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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 Three - Reflections of the One Thing: The Barracks (1963) 51

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Chapter Three Ref lections of the One Thing: The Barracks (1963) McGahern’s first published novel tells the story of the final months in the life of Elizabeth Reegan. Married to a domineering and bitter Garda sergeant, step-mother to his three young children, she finds herself think- ing more and more as her health deteriorates about her past as a nurse in London when she had an af fair with a young doctor who killed himself, and trying to make sense of her life and marriage and how she has ended up where she has. In comparison with the books that follow it, what strikes one immediately in this novel is how much McGahern minimized his own presence as the little boy, Willie Reegan. The focus is on the character of the step-mother, first and foremost, and then the father. The Dark, The Leavetaking, and The Pornographer, all have young, male protagonists, and even Amongst Women gives more prominence to young Michael and the absent Luke, than McGahern does to Willie. His first task, it seems, setting out on the writing path, was to orient himself to the magnetic pole of his imaginative world, the image and memory of the dying mother, the ‘lost world’ that he would recover only in his last novel and that he could only reach by writing his way through the long darkness that descended upon his world with her loss. In his second novel, therefore, The Dark, we see McGahern identify his imaginative world’s emotional...

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