Re­veal the dy­ing of the light

Rose­mary Gor­ing sees the sun­shine and shad­ows in a new col­lec­tion of the best of John McGa­h­ern’s work

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

When John McGa­h­ern died this year, there was wide­spread mourn­ing for the loss of one of the most pow­er­ful writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. By the stan­dards of peers such as JohnUpdike or William Trevor, McGa­h­ern’s ca­reer was not pro­lific. At its con­clu­sion he had four col­lec­tions of short sto­ries, six nov­els, a mem­oir and a play to stand as cairn to his me­mory. The qual­ity of th­ese works, how­ever, is such that they will with­stand all weathers.

In March, the month he died, McGa­h­ern wrote a brief in­tro­duc­tion to this present vol­ume, which col­lects the best of his short sto­ries, and in­cludes two new ones, one of which gives the vol­ume its ti­tle. If you haven’t yet read him, start here. If you have, this will be ame­mento to cher­ish.

Not that McGa­h­ern is easy on his read­ers. His prose is a de­light, a plea­sure for its cadence alone, but the ker­nel of his work is hard: hard in the way of a stone that has been ham­mered from the start of time. Al­most in sum­ma­tion of his life­time’s work, he writes in his pref­ace: “Among its other obli­ga­tions, fiction al­ways has to be be­liev­able. Life does not have to suf­fer such con­straint, and much of what takes place is be­liev­able only be­cause it hap­pens. The god of life is ac­ci­dent. Fiction has to be true to a cen­tral idea or vi­sion of life.”

McGa­h­ern’s vi­sion has many facets, but prom­i­nent among them is the vis­ceral tug of earth and sky and wa­ter in the lives of his char­ac­ters. There is the con­stant pres­ence of the nu­mi­nous in his writ­ing, yet it never takes the shape of God – and nor could it, given his views on the suf­fo­cat­ing in­flu­ence of Catholi­cism on his coun­try. And then there is the na­ture of man, of­ten de­picted as vi­o­lent, harsh and im­pla­ca­bly self­ish.

Crea­tures of the Earth cov­ers the span of McGa­h­ern’s writ­ing, from his youth­ful days as ex­ile fromIre­land who found work as a labourer in Lon­don to his more set­tled life back in Ire­land. The breadth of this col­lec­tion al­lows one to trace the re­frain in his fiction: the con­stant pres­ence of death, a stalker that is as much a char­ac­ter as McGa­h­ern’s flesh and blood cre­ations.

His early ma­te­rial is full of wide-eyed, pre­co­cious ob­ser­va­tion, tinged with a bit­ter­ness that is to soften in later work. In Hearts of Oak and Bel­lies of Brass he de­picts a day in the life of a gang of builders with al­most harsh de­tach­ment. It can take a sec­ond read­ing to feel the un­der­stand­ing that un­der­lies ev­ery word.

Many of th­ese sto­ries are piv­oted on love and de­sire. McGa­h­ern paints emo­tions with a clar­ity and hon­esty that make them in­deli­ble. Too of­ten th­ese loves do not end hap­pily, but in Gold Watch, where the hero mar­ries with­out telling his fa­ther and step­mother, the ro­mance re­flects the nar­ra­tor’s first real home­com­ing, seen in sharp con­trast against the un­ease of his fam­ily house.

There are many moods in th­ese pages, and the al­most in­de­scrib­able qual­ity of ex­is­tence is brought as close to ex­pres­sion as fiction can get. But there is some­thing dis­turb­ing too in the new sto­ries here that makes one won­der what di­rec­tion McGa­h­ern’s thoughts were tak­ing. InCrea­tures of the Earth, the death of a hus­band is made un­bear­able by the dis­ap­pear­ance of a beloved cat which only the reader knows has been tor­tured to death. An­other cruel fate meets a dog that dis­pleases its mas­ter.

The vi­cious death of th­ese an­i­mals makes a shock­ingly bru­tal state­ment about the ways of the world, and our place in it. The vi­sion here is one close to dis­may, tinged with sor­row. Af­ter his mel­lower mid­dle years, it seems as if a life­time’s ob­ser­va­tion of the hu­man com­pul­sion to wield power, and a wil­ful blind­ness to a grander pos­si­bil­ity, was dark­en­ing McGa­h­ern’s out­look again by the end.

A post­hu­mous vol­ume cap­tures the span of John McGa­h­ern’s writ­ings Pic­ture: De­clan Shana­han

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