Review by James Holden
When the Irish writer John McGahern died in 2006, The Guardian’s obituary referred to him as “arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett”, but he also published several collections of short stories throughout the seventies and eighties alongside six novels and a memoir. Collected Stories brings together his output of short fiction, a rewarding volume providing great insight into the themes that McGahern would regularly draw upon.
McGahern was not always as feted as he was upon his death – his second novel The Dark was banned by the Irish Censorship Board for its alleged pornographic content and he lost his job as a teacher in the ensuing row. Sex – and particularly pre-marital sex – is a theme that constantly runs throughout these stories. The best of these is the occasionally emotionally brutal My Love, My Umbrella which tells the story of a couple who struggle to use their own lodgings as the venue for sex:
We went to cinemas or sat in pubs, it was the course of our love, and as it always rained we made love under the umbrella beneath the same trees in the same way. They say the continuance of sexuality is due to the penis having no memory, and mine each evening spilt its seed into the mud and decomposing leaves as if it was always for the first time.
Despite the thrill of reading about this illicit lovemaking, McGahern frequently subverts expectations, with the men in the story seeing sex as the first step towards marriage rather than as an end in itself. In Like All Other Men a teacher seduces a nurse, but the morning after a night in a hotel, reveals that she is about to become a nun, leaving the protagonist disappointed that their encounter could not become something greater. When he goes for a walk through Dublin:
The river out beyond the Custom House, the straight quays, seemed to stretch out in the emptiness after she had gone… It seemed to stretch out, complete as the emptiness, endless as a wedding ring.
McGahern’s male characters appear unable to fully enjoy the pleasures they want to access, seeking a deeper emotional connection than their erstwhile partners. This is not to say that his female characters are obsessed only with sex and not with their own emotional wellbeing: instead it shows the strengths of McGahern’s insight and his ability to create complex characters constrained by the circumstances they find themselves in as they try to fumble their way towards meeting some deeper desire.
Whilst this is especially true of the stories looking at sex, it characterises his other stories, which all feature characters with real depth. Sex is not the only preoccupation within McGahern’s writing, and like Lucia Berlin, McGahern is an author for whom some knowledge of his biography adds depth to the readers understanding of his output. There are a couple of stories here about teachers, and the knotty relationship between the schooling system and the church which carry a lot of emotional weight. Relations with fathers feature time and time again. Perhaps inevitably for an Irish writer the legacy of the English is considered in Oldfashioned, which again brilliantly sees characters bristle under the constraints they find themselves imposed under, in this occasion a father’s disapproval after a retired English couple employ his son as a gardener. He also considers the experience of Irish emigres in Britain in Wheels and A Slip Up.
Perhaps best of all is the final story in the collection, The Country Funeral. It’s a beautifully written piece about three brothers who travel from Dublin to the west of Ireland to arrange their uncle’s funeral. The differing lives of the brothers create endless narrative possibilities from the start: Philly works in middle-eastern oilfields, Fonsie is confined to a wheelchair and still lives at home, and John is a teacher with a family of his own. Throw in the simmering resentment of the uncle’s treatment of the mother, and you have a set up that is so delicious that it would be perfect for any creative writing classes as a fine example of how to establish emotional tension within a short story.
The characters across this collection are well drawn, grounded and complex, with a result that few of them are especially memorable, although Fonsie with all his rage at his family is a notable exception. The Country Funeral also showcases one of the most attractive features of McGahern’s writing: his talent for description and metaphor.
What met his eyes across the waste of pale sedge and heather was the rich dark waiting evergreens inside the black wall of Killeelan where they had buried Peter beside his father and mother only a few hours before. The colour of laughter is black. How dark is the end of all life. Yet others carried the burden in the bright day on the hill. His shoulders shuddered slightly in revulsion and he wished himself back in the semi-detached suburbs with rosebeds outside in the garden.
McGahern’s prose is extraordinarily rich and layered, and he has a beautiful eye for detail and allusion. There is a constant knotty lyricism to his writing – these are not words that have been deployed to service the plot and which can be casually scanned by the reader. There is a real beauty to the writing, which requires careful reading, which adds to the melancholy that pervades many of his stories.
It would be all too easy (and lazy) to say these stories have dated badly because the Ireland that they present no longer exists and we are left with recurring clichés of poorly educated villagers with closeted social attitudes. Gay marriage is legal, divorce is permitted and towns and villages have changed out of recognition through the boom and bust of the Celtic tiger. McGahern’s stories remain relevant because they sought to challenge this status quo, through their questioning of the role of religion in education and the permissive society his characters yearn for. But they also remain worth reading because of the quality of his writing and his ability to draw wonderfully complex characters within the confines of a short story.
James Holden has had his short stories published by Silver Apples Magazine and On The Premises, and performed by Liars League. He lives in a retirement village in north London with his wife and two children, despite only being in his thirties.