Memoir – John McGahern

13 November 2008
I listened to all of this in the past two weeks. It starts slowly, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep going with it. It’s unembellished – McGahern doesn’t strike me as a writer who’s in any way in love with language – and I remember feeling almost annoyed. Here are these facts and events, here are these people going about their business… and? And nothing much. I couldn’t help comparing the pencilled-in descriptions of the landscape and people in it with an exhibition I saw in Dublin about ten years ago: huge black-and-white photographs of travellers (I think), looking half-destitute but hugely proud of their horses. If there were captions I don’t think I read them, because the images were strong enough to stand on their own. But McGahern’s memoir isn’t a photograph. Statements of fact, mere presentation of whatever it was that existed or took place, are definitely not enough. After a couple of hours of the quirks of his neighbours, both contemporary and remembered, details of his childhood life, unsurprising because rooted in all those details we know or half-know already about life on the Bog and, well, not enough to make his own family different from the clichés I was ready to give up. (It didn’t help that it was being indifferently read by an actor who emphasised his broad rural Irish accent.)

However. McGahern finally gets going on his memories of his mother, and his plain style is perfect. He doesn’t say that she was a saint because he doesn’t need to: the way she responds to and attempts to civilise her husband says it all. But he starts where he has to, with the way the pre-school Sean idolises her: his description of his early life and her central place in it is spot-on. She is almost literally everything to him, and what he feels for her goes beyond Oedipus – although he’s frank about how jealous he was of any new siblings and, obviously, his usually absent father. What’s clever is how persuasive his picture is, not of how she fills his childish thoughts but also of how simply good she was. Sure, from our 21st Century perspective she’s a fool to tolerate her husband’s bullying… but McGahern isn’t bothered about that. What he’s interested in is how, in the theocracy that was Ireland before and during WW2, she was impeccable. There’s a strong thread of Marian idolisation running through it, but that’s exactly right in the context.

23 November
Where was I? Sean and his mother. She’s also the local primary school teacher, and he starts at the school. At first he walks with her, holding her hand…. You can see why, fairly soon, he’s determined to become a priest – just so she’ll be the first one to take communion from his newly cleansed hands. He’s serious: it’s an ambition right into his teens. Until it isn’t. He never says that the wind goes out of the sails of that particular project when his mother falls ill with breast cancer. She survives, until the cancer strikes again (she’s about 40) and, despite all his certainties about only old people dying, she shuffles off. But by this time there’s another figure in the landscape, and at last we get to the interesting part: Sean’s voyage around his father, and his father’s strange voyages around Sean.

Sergeant McGahern is a true monster. As his wife languishes on her deathbed he stays away at the barracks. Except, a couple of days or so before she actually dies he empties the house around her – McGahern gleefully describes the ridiculous noise of the iron bedstead in the next room beng hammered apart – and even Sean is too nonplussed to realise until afterwards that they’re all leaving for the last time and he really should have said goodbye to his mother. Ohh – obviously – the guilt. But you can’t say that’s the start of it with his monstrous father: it started years before. Like the weeks when, mystifyingly, his father ‘courted’ him – until, when he visits the barracks for a few days his father makes it clear he wants him to stay for good. When his ruse fails the sergeant behaves like a spoilt child – and none of his behaviour for the rest of the book is ever any different.

What to say? It’s too long now since I read it (nearly three weeks – sorry, sorry) and the atrocities old man McGahern perpetrated have faded a bit. But, basically, he had the emotional intelligence of a toddler, and Sean fully understood this by the time he was 13 or 14. The rages, the petulance, the arbitrary beatings, the self-centredness that’s so all-consuming it’s unaware of its own existence…. Then there’s the hypochondria – culminating in his instructing the 15-year-old Sean what to do after the tests he’s going into hospital for will inevitably reveal he’s at death’s door. In fact he’s given a clean bill of health and gets up for work next day more spruce than ever. A story like this one, approaching a family anecdote, is kind of funny, but it’s appalling as well, because piece by piece he dismantles all his children’s self-esteem and opportunities for finding happiness. There’s the (inevitable?) revelation that McGahern had to endure his father’s attentions in bed, where they slept together for years. There was no sexual contact – except the adult McGahern is convinced his father masturbated while stroking him. When the boy had enough clout to demand his own bed it was the younger brother’s turn….

And yet. His children, including the younger son, do find success and happiness. Unexpectedly, as the memoir continues into their father’s old age, the overall impression is one of sympathy for the poor foot-stamping fool. He marries again – McGahern is relentless in his scrutiny of the seduction, via the charm the man was always capable of showing – and makes someone else unhappy as well as himself. Perhaps it’s the inevitability of his painting himself into a corner, or stampeding his way through every dispute so that there’s never anywhere sensible left to go, that leaves the reader almost feeling sorry for the psychotic clown. McGahern’s simple descriptions do the work, and it feels as though we’re making up our own minds. Clever.

That’s about as much as I want to say. The parts about his father – half the book, surely? – are riveting, while other things are… ok. I haven’t mentioned the sisters, the unstintingly caring aunt, the lives some of them made in England. How bothered am I? Not hugely, not after the level gaze McGahern’s fixed on his childhood self and his parents for all those pages. Through them he creates a picture of mid-20th Century Ireland, and particularly the dead hand of the Catholic church, that is as frank as the portrait of the old man. One tiny instance, and not the worst by a long way: while he was making a name for himself as a writer McGahern was a teacher – until the Church took against his writing and forced his resignation. Again, all you can do is gasp that so many people put up with it for so long. I wondered, would I have stood for it? Of course I would. And like McGahern I would probably have retained so much affection for the stupid place I would have gone back to it to live, just as he did.

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