That They May Face The Rising Sun – John McGahern

Amongst Women (1991) is broadly considered to be McGahern’s masterpiece, but the quieter That They May Face The Rising Sun, from 2002, is the greater triumph, not least in its ability to depict the passing of time in the absence of traditional narrative. And how is that depiction achieved? Repetition. In McGahern’s hands, the triumph of the ordinary life lies in the ability of repetition to provide meaning. It is this repetition – more than character or narrative, both of which are secondary – that gives the novel its punch. A lesser writer would have been unable to make this work, but McGahern draws on his experience and his inspirations to create something extraordinary.

Writing about McGahern’s book in The Good of the Novel, Ray Ryan suggests that “…what ritual tacitly communicates are the deepest values of all the individuals performing it. Ritual expresses wishes at odds with conscious experience.”

Without rhythm, the conveying of routine would be difficult. As a younger writer, McGahern was influenced by Proust, and the French writer’s nonfiction in particular. Proust wrote of George Sand’s prose that “beneath the everyday incidents, the commonplace thoughts and hackneyed words, I could hear, or overhear, an intonation, a rhythmic utterance fine and strange.”

Favourite books are subjective, of course, and That They May Face the Rising Sun is a favourite of mine not least because it depicts a rural community not unlike the one that my late uncle, Joe, lived in for almost the entirety of his life. John McGahern’s contention that the local is the universal was reflected in Joe’s own belief that why should he travel the world when it would come to him, as it invariably did.

In the book of collected essays, Love of the World, McGahern writes about his native Leitrim and how expansive small areas can become in people’s minds: ‘It is each single, enclosed locality that matters, and everything that happens within it is of passionate interest to those who live there.”

McGahern also tells the story of a young man from Fenagh – the nearest town to where McGahern lived – who on arrival in New York sought out a relative who had joined the NYPD and found him patrolling the East River. As a January gale blew off the river, the boy turned his back on the water and remarked to his cousin “Michael, there’s no escaping the wind from Drumshanbo.”

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Sister Wendy Beckett

”If you don’t know about God, art is the only thing that can set you free” – Sister Wendy Beckett, contemplative nun/writer/art historian.

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Je Suis Charlie

The front page of today’s Guardian says it all: ‘Assault on Democracy.’ The slaying of 12 people in Paris, including four cartoonists and two police officers, is an attack on free expression – one of the basic tenets of democracy. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, states that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Watching yesterday’s events unfold I was struck by the identity of the victims: cartoonists/journalists and police officers. In their own, often flawed way, both media and police operate as guardians of democracy. Citizens may complain about their treatment from both – and sometimes with good reason – but the governing principles behind both free media and police forces in open, democratic societies is the protection of those freedoms that came under attack yesterday. If a journalist writes an article today on what happened in their country’s parliament yesterday that journalist is serving society. If a police officer brings the perpetrator of a crime to court that police officer is serving society. So, an attack on the media and an attack on police is an attack on us all. And if justice and the law, in particular, are not serving us then it is our responsibility, our obligation, to change that situation peaceably, not with guns.

There will be those tempted to say that the Paris murderers and their accomplices are alienated from French and Western society or are enraged because of disrespect for their religion. Writing for The New Yorker, George Packer rightly labels such excuses as a kop out. Packer is correct when he states that the attacks are the product of a mindset that seeks to “achieve power through terror.” The cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were offensive and deliberately so – satire tends to be. And France has a rich history of using satire as a tool in the fight for democratic values, and in criticizing organised religion. It happens – get over it. I’m sometimes offended by things I see in the media. Am I tempted to carry out a violent attack on the individual(s) concerned? No. Would I even take to social media to issue threats against them, as has happened – to people publishing some rather inoffensive material ? No. Because it is those people’s right to offend me, within broad parameters.  If somebody believes that any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is unacceptable, for example, they are entitled to believe that.   Freedom of religion is another democratic principle and rightfully so.  They are entitled to condemn such a depicition and they are entitled to hold a peaceful protest against it.  They are most certainly entitled to forums to explain why they find the depiction offensive.  They are not entitled – in a functional democracy – to forbid it.  Legislation to protect religious sensibilties from satire or criticism is tyranny.  End of.  No buts.

