Seventeen years after his second book was banned and he lost his teaching job, John McGahern's reputation as one of Ireland's most gifted writers has been underlined by the critical acclaim accorded his latest novel That They May Face The Rising Sun. Yet McGahern remains a somewhat enigmatic personality, tending his farm, refining his prose and observing a vanishing world from his Leitrim home. "The rather nice thing about writing is that it makes everything else a pleasure,' he tells Hotpress
One of the most revered of Irish writers, John McGahern may also be the most reluctant. Since the publication of The Dark in 1965, whose infamous masturbation scene (nicknamed The Auld Sock) got the book banned and also resulted in him being sacked from his teaching post at the behest of the clergy, the writer has published another five novels and four collections of short stories, plus assorted stage and radio plays. Not exactly the most prolific output, but then, only a fraction of what McGahern writes ever makes the final edit.
After the controversy that followed the publication of The Dark, McGahern left the country for England, eventually returning to Leitrim – the county of his birth – in 1970 at the persuasion of his second wife Madeline. Still content to devote a couple of hours a day to writing and spend the remainder tending the farm he has worked for the last three decades, McGahern contends that most of his work is done away from the page, thinking rather than writing.
It’s a modus operandi that has served him well. His latest novel That They May Face The Rising Sun, his first since 1990’s Booker-nominated Amongst Women, has once again been greeted with the kind of critical notices most writers compose in their daydreams (The Guardian went so far as to herald it as “Irish fiction’s new dawn”). Yet it’s not the most obviously persuasive of books, documenting a year in the life of a lakeside community in McGahern’s characteristically sparse, unadorned language. There are no murders, biohazards or alien abductions; this is prose that deals in spare, pared back evocations of ordinary life and ordinary death, if such things can be said to exist.
Peter Murphy: It’s been twelve years since your last novel, a record even for you. How come?
John McGahern: I don’t make any apologies for twelve years – I wouldn’t write unless I had to!
PM: Why do you have to?
JM: Because I need to. You could give plenty of easy answers, but it’s a compulsion. I’ve never written anything that hasn’t been in my head for a long time, and when it’s written down you’re really finding out what’s there. In a way, you don’t know what you think until you see what you say. When it’s written down, if there was never anything useful behind it in the first place, it disappears. I’ve often worked for four or five months to no good purpose. In a way, the material chooses you. For instance, you know very quickly if it’s going to be a short work or a long work because they have very different rhythms. And when you find that it’s a long work, when it’s a novel, you know you’re in big trouble – five or six years of fairly careful living is ahead of you.
PM: I heard that That They May Face The Rising Sun was over 1000 pages in its original draft.
JM: I think it was 1400 or 1500 pages of a manuscript. I suppose I think that the grammar of writing is very simple, that the basis of it is the image. That can be a wedding ring or a foxglove or spilt beer or whatever, and you’re searching for the images that illuminate something, that bring a scene to life. And then what binds the images is the rhythm. And then the last thing you do is shape it, and in a way that’s the most conscious or the most intellectual activity, and at that time you start cutting. If you try to get pages to perfection, you never actually (get there) so sometimes it’s necessary to write badly in order to actually go on at all, and then you get rid of the bad writing.
PM: Do you find yourself getting rid of work you love because it interferes with the story?
JM: Actually it’s almost a rule that if you really like something, it’s time to get rid of it, ’cos otherwise you’d be falling in love with yourself and that’s not a good idea – it’s more interesting with someone else!
PM: The new book has received the kind of reviews money couldn’t buy. Can the praise do as much damage to a writer as the abuse?
JM: One never quarrels with praise; it’s like votes in that sense! What are the reviewers only the first readers of the book, and one respects them as much, and one hopes for good luck, for good readers. I mean, if the book is any good, it’s going to take on its own life anyway.
PM: You’re no stranger to literary awards, having received the AE Award, Chevalier d’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and a Booker nomination for Amongst Women. Some writers find the whole culture of literary prize-giving a kind of fool’s gold. Are you conscious of any temptation to write the kind of prose that will agree with the literati?
