McGahern – the jacket of the masquerade

Looking at the year that was, at least in literary terms, I come back again –  as we all will, for generations to come – on what was sung, and what was said, and what was suggested, then brought to life, by the late, great John McGahern. 


His is a passing that is not really one to mourn – more a staying that we need to celebrate.  

Vladimir Nabokov once suggested that the function of literary creation was to portray the ordinary bits and pieces of today as they might be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times – “to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right, the times when a man might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade”. 

McGahern indeed put on the ordinary jacket of today.  There is a literary sense that his was one of those old schoolmaster tweeds, with worn elbows and a closed buttonhole, the sort of jacket worn by the man leaning up against the closed gate.  And maybe it was this jacket that he wore, but there was much more to its wearing than initially met the eye. McGahern may have been old school, but he was also tampering with the lock whenever he got the chance.

All the time he wore the ordinary tweed he was also wearing the jacket of the future masquerade, which makes him that superb sort of writer who can be in his time and out of it all at once. He had his hands in the pockets of two Irelands, the present and the past. Wisely, he took one step at a time in these two sets of darkness. He was a careful writer, one who knew a muscular word from a flabby one. He crafted his sentences. He waited until they rang out clear, like a tuning fork striking against the chest.

It would be a terrible thing to make McGahern into the quintessential Irishman, the grand old man of literature in the tilted hat rounding the distant hedgerows, because he was far from that. There is a certain danger that a whiff of turfsmoke is already blowing over his work, as if he were that man you saw as a child, leaning against the bicycle, forever in a postcard Ireland. Critics have rushed to establish him as the only true rural voice of his generation – which is a bag of horse manure, since McGahern himself knew that he would take his place alongside a lengthy list of geniuses – but what it also does is that it makes a safe icon of him.

McGahern was different. He didn't want to smash the icons, but he certainly scratched a good deal of their paint off. He threw open the windows of whatever word he chose.  He bucked the trends. He got kicked around by church, state, chimney. He left Ireland, like so many of his generation did. He dealt with the censorship in a dignified and understated way.  He didn't make a big fuss. He let his stories do the thinking. He made use of what others found useless. He told the tale that others found embarrassing, or avuncular, or irretrievable. He was a scholar of what it meant to lose things. So he recreated these things so they could be found in years to come. And he lasted the course.

Along with a significant but under-recognised group of writers – Ben Kiely, Anthony Cronin and Aidan Higgins being just three among them – he brought a freshness and energy to the Irish story that countless younger writers have benefited from.

“The world is all there is,” he once wrote. “We go back into the meaning we came from.”

And the meaning he comes from is simply the way his books operate in the world.  He had many millions of friends in the sense that his readers were his friends. He enabled his books to be owned by others. He allowed space for interpretation. He refused to cudgel anyone with the mythical blackthorn stick that so many reviewers, particularly in England, have wanted to give him. This is the great dignity of story-telling. It allows the listener to tell the story some other day, in some other place. It is the freshest difference that the novelist or the poet or the playwright can make. It allows for stories to move on. It, in fact, allows them to live.

McGahern died in late March.  So be it: we wept and mourned.  That's the nature of things. Let's face it, death is the world's oldest and most common complaint. It's life that's the tough thing to get your heart around. McGahern did that. So do his books. Beannacht