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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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Conclusion: Violence, Dislocation, Truth and Vision 315

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Conclusion Violence, Dislocation, Truth and Vision In his Preface to Creatures of the Earth (2006), his last collection of short stories, John McGahern wrote: ‘The imagination demands that life be told slant because of its need of distance’ (CE, vii). For me, this is further confirmation of the connection between imagination and memory that I have attempted to trace in McGahern’s creative activity; the need for dis- tance may have to do with perspective on the particular and the shaping of the latter into a larger vision, but it most certainly also has to do with the breathing space between the life experience and its recollection that McGahern found necessary before the past could be re-imagined. But the distance his imagination needed to open was the distance his memory sought to close and that tension is what powers McGahern’s art of memory. In his review of Creatures of the Earth, Karl Miller proclaimed McGahern’s Memoir to be ‘at least as satisfying, in its candour and imaginative fervour, as any of his stories’ and went on to ponder: ‘What does art add, in this case, to autobiography? The answer should make room for the thought that the memoir and the variously gifted novels and stories are all of them art. They drink from the same well’.1 Indeed, McGahern’s short stories tell the same story of grief, guilt, and anger as the novels and many readers before Miller have noted the con- nections between them. Patrick Crotty, in fact, considers ‘Wheels’, from...

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