking, would not appear until 1974. ‘The trouble I have with the work,’ he wrote to his US editor, ‘is that it must be all the time as disciplined and as explosively accurate as verse, or it’s nothing: one has to live in a continual thread-the-needle hell.’
His marriage was also under strain. In July 1968, he noted drily: ‘Anu [his wife] spends most of her time with a friend at a sociological conference, to end the system of oppression and being oppressed.’ The previous year, McGahern had begun corresponding with Madeline Green, an American photographer he had met in New York who was now living in London. ‘I’m not calm enough to write,’ he told Green as his marriage fell apart. ‘It’s insanity all the time in the house now.’ Soon, he was telling his editor not to use his home address because ‘if the letters appear personal … Anu uses them against me; and she almost always gets and opens letters first … I don’t want to go into it here, it seems close to illness, the whole business.’ The couple divorced in 1969.
In November 1970, McGahern and Green moved into a house in Cleggan, on the County Galway coast. McGahern didn’t inform his father even of Green’s existence. By the end of the month, though, Mary Kenny, a journalist in Dublin, had been told of the arrival in Cleggan of the notorious writer by ‘a second cousin of hers who owns a village bar’, and she published it all in a Dublin newspaper. McGahern and Green were married in 1973. Over the next few years, they lived in Achill in County Mayo, in Paris, in upstate New York, where McGahern taught at Colgate University, and in Newcastle, where he was writer in residence at the university. In 1974, they bought a small house and some land in a remote part of Leitrim – the area that would be described in That They Might Face the Rising Sun. This was where McGahern lived for the rest of his life.
As he grew older, McGahern did not become more tolerant of other writers. Of the poet John Montague, he wrote: ‘I see him and his work increasingly as a very frail, and sincere, fraud.’ In 1975, he wrote to Seamus Heaney about being ‘caught’ on a train by the poet Padraic Fiacc: ‘It was like being doused in soft warm shit.’ The following year, he wrote to Madeline about an event he had done, attended, he said, by ‘Shit Silkin’, i.e. the poet Jon Silkin. When The Barracks was adapted for the stage by the playwright Hugh Leonard, McGahern wrote to his US editor: ‘The tart’s name is Hugh Leonard, did Stephen D. once, and several cheap hits.’
During these years, McGahern was writing his fourth novel, The Pornographer, in which the protagonist, a young man called Michael, makes a colonel and a woman called Mavis get up to all kinds of tricks. In 1978 McGahern wrote to Madeline to say that he ‘had managed to get half of the Colonel & Mavis scene done this morning. I’ll be glad to finish with it.’ Shovlin offers a useful footnote: ‘McGahern found [the sex scenes] difficult to write and had relied on Madeline to purchase pornography on his behalf when they lived in Newcastle upon Tyne.’
At the time The Pornographer came out, I had little interest in McGahern’s work. I found too much Irish misery in it, too much fear and violence and repressed sexuality, too much rural life and Catholicism. Perhaps my aversion was made more intense by the fact that I recognised this world. I had been brought up in it; I was still living in it. But The Pornographer seemed a departure from his previous work. It had the same slow cadences and relentless bleakness as The Barracks, but the Dublin it described was a damp, unforgiving place, stripped of any easy Irishness; it could have been any run-down European city, and the unnamed protagonist could have been at the centre of an existential novel. Six years before it was published, McGahern wrote to Monteith: ‘I have noticed that all my serious mistakes have been made when I have copied life too closely.’ In The Pornographer, he found a useful metaphor for the act of writing fiction, but, more important, he created a character lost in a city, obsessed with sex and death, writing scenes that soared above the mere facts of McGahern’s own life. (Even so, we do find elements from the novel in these letters, including a reference in 1960 to an aunt being treated for cancer in a Dublin hospital, and letters about a love affair in 1962 that led to the birth of a child.)
