No Way Out

Colin Burrow

  • Memoir by John McGahern
    Faber, 272 pp, £16.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 571 22810 0

John McGahern is an extraordinary writer of charm and violence. His most recent novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002), has a looseness and a gaiety which it took him nearly seventy years to allow himself. His earlier work marked him as one of the great writers of claustrophobia. His novels tend to evoke small places – single houses or tiny communities – and to crush into those places a set of family and moral ties that make them feel even smaller and tighter. He can catch the way larger pressures – the Church, the Irish state in the early years of independence – apply to those enclosed spaces. He is also a master of the anger that comes from being shut in, pinned down, or forced to replicate at a local scale a set of larger structures of authority which have their centres elsewhere. All of these things make him also a great writer about maleness, about the complex kinds of covertly competitive sociability that men can get up to in public. He has a fine touch when it comes to representing the apparently innocent blank drift that can enable men insouciantly to do things which turn out to be terrible. The earlier work also describes the rage and lust which men can feel and inflict on others – passions that are inexplicable to both victims and perpetrators.

If his fiction deals mostly in enclosure, Memoir indicates that his life is the box that contains those enclosures, and explains why it took him so long to write a book that could be described as cheerful. He was born in Dublin in 1934, the son of a devout schoolmistress and a policeman who had served in the IRA. His parents spent most of his early life apart: McGahern lived with his mother (‘in the beginning was my mother’) at Aughawillan, Co. Leitrim, while his father was the sergeant of the police barracks at Cootehall, twenty-odd miles away in Co. Roscommon. His mother fell ill with cancer when he was nine, and left him with a fading vocation for the priesthood, and a love for her which would make his father for ever his rival. As she lay dying, his father, who would not see her during the last stages of her illness, had everything but her deathbed noisily shipped out of the house, including his children. McGahern then lived with his six brothers and sisters in the barracks with his father: ‘We had no defence against the sudden rages, the beatings, the punishments, the constant scolding’ except private parodic performances among themselves of their father’s anger and self-pity (‘O God, O God, O God, have pity on me and grant me patience’). McGahern found books in the shambolic farmhouse of the Protestant Moroneys, who, in between picking bees out of their beards, gave him freedom to range in their library. His success at school finally won grudging concessions from his father. After deciding to go to teacher training college, in Drumcondra, rather than university, McGahern became a schoolmaster in order to support himself while he wrote.

The Barracks, a book about a sergeant in the Garda who had served in the IRA, and who tyrannically dominates his household, appeared in 1963. Independent Ireland was still practically a theocracy then, and McGahern registers the fact in his fiction by the ways in which his close environments of masculine rule are policed by and expressed in religious forms. Home rule becomes the arbitrary rule of the home. His next book, The Dark, about a boy who is abused by his tyrannical father, and who loses his vocation as a priest, was published in 1965. It was banned by the clerically dominated Censorship Board. It represents adolescent life as a cycle of desire, masturbation, religious terror and confession. It also contains an extremely vivid scene in which a priest slips into bed with the boy. There is no sexual contact, but the moves of a seduction are transposed into an attempt to win the boy to the priesthood. McGahern has never risen to invitations to condemn the Church for the ban on his work, and in Memoir only expresses disappointment that his country should have shown itself to be so childish: ‘I was a little ashamed that our own independent country was making a fool of itself yet again.’ But the ban, along with his marriage at a registry office to the Finnish theatre director Annikki Laaksi, lost him his job as a teacher. He then lived in England for almost a decade (a period that figures scarcely at all in Memoir, which is about his relations to his family and to his landscape), until his return to Co. Leitrim with his second wife, Madeline Green.

Fiction, we’re sometimes told, is a way out of ourselves, or a way into other people. For McGahern it is not quite that, or if it is a way into other people it is a way that takes you so deep into the imprisonment that others experience that there is no way out on the far side. The oddest – and on the face of it the least claustrophobic – of his six novels is The Pornographer (1980). Michael, the hero of the book, writes pornography about the endless couplings of characters called the Colonel and Mavis. His work is illicitly circulated in an Ireland dominated by the Catholic Church, and his profession as a pornographer obliquely and mirthlessly indicates what McGahern thought he had become in the eyes of the Censorship Board. The Pornographer also indirectly makes the suggestion that fiction can add only a little dangerously transformative luxuriance to experience. At one point Michael arranges a boat trip down the Shannon with his girlfriend. They’re greeted by a garrulous man in a ‘well-cut worsted suit’ who buys them several drinks and tells them that ‘there’s nothing to these boats.’ As they set off down the river alone the girlfriend says it’s a safe time, they have sex, she gets pregnant, and then tries to get him to marry her, which he does not do.

