Writers, Writing and Reading.
I read recently that Frank Shovlin is writing a biography of John McGahern, which is good news for all fans of the Leitrim writer, although it must be said that he will have a hard time finding anything new to say about McGahern, as John himself had ploughed that furrow diligently. Still, Shovlin did a superb job of editing the correspondence of McGahern in 2021, which I have just finished reading.
For my recent birthday I asked for ‘The Letters of John McGahern’, which runs to over 800 pages. This was a more interesting read than any novel; reading the Leitrim writers thoughts, opinions and queries as expressed to friends, fellow writers, publishers etc, is a journey through the fraught life of one of our great novelists. It comes as a surprise that in fact he only wrote six novels, but of course he wrote many short stories and an absorbing Memoir.
As always one thing led to another, and when I realised that I had only read half of McGahern’s output, I decided to make good the deficiency, so I bought one of his unread books on Kindle, a used copy of another, and a new edition of another from my friends at Kenny’s.
When I finished the Letters I started on the novel, The Leavetaking, which is quite short, then started rationing myself to one short story a day. As McGahern is renowned for the brilliance of his short stories I wanted to try to analyse as I went, to see if I could learn anything that would help me in my efforts to improve my own writing.
The Letters are an eyeopener; John was very caring and kind to his friends, bur spared no one’s blushes when it came to his opinions about literature. Although his views were always sincerely held and without malice, they were not always kind. He dismissed Iris Murdoch’s work as poor writing, but most surprising are his comments in his last letter to Paul Muldoon about the quality of his friend Seamus Heaney’s poetry, his comments are surprising, to say the least. He was being treated for cancer at the time so maybe the treatment affected his judgement, we’ll never know.
McGahern was lucky in as much that his dreadful father and unhappy childhood provided him with a lifetime’s supply of material for his life as a writer, and it can’t be denied that he extracted every ounce of pain and sorrow from his family history. Despite the many cruelties he suffered he always bore himself with dignity and courage, as befitting one of our greatest writers.
Having read most of his short stories and a few more novels, I have now spent so much time in Leitrim, in McGahernland, where the sun rarely shines and where the rain never stops and dampness is a constant companion, I now feel that I have moss growing on my upper extremities.