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An Elegant End

'Patrols of the Imagination': John McGahern's Memoir
(London: Faber & Faber, 2005)

Book Review

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 13 July 2006

I have now read all of McGahern's work; sadly this is the last such exactingly prepared book that I presume will appear under his name. Any admirer of his novels The Dark, The Leavetaking, or That They May Face the Rising Sun (aka By the Lake) will find much here to document how McGahern hacked out from his own servitude to father, school, and state much of the raw material for his widely praised prose constructions. While he never attained the prominence granted many less talented scribblers, McGahern's recognised as one of Ireland's foremost stylists, with an eloquence that unflinchingly scrutinises the terror as well as the fleeting beauty of this our only life. 'We come from darkness into light and grow in the light until at death we return to that original darkness.' (40) McGahern was one of the first writers, early in the 1960s, to stand up against the bishops, headmasters, and political cronies to defend a secularised, sexualised, and cosmopolitan ethos. He returned from continental and London exile to support himself as a writer, living in the Co Leitrim, fittingly beneath the Iron Mountains. He suffered for his rebellion as a young man, but what we read in these pages is more his childhood torments.

Most deeply rooted in the straitened years of the 1940s and 50s excavated here are seeds of what blossomed into his first novel The Barracks and his best known work, Amongst Women. Michael Moran, in the latter novel, was a veteran of the old IRA turned Garda who inveighed against the Free State that had sold out the ideals of the Republic, but whose bitterness poisoned the lives of his family. McGahern's own father was the model, and the fiction does not seem to have needed any more example for imitation. In That They May Face the Rising Sun, a new IRA man lurks in the Leitrim village, whose activities at a later, if unspecified, date bring back the menace of the true believer as well as the idealism that spurs on the violence then shuddering a few miles away over the border. McGahern, unlike nearly any other Irish writer who comes to my mind, presents in such figures nuanced presentations of men more complicated than their militant facades would betray to even their intimates. Having grown up with an IRA veteran and having lived most of his life in Co Leitrim, he presents in his fiction the rhythms and the stasis of country life over our past century. Amidst placid fields and barren clay, his ex-soldiers mull and mewl and mutter. McGahern knows how long lingers the call to arms, and his descriptions of fighters forced to retreat or resigned to retire offers readers the long silence after Republican actions, rarely shown in fiction or fact. The daily grind replaces that adventure lived on the run.

Confronted by McGahern's bullying father Francis McGahern (Sgt), as he signs his chillingly precise letters, we see, as in Michael Moran, the costs borne by those who fought then and then again for a Republic, and who resented the compromised state that they had to live in, serve, and endure. The Sergeant and his men at the barracks would, when indolent, pen imaginary 'Patrols of the Imagination' in the ledgers to satisfy inspectors. (38) The gardaí would laugh; Sergeant did not. Humour escaped him. Both themselves and those they marry and engender also bear the brunt of such men's unfulfilled longings and the cruelty that they mete out to those around them. The men think they find sweetness with marriage or career, but these soon sour and the lusts that ignited their youthful fanaticism flare. These terse veterans reminisce little about their exploits, and for this they are truer to actual IRA volunteers themselves. Those who boast of flying columns or clandestine operations while perched upon the barstool are rarely those who had been entrusted by and for the Movement.

McGahern, in his fictional and factual studies of Moran and his father, inspects their legacy, standing for that of the 26 Counties: such men as the gardaí shuffle through the bleak mid-century decades of small pay towards a secure pension. Paid for not by the virtual Republic, always postponed. They will never see the dawn or greet the sunburst. Such unsparing tone, permeating memoir and story, often is shadowed more than sunny. This does create a challenging read. Memoir reenacts McGahern's psychological and physical skirmishes with his father after the lingering death from cancer (halfway through the book, when the author was nine) of his beloved mother.

The grimness of great stretches of this memoir sobers any naive page skimmer expecting a rural idyll romanticised. About his mother's slow decline, McGahern muses: 'Those who are dying are marked not only by themselves but by the world they are losing. They have become the other people who die and threaten the illusion of endless continuity. Life goes on, but not for the dying, and this must be hidden or obscured or denied.' (125). McGahern having crossed to the other side and whatever heights or oblivion lie there knows now what he did not know as he wrote these words a couple of years ago.

I would have edited more of the micro-detail that McGahern presents, as not all of it is germane to his larger arc, although he labors long in providing the meticulous array of details and spare dialogue to chisel his printed creations. Memoir does, as many autobiographies do, conjure up both scintillating scenes from the writer's earliest years and exactingly rendered dialogue that befuddles more forgetful people like me: how many of us can recall with any precision more than a vignette or two of what we said and saw at, say, six years of age? I suppose this enhanced recollection distinguishes the more talented from the rest of us.

McGahern labored long over rewritings and revisions of his work before publication. Perhaps his early death, soon after this memoir appeared, may account for the hastier (only by comparison with his other works, whose publications were spaced out often over decades rather than years) appearance of Memoir. Intriguing to find that the Knopf American printing that followed first is titled the meliorative All Will Be Well - terse contrast with the poetic, Celtically symbolic, and appropriate That They May Face the Rising Sun title given by Faber to his final novel that for Americans was replaced by the less evocative if still enigmatic By the Lake. Why either work gets a new title for a foreign audience remains curious: I like to think that Knopf was repairing by this recent renaming the damage done by bestowing upon his last novel such a bland moniker.

The lack of breaks in the autobiography deepens the feeling of unrelenting struggle engaged in by the narrator. Without chapters to pause between, the compression of events and emotions increases the oppression that McGahern felt and that he forces us to experience-a constricted form of the memoir reiterates its crushing content. His reminiscences, however lacerating, emerge clearly and simply. Of his father, he notes his personality: 'If they were people he could look up to, he would have been full of an unsteady charm; if they were deferred to him and were useful, he could be capriciously avuncular and solicitous: at the very worst, they would be guaranteed unlimited free advice.' (161) McGahern sums up, with carefully deployed punctuation and pauses, a man he grew to despise yet one, as the son must acknowledge, as fallible as he or you or I. 'My father never willingly let go of any relationship, no matter how bad it was. In this he was aided by the gentle country manners that were loath to turn anybody away.' (285) This tenacity entangles the son- unable to flee his mercurial father.

With such close attention to foibles and fate, Memoir thickens. You feel trapped in the telling of his difficult coming of age. Beauty and sorrow tumble one after the other. You never know which will appear next as you read--he recreates the surprises and terrors of anyone's life, no matter, as he says, how softly led. 'I am sure it is from these days that I take the belief that the best of life is lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything.' (87)

But the book is lopsided. Presumably intentionally, unless McGahern anticipated a sequel? However, as half the book brings us up to only his ninth year, the remaining couple of decades rush by with alarming brevity. 'Over many days and months, gradually, a fantastical idea formed. Why take on any single life- a priest, a soldier, teacher, doctor, airman- if a writer could create all these people far more vividly? In that one life of the mind, the writer could live many lives and all of life. I had not even the vaguest idea how books came into being, but the dream took hold, and held.' The author does not have intimations of being what he will become until he's late in his teens, and this occurs first on p. 217 of a 290 pp. account.

Necessarily and deliberately, McGahern's education, young adulthood and the start of his career is crammed into much less space. I would have preferred much more attention to his maturation as a writer than the attenuated emphasis paid his early formation. I understand the polarity of his parental positions and how they marred McGahern's own soul. Yet, if more follow-through had been given to how he wrested himself free of the restraints of his family and his nation, this would have made for a more memorable, and also less jerkily fast-forwarded, depiction of himself. (This portrait of the artist as a young man conveys shades of Stephen Dedalus at the end of Portrait; like Stephen, McGahern too returns, however, to Ireland after overseas self-exile has not fully freed the artistic imagination from its first inspiration.) Yet, McGahern knows that he cannot stand apart smugly from his inherited legacy, in its joys and its sorrows, and he comes to accept this if not find comfort in it later in his telling.

Despite its uneven pace, this story will endure as a self-penned- and as always in any self-portrait,- a prematurely engraved epitaph. McGahern's courage in standing up for himself against the powers of Church, School, and State makes for engrossing if often reticently told autobiography. Refusing the comforts of faith as he grows, he nonetheless is fair-minded and balanced in crediting the good that the Church instilled in him during very dark years. Never concealing the sins, but noticing too the comforts, he looks at himself with as much detachment as he does others, no easy feat, considering what we now know would have been his last couple of years (dying at seventy of cancer)as he wrote this memoir.

He hides as much as he exposes, the privilege of any teller of one's own tale. This is recommended for those already familiar with his fiction, as his early publications find only bare mention here. The Barracks, The Dark, The Leavetaking, Amongst Women, and That They May Face the Rising Sun in order and in retrospect chart the growth of McGahern, at only a small distance from his imaginary efforts. McGahern never fell into the tired reaction of making a book about an author writing a book, however. He uses his hard-won experience but keeps his attention most on what's out there before him, not what hides within. He treats others fairly but exactingly, and expects the same in return given him.

He could be, in his own public stance, perhaps no less laconic or cutting than his father. A literary figure whose family had grown up alongside the McGaherns told me of a hapless lady at a reading who asked the author if some detail from his latest fiction emerged from his fact. McGahern thundered back: 'I will treat that comment with the contempt which it deserves.' His father might have looked down from wherever he perched in the afterlife upon his son and recognised a kindred spirit after all. Of course, fiction always eludes by definition the restraints of fact.

Yet without such a life as he tells in Memoir, McGahern's imagination would not have shoved itself free into the liberation that he sought in the aesthetic call and not in the pedagogical career that he began, teaching in secondary schools all over the island as a young man. He managed, I add, to broaden his focus as he matured. Nobody in his pages is left a caricature. On page he never mellowed, but in person perhaps he displayed as the years passed his father's 'country matters'. At NUI Galway two years ago, he read excerpts, one from this memoir in progress and one from his last novel. For an hour, hundreds of us were captivated. He came, he spoke, he left. No questions. I wonder now if he already suffered from the cancer which would take his life as it had that of his mother.

A grounding in McGahern's short stories and novels- from his harsh and bracing to his calmer and forgiving accounts- is necessary if you wish to savor the textures here evident, poignantly, in Memoir's last two pages. He spent a decade writing That They May Face the Rising Sun, and his craft is never hurried or unmeditated. As with his last novel, the last couple of pages, the open-ended conclusion to Memoir, ends his intense final narrative elegantly and powerfully.


 


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19 July 2006

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