The casual brutality of being male runs very deep in the novel; but so too does a sense that fictions don’t get you out of yourself. The pornographer rewrites his life as pornography, transforming the boat trip with his dim girlfriend into a sexual adventure for the endlessly lubricious Colonel and Mavis. They go on a boat trip on the Shannon. They meet a garrulous man in ‘a well-cut worsted suit’ who buys them several drinks and tells them ‘there’s nothing to these boats.’ They get him drunk, tie him up, and do all manner of wicked things over and around him. It’s a particularly bleak manifestation of how life becomes art. McGahern has said that art enables us ‘to see and to celebrate even the totally intolerable’. The Pornographer suggests that art might present only a minor palliative to the pain of living.

After reading Memoir you might be forgiven for supposing that this insight is central to his work as a whole. McGahern has said that in this autobiography he is not making himself up, but rather making himself down, and this does seem true, in a number of senses of ‘down’. Throughout this book you re-encounter scenes which have already been written in his fiction. In The Barracks, Reegan is a ferociously angry ex-IRA policeman who beats his children, logs patrols which he has not been on (‘patrols of the imagination’), and fights a continual war with the younger, bureaucratic Superintendent Quirke. All of this is in Memoir, except that the violent and manipulative rages of McGahern’s father are represented with all the rawness of the completely inexplicable. There is no senior figure, as there is in The Barracks, to explain the fury of a patriot who sees himself as a truer Irishman than the men who run his country.

Memoir ascribes actions to McGahern’s father without the mercy of explanation, and repeatedly fleshes out moments that were left inexplicit in the fiction. Early in The Dark, the boy hero is in bed with his father, who reassures him ‘as the stroking hands moved on his belly, down and up, touched with the fingers the thighs again, and came again on the back’, while ‘the breathing quickened.’ All coy, all inexplicit: the avoidance of any pronoun in ‘the breathing quickened’ might hint at mutuality, and does not make a direct accusation of sexual abuse. In Memoir, by contrast, McGahern describes himself sharing a bed with his father after his mother’s death, and being massaged: ‘Remembering his tone of voice and the rhythmic movement of his hand, I suspect he was masturbating.’ A little later he provides an explanation for his father’s rages: ‘I suspect there was something sexual in his violence, because the blows could flare up on nothing, and afterwards it was hard to trace them to a cause.’ Those repeated suspicions are the hard-hitting, judgment-giving equivalent to McGahern’s repeated efforts to understand paternal violence through fiction, and they give this book at times an uncomfortable flavour of revenge.

The strongest and most unsettling of these parallels between Memoir and the fiction cluster around the rawest misery of McGahern’s life: the death of his mother in 1945. In the first part of The Leavetaking, McGahern wrote about a boy whose highly religious mother dies slowly and painfully of cancer. Some of this material was close in spirit to the descriptions of the illness and death of Elizabeth Reegan in The Barracks, and much of it was composed from life. In Memoir it is rewritten word by painful word, so that whole paragraphs from The Leavetaking resurface in fractionally altered forms. This rewriting is in some respects an unsurprising thing for McGahern to have done: the second part of The Leavetaking, which describes how the central character came to lose his vocation, marry a divorcee and lose his job as a teacher as a direct result of the influence of the Church over schools in the Ireland of the 1950s, was revised quite minutely in 1984, a decade after its original publication. The first part of the novel, which describes the protagonist’s childhood, was not revised. It is as though in Memoir, belatedly, McGahern has done this work of revision, which for him is usually a matter of paring down, of removing incidental and adjectival alleviations of the spare truth.

