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John McGahern and the Art of Memory

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Dermot McCarthy

In 2005, when John McGahern published his Memoir, he revealed for the first time in explicit detail the specific nature of the autobiographical dimension of his fiction, a dimension he had hitherto either denied or mystified. Taking Memoir as a paradigmatic work of memory, confession, and imaginative recovery, this book is a close reading of McGahern’s novels that discovers his narrative poiēsis in both the fiction and the memoir to be a single, continuous, and coherent mythopoeic project concealed within the career of a novelist writing ostensibly in the realist tradition of modern Irish fiction. McGahern’s total body of work centres around the experiences of loss, memory, and imaginative recovery. To read his fiction as an art of memory is to recognize how he used story-telling to confront the extended grief and anger that blighted his early life and that shaped his sense of self and world. It is also to understand how he gradually, painfully and honestly wrote his way out of the darkness and despair of the early work into the luminous celebration of life and the world in his great last novel That They May Face the Rising Sun.

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Chapter One - John McGahern and the Art of Memory 1

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Chapter One John McGahern and the Art of Memory The novelist Colm Tóibín, talking about the impact his father’s death had on him when he was sixteen, said that writing was not a therapy that helped him ‘to exorcize the demons within’: ‘It’s almost the opposite … [Writing is] the manipulation of hurt, the holding on to it. The things you could do with it now. And not letting it go because, God, what else is there? You almost solidify things by writing about it, rather than releasing’.1 John McGahern was nine and a half years old when his mother died. The little boy was very close to her. Later, when he came to write about her in his fiction, he would describe her as his ‘beloved’ (L, 64), and at the end of his career, in a memoir, he would acknowledge her place at the heart of his whole imaginative life. For McGahern, however, that life was not so much a ‘holding on to’ the past as a struggling in its grip. McGahern’s fiction is an art of memory and its greatest achievement is the liberation from the grief, guilt, and anger that entered his life with his mother’s death. He wrote his way to that liberation by writing to understand his past and, ultimately, recover his ‘lost beloved’. Reading McGahern Critical attention to John McGahern’s fiction has focused primarily on its social realism. There has been excellent criticism dealing with McGahern’s artistry and intellectual inf luences – most...

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