As of now, the chief suspects in yesterday’s attacks are being spoken of as individuals who came under the influence of radical preachers or similar individuals/groups – a pattern that appears to have been repeated with so-called Jihadists across the world. What is striking about these radicalizations is how isolated they seem from each other – the coherence and global spread that Al Qaeda and similar groups were originally thought to have is anything but. Individual terrorists and terrorist cells may give the impression that they are engaged in some sort of global battle in the name of the Prophet but in reality they are deluded men (almost exclusively men) enacting a fantasy dreamt up in their bedrooms, based on hate and paranoia and seeking to draw legitimacy from causes that may very well offer justification for peaceful protest – the invasion of Iraq, for instance – but most certainly offer no justification for violence. They may travel to train and fight in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq and they may speak of enacting revenge for violence against their fellow Muslims, but they have little interest in justice for their fellow Muslims. The policeman shot dead on the street yesterday while pleading for his life was Muslim. There are reports today also of attacks against Mosques in France – again for revenge, I suppose. What do these attacks gain? Nothing. But some small-minded bigot has decided that the “other” needs to be attacked rather than realizing that it is their neighbour, their fellow citizen that they target: different side, same coin. There is no “other” – we are, all, the human race.  The usual suspects, committed to representing the fears of the “ordinary man in the street” or whatever populist bandwagon has stuttered along have been quick to use the attacks to drive their own agenda.  UKIP leader Nigel Farage broke off from having yet another pint in a quaint, all-English pub from some idyllic time in the heavenly 1950s, I imagine, to attribute the attacks to that ghastly spectre of multiculturalism.

In September 2012, British journalist Mehdi Hasan, wrote an open letter in The New Statesman to those engaged in violent protest over the kind of depictions of Muhammad that appeared in Charlie Hebdo. Hasan didn’t hide his condemnation of depictions of Muhammad or generalizations being made about his religion, but he didn’t have to – he lives in a democracy and he’s entitled to his beliefs.  Railing against those who would seek to appropriate Islam for their own means and railing against the justification it gives those who would seek to condemn Islam in general, Hasan told protestors who turn to violence “Your actions undermine not just the great religion of Islam but a worldwide Muslim community, or umma, whose members want to live in peace and freedom despite the provocations from the bigots, phobes and haters.”

And that is the crux of the matter – the vast majority of us, from all religions and none, want to get on with our lives, in peace, going to work, looking after family and meeting with friends. Mundane, I know – a lot of everyday life is. But getting up in the morning to do a day’s work and ensuring you’re home in time to bath the kids and put them to bed is a damn sight more courageous than attacking unarmed people with a Kalashnikov.

(This article has been amended to take account of information that the chief suspects were not necessarily radicalized by a preacher but did come under the influence of some individual or grouping).


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Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Continuing my list of inspirational fiction and one of the newest of the books – Gilead, published in 2004. Yet, Marilynne Robinson’s novel is distinct in my list not for its date of publication but more because it reads like something almost outside of time – not so much dog-eared or yellowed but as if it’s written in stone. So it comes as something of a shock to realise the story is set in 1957, as revealed by its narrator, the Congregationalist pastor the Reverend Jon Ames, a native of the small, fictional Iowa town from which the novel takes its title. Gilead is Ames’ account of his life and those of his father and grandfather (also pastors) for the benefit of his seven-year-old son, to be passed to him after the elderly Ames finally succumbs to a heart condition.

Ames makes frequent reference to Gilead’s status as a centre for abolitionist agitation – the campaign to end slavery in the U.S. (Congregational churches, independent in governance and spirit, were to the fore in many American social reform movements). But otherwise, Gilead gives the impression of being away from where the real action takes place.  Not that the lack of action seems to perturb Jon Ames, whose enthusiasm for a life lived ordinary nonetheless embraces the rich extraordinariness of the landscape around him:

“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.”

The rich lyricism of Robinson’s language is almost like scripture and Gilead’s narrative seems deliberate its separateness from time, as if it has an almost eternal quality, its belief in the goodness of human nature uncorrupted by any temporal slips into violence or corruption (sin). There is nothing secular about Robinson or her writing – she is a deeply Christian writer. Yet this is not the Christianity of closed minds or harsh judgment of the other. It is meditative, gentle and humble. In her essay, “Open Thy Hand Wide,” which appears in When I was a Child I Read Books (2012), Robinson asserts her own liberal Christianity and argues for a reinterpretation in particular of Calvinism (a theme close to her heart) to remember Calvin’s own assertion that Paul’s message ‘not to be weary in well-doing’ be embraced as Christian imperative.  Jon Ames is frequently hard on himself throughout Gilead’s narrative but no reader of this book will meet a selfish narrator.

