The Books: “Amongst Women ” (John McGahern)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Amongst Women by John McGahern

amongst%2Bwomen.jpgThis book is all tied up with my father. I will never look at this book or think about this book without thinking about my father. I don’t even know what else to say about it, really. John McGahern, who passed away in 2006 (I wrote about him here), is the greatest contemporary Irish writer. Or … he was. Rest in peace. In a recent interview with Anne Enright (that I linked to a couple days ago) – she says about McGahern: “I find being Irish quite a wearing thing. It takes so much work because it is a social construction. People think you are going to be this, this, and this. I can’t think of anything you might say about Irish people that is absolutely true. [Irish writer John McGahern, who died in 2006] was an immensely angry, dangerous, and subversive writer. But he was domesticated by the Irish academy incredibly fast. There’s the idea of the ‘authentic Irish’ that he keys into.”

McGahern writes “quiet” books – domestic interior dramas – but I’m with Enright. The wellspring underneath his work is volcanic. He is in no way, shape, or form SAFE. As a matter of fact, Amongst Women was one of those books that made my heart hurt. Literally. You know how sometimes you feel like there is an actual bruise on your actual heart? That’s what this book did. I almost couldn’t finish it. McGahern’s work cuts way close to the bone, for me. And sometimes life is easier if you just ignore certain realities, sometimes it gets too intense. McGahern, in Amongst Women, in his quiet specific way – opens up the psychologies of that whole family to me, the reader … and I get it … He makes me get it. But Enright’s point is also well-taken. Ireland has a way of pillorying and then celebrating their famous artistic sons. Joyce could tell you a bit about that. McGahern had similar experiences. McGahern doesn’t write political books, not necessarily – but I suppose most everything is political in Ireland. At least on some level. There was an article in the UK Times about McGahern a year or so ago (link no longer available). An excerpt:

He was recognised as a master craftsman: a succession of awards and prizes confirmed that. But McGahern also came to be seen as something he never was, nor tried to be: a chronicler of Ireland’s journey from the past and an explorer of Irish identity.

As he tried to explain in interviews, this way of looking at things held no attraction for him. It was not interesting; there was something childish in questing after the machinery of identity. He disliked the notion of the writer as romantic artist, a courageous solo swimmer in a sea of archetypes.

He wrote about the world he knew and the world his people had known for generations in rural Ireland. He came from the Catholic middle classes, and although he had left the faith behind, he refused to condemn it. It was part of what he was.

It has always been too easy to stereotype McGahern. When his second novel, The Dark, was banned in Ireland, and he was forced by the Catholic church to resign from his teaching job in Dublin, some wanted to use him as a cause celebre, a literary crusader against the old repression.

McGahern rejected the role. He noted that Samuel Beckett was one of the few to inquire after his personal opinion before agreeing to join an anti-censorship campaign. To others, it seemed that McGahern must have been so deeply brainwashed by Irish Catholicism that he refused to denounce it.

But he was no campaigner. If there was any denouncing to be done, it could be undertaken by the reader after engaging with the truth of his fiction. He did not want to dignify the ban by openly opposing it. Readers of his work could see what had angered the hierarchy: not just the frank sexuality, but a portrait of a religious institution without spirituality, devoted to secular power.

See what I mean? His books rattled the status quo. And yet he also was not an “issue” writer. He didn’t do “issue” books. And he refused to fit into the little box that some elements wanted him to be in. He left the faith – but in my opinion, nobody writes about Irish Catholicism like John McGahern. And his “refusal to condemn in” sufficiently left many very upset. You know. People wanted to ‘own” him. He refused to be owned.

I’m making him sound rather ponderous, and he is just the opposite. He’s just a damn fine writer and Amongst Women and That They May Face The Rising Sun (or By the Lake in the US) are routinely listed on any list of the greatest Irish novels. He is a master at prose. I don’t know how he does it.

Amongst Women is about, mainly, Michael Moran – father of 5 – widower – married again … an old Irish Republican, who now is left without a war. It’s a present-day novel, so Moran is bitter = oh God is this man bitter – about where Ireland is going now, and the “gangsters” running things. There is no place for Michael Moran in the new order, and yet he was one of the ones who fought for the country. He’s very similar to “The Citizen” in James Joyce’s Cyclops episode in Ulysses (excerpt here). It’s like he’s not domesticated. And yet he lives in a house, and has to submit to normal life again. But he bucks against it. And he takes out his own misery on the family – who spend the entirety of their lives, tiptoeing around him, trying to guess his moods, adjusting, disappearing, submitting. This book has to be the best examination of that whole Irish father-daughter dynamic – which can be so baffling to outsiders. I’m talking about tribal loyalty here. It goes beyond love, loyalty, duty, familial responsibilities. It’s about tribe. Maggie, Sheila, and Mona are the three grown daughters – trying to live their own lives, and yet – they will never ever truly cut the cord. After they get married or go to college, they still come home every weekend. They tiptoe around their father, and have whispered conversations behind his back. The entire house revolves around Michael Moran’s moods. He has his old IRA buddies over, to relive past glories – and they are grim evenings, Moran needing to dominate – always.

But here’s where McGahern is a genius, and I have no idea how he does it. Michael Moran is not a character on a page – he is a living breathing man … and while you may be glad that he is not your father … you love him so much that you get that bruise-thing on your heart I mentioned earlier. His pain, his loss, the horribleness of getting old … becoming useless … and a man who cannot express himself, a man who cannot say, “Hey, I’m in pain here …” or “I’m scared of how lonely I am” or whatever … a man like that is always alone. His daughters sense this, so they hover around him, making sure he will never be alone. They may have their own feelings about how he treats them, how he treats everyone – but if anyone ever says a word against him – they would be cut off forever. Even the daughters’ husbands. It is FORBIDDEN to talk against Michael Moran. The daughters can do so amongst themselves … but no one else – not even intimate in-laws – can enter that territory. This is what TRIBE means.

God, I so get that.

My family feeling is tribal as well.

Michael Moran is one of the great literary characters. I will never forget him. And what a confusing experience it is getting to know him. You hate him sometimes. You roll your eyes at his exaggerated sense of himself as an Irish warrior. You wish he would soften up. You ACHE for him. God, do you ache.

I have tears in my eyes. This book means a lot to me.

Here’s an excerpt. Michael Moran has re-married – a woman in the town, Rose (another wonderful character). She did not know him well when she married him. She married an unknown. A widower with 5 children. So there is much about him that frightens her. His moods, his sudden viciousness … She’s on uncertain ground. She loves him. Loves him dearly. But God can this guy be a son-of-a-bitch. Wonderful character. This excerpt starts from Rose’s point of view … but as you’ll see, it’s a gentle omniscent narrator – we flow from one person’s POV to another..

EXCERPT FROM Amongst Women by John McGahern

Often when talking with the girls she had noticed that whenever Moran entered the room silence and deadness would fall on them; and if he was eating alone or working in the room – setting the teeth of a saw, putting a handle in a broken spade on a wet day, taking apart the lighting plant that never seemed to run properly for long – they always tried to slip away. If they had to stay they moved about the place like shadows. Only when they dropped or rattled something, the startled way they would look towards Moran, did the nervous tension of what it took to glide about so silently show. Rose had noticed this and she had put it down to the awe and respect in which the man she so loved was held, and she was loath to see differently now. She had chosen Moran, had married him against convention and her family. All her vanity was in question. The violence Moran had turned on her she chose to ignore, to let her own resentment drop and to join the girls as they stole about so that their presences would never challenge his.

He came in late, wary, watchful. The cheerfulness with which Rose greeted him he met with a deep reserve. She was unprepared for it and her nervousness increased tenfold as she bustled about to get his tea. Sheila and Mona were writing at side tables; Michael was kneeling at the big armchair, a book between his elbows, as if in prayer, a position he sometimes used for studying. All three looked up gravely to acknowledge their father’s presence; but, ssensing his mood at once, they buried themselves again in their schoolwork.

‘Where’s Maggie?’ he demanded.

‘She went to visit some friends in the village.’

‘She seems always to be on the tramp these days.’

‘Shes going around mostly saying goodbye to people.’

‘I’m sure she’ll be missed,’ he said acidly.

Rose poured him his tea. The table was covered with a spotless cloth. As he ate and drank she found herself chattering away to him out of nervousness, a stream of things that went through her head, the small happenings of a day. She talked out of confusion: fear, insecurity, love. Her instinct told her that she should not be talking but she could not stop. He made several brusque, impatient movements at the table but still she could not stop. Then he turned round the chair in a fit of hatred. The children were listening though they kept their eyes intently fixed on their school books.

‘Did you ever listen carefully to yourself, Rose?’ he said. ‘If you listened a bit more carefully to yourself I think you might talk a lot less.’

She looked like someone who had been struck without warning but she did not try to run or cry out. She stood still for a long moment that seemed to the others to grow into an age. Then, abjectly, as if engaged in reflection that gave back only its own dullness, she completed the tasks she had been doing and, without saying a word to the expectant children, left the room.

‘Where are you going, Rose?’ he asked in a tone that told her that he knew he had gone too far but she continued on her way.

It galled him to have to sit impotently in silence; worse still, that it had been witnessed. They kept their heads down in their books though they had long ceased to study, unwilling to catch his eye or even to breathe loudly. All they had ever been able to do in the face of violence was to bend to it.

Moran sat for a long time. When he could stand the silence no longer he went briskly into the other room. ‘I’m sorry, Rose,’ they heard him say. They were able to hear clearly though he had closed the door. ‘I’m sorry, Rose,’ he had to say again. ‘I lost my temper.’ After a pause they thought would never end they heard, ‘I want to be alone,’ clear as a single bell note, free of all self-assertiveness. He stayed on in the room but there was nothing he could do but withdraw.

When he came back he sat beside the litter of his meal on the table among the three children not quite knowing what to do with himself. Then he took a pencil and paper and started to tot up all the monies he presently held against the expenses he had. He spent a long time over these calculations and they appeared to soothe him.

