Like a hand on the shoulder

Collected Stories
John McGahern
Faber, £10.99

EVEN in death, John McGahern remains Ireland’s greatest living writer. A strange thing to say, perhaps, but then, as an author known for decade-long silences, it does not feel as if he has truly left us. We might have expected a new novel from him by now if he were still alive but, in place of that, comes this reminder that he is in fact gone. It provokes sadness, yes, but also gratitude for the powerful work which he gifted us in the time available to him.

Famously, McGahern believed that Ireland was less a coherent state than a mosaic of “little republics called families”. Something similar can be said of his Collected Stories.

It is a volume which exceeds the sum of its varied contents; a selection which both echoes and enhances McGahern’s long-form prose in terms of its symbolism and its use of local reference. The stories here speak to the author’s working through — or, to borrow the title of his second collection, perhaps Getting Through — of the themes and architectures which have ultimately come to define him.

But McGahern’s stories are far more than exercises in narrative style or structure; they are masterpieces in their own right. Korea surely ranks with Joyce’s The Dead and Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation as one of the greatest Irish short stories. Eddie Mac and The Conversion of William Kirkwood deliver fresh angles on the well-worn ground of Anglo-Irish decline. The striking but atypical Peaches plumbs McGahern’s own autobiography while Faith, Hope and Charity unravels the impact of the Irish emigrant experience.

Of course, there are differences between this volume and the previous edition, styled Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories and chosen by McGahern before his death. The contents here return to those of the 1992 Collected Stories and so, while the fine valedictory offerings Creatures of the Earth and Love of the World are absent, a number of key pieces are reinstated. These include not just the Spain-set Peaches, but also Coming into his Kingdom, in which a young boy discovers the adult world, Doorways, an urbane, and at times satirical novella of romantic entanglement, as well as the haunting The Beginning of an Idea. The result is a stronger collection in that it presents more facets of McGahern, especially the work of the 1970s and 1980s.

It foregrounds his outsider perspective at the time, something which allowed him to articulate the harshness of Ireland in a way few others have achieved. Indeed, it is debatable whether McGahern would have produced such striking short fiction had he not been sacked from his teaching job at the insistence of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and forced into exile after publishing The Dark in 1965.

And yet McGahern forgave the Church. Although he ceased to be a believer, his maturity — evidenced by his Memoir and by his decorum in general — makes him a very Christian writer at a time when the clergy were embarrassing themselves or worse, actively harming the vulnerable. The complex relationship he developed with Irish Catholicism is apparent when one compares the sympathetic portraits of priests in stories like The Wine Breath to his uncompromising critiques of the nation’s mid-century theocracy in pieces such as The Recruiting Officer.

What would McGahern have made of the ruinous state of the country today? Of the economic crash? Of the clerical sex-abuse scandals? In a way, it doesn’t matter. “It is a writer’s job to look after his sentences. Nothing more,” he once said, and when he broached such subjects in his work, it was out of an interest in the way external forces squeezed the lives carved out by Everyman and Everywoman figures.

It is therefore the privilege of the reader and the scholar to explore his life and work anew with every passing year.

For instance, Peter Guy, writing in Studies, has ably read McGahern’s fiction through the lens of the Murphy Report. Denis Sampson has recently published a volume on the author’s early, formative years and the influences which led to his fiction.

Meanwhile, academics such as Antoinette Quinn and David Malcolm have given detailed attention to the stories collected here.

Writers too continue to look to McGahern in an effort to emulate his credible depiction of Ireland’s conflicted heart and tortured soul. As he told Sampson in 1979: “Fiction always has to be believable, I mean that you have to convince the reader that it happened.” A corollary, perhaps, is that life is not just misery; life is going on despite the misery, as the characters of Crossing the Line and All Sorts of Impossible Things do. Though that said, the central, Chekhovian third of this volume can be hard going.

Those heavier pieces contribute to the impression that McGahern’s writing is mostly concerned with the old and the dying and the dead, but in fact, young people predominate throughout the Collected Stories. Likewise, work such as Gold Watch and Bank Holiday are downright optimistic when compared to McGahern’s early novels.

Sex, in particular, is acknowledged as an essential part of life. Its musk infuses the figuring-out of relationships in the twin vignettes of Along the Edges, the bittersweet comedy of My Love, My Umbrella, and the dagger pangs of want which stab at the heart of Sierra Leone amongst others.

Thus, these are stories about bodies as much as about characters. There is a physicality to the work collected here, and the timeless vitality of McGahern’s writing derives from the impact of just this weight upon the reader. The pieces here often arrive violently — Anne Enright has rightly called them “the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor” — but they also linger long after the initial jolt. They lodge imaginative shrapnel, slivers of difficult choices, deep within the mind of the reader.

Such an effect ensures that the Collected Stories is less a time-capsule to be sealed and buried than it is a box of vivid memories to be opened and experienced again and again. The book possesses an instructional quality, this is true, but it never becomes didactic. Instead the pieces here are reassuring like a hand on the shoulder. They comprise a volume in which pragmatism is spiked with ambition, pleasure is tempered by realism, and out of which a unique vision of an Ireland in transition emerges.

Reissued eight years after his death, McGahern’s Collected Stories presents us with the opportunity not for reassessment — his reputation is secure — but for re-engagement. It is the work of a writer who will no doubt live forever.

Dr Val Nolan teaches at NUI Galway. His work includes the definitive account of the McGahern banning, ‘If it was Just Th’ol Book’, published in Irish Studies Review.

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