Introduction: The 'Whole World' of John McGahern

By Brannigan, John | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Introduction: The 'Whole World' of John McGahern


Brannigan, John, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


'I may not have travelled far but I know the whole world', [Jamesie] said with a wide sweep of his arm. 'You do know the whole world', Ruttledge said. 'And you have been my sweet guide'.

(That They May Face the Rising Sun, p.312).

In a recent television profile of the writer, John McGahern appeared first at home, comfortable and intimate against the Leitrim landscape, and then was transposed into the more exotic, super-urban setting of Tokyo. (1) The images of the Leitrim farmer wandering through the neon-lit bustle of Tokyo served to illustrate an apparent paradox about McGahern's most successful work: here was an essentially parochial writer whose novels and stories were read the world over. McGahern's novels have been translated into many languages, and he has won many prestigious international awards and honours. His international success, however, stems from the six novels and four volumes of short stories which have never strayed far from the parochial settings of his upbringing, and the small, knowable communities in which he found himself as an adult. McGahern's fictional settings are intimate worlds, structured by ritual acts, repeated conversations, and familiar gestures. As Patrick Crotty observes in his essay in this issue, McGahern appears at his best when he is writing about Irish rural and village life in the claustrophobia of the fifties and sixties, or about characters who lived their formative years in such times and places. While his intimate and accurate portrayals of life in post-independence Ireland can lend themselves to social and historical critique, McGahern's focus has always been on the 'whole world' encompassed in particular moments and localities. If he is a parochial writer, it is in the sense advocated by Patrick Kavanagh, of one who 'never is in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish'. (2) No other Irish writer since Kavanagh has imagined the local so completely as the telescopic image of the universal, as Eamon Maher emphasizes in his recent study. (3)

The result for readers of this scrupulous focus is often, I suspect, similar to how John Banville described his experience of reading Amongst Women: 'we have not so much been reading as living'. (4) This has certainly been my experience of reading most of John McGahern's work, a feeling of living inside the worlds he constructs, and knowing them as if they were my own. They are not, of course. McGahern's gift is not that he represents with unswerving accuracy a world with which we are all already familiar, but rather that he makes his fictional settings and characters uncannily concrete and truthful. This is what draws our attention as critics constantly to the style--the architecture--of McGahern's writing, his means of assembling such knowable worlds. Several of the essays included here excavate the novels to discover the beams and trusses of McGahern's style, the foundations of his mimetic power, including those by Eamon Grennan and Denis Sampson. The style of McGahern's writing has never been more apparent than in his most recent novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, which in many ways compels us to see his oeuvre more completely and cohesively than we might previously have done. This issue of Irish University Review was commissioned with this idea in mind, that the 'whole world' of John McGahern's writings has become, quite recently, more palpable, more appreciable, than before.

The Special Issues of the Irish University Review have become something of an institution. They serve to rally critical attention to writers deserving of particular recognition, such as the Spring/ Summer 2004 volume on Lady Gregory, or to genres or periods due for reassessment, such as the recent issue on the Irish Revival. In the case of John McGahern, neither function is wholly appropriate. McGahern is, as The Observer pronounced in its admiration of That They May Face the Rising Sun, 'Ireland's greatest living novelist'. …

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