R.I.P., John McGahern

I gasped when I heard the news: great Irish novelist John McGahern has passed away. Thanks, peteb, for letting me know – I hadn’t heard, and I’m kind of emotional about it right now. Here’s a post over at Slugger, with a bunch of great links. And the first comment in the thread brought tears to my eyes. Because I feel the same way. I wrote about it here a bit. (The rest of the comments in the post over at Slugger are great too – people remembering McGahern, sharing their thoughts and memories about him.)

I have my father to thank for introducing me to John McGahern. My dad always had such great things to say about McGahern – and for some reason, it took me a while to get around to reading him. I read Amongst Women and … it basically flattened me. Almost as much as Ian McEwan’s Atonement. It hurt me to read it. The story, that FATHER … just that character … It was a painful to book to read. Masterful. It’s not that it’s a brilliant plot, or a gripping tale, it’s not even that the characters are so memorable – except for the father. That father will live on in my memory forever. It’s the way McGahern brings us, inevitably, step by step through that story – it’s how he desribes the silence in that house, it’s his observations … of how this family works … the tiny moments that make up conversations … You just can SEE it all in how he writes. It’s a little window into a completely three-dimensional world. McGahern does not paint his characters with broad strokes. They’re very subtle, complex, human beings. But – That father in Amongst Women is introduced to us with two or three sentences … and entire WORLDS open up before us. We know this man. We know this man. And – we just ACHE for him. We would be so fearful if he were our father, he’s – cold – he withholds love – he is walled up in his own agony … everyone tiptoes around him, etc. … but … looking in on him from the outside … all you can see is his pain. His loss.

McGahern almost seems invisible in this process – his writing is so good, so seamless, it seems almost to be flowing directly from an experience … The book does not appear to be invented at all. It just IS. It IS the experience that it describes. So few writers are able to do that, so few writers are able to make us forget THEM … and guide us straight into a story.

We are fully immersed in that house. With those sisters. The wife. And that father. Even thinking about that character makes me weep. Which I am doing right now. It’s all tied up with my own father … and the father-daughter dynamic … and also the IRISH father-daughter dynamic – which is very specific, and … archetypal … and I can’t describe it. … But McGahern can and does.

A truly great novelist. A master of the form.

John Banville, another favorite of my father, had this to say about McGahern: “Amongst Women,’ which was his masterpiece — if there was any justice at all, it should have won the Booker Prize. It would have given him the international recognition that he didn’t have. The literary world we live in now is so glittery. His novels were so quiet, perhaps they didn’t travel well. But they will.”

That came from the NY Times obituary here.

His fame is localized. He is famous to Irish people, and to people who love fiction. Amongst Women routinely makes it into lists like: Top 50 Best Irish Novels (or Top 100) or what have you … but I would put it on my list of Top 50 Best Novels, period.

From a commenter on Sinéad Gleeson’s blog-post about it:

Amongst Women. I read it when I was fourteen. It is sublime. It is the foundation stone for everything I have read and written and thought about since then.

I can’t believe this, Sinead. It is so desperately sad. He had been ill but he had recovered, had really fought it. We saw him at Christmas and he was in great form.

There won’t be his like again.

Rest in peace, Mr. McGahern.

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2 Responses to R.I.P., John McGahern

  1. peteb says:

    As well as recommending the RTÉ Rattlebag interview following the publication of Memoir, some 40 minutes worth[linked above], from copernicus in the comments at slugger, a link to what may have been his last interview, published in the Boston Globe on the 14th March.

  2. Lovely post, Sheila. He will be so much missed. And yes, Amongst Women was a revelation, and a masterpiece. I am reading it again today.

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