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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 Seven - The End of Father History: Amongst Women (1990) 223


Chapter Seven The End of Father History: Amongst Women (1990) With the publication of That They May Face the Rising Sun and Memoir it is now possible to get a clearer sense of how Amongst Women fits into the progress of McGahern’s writing life and the overall shape of his oeuvre. The great achievement of the novel is McGahern’s successful shaping of his abiding themes and deeply personal preoccupations into a fiction that main- tains its autobiographical core within a vivid carapace of accurate regional topography and documentary realism. In The Pornographer he constructed a narrator-protagonist who is, paradoxically, both a more complex and yet freer version of his previous autobiographical narrator-protagonists. There is an even greater sublimation of the recollective self in Amongst Women, a novel which returns to the family history of the first three novels in order to bring it to its conclusion, and which appears to silence the expected autobiographical narrator-protagonist in the character of Luke, whom the author places in ‘self-exile’ in London, distant and militantly uncom- municative, in order to allow Moran and his women to possess the stage.1 Luke’s ‘separateness’ from the family (AW, 144) and his refusal to return to Great Meadow signify McGahern’s own refusal to return to the passions he had tapped in The Dark. It would be a mistake, however, to confuse tonal objectivity with moral neutrality and to overlook the element of judgment that attends McGahern’s exploration of individual character and collec- tive ethos in this novel. Eamon...

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