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.

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