AT almost 900 pages in length, this superbly produced volume of John McGahern’s letters represents one of the major achievements in Irish literary criticism of the twenty-first century.
When McGahern died in 2006, he had firmly established himself as the most revered and influential Irish writer of prose fiction since Joyce and Beckett and it is wonderful to have before us now a vast new range of his thoughts and stylish commentaries on the world around him in The Letters of John McGahern.
The book is densely annotated throughout by its editor, Frank Shovlin, and replete with carefully worked footnotes pointing to details of McGahern’s family, his friends, the books he liked to read and the books he thought failures.
All of this amounts in itself to a kind of informal history of Irish writing from the 1950s to the early 2000s and provides us with insights into not just McGahern himself but also into the work of writers as diverse as Brian Friel, Richard Murphy, Mary Lavin and Seamus Heaney.
Among the surprises for most readers will be the extent to which McGahern was influenced by writers in the great European tradition such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka as well as admiring England’s Philip Larkin and America’s Hermann Melville.
For some time, critics have been pointing to the very wide reading in the classics that helped to shape McGahern’s view of the world and the pared down prose he used to bring this world into the light.
But his letters bring all of this into thrilling new life and represent a treat for anyone interested in how the artistic sensibility of one great writer is formed.
McGahern’s life as a rigorous reader is but one aspect of these splendidly revelatory letters: we also get to know, for instance, a man who loved sports, who avidly followed football teams like West Ham and Spurs when living in London in the 1960s after his dismissal as a Dublin primary school teacher in the wake of the banning of his second novel, The Dark (1965).
More broadly, we see a warm enthusiasm throughout for London, its pubs, restaurants, people and streets.
And this is just one of several locations that are brought to vivid life here alongside Paris, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, upstate New York, Dublin and, finally, Leitrim.
The whole sorry story around McGahern’s treatment by official Ireland after he became the first Irish writer to expose sexual abuse – both familial and clerical – in The Dark is given greater clarity through the letters.
In one especially memorable communication with his American editor, he thinks of the personal toll wrought by censorship: “I was not taken unawares, but it was strange how sickening the certain knowledge was, and the sense of disgrace, my uncle at his petrol pumps and other sentimentalities and lunacies filling my brain.”
But he wanted no public protest and moved quietly to London’s East End where he became for several years a rather unhappy supply teacher in Chingford.
This calamity might easily have destroyed him as a writer and he enters a fallow period for a couple of years in which he writes very little and sees his first marriage to the Finnish theatre director Annikki Laaksi fall apart.
All might have ended unhappily had it not been for the flowering of a new relationship with an American woman, Madeline Green, who he begins seeing in London in the autumn of 1967: the early energy of this relationship is caught in a series of poignant and beautiful letters as we watch a man fall hopelessly in love with the woman who he would go on to marry in Paris in February 1973 and with whom he would happily spend the remainder of his life.
It is apt, then, that The Letters should be dedicated to Madeline McGahern.
Alongside these glimpses into McGahern’s private world, we get some tremendous background into the world of publishing: the lucky break that saw him noticed by the brilliant editor Charles Monteith at Faber in 1961; the complex and difficult efforts to establish himself in America via a series of publishing houses from Macmillan (whose editor Cecil Scott violently rejected The Dark as a book that “makes the skin creep”), Knopf, Atlantic, Harper & Row and Viking-Penguin before a triumphant late partnership with another superb editor, Sonny Mehta at Knopf, that led to the success of the last novel and the unforgettable Memoir.
There are many highlights here both for lovers of McGahern and for those new to his extraordinary work: marvellous turns of phrase; mischievous put downs of other writers; lovely descriptions of the natural world around his Leitrim farm; and, finally, a humbling stoicism in the face of his terminal cancer diagnosis, as described in one particularly memorable letter to his friend Michael Gorman in Galway.
“There is not too much difference here, other than the adjustment to a different reality, a reality we always knew was there, and unavoidable, but is still different when it comes,” it reads.
“I used to have ways of avoiding going to the room to write, disliking the intensity and total absorption, but now I’m glad of it, it belongs more to now than when we felt free in acres of time; and that too was necessary, and is.
“I find I have to be socially more careful: all society excludes this knowledge, in order to function.”
Most readers assumed, with regret, that memoir was the last they would hear from John McGahern, so it is with a sense of intense gratitude that we see him once more brought to life through these letters, vibrant, alert, attentive.
The Letters of John McGahern is a final magnificent foray into the imaginative world of one of Ireland’s greatest artists.
The Letters of John McGahern, ed. Frank Shovlin (London: Faber and Faber, 2021) is available at www.faber.co.uk
Niall Carson is the Joint Patronage Lecturer in Modern Irish Literature at the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool