JOHN McGAHERN: RETRACING THE JOURNEY... BY ITA O'DONNELLl
The late John McGahern on That They May Face The Rising Sun and his insights into writing and literature at The Bath Literature Festival in 2003.
A composed John McGahern received a heartfelt welcome from a packed audience at The Bath Literature Festival in 2003 where he was interviewed by the writer and academic Hermione Lee. The event was sponsored by Bath Spa University College’s M.A. Course in Creative Writing.
Tall and slender, McGahern appeared nervous but became quietly confident in the presence of his large audience. He read excerpts from That They May Face The Rising Sun and answered Lee’s questions with some discussion happening between them.
Professor Lee began by suggesting to McGahern that particularly in this novel he writes and rewrites his definitive subject of the local with a crafted distance, an evasiveness and inner formality and the local he paints is almost always a reflection of the universal. It is his grace and stillness as a writer, his precision with language and the use of ghost Irish phrases that reveal things as they are.
He replied that he hoped he “suggested without judgement” saying all good writing should ideally suggest. She felt his synonymous evasiveness creates mystery and his attention to the particular comments on the general. The device he uses of the chapter-less novel, leaves the unfolding story more open to possibilities or to suggestions.
Happiness, or lack of it, is hinted at in his rural world integrated with the mundane. Was happiness, Lee wondered, catching up on the news, listening to stories being told and re-told, the going in and out of one another’s houses, the cups of tea and the everyday? He replied that: “Happiness is blessed ordinary life”. He suggests these pleasures in his created world by mutely commenting on a changing society.
The family, the first social unit, he explained is a halfway house between the individual and society. We each live in a world private to us alone; all of our images and impressions are formed by the age of twenty.
Professor Lee noted that McGahern did not directly attack the Church, whilst the themes of patriarchy, sexual poverty, and Ireland of the past remain permanent. He agreed that he dealt with similar themes over his plays and works of fiction. These themes, he explained don’t necessarily go away despite all the changes in Irish society, they go underground and rise again in different shapes.
He revealed that to attack the Church was to attack himself, as it was among his first exposure to prayer, the mysterious and formalised language. For the illiterate Irish, it was among their first experiences of language. He shared how a priest, a friend of his, met him socially in plain clothes, not clad in his usual black. The priest didn’t want to draw attention to himself as some priests had been assaulted. The response from the audience was one of disbelief. He felt, on reflection, that the Church has no power now. Ireland he felt had seen more change in the last twenty years than in the past one hundred and fifty.
Writing he told us is about the retracing of journeys. The language of fiction is based on the image and the rhythm of language carries the image. The novel is where we write down and work out what we are trying to say: “You don’t really know what you think, until you can see what you say”.
Writers, he maintained, can’t really have imagination without memory and these entities seem to feed off one another.
The short story usually makes one point and you have to imagine the worlds before and after that encase the narrative. The short story he succinctly described as a “short cough” and the novel as a “long roar”. Writing for McGahern was a slow process and he liked to re-work his prose rather as a written craft.
Of his play The Dark he recalled with laughter how Mick Lally met him at the door of the Abbey Theatre with the words “the reviews are worse than bad” and how he was wanted on the Late Late Show that night.
He mentioned aspects of letters, from Irish women, who had connected with the cruel character of Moran in Amongst Women. It was obvious that he appreciated their feedback and how his fiction had somehow helped them.
When asked from the floor about the gaps between his works of fiction he replied: “I never stop writing for starters!”
He philosophically ended the evening, at a festival to promote the sale of books, by commenting: “Just because we have the machinery to produce more books, does not mean that we are actually producing better books”
He wished that he had produced fewer works of better quality. “Less in that sense” he said “is often more”. When the subject of death was put to him, he replied: “The thing about death is that you only get one go at it.”
The evening ended with extended applause.
Ita O'Donnell is a poet and playwright living in Bristol.