McGahern: harmonising with a damaged culture

‘Real life,” John McGahern once observed, “is too thin to be art”. I forget where he said it, bu...t I remember that he was talking about the limitations of autobiography. Yet, his final book, written at the very end of his life, was his own autobiography, Memoir, which is no “thinner” than any of the novels or stories he wrote over the previous 40-odd years. Among its many interesting insights is the confirmation it provides of what had previously been a woolly impression concerning the extent of McGahern's re-working in his stories of the detail of his own life. It could plausibly be argued that Memoir was McGahern's single literary mistake. By chronicling the literal reality from which he had forged so much of his fiction, it exposes the undercarriage of his imagination to a scrutiny which may ultimately risk damage to his reputation. Before its publication, his other books had a total life of their own, set free from literal connections by the nature of the fictional contract. After Memoir, they become something else – not fact, but no longer quite fiction either.
And then there is the treatment in Memoir of the author's father, Frank. Although dominated by McGahern's memories of his parents – the mother who died when he was a child and the father with whom he carried on a disturbed relationship into adulthood – the book has a feeling of being artistically incomplete. Several times McGahern writes that he never understood his father. Actually, it's clear that he disliked, perhaps even hated him, and that this dislike or hatred has not in any degree been dissipated by the time the book ends. But at no point does the author seem to reflect on this in a detached manner. There is no moment of grace between father and son which might be deemed the cathartic moment of the book. There are many ethical issues arising from the modern fad for making literal literature out of the raw reality of real human lives, especially of those – generally males – who become so blackened in the reporting as to leave the world only a negative impression, of which the victim, by virtue of being deceased, is unable to offer a rebuttal. On the other hand, maybe anyone has a right to tell his own story. Whether McGahern should have written Memoir is beside the point: what interests me more is what all this tells us about how a culture manages to preserve a convenient self-image of itself long after this has become outdated or even irrelevant. I say this as someone who, having read his books repeatedly and derived a wealth of nourishment from them, regards McGahern as a giant of fiction-writing. But I also believe that one claim made frequently since his death – that he was a faithful and comprehensive chronicler of Irish life – is spurious. To be fair, McGahern would have been the first to repudiate the idea that he had a role as a social historian. The truth he wrote was his own truth, and was forged, as Memoir reveals in remarkable detail, in the white heat of his own experience. Another writer, encountering the same experience, would have written an entirely different set of stories, or at least offered different slants on their meaning. The reviews of Memoir have been universally glowing, and in many respects deservedly. But I have been struck by the ignoring in both these reviews and the commentary following McGahern's death of the extent to which this remarkable writer harmonised with the discordances of a deeply damaged culture.
There has, for example, been much guff about McGahern's depiction of the “patriarchal reality of Irish society”. By this analysis, the character Moran in Amongst Women (more than loosely based on McGahern's father) is the tyrant king who rules over all within his gaze. Before I read Memoir, I would have said that this was a crude ideological reading of a character who was victim of a culture in which he had, in reality, very little power. This was a society which had been traumatised twice – by famine and civil war – and in which the Church had assumed the role of moral government, recruiting the mother in the home as its agent of control, and with her assistance reducing the father to tolerated provider devoid of moral authority. Caught between the hyper-visible power of the Church and the invisible power of an undeclared matriarchy, Moran's rage was really the rage of the impotent. And then this culture that has raised Mother to the status of Madonna and banished Father to the fields or the fair, laughably interprets a rage born of marginalisation as the roar of the oppressor.
Just as it is clear from Memoir that McGahern had little interest in the roots or nature of his father's demons, so also is it obvious that he accepted at face value many of the flimsiest myths of his society. It is unsurprising that this goes unremarked by the procession of Man Booker suitors and ideological appropriators who monopolised the public grieving of the past week. None of these can remotely be considered an artist in McGahern's class. But there is a far more disturbing problem: who, if not the artist, will describe things other than as they seem?