‘We might as well say the Rosary now,’ he announced when he put pencil and paper away, taking out his beads and letting them dangle loudly. They put away their exercises and took out their beads.

‘Leave the doors open in case Rose wants to hear,’ he said to the boy. Michael opened both doors to the room. He paused at the bedroom door but the vague shape amid the bedclothes did not speak or stir.

At the Second Glorious Mystery Moran paused. Sometimes if there was an illness in the house the sick person would join in the prayers through the open doors but when the silence was not broken he nodded to Mona and she took up Rose’s Decade. After the Rosary, Mona and Sheila made tea and they all slipped away early.

Moran sat on alone in the room. He was so engrossed in himself that he was startled by the sound of the back door opening just after midnight. Maggie was even more startled to find him alone when she came in and instantly relieved that she hadn’t allowed the boy who had seen her home from the village further than the road gate.

‘You’re very late,’ he said.

‘The concert wasn’t over till after eleven.’

‘Did you say your prayers on the way home?’

‘No, Daddy. I’ll say them as soon as I go upstairs.’

‘Be careful not to wake the crowd that has to go to school in the morning.’

‘I’ll be careful. Good night, Daddy.’ As on every night, she went up to him and kissed him on the lips.

He sat on alone all until all unease was lost in a luxury of self-absorption. The fire had died. He felt stiff when he got up from the chair and turned out the light and groped his way through the still open doorway to the bed, shedding his clothes on to the floor. When he got into bed he turned his back energetically to Rose.

She rose even earlier than usual next morning. Usually she enjoyed the tasks of morning but this morning she was grateful above all mornings for the constancy of the small demanding chores: to shake out the fire, scatter the ashes on the grass outside, to feel the stoked fire warm the room. She set the table and began breakfast. When the three appeared for school they were wary of her at first but she was able to summon sufficient energy to disguise her lack of it and they were completely at ease before they left for school. When Moran eventually appeared he did not speak but fussed excessively as he put on socks and boots. She did not help him.

‘I suppose I should be sorry,’ he said at length.

‘It was very hard what you said.’

‘I was upset over that telegram my beloved son sent. It was as if I didn’t even exist.’

‘I know, but what you said was still hard.’

‘Well then, I’m sorry.’

It was all she demanded and immediately she brightened. ‘It’s all right, Michael. I know it’s not easy.’ She looked at him with love. Though they were alone they did not embrace or kiss. That belonged to the darkness and the night.

‘Do you know what I think, Rose? We get too cooped up in here sometimes. Why don’t we just go away for the day?’

‘Where would we go?’

‘We can drive anywhere we want to drive to. That’s the great thing about having a car. All we have to do is back it out of the shed and go.”

“Do you think you can spare the day?’ She was still careful.

‘It’s bad if we can’t take one day off,’ he said laughingly. He was happy now, relieved, pleased with himself, ready to be indulgent.

He backed the Ford out of the shed and faced it to the road. Maggie had risen and was taking breakfast when he came in.

‘Is there anything you want, Daddy?’

‘Not a thing in the wide world, thanks be to God.’ She was relieved to hear the tone. ‘You’ll have the whole place to yourself today. Rose and myself are going away for the day.’

‘When do you think you’ll be back, Daddy?’

Rose had left out his brown suit and shirt and tie and socks and he had started to dress.

‘We’ll be back when you see us. We’ll be back before night anyhow,’ he said as he tucked his shirt into his trousers, hoisting them round his hips.

‘I’m holding everybody up,’ Rose fussed self-effacingly. She looked well, even stylish in a discreet way, in her tweed suit and white blouse.

‘Daddy looks wonderful. I hope I’m not too much of a disgrace,’ she laughed nervously, moving her hands and features in one clear plea to please.

‘I’m bound to be taken for the chauffeur,’ he laughed out, mispronouncing the word with relish but he was not corrected as he hoped.

‘There’d never be a fear of that,’ she said wtih feeling.

They set off together in the small car, Rose’s girlish smiles and waves only accentuating the picture of the happy couple going on a whole day’s outing alone together. Maggie watched the car turn carefully out into the main road and then she went and closed the gate under the big yew tree.

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3 Responses to The Books: “Amongst Women ” (John McGahern)

  1. The Books: “By The Lake” (John McGahern)

    Next book in my Daily Book Excerpt – on my adult fiction shelves: By The Lake by John McGahern I read By the Lake last year (here’s my post on it) – John McGahern just passed away, and while his…

  2. Tim says:

    I picked up this book yesterday and read the whole thing. I had to do some obligatory family stuff but the story; the characters were on my mind all day. Moran was so aggravating, he made me so mad. I could not believe what his last words to his family were! But the letters he wrote and the connection he felt to his family and the prayers he said for them. What a complex man, I will not soon forget him. Great story, wonderful writing, great recommendation. Thank you.

  3. Hmmm.

    I guess today is “John” Day on my blog. That was a complete coincidence. More Johns (some of which I have written about): — John Ford (post) — John Tyler — John Steinbeck (post) — John Mayer — John Jacob…

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