Gilead is also a writer’s book. Ames’ vocation and his thoughts about it mirror that of a writer – something that is difficult to fulfil yet cannot be ignored.

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The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

Rereading The Sportswriter recently I was struck by how melancholic it is. Perhaps this realization is an age thing. After all, my 20-something self couldn’t as easily relate to Frank Bascombe, as much as I enjoyed the novel the first times I read it. But on the cusp of my 40s, I find that Frank’s experiences and mood seem all the more relevant – especially the sense of alienation from events that may never be repeated and are thus already too distant to have ever seemed real.  The vastness of the American continent that for those of a pioneering spirit signalled endless possibilities is, in Ford’s depiction, a chasm in which all of Frank’s hopes and fears are spilled into.  America is unsure.  So is Frank.

Frank Bascombe is the narrator of Ford’s breakthrough novel, published in 1986, when Ford was 42. The sportswriter of the title, he is a divorced father, mourning the death of his eldest son and struggling to relate to life in general. Ford’s Bascombe books, now numbering four, have been compared with Jon Updike’s Rabbit novels, but in an exchange of e-mails with Deborah Triesman, The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Ford has suggested that his Bascombe novels differ from Updike in that “Updike’s books are, crucially, narrated in the third person, which creates a very different moral positioning from books narrated in the first—as my books are.”

Rabbit Angstrom isn’t one for existential angst, but Frank is. Hence, the cemetery scene that opens The Sportswriter, in which Frank visits his son’s grave with his former wife, referred to only as X, and wonders, as he prepares to recite a poem, whether his voice will be “a convincing, truth-telling voice’ or alternatively ‘a pseudo-sincere, phony, ex-husband one that will stir up trouble.” Bascombe is, in some senses, an everyman but in others he is not, primarily for his habit of overthinking.  Ford – or more specifically Bascombe – takes great delight in observing the everyday, the minutia of life.

As implied by Spencer Lenfield on the Open Letters Monthly arts website, referencing a 2008 Zadie Smith essay in The New York Review of Books, Ford is close to the 19th-century tradition of Austen, Eliot and Hardy (a style subsequently echoed by Scott Fitzgerald). I would agree and add that he is as close as it is possible to get to this tradition without edging over into parody. The result is prose that is both deeply lyrical and unashamedly literary. Referring to Ford’s style, John Banville has called his prose “idiosyncratically playful, slyly dandified.”

The Sportswriter, and all of Ford’s work, is notable also for a strong sense of place and in the Bascombe books this place is American suburbia. It is not the dread suburbs of a Richard Yates or John Cheever, the type of place that makes men dream of an alternative reality, of “a night of where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains,” as in Cheever’s story The Country Husband. Ford’s suburbs are something to aspire to, places of security and contentment, if only Frank could settle his mind.  Yet there is also a deadness to this way of life, as if to ask ‘is this really it’ yet at the same time accepting its inevitability. Arriving in Detroit, Frank observes a city that “floats out around us like a mirage of some sane glacialized life” before telling readers that he has read that “with enough time American civilization will make the midwest of anyplace….And from here that seems not at all bad.”

The Sportswriter, like all of Ford’s work, demands to be read slowly and methodically.

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Books That Have Inspired Me

Not exhaustive by any means and certainly not numbered by preference, but the following list is a fairly comprehensive summary of the books (all fiction) that have made a deep impact on me over the years, for various reasons.  I first read some of them at school but I came across many of the titles through Carmen Callil and Colm Tóibín’s Modern Library – the 200 Best Novels in English since 1950.

1. The Sportswriter – Richard Ford
2. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
3. A Portrait of the Artist – James Joyce
4. The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
5. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
6. Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
7. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
8. The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan
9. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John Le Carré
10. That They May Face The Rising Sun – John McGahern
11. Foster – Claire Keegan
12. Death and Nightingales – Eugene McCabe
13. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
14. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
15. Breathing Lessons – Anne Tyler
16. Felicia’s Journey – William Trevor
17. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
18. The Human Factor – Graham Greene
19. The Great World – David Malouf
20. Friend of My Youth – Alice Munro

I intend writing about some of these books in the weeks and months ahead.

Note: I originally included Independence Day on my list.  That should have read The Sportswriter, the first in the ‘Frank Bascombe’ series, written by Richard Ford.  I’ve amended the list.  That I woke in the middle of the night realising my mistake indicates the extent of my worries in life!


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