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
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