By Joseph Hurley
Ask any reasonably literate Irish man or Irish woman about a writer named John McGahern, and you’re very likely to be greeted with one of two responses. Either you’ll be faced with a stare of blank incomprehension, or you may be informed that he’s "the best writer in Ireland."
McGahern, born in County Leitrim in 1934 to a police sergeant and his wife, a teacher and Trinity graduate, first appeared on the Irish literary scene in 1963 with the arrival of a novel, "The Barracks." If the self-effacing author couldn’t exactly have been said to have burst rocket-like onto the field of Irish letters, at least he was there, and his slim, modestly produced first effort was noticed, and, in some quarters, admired avidly.
Two years later, his second book, "The Dark," was "noticed" in a manner all too common with Irish writers. It was banned under the Censorship Act, and, in the midst of a great controversy, McGahern was dismissed from his post as a teacher at St. John the Baptist’s National School in Clontarf, Co. Dublin. He was 31 at the time.
The firing motivated a move to London, where McGahern worked on construction sites, plus teaching part-time when he could find the opportunity.
The self-banishment from Ireland served to open a world beyond the borders of his native country. He traveled, lived in France, Spain and the United States, and began to afford himself of the frequent writer-in-residence offers that came his way.
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Early this summer, John McGahern was in New York again, mainly to read before a capacity audience at NYU’s Ireland House. It’s hardly unusual for an Irish author to draw an impressive crowd to the elegant brick structure on Fifth Avenue at Washington Mews, but, generally, writers are there at least partly out of self-interest, with a new novel or story collection to promote, with Ireland House being just another stop, albeit an unusually appealing one.
Standing at the lectern in a conservative grey suit, McGahern might easily have passed for a slightly taller cousin of playwright Brian Friel, manifesting the same shyness and a similar sense of being slightly surprised to find himself the center of so much attention.
An hour so so earlier, McGahern had sat in one of the Ireland House meeting rooms and talked with a reporter on the state of things in Ireland, where he’s again living, and about writing, including his own, and what he’d be reading for the crowd that was soon to assemble to hear him.
"I’ll be reading a small section from a book I wrote 20 years ago," he said, "and some longer sequences from the new book I haven’t actually finished yet."
The earlier book is "The Pornographer," published in 1979, and the new one, which he estimates is about four-fifths completed, is untitled, and late, which seemed to have McGahern worried. But perhaps not too seriously worried, everything considered, including his track record, on which stand five generally acclaimed novels, three volumes of short stories, and a play, "The Power of Darkness,’ which the Abbey Theatre produced in 1991.
The writer’s stories have recently been recollected in a handsome paperback volume called, with a certain obvious logic, "John McGahern: The Collected Stories," which, along with his 1990 novel, "Amongst Women," was unostentatiously available in the Ireland House reception area.
"Amongst Women" is at one and the same time a favorite book of the author’s and the one by which he thinks people just now may know him best, since it was recently filmed for BBC television in a four-part series of which the writer approves heartily, a fairly rare thing among the creators of works of fiction which turn up on the small screen, or the big screen either, for that matter.
For a time, McGahern, who now lives mainly on a farm near Mohill, Co. Leitrim, thought he had a title for the new book, but now he isn’t sure.
"I was going to call it ‘That He May Face the Rising Sun,’" he said, "but now I’m not so certain. It may be too long. It’s always difficult to get titles for novels," he added, "whereas it’s very easy to get titles for short stories."
McGahern offers his search for a title for "Amongst Women" as proof of his theory. "It took me ages to come up with that title," he said, "and you’d think it belonged to it naturally."
The author’s first novel, "The Barracks," recently made available again by Faber Classics, is part of the standard university bill of fare throughout France, and all of McGahern’s books are available in translation there. His enduring popularity with the French seems to puzzle McGahern, but there’s a single word which sums up what he feels may be at the root of it. "Luck," he says.
Probably no McGahern book has approached the popularity of "Amongst Women."
"When it was published," he says, "I had no idea that it would turn out to be so popular. It spent some 60 weeks, I think, on the Irish best seller list. And it did well in England, too."
