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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 Eight - The Completed Circle: That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) 279

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Chapter Eight The Completed Circle: That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) McGahern’s last novel surprised many of his readers. Eamonn Hughes, for example, thought it ‘in many ways an inexplicable novel’ because ‘it seems to break with, rather than emerge from, any trajectory or pattern’ coming out of the earlier work.1 Yet McGahern could only have written That They May Face the Rising Sun when he did because it was the evolving nature of the creative-memorial process that produced the earlier fiction that led to the solar vision at its core, a vision he records in his memoir and that bided its time until the long eclipse of the first five novels had completed its cycle. The spiritual and emotional well-spring of That They May Face the Rising Sun is the spirit of Susan McGahern, and at an appropriately cardinal moment in the narrative – Easter morning – her voice is actu- ally heard. McGahern began his career as a novelist trying to imagine her death; he ended it with two works that celebrate her memory and spirit, and paradoxically, his last novel is a paean to the very cycle of life that is the focus of his animus in the early work. ‘Of all the books I’ve written, it was the most dif ficult’, he told one interviewer; ‘It was fifteen hundred pages long at one stage’.2 The creative struggle, the original length, and the many continuities with the preceding works suggest this last novel is something of a...

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