JM: One thing about the prize is that it doesn’t improve the quality of the prose. And it is part of the book business. I think that the two essential parts of writing are the writer and the reader, and they’re interdependent. I think the act of reading is one of our last acts of freedom, and no matter how you legislate for literature, with prizes, with school courses, it all comes down to the reader alone with a book, and if he’s a true reader he may well decide that a highly praised book is no good. I mean the whole history of literature is proliferated with that.
PM: As a member of Aosdana how do you respond to the criticism that such organisations favour approved cliques of writers, giving rise to a kind of state-subsidised, state-approved brand of literature.
JM: I know people disagree with it, but it’s no financial advantage to me because you’re not allowed to draw money from it if you earn beyond a certain amount. But I think that it’s a very precarious profession, the arts, and if people reach a certain standard in a precarious profession, they should have some safety net under them. I think it’s a good thing, even if it’s open to abuse, and nearly everything under the sun is open to abuse.
PM: There was some controversy when John Banville resigned from Aosdana on the grounds that he didn’t need the money.
JM: That’s a private matter. I mean, that’s his business. I don’t take much part in it, but I belong, and since I was a founding member I’ve no intention of resigning.
PM: A whole social revolution has occurred in Ireland since the publication of Amongst Women, yet little of that seems acknowledged in the new book.
JM: I think that probably in a small way it does reflect change but not consciously. I think that if you actually set out to write about change you’d be writing journalism. There’s nothing wrong with that (but) it’s a different kind of work.
PM: Does it feel like a very different society than the one in which The Dark was banned, resulting in you losing your job as a teacher?
JM: The Dark is probably still my most important book. I think human nature never changes very much, otherwise we wouldn’t read the great classics – often they speak to us more intimately than modern works. But as a citizen the changes are enormous in this country, probably more changes happened in the last 15 years than happened in the previous century, and they’re very exciting and I think for the most part they’re changes for the good.
I think it’s great that the church has lost its power. I mean a lot of the interference that the church had in people’s lives had nothing to do with religion, it had to do with social order, with social bullying, and I think their emphasis on sexuality was disastrous. I think that in the strict sense religion is a relationship with all that surrounds our life, which is to a certain extent a mystery, whether one chooses an answer or not – one belongs to a formal church if one does. But nearly all the other things like morality it is or was concerned with here really have nothing to do with religion at all.
PM: Several reviewers have seized on the title of the new book as a sort of metaphor for growth in Irish society, a turning away from the nightmare of Irish history to face the light.
JM: Actually the Irish people always wanted to get buried facing the sun, and a lot of the old priests tried to get them to face the church, that the truth came from the church, but I think they always believed that the sun was more powerful. The people that I live among, one man said to me about the Catholic Church – which shows great historical imagination – “We had the old druids on our back once and now we have this crowd!”
PM: How did you look upon the success of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes? For many people, it legitimised autobiography-as-literature.
JM: Memoir is different to fiction…
PM: Some might argue that.
JM: (Laughs) I like McCourt’s book. Many people didn’t. I thought the end of it was questionable. I saw it as a very interesting book, but essentially I saw it as a farce and that it was a useful kick at suffering.
PM: I believe you didn’t watch the TV adaptation of Amongst Women. Why not?
JM: In a way I think that when the writer is finished his book it belongs to his readers and the TV interpretation of the book is another form of reading. I was honoured that they did it and I was a friend of Tony Doyle’s, I was very fond of Tony. I did see the promotional video ’cos I did do publicity for it when it started. I’d have a different view of the book anyhow, as another reader would, and it belonged to them rather than me. And in fact Adrian Hodges who did the screenplay rang me up because the BBC were complaining that there wasn’t enough sex or violence in it, and I actually was able to give them some that I had taken out of the original! I thought that was rather funny.
PM: It’s interesting that books seem like the last kind of adult entertainment. You can get away with much more in a novel than a film or newspaper article or a pop song. Books seem largely exempt from the political correctness inflicted on other forms.
JM: Maybe they think that they’re harmless! When I was young, books had the taste of forbidden fruit about them. Reading for pleasure was not approved of. And that world has all disappeared. Joyce, oddly enough, was never banned in Ireland. I bought my first copy of Ulysses in Brown & Nolan’s, it was under the counter. It was also put in a brown paper bag before it was given to me, it had that unmistakable green hardback cover, and the reason it wasn’t on the shelf was that the main customers would be priests from the posh colleges and they would find it offensive and they gave most of the trade to the book shops. So that would be a different kind of censorship.