"Amongst Women" contains a central character, Michael Moran, an embittered former Irish Republican whom some critics suspect is based on the author’s own father, but whom McGahern maintains is "deliberately picked as Mr. Everybody."
McGahern knows that the book’s impact, and that of the BBC series, has a great deal to do with the public’s response to the Moran character. "I got an enormous amount of letters," he says, "and that makes me think that there must be endless amounts of Morans wandering around the place."
Very little of McGahern’s work has thus far been filmed. "Korea," a story of his, was filmed by Cathal Black with Donal Donnelly in the main role. "They invented a lot of the story themselves," he says, "because the short story only covers five pages, and they pulled it out to where the film runs over an hour. The story is in a lot of anthologies now."
To be candid, McGahern hasn’t actually seen "Korea," nor has he seen the BBC version of "Amongst Women." His "approval" is based on what he’s heard, what he’s read, and, in the case of the BBC films, a little bit more. "I saw and heard the promotional videos they made in connection with ‘Amongst Women,’" he says, "and they were good. But I wrote the book and I wrote the story. I have my own vision of the book, and when anybody reads it, they will have their own vision, and when people make it into a film, they’ll have another vision still, a different vision from what I’d have of it, and, in fact, it would be no good if it wasn’t different. I know myself well enough to know that I’d be fighting with anybody else’s version, and that’s not useful."
Dennis Sampson, an Irish writer and critic who lives and works in Montreal, has written a book, "Outstaring Nature’s Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern," published in 1992. McGahern hasn’t read it. "I looked at some of it," he says, "and I think it’s a very honorable work. I don’t really approve of reading about oneself. It’s like listening to people talking about you in another room. It’s really not your business, and, besides, they say you never hear good things about yourself if you’re listening."
McGahern has done, with regard to his 1974 novel, "The Leavetaking," something almost unique among novelists. When the book was republished, in 1984, he rewrote a considerable amount of it.
"The way that came about is," he says, "that when the French translation was about to be done, I had to go through the book, and in the course of doing that, I did a lot of rewriting. When my publishers heard that I’d done that, they decided to publish the new version. Novels are different from short stories. It’s very seldom that a novel ever gets rewritten, while stories, since a lot of them start out in magazines, often go through a lot of rewriting before they ever appear in book form. One always rewrites, but one doesn’t expect to rewrite after publication."
Three years’ work
McGahern admits that his new novel is fully three years overdue.
"I know how late I am," he says, "but for the last three years, I’ve been working almost every day on it." Then he adds, with just a note of defiance, "It will be finished by the end of this year, but when it will be published is the business of the publishers."
Nowadays, McGahern and his American wife, Madeline, whom he met when he was here in 1965 for the publication of "The Dark," live on that little Leitrim farm, not far from the house in which the writer grew up, near the Roscommon border beyond which his father headed up a small police station.
"I’ve been back there for 30 years now," he says. "When I bought the property, I thought it would be a cheap way to live, and write, raising cattle and some sheep. I thought the cattle would help subsidize my writing. But it turned out to be the other way around. My writing keeps the cattle in great style nowadays."
McGahern views Ireland’s current prosperity with guarded approval. "I think it’s great," he says, "that people don’t have to emigrate anymore, unless they want to. It’s splendid that they have more money and more freedom. I don’t like the fact that there’s racism against other people coming in, black people and others."
Some months ago, the Irish Times did a series of feature articles on the decades of the 20th century, and McGahern was asked to contribute. "I think that, more or less, the 1950s and 1960s are being looked down on now," he says, "but I think that human life and human nature never change much. People get ill, they fall in love they get hungry, and eventually they die. People don’t live in decades. They live in hours and moments, days and weathers, rather than in decades, and when one generation starts looking at another, it is, I think, a very dangerous activity, and a cliche. And God knows how people will look on them in another 40 years’ time. Sometimes, when I hear people boasting about the Celtic Tiger, I wonder what that boasting is hiding."
John McGahern observes, then records, but he doesn’t judge.