Tag Archives: John McGahern

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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Literary Locations

Strandhill, Co. Sligo. Courtesy of Ciaran O’Murchu. http://www.whitewall.com/ciaranomurchu

It is not unusual to find in a story or novel the use of a location that the reader has personal knowledge of.  Writers will write about what they know and of course that includes actual locations.  Nonetheless, for the reader, it can be a delight to find in fiction a setting they call home.

In Nightlines (1970), his first book of published stories, John McGahern included Strandhill: The Sea, part of what Irish-Canadian academic Denis Sampson has termed an “existential segment” of stories dramatizing “the sense of time passing in a continuous present” (1).  To find a story set in a place known to the reader makes vivid that continuous present as the story’s narrative, dreamt up in the writer’s past, parallels the reader’s own, often ongoing experience of a place.

In Strandhill: The Sea, the unnamed narrator, visiting the seaside resort just five miles from where I grew up, describes perfectly the vagaries of Sligo’s weather – “The sky filled over Sligo bay, the darkness moving across the links and church, one clear blue strip between Parkes’ and Knocknarea.”  Summers in the Northwest of Ireland invariably offer both the distant hope of sun and the almost constant threat of rain.

Strandhill reappears in McGahern’s writing on an intermittent basis.  In The Stoat, published in the collection High Ground (1985), a young man is asked to Strandhill to meet the woman his widower father is considering marrying.  Playing golf on the links course there, he finds a dying rabbit, the victim of a stoat.  In his imagination, the chase of rabbit by stoat contrasts with his father’s own chase of his potential wife – a chase casually abandoned when the woman’s health shows signs of fragility.

Moran, the anti-hero of the novel Amongst Women (1990), drives Rose, his second wife, to Strandhill for a day’s outing.  The seaside resort serves as an escape for McGahern’s characters, just as it has served as a sanctuary for me many times.  Moran’s trip is echoed by that of his youngest son, Michael, whose older lover drives them to Strandhill so they can spend time together away from the prying eyes of their inland, rural community.

McGahern’s descriptions of Strandhill do make those particular stories more vivid in my own mind but, ultimately, his fiction stands on its own merits.

(1) Sampson, Denis, Outstaring Nature’s Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern, The Catholic University of America Press, 1993, p. 87.

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