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.”