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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 Four - In the Name of the Father: The Dark (1965) 81

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Chapter Four In the Name of the Father: The Dark (1965) The opening chapter of The Dark is the most harrowing in all of McGa- hern’s fiction. Flawed or complex, an overly ambitious experiment in sym- bolic meta-narrative or simply written too quickly, as McGahern himself suggested (M, 249), his second novel contains some of his most powerful and af fective writing. The first and third chapters alone set it apart from his other works. The Dark braids three subjects – adolescent sexuality, the uncertainty of vocation, and paternal abuse and its ef fects – into an ambigu- ously open-ended portrait of self-awakening and self-assertion. The conti- nuities within the discontinuities between it and The Barracks make clear that it is a coded sequel to his first novel. Roscommon has been replaced by Leitrim, the barracks by a farmhouse, and a truculent Garda sergeant by a farmer-patriarch of ogre-like monstrosity, but the dead mother of the first novel remains dead and the peripheral young boy, Willie, has become the unnamed protagonist-narrator. If McGahern’s first novel is about the dying mother, his second is about the son who must continue without her. Willie Reegan’s younger sisters, Una and Sheila, have become Joan and Mona, the protagonist’s older siblings, based on McGahern’s sisters, Rosaleen and Breedge. Even more than in The Barracks, the intertextual relations between The Dark and McGahern’s memoir attest to the auto- biographical nature of the fiction and the continuing drive to exorcize the past that informs his act of writing....

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