After the novel appeared, a Dublin journalist, according to a footnote here, ‘asked McGahern if the character of Maloney, the eccentric editor in The Pornographer, was based on him. [This] led to a temporary cooling of relations between the two.’ ‘Read the book,’ McGahern replied. ‘The character alluded to isn’t a caricature of anybody. Very little of him exists in “real life”. Of the characters I have drawn, with the possible exception of Elizabeth Reegan [in The Barracks], he is the person I like best.’
McGahern’s world was self-enclosed. From unpromising material, and in a tone that seemed simple and spare, he could evoke a scene or an undramatic moment with astonishing precision. After The Pornographer, I began to re-assess his earlier work, and grew to love The Barracks, with special reverence for the battle between light and darkness in a small domestic setting at the very start of the book:
Mrs Reegan darned an old woollen sock as the February night came on, her head bent, catching the threads on the needle by the light of the fire, the daylight gone without her noticing. A boy of twelve and two dark-haired girls were close about her at the fire. They’d grown uneasy, in the way children can indoors in the failing light. The bright golds and scarlets of the religious pictures on the walls had faded, their glass glittered now in the sudden flashes of firelight, and as it deepened the dusk turned reddish from the Sacred Heart lamp that burned before the small wickerwork crib of Bethlehem on the mantelpiece. Only the cups and saucers laid ready on the table for their father’s tea were white and brilliant. The wind and rain rattling at the window-panes seem to grow part of the spell of silence and increasing darkness, the spell of the long darning needle flashing in the woman’s hand, and it was with a visible strain that the boy managed at last to break their fear of the coming night.
McGahern’s third collection of stories, High Ground, appeared in 1985. By now he had begun to relax his sentences and to allow public life in Ireland, and the changing social world around him, into his fiction:
The tide that emptied the countryside more than any other since the famine has turned. Hardly anyone now goes to England. Some who went came home to claim inheritances, and stayed, old men waiting at the ends of lanes on Sunday evenings for the minibus to take them to the church bingo. Most houses have a car and colour television. The bicycles and horses, carts and traps and sidecars, have gone from the roads. A big yellow bus brings the budding scholars to school in the town, and it is no longer uncommon to go on to university.
Around the same time I wrote a piece about McGahern for a Dublin magazine. Having watched him appear as a shy and uncomfortable man in a television interview with Mary Holland, I was surprised when I went to Galway, where he was speaking to a university audience, to see that he was confident and funny on stage. He read amusing bits from books that I had thought, up to then, were drooping with melancholy. Soon afterwards, I went to see him in Leitrim. This involved getting a train from Dublin to a small station on the Sligo line called Dromod and being met by McGahern and transported along narrow roads to a lane that led to a lake and a further lane that followed the contours of the lake to a small one-storey house.
All the malice that is in the letters was also in the conversation. He made it sound natural. So many men of his generation in Ireland, including writers, were cautious and circumspect and tremendously boring. It was a relief to be in McGahern’s company. In person, he could make harsh judgments, but he could also have wondrous responses to anything that appealed to him. This mixture of tones can often be found in the same letter, as when he writes to Alain Delahaye from America in 1984:
Then we drove south to visit Madeline’s mother … She lived alone with an aged cat, feeding birds and wild animals. She’s a terrible person, almost worse than Madeline’s father. It may be luck that we have no children … [Yves] Bonnefoy spoke here last week. A nice man … read in French, poem by poem, very plainly and beautifully. Questions followed. Many of the questions were irrelevant or stupid but Bonnefoy handled them beautifully. He seemed to me to speak out of an enlightened commonsense. He’d plainly lived for long in that solitary place where poetry happens, and spoke clearly of its simple, unchanging laws. It was a relief after the glittering nonsense that often travels on the same passport round here. There were forty to fifty people. Seven hundred cheered a drunken [James] Dickey some months before. I didn’t go to the reception.
McGahern was amused by many things and people. There was no telephone in the house in Leitrim on my first visit (‘I’m uneasy on the phone,’ he wrote in 1998. ‘I think it comes from having to “mind” the phone when I was a boy in my father’s police station’) and I noticed no television. I realised that he had no interest in music as he was tone deaf. But most of all, he had no interest in Dublin. His capital was the town of Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. After that, Paris, where Madeline owned a flat. After that, Colgate University in upstate New York. (‘There is so much wealth,’ he wrote in 1983. ‘The trees, the cut grass, white houses, the tanned beautiful young people in their energetic indolence. They continually wave to me. I feel like some stranded idiot, half believing that it’s real … The people are pleasant but sometimes the very force of the friendliness can be numbing, the ruthless practicality it hides.’)
McGahern disliked some of the books I mentioned to him, or had no interest in them. He had not read any of the writers who were all the rage at the time. He wanted to talk about ones who still mattered to him, including early Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Rilke, some Forrest Reid, Patrick Kavanagh, Philip Larkin (‘His work will outwear his own time and all its fashionable gases,’ he wrote to Monteith after Larkin’s death), and, later, Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, the stories of Alistair MacLeod and John Williams’s Stoner, of which he was an early champion.
McGahern’s letters would usually come when I had sent him a book I had published or an article I had written or when I had news that might interest him. The handwriting was emphatically that of a schoolmaster, each letter clearly made. The tone could be that of a schoolmaster too. He would begin and end with the warmest of greetings and he was often nice about something I had done. But the middle part of a letter could be troublesome. In response to my novel The Heather Blazing, he wrote: ‘The scenes between the judge and his wife never rang true to me, and this affected the daughter’s drama.’ When I sent him my novel The Story of the Night, he wrote: ‘My one and serious hesitation is whether it worked as a novel because of the lack of a society – on the development of the corruption/espionage story for the night to feed on.’
This volume includes a letter from 1991 in which McGahern responds to a researcher who is writing a thesis about his work. ‘I think the difficulty of dealing with letters,’ he writes to her, ‘is that they are never quite honest. Often out of sympathy or diffidence or kindness or affection or self-interest we quite rightly hide our true feelings.’ He goes on to explain the way his frank epistolary style caused the end of his relationship with Michael McLaverty:
I was dismayed when he sent me The Brightening Day [in 1965]. I wished it had never been published as I saw it could only damage the work. I am sure I tried to put it as gently as I could, but there was no way I could give him the support he so much wanted for such a book … and that ended what was always a tentative, cautious relationship. He did not want to see me when I came to give a lecture in Belfast, it must have been 1967 or 1968.
In November 1986, as he worked on his novel Amongst Women, McGahern wrote to Delahaye: ‘I know it will be my last novel.’ Three years later, he and Madeline came to dinner at my house in Dublin. On the way out, he pointed to an envelope he had left on a table. It contained the flat proofs of Amongst Women. When I wrote to him to say how much I admired the book, he replied that ‘it was a pure pig to write. There were times when I thought it had me beaten and that I was finished as a writer. Many times in those four or five years it took to write.’ On publication, he wrote to Delahaye: ‘There will be no peace till it is over. Already journalists have been here and more are on the way.’ When the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, McGahern wrote to the playwright Thomas Kilroy: ‘Horseracing is fun … but not when you’re the horse.’
In 2002, McGahern was diagnosed with cancer. He wrote to a producer at the BBC:
I am out of hospital, tending the cattle, going for the odd walk, drinking the occasional glass of wine – waiting to be called for chemotherapy, one hour a week in Dublin for 24 weeks. I had so resigned myself to a worse fate that I cannot believe it, as if it is unlucky to think I may be all right for a time.
A year later, he told a friend that a liver scan had shown ‘my condition is terminal.’ He could be treated with drugs, but ‘they are all containments and not a cure, of course, but they said I could have a number of years. They were so blunt and straight about everything that I sort of believe them.’
In these last years, with access to his father’s letters to his mother, he wrote Memoir. In February 2006, a month before he died, he replied to questions from a graduate student about the process of charting the past in that book:
Memory is uncertain. I had many letters that I was able to check. These showed me that I had often arranged things in different sequences in my mind. My sisters read the manuscript in draft, and naturally had different versions, or slightly different versions, of the same event, and they recovered two important scenes that I had blanked out. My aim at all times was to get as close as possible to the facts.
The facts were already known to the readers of his novels. Heaney considered the repetitions in McGahern’s work in a review of The Leavetaking:
McGahern’s imagination is ruminant. It chews the cud of the past, digests and redigests it, interrogates it for its meaning, savours it for its bittersweet recurrence. This is the way to understand the compulsive return to certain landscapes and themes in his work. The Leavetaking, for example, plaits the cable of its story from strands drawn out of The Barracks … yet it would be a misunderstanding of his art to imply … that McGahern is ‘repeating himself’. He is rather retrieving himself, achieving a new self.
In this last book, then, McGahern sought to retrieve himself once more, alert to the uncertainty of memory, and helped, as he said, by family and documents. Helped also, perhaps, by the fact that he had written the story as fiction thirty years earlier in The Leavetaking. It is as if a precise set of memories actually became more solid and vivid and indisputable by virtue of having been set down in the earlier book.
‘I want you to promise not to cry if I go away,’ the mother asks the boy in The Leavetaking. In Memoir, this becomes: ‘I don’t want you to be too upset if I have to go away.’ In The Leavetaking, a neighbour asks about the mother: ‘Say if she doesn’t get better what’ll you do?’ This becomes in Memoir: ‘What would you do if she didn’t get better?’ In The Leavetaking, the father asks: ‘Could you say shit or piss before women?’ In Memoir: ‘Could you say shit or piss in front of women?’
The connection between the memories in The Leavetaking and in Memoir occur most intensely in the pages that deal with the emptying out of the house where the mother is dying, the hammering loose of the iron beds, and then the news of her death coming to the son who has been taken to his father’s house. In The Leavetaking, this news is announced by the father: ‘The children’s mother died at a quarter past three today. May the Lord have mercy on her soul.’ In the memoir, the time is different: ‘The children’s mother died at a quarter to three. May the Lord have mercy on her soul.’ In the novel and in Memoir, the narrator, who does not go to the funeral, imagines it as he watches the clock. In the novel: ‘A wren flitted from branch to branch under the leaves.’ In the memoir: ‘I had only a wren for company, flitting from branch to bare branch under the thick covering of leaves.’ This last detail – the wren – seems an integral part of the novel, another detail which serves to distract from the knowledge that the mother’s funeral is going on in the narrator’s absence. In the memoir, however, it is hard not to wonder about the wren. Could you be sure you remembered a single bird sixty years after the event?
I did not raise these questions with McGahern. The few times I saw him in the last year of his life there was too much else to talk about. The hospital and the staff intrigued him, as did the shape of the day as a patient. He made it all sound local, the hospital as a village or a parish. And he remained in a state halfway between wonder and indignation on recalling that, having been diagnosed with cancer, he was asked if he needed to see a counsellor to help him absorb the news.
It was late at night in the house in Leitrim when he told that story. McGahern went to a sideboard and poured more whiskey. He turned around. ‘A counsellor!’ He shook his head at the very thought. ‘What would a counsellor tell you? You would want to be an awful fool not to know that we only bloom once.’
These were the exact words. I made sure to remember them. McGahern spoke them as though he had written them, relishing the pattern in the sound, putting hard emphasis on ‘bloom’ and letting ‘once’ die away with a short breath after it. I remember the expression on his face even better than his voice, the look of immense sadness at the thought that he would soon die and that there was nothing that could be done about it, and then a smile, almost triumphant, and then a look of pure satisfaction that something true had finally been said. He had found the right words for it. And then he changed the subject.