(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 6. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995)


One God, one disciple: the case of John McGahern


David Coad (Université de Valenciennes)


The case of Irish novelist and short story writer, John McGahern, is an interesting amalgam of coterie hype and critical silence, with one Agonistes in the wilderness seeking converts. McGahern's oeuvre extends over thirty years, from The Barracks (1963) to the 52page play, The Power of Darkness, first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1991. One would have thought that thirty years was enough time to become known as an artist or intellectual; nine interviews are recorded for the 1980s and seven listed since 1990. There seems to be a marked discrepancy, however, between reviewers' opinions of McGahern's work on the one hand, and a virtual silence from the critics on the other. This, I think, deserves attention. Articles on the Irish author, nearly all emanating from Ireland, are rudimentary, repetitious and laden with plot summary. In this dearth of critical debate, one monograph has recently appeared, Denis Sampson's Outstaring Nature's Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern (1993) (1). Sampson was the guest editor for the "Special John McGahern Issue" of The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (vol. XVII, N°1, July 1991) which is the most comprehensive collection of articles on the novelist before the appearance of Sampson's first book. Sampson continues and prolongs the ecstatic laudamus te of fellow novelists rallied to the McGahern cause (John Updike in the United States, Anthony Burgess, John Fowles and David Lodge in England, John Banville in Ireland). Still, Sampson's god has been ignored for three decades by those whose job it is to render praise. Either Sampson, believing media and sales hype, has chosen to follow a false god (and this would help explain the lack of critical attention), or there has been gross injustice concerning "Ireland's most important contemporary novelist" (2).


1. SAMPSON D., Outstaring Nature's Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern, Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1993.
2. Ibid., p.xi.



We are introduced in The Barracks to a typically Irish, typically McGahern family unit. The father is boorish, authoritarian, intellectually impoverished and inarticulate, suffering from a lack of love and lack of personal recognition. Reproducing his own family (McGahern lost his mother when he was ten), the mother (or aunt), is usually dead or dying in a McGahern novel. In The Barracks, a step-mother has entered the family. This is the only novel where the (step-)mother occupies the principal attention. In all his other novels, McGahern has a man or boy as the principal narrative interest. Elizabeth Reegan, the main character of The Barracks, suspects cancer of the breast early in the novel, is diagnosed cancerous, undergoes an operation, has a couple of heart attacks, and dies. That is what happens in the novel. The Barracks, however, is not about cancer or illness. McGahern attempts a psychological portrait of a woman trapped – trapped into marriage, into a family which is not her own, into sickness, and finally into a certain, not distant death. Marriage, family, sickness and foreknowledge of death all restrict and inhibit the ailing Elizabeth Reegan. The Barracks is about possible escape routes or exits from an intolerable fate as an Irish wife/mother/patient.

Several means of coping with destiny are explored and all rejected as unsatisfactory: escape to England, escape through memory to one's former healthy life, the solace offered by the Catholic religion, resignation to one's fate, fighting against one's fate, escape through the mundane minutiae of living and love. McGahern sets out to show that none of these survival techniques works. Elizabeth Reegan at the end of the novel is alienated from her family and environment, frustrated and engulfed by the futility and "the horrible meaninglessness of it all" (3), whilst apprehending a "sense of mystery" (211) whatever that means. As AC. Molloy notes: "[there is] no moment of revelation, no final insight into the mystery of being" (4). It has all been for nothing. Life goes on: Reegan still spats with Quirke, the kids still squabble about whose blind went down first. "You just go out like a light in the end" (226) is Reegan's sum total of grief. If McGahern's intention is to show that life in Ireland is bleak, miserable and dark, then he has succeeded in The Barracks in portraying a world devoid of imagination, where sterility, hostility and meaninglessness are the hallmarks of living. The next four novels merely repeat the same refrain.

When asked what they think of The Barracks, readers usually come up with: "It's a bit depressing, isn't it?" This reaction, devoid of any literary discernment, is understandable. McGahern's universe is devastatingly dreary, depressingly dank. The void, lack, loss and emptiness characterize some of his preoccupations. One is struck by the overwhelming use of negatives in the novel: no, not, never, not anything, no one etc. A word or idea often


3. MCGAHERN J., The Barracks, London: Faber and Faber, 1991, p.204. All references to the novel are to this edition.
4. MOLLOY F.C., "The Novels of John McGahern," Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 19.1, 1977, p. 12.



repeated is "nothing." Over 130 occurrences of the word are to be found in 230 pares. The Barracks is therefore predominantly about nothing. For over 200 pages, Elizabeth Reegan fights with the "refusal to admit she knew nothing and was nothing in herself." (211)

One word which crops up under the pen of Sampson, and others, is existentialist to describe Elizabeth Reegan's plight. It sounds plausible to theorize about this cancerous woman's ontological and epistemological aporia. Without turning to the philosophy of Kierkegaard or Sartre, critics find a (watered-down) version of existentialism in The Barracks. If this philosophy has something to do with the individual and systems, with intentionality, being and absurdity, with the nature and significance of choice, with the role of extreme experiences and with the nature of communication, then Elizabeth Reegan's plight should/must be existentialist.

Now, I think one should be careful about using philosophical terms for a writer who is as unphilosophical as McGahern. What Sampson means by "existentialist" could be rephrased in the critic's own words as "this absurd reality of human experience" (5). Existentialism may lead to, but it is not synonymous with, absurdism. There is little point bringing Camus into a discussion of McGahern, as Sampson does, given the former's unintellectual interest in the French writer, as revealed in an interview with Patrick Godon: "I like his travel writing very much .... I wouldn't read Camus for his ideas"'.

Other questionable terms in critics', especially Sampson's, discussion of The Barracks are "metaphysical" and "religious." In the chapter devoted to this novel, Sampson purports that McGahern's poetic [?] realism alludes to an "ultimate reality" that is "personal and metaphysical rather than social" (7). Again Sampson uses philosophical language to describe the main character's "quest." We need to ask ourselves, however, is this sort of language appropriate? When we read this chain of "profound" questions on page 85: "What was it all about? Where was she going? What was she doing? What was it all about?" are we not struck by trite clichés, repetition, and mock "existential[ist]" discourse?

A little further, Sampson speaks of Elizabeth's "examination of a religious sense of ultimate reality becom[ing] a central part of her effort to understand suffering and death" (8). It


5. SAMPSON, op. cit., p. 34.
6. GODON P., "Interview ... John McGahern," Scrivener: A literary Magazine, 5.2, 1984, p. 25.
7. SAMPSON, op. cit., p. 36.

8. SAMPSON, op. cit., p.36. Cf. Seamus Deane's comment in A Short History of Irish Literature (London: Hutchinson, 1986), p. 222: "There is no religious feeling in the novels." This can be compared to Sampson's assertion in "Introducing John McGahern," Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (1991), p. 5: "[McGahern is] primarily a religious writer searching for ways of perceiving the spiritual essence in everyday experience."



is difficult to know what the word "religious" is doing in this sentence, or what the critic means by "ultimate reality." If religious means pious, devout and concerning religion, these aspects of human behaviour have very little to do with Elizabeth. Her conception and understanding of Catholicism is puerile and therefore wanting. In a sentence, worthy of Hemingway, McGahern tries to engage our pity: "[Elizabeth's and Reegan's] lives were flowing apart and she was alone and he was alone and it was somehow sad and weepycreepy" (116). The use of this colloquial word (absent from