Friday, March 31, 2006
The great Irish novelist John McGahern has died, of cancer, at age 71. Here is his Guardian obit. Here is his New York Times'.
And here is the first paragraph of Hilary Mantel's review of McGahern's last novel, 2002's By the Lake:
This is a novel about a private and particular world, which the reader enters as an eavesdropper. The writing is so calm that it seems the text is listening to itself. Its accent is a dying fall and its only tricks are tricks of the light. It is set in rural Ireland, in a country of mist, cloud, and water. The daily events of the lakeside are the swans and dark cygnets gliding by, the rippling of perch beneath the surface of the water, the movement of the breeze through the leaves of the alders. The air is scented, wild strawberries glow in the banks, and the heron rises silently from the reeds. The dead are under the feet of the living, and it is their presence—the repressed, repressing generations—that makes the people whisper.
I had read The Barracks long ago, but was reintroduced to McGahern by G.O'B, one of my best teachers, a specialist in Irish lit in general and Joyce in particular, and a fine fiction writer himself. I went back and read everything, missing much I always suspected by my sheer lack of Irishness, an assumption both promoted and disparaged by G.O'B. I enjoyed the technical skills of the novels even if I wasn't able to fully join the circle of insider insularity and communal history that I felt McGahern was speaking to most intimately. But By the Lake is so calm, so precisely observed, so accurate in its portrayal of how huge the smallness of place is that its scope and beauty is truly universal. (Denis Donoghue, in his review of McGahern's memoir All Will be Well, released last year in Britain, this past February in the US, thinks less of the book, calling By the Lake - released as That They May Face the Rising Sun in Britain - "hardly a novel at all." Read the review for much more background on McGahern.)
I'll leave the last word to Mantel, one of the finest novelists working in any language, on her peer:
By the Lake has the sense of grave integrity that is his aim. By virtue of its simplicity the novel accretes power. By its close, the barrier between exile and home, between the living and the dead, seems to become translucent. The generations blur. A person's story may be greater than he is, and last much longer. We are made of memories and we persist as long as our story is worth repeating. "People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead."