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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 1 No. 3 · 22 November 1979
SIR: As a common reader with the usual limited book-purchasing power, I read with anticipation D.J. Enright’s review of John McGahern’s latest novel, The Pornographer, in your last issue (LRB, 8 November). McGahern’s previous work, The Leavetaking, had impressed me as second only to Sons and Lovers in its ability to transmit childhood memory. I am indebted to Mr Enright for the knowledge that women in real life get pregnant from intercourse, especially in Ireland; that the distinction between the old porn and the new is that of ‘soft mounds’ versus ‘polar bears’ (sic); that what the Irish don’t have is the biggest thing they have; and finally, but by no means least valuably, that happiness, current permissiveness notwithstanding, is as scarce as ever. I was further gratified to learn that the writing of pornography may either shed light on the necessity of the IRA or, at worst, be a partial solution to (life’s?) problems. I was perplexed at Mr Enright’s dismissal of the book’s prose as ‘poetic’ and at his inexplicable aversion to melancholy characters, especially those without names. But no matter. What I missed, however, was any attempt at divining the author’s intentions, or providing a yardstick for his achievement which the reader might share. At the end, I was uncertain whether my £4.95 would be better spent on this novel or a performance of No Sex, Please—We’re British.
SIR: D.J. Enright has a lot of good fun with the thought that John McGahern’s new novel exhibits a hero who is ‘relentlessly miserable’, though the Ireland he lives in affords plenty to eat and drink. But people are often miserable, and there’s a literature to show, together with much in the way of other evidence, that Irish people, perhaps, are especially miserable. Their misery may even be a factor that helps to account for what they have been doing to each other, North and South, in the last few years. Then again, Mr Enright’s good fun has a touch of that English indifference which may be another factor of the same kind.
Mr Enright writes in the course of his review:
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.’
A knowledge of McGahern’s previous fictions suggests that the words which describe the man’s miserable response might read, in their full context, rather strongly. These fictions have something to communicate about what certain people cannot say, and cannot do, and about more than one variety of hunger. This is not to deny that Mr Enright could well have a point when he adds that the man’s ‘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.”’