John McGahern Biography
Nationality: Irish. Born: Leitrim, 1934. Education: Presentation College, Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim; St. Patrick's Training College, Dublin; University College, Dublin. Career: Primary school teacher, St. John the Baptist Boys School, Clontarf, 1956-64; research fellow, University of Reading, Berkshire, 1968-71; Visiting O'Connor Professor of Literature, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, 1969, 1972, 1978, 1980; Northern Arts Fellow, University of Newcastle, 1974-76. Lives near Mohill, County Leitrim. Awards: [AE] Memorial award, 1962; Macauley fellowship, 1964; Society of Authors Award, 1967; British Arts Council award, 1968, 1970, 1973, 1981; Society of Authors travelling scholarship, 1975; American Irish Foundation award, 1985; Galway Festival Tenth Anniversary award, 1987; Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), 1989; Irish Times-Aer Lingus Literature prize, 1990; GPA Literature award, 1992; Prix de Literature Etrangere Ecureuil, 1994. D. Litt., Dublin University, 1991; Galway University, 1993. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature; member, Aosdana.
The Barracks. London, Faber, 1963; New York, Macmillan, 1964.
The Dark. London, Faber, 1965; New York, Knopf, 1966.
The Leavetaking. London, Faber, 1974; Boston, Little Brown, 1975; revised edition, Faber, 1984.
The Pornographer. London, Faber, and New York, Harper, 1979.
Amongst Women. London, Faber, and New York, Viking, 1990.
The Power of Darkness. London, Faber, 1991.
Nightlines. London, Faber, 1970; Boston, Little Brown, 1971.
Getting Through. London, Faber, 1978; New York, Harper, 1980.
High Ground and Other Stories. London, Faber, 1985; New York, Viking, 1987.
The Collected Stories. New York, Knopf, and London, Faber, 1993.
Sinclair (broadcast, 1971; produced London, 1972).
Swallows, 1975; The Rockingham Shoot, 1987.
Brian Moore, Alasdair Gray, John McGahern: A Bibliography of Their First Editions by David Rees, London, Colophon Press, 1991.
Outstaring Nature's Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern by Denis Sampson, Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America Press, and Dublin, Lilliput Press, 1993; Feminine Nation: Performance, Gender, and Resistance in the Works of John McGahern and Neil Jordan by Lori Rogers, Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1998.
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John McGahern's novels create a world where domesticity is dramatic and the mundane is important, and where the most bland conversation is underlain with tension and emotion. McGahern's writing has an obsession with the home (both domestic and national) and the family; taken as a whole, his work is a revealing insight into the relationships between family, the individual, the state, religion, and education, especially in Ireland, where most of his novels are set.
It is in the style which he has found, or forged, for himself that McGahern's success lies. The language of his novels is terse, unflamboyant and pared down to the essentials. But, as the protagonist of The Pornographer says, "The words had to be mixed with my own blood." The superficial flatness of his prose manages to create a tension suited to the themes with which the novels deal, so that descriptions of everyday tasks, washing or working in the fields, can suggest melancholy or simmering fury. What initially seems a restrictive narrative technique carries with it emotion and commitment, and opens the way for a piercing and studied observation of domestic life.
McGahern's first novel, The Barracks, which centered on the story of a policeman's wife dying of breast cancer, was widely acclaimed for its sensitive handling both of the homelife of the barracks and, especially, of the suffering of Elizabeth, the main character. It was, however, McGahern's second novel, The Dark, which earned him a "reputation" (in a pejorative sense). The novel was seized by Irish Customs and banned in Ireland because it was considered indecent. The Dark, appropriately named, certainly goes further than The Barracks did in its portrayal of the violence and intense claustrophobia of family life. The father of the family, who is seen beating his son in the first chapter of the novel, is at other times sullen or contrite, while remaining at all times the center holding together the family. His stifling egoism, which gains its strength from the ethos of "family," is at once repulsive and compelling, and is seen best in his maudlin but pathetic sentimentality when he sleeps in the same bed as his son. This part of the novel is narrated, unusually, in the second person ("What right had he to come and lie with you in bed …"), effectively stressing the horrified distance between the son, as narrator, and his father, and putting a safer distance between the narrator and his past "self," to whom these events have happened.
The Leavetaking takes further McGahern's interest in "home" as an idea, and focuses more directly on Ireland and Irish institutions as a "home." An Irish schoolteacher, taking a year's leave (one of the variants on the title), finds himself in London and married to a divorced woman. The story is told within the framework of the teacher's last day at the school when he faces the inevitability of being sacked because he has married outside the laws of the Catholic church. But even here the magnetism of home is stressed; the teacher, when in London, sees a return to Ireland, despite knowing the consequences, as the only course of action, and he prolongs his stay until the last possible moment, not taking his last "leave" of the job (and the country) until he is forced to. Indeed the bulk of the novel is taken up with the long "leavetaking" (the death) of the teacher's mother, stressing the formative importance of his home and childhood. The novel ends with the teacher and his wife on the verge of leaving for England again, with the incantatory words, reminiscent of the end of Joyce's "The Dead," that stress a final "leavetaking": "I would pray for the boat of our sleep to reach its morning, and see that morning lengthen to an evening of calm weather that comes through night and sleep again to morning after morning, until we meet the first death." What The Leavetaking suggests is the beginning, in McGahern's novels, of a sharper sense of detachment from, of less unquestioning commitment to, the home and childhood than has previously been the case. England offers a potentially new perspective for both the characters of the novels and McGahern as author, though it remains a perspective very much defined by being not-Ireland/home, and leads to reflection on "home" in a new way, so that Ireland, Irish childhood and family remain the central concern of the novels and short stories after The Leavetaking.
Evidence of this is Amongst Women, which came at the end of a ten year period in which McGahern had published no novels. Again it is the family that provides the locus of the novel, a center around which McGahern is able to explore the male-female relationships within a household. Moran, the "daddy" of the novel, an old and disillusioned Republican, places ultimate faith in the importance of his family. As the novel moves towards the death of Moran, carefully, and with exacting detail, it studies the increasingly tense father-daughter and father-son relationships, showing the various degrees of detachment attained by the children. For its understated drama, its controlled prose, and its carefully drawn central character, Amongst Women is the most solidly crafted of McGahern's novels.
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