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John McGahern and the Art of Memory


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 Six - Breaking the Moulds – Part II: The Pornographer (1979) 175


Chapter Six Breaking the Moulds – Part II: The Pornographer (1979) In The Leavetaking, the dying enthral and the dead captivate; in The Por- nographer, the dying instruct and death liberates. Both novels end with an escape from Dublin: a new Adam and new Eve walk hand in hand toward a better future, with the image in The Pornographer slightly – but only slightly – more convincing. In 1979 McGahern said that the ‘conscious risks’ he took in The Leavetaking had freed him up to write The Pornographer and that ‘What is done in The Pornographer is basically the same thing started in The Leavetaking’.1 If the two novels comprise a single imaginative ef fort – the attempt to break out of the moulds that had shaped the making of his first two novels – then McGahern’s construction of the eponymous narrator-protagonist of The Pornographer may represent some unfinished business with Patrick Moran, another unsatisfactory leave-taking. There is much that links the two stories, in particular, the juxtaposition of Dublin and London settings, rural pasts and urban presents, and romantic and professional failure. In both, a haunted, disappointed lover must defeat internal and external adversaries in order to win a future of unhindered possibility he believes is embodied in a new beloved. There are similar patterns of character and scene – e.g. Patrick Moran’s mother and the pornographer’s aunt; Isobel and Nurse Brady, the new beloveds; Isobel’s relationship with her father and Josephine’s with Jonathan; Patrick’s ‘con- frontation’ with Evatt on the train and the pornographer’s...

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