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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 Five - Breaking the Moulds – Part I: The Leavetaking (1974; rev. 1984) 119

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Chapter Five Breaking the Moulds – Part I: The Leavetaking (1974; rev. 1984) McGahern considered the writing of his third novel to be a turning-point in his career: ‘I would actually have stopped as a writer unless I had broken out of my own moulds in The Leavetaking’.1 In 1979, five years after its publication, he told Denis Sampson: ‘it was actually a book I had to write’.2 It seems, however, that the process of ‘breaking out’ remained unfinished and was not completed until, taking advantage of a proposed French trans- lation, McGahern revised the second part of the novel for a new edition in 1984. In his ‘Preface to the Second Edition’ McGahern explained that he felt the way he had presented the figure of ‘the beloved’ in the original ver- sion of Part II had prevented the work from achieving ‘that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess’ (L 1984: [5]). What needs to be recognized, however, is that whether or not the revised version of The Leavetaking does achieve the ‘inner formality or calm’ McGahern desired, it was the writing of The Pornographer that in large part ‘enabled’ the revisions that finally ‘broke the moulds’ of the early writing. But what might that mean? What makes the two versions of The Leavetaking when taken together such a ‘breakthrough’? What were the ‘conscious risks’3 he told Denis Sampson he took while writing the story of Patrick Moran, the young, recently married...

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