The boy in The Leavetaking is not allowed to go to his mother’s funeral. He steals a clock, and imagines, as he watches it, the coffin lid being screwed down, the funeral unfolding, the collection being taken: ‘My father and uncles counting the silver into blue bags, clink of silver in the coughing silence of the church, and when it is all counted they hand the little bags to the priest with a small piece of paper telling the sum.’ This becomes in Memoir (where McGahern is not allowed to go to his mother’s funeral, steals a clock, and imagines the funeral): ‘As soon as the line ends, the two men count the money into small blue bags and write the sum that has been gathered on a slip of paper. They bring the slip of paper and the blue bags to the priest.’ The revisions (and there are many more passages in the autobiography which are as close as this to the fiction) clip adjectives and participles, as though reality asserts itself through a bleeding of colour, and a sharpening of sense. What makes these revisions particularly hard to assess is that both scenes are imagined: McGahern was not present. Self-plagiarism, a recycling of fiction back into his account of his life, is perhaps the only way to write about, or write down, this traumatic event which he was forbidden to witness. A bleaching of sensuous detail (no clink of silver, no coughing silence in the autobiography) becomes the index of truth.

But Memoir is not just a story of life as loss, or of art as an ornament that a true account of a life must pare away. It is also a book of digressions and anecdotes, of runaway tractors, pike-fishing, stubborn jennets, and of moments that run away from the tyranny of the barracks along lanes or down rivers. These features don’t just give it local flavour: they give it a serious political optimism. McGahern has said that ‘much has been written about the collusion of Church and State to bring about an Irish society that was insular, repressive and sectarian. This is partly true, but because of the long emphasis on the local and the individual in a society that never found any true cohesion, it was only superficially successful.’ Memoir does not just show an insular and repressive Ireland abusing its youth. It shows an Ireland diverse enough to escape from oppression through its lack of cohesion. It finds a ramshackle resilience within McGahern and within the society in which he grew up. His description of Irish life in the 1950s sums up this aspect of the book: ‘People did not live in Ireland then. They lived in small, intense communities which often varied greatly in spirit and character over the course of even a few miles.’

This chatty diversity fights against the power of the father and of the Church, and emerges as the dominant force in the Irish landscape of Memoir. The book is full of tiny communities: if one of them attacks or rebukes McGahern, there will always be another to offer him a wink or an act of social absolution. On the Sunday after his mother’s death the boy frets noisily with his beads at church, and is shouted at by the priest: ‘It was as if God had spoken from on high and I was ruined for all eternity and disgraced here and now in the eyes of the world.’ He runs off, and eventually slinks back home. His granny spots him, and calls out: ‘I hear, Sean, you knocked the priest off his stroke at Mass this morning,’ as if ‘I had accidentally struck a blow for freedom.’ Family, and the female members of the family in particular, give a comical counter-authority to the Church.

Memoir is an important moment in McGahern’s career and, perhaps, in the history of Irish fiction. In it bubbles of claustrophobia repeatedly burst, as one sphere of authority rubs up against another. It contains terrifying descriptions of what it is to be a victim of power: at one point his father cuts the scabs off his impetigo with a knife in ‘a ceremony that was as fixed as an execution’. But there are also moments when McGahern’s world contains too many tyrants for all of them to have their way with him. When an authoritarian canon insists that Sean attends catechism, and grabs him by the ear to make his point, Sean’s father says to the canon: ‘I’m taking your ear in a citizen’s arrest. You are preventing us from going about our lawful business.’ He does take the canon’s ear. And so this deadlocked duo of secular and religious authority proceed down the aisle of the church, the policeman-father holding the canon by the ear, the canon holding the young Sean. Memoir is a story about the strength and the comedy that comes from being part of lots of people and lots of places. Like That They May Face the Rising Sun it finds strength in the unruliness of a rural community. At one point in Memoir a labourer called Eddie McIniff shows McGahern how to do free kicks with his father’s potatoes (which he’s supposed to be digging up). Eddie is caught at it by McGahern’s father, and sacked. Later McGahern meets him at a football game. Eddie greets him cheerfully, with all the resilience of someone who lives in a world which has enough small structures of affinity to allow its subjects to be free: ‘“We’ll always have spuds and eejits,” he laughed, without a care. I felt proud and absolved and happy.’