PM: Silence, exile and cunning, Joyce said. Did your own period in exile in England after The Dark debacle enrich the writing?
JM: No, and in fact when I was young it used to be said that an Irish writer had to go abroad to be a writer, and I thought that was ridiculous. I did say as a sort of joke that you could write as badly in Ireland as anywhere else and there was a lot of evidence to prove it! I couldn’t imagine a French writer like Proust or Flaubert going abroad in order to be a French writer, or a writer like Waugh or Larkin having to go abroad to be English writers. By nature I think I could’ve easily stayed at home on the same street or village for all my life.
PM: In a way the language in the new novel is predominantly passive, a world where tea is made rather than where someone makes tea. There’s a stillness, some would say a stasis, about the community you describe.
JM: That’s basically an attempt which I would have been at for a long time to actually get as close through language as possible to the physical objects so there’d be less interference between the writer and tea or whiskey or whatever he’s writing about. That they’re there almost as implacable facts in themselves and that the people are surrounded by these facts of tea and and tables as much as the lake and the sky and the fields that they worked.
PM: There’s also a tentativeness about the people. As you put it, there’s “the tension in the call between the need to be heard and the fear of being heard”. Characters announce themselves with phrases like “God bless all here”, timid in their imposition.
JM: Actually a lot of language that is used is religious without the people having any sense of their religious origins. The way they use hell and heaven and scourging is they’re all languages of the Catholic Church that have actually become laicised. In that sense, it is formally said towards the end of the novel that hell and heaven and even eternity may be nothing more than our experience of life here on earth.
PM: Which is a very modern, existential use of Catholic symbolism.
JM: But then Jamesie says you wouldn’t want to leave yourself caught out in case you did find there was something there!
PM: Do you feel like the book documents an endangered species, an agrarian way of life that is vanishing?
JM: Everything is vanishing.
PM: That’s a fairly profound statement!
JM: (Laughs). There’s a sentence of Proust’s that I admire very much ’cos I think it’s true, about fashion. He says, “Fashion which is begotten from the desire for change is quick to change itself.” Very interesting that; like a Euclidean theory.
PM: Why does literature love small towns?
JM: Well I think that if you actually face into all of life it’s too big and too dismaying and in a way it becomes too inhuman. I mean, there is a scene in the novel where they’re building this shed that never gets built, and the piece of sky that’s actually framed in the square or rectangle of the skeleton of the roof is more interesting than looking up at the whole sky because it’s more humanised, and then the sky grows out more interestingly from that small humanised space. And I think that all news is local news. The local is the universal but without walls, it becomes an everywhere, like a room can become an everywhere.
PM: What compelled you to write in the first place?
JM: It began as a sort of playing around with words and that became stories. And I wrote without any intention of publication, and I find that I’m not much different today. Why one learns technique is that in a way a writer is always a beginner, because what one has learned in previous work may be of absolutely of no use to you in a new work. And I also have a feeling that if the writer wasn’t trying to find out something new, if he was going through the same old goosesteps, that the reader would smell that. I think there’s an extraordinary emotional tension in good prose and it can’t be fabricated. It has always fascinated me that if you change a single word in a sentence, that all the other words have to be changed as well.
PM: The arse falls out of it.
JM: You said that!
PM: What are your writing quirks? Do you have any superstitious rituals about sharpening pencils and so on?
JM: I’m always trying to escape writing. I know myself too well, I have special pencils and if I can’t get this pencil . . . I actually take care, before I really start working, that I get forty or fifty of them so I’ve no excuse. The rather nice thing about writing is that it nearly makes everything else pleasure. There are moments of intense happiness in writing but they’re very rare. Sometimes maybe every year or two years you might find that you think you’re only ten minutes working and you find that you’ve been there for three hours or so. Why it is I don’t know, it’s almost as if you’re not aware of your life when it’s happening. I used to get that when I was young when I was reading, you’d lose complete track of your surroundings. It’s only in writing I get that now, but very, very seldom. I mean, I know a great deal about language and about writing but to a certain extent it still remains a mystery to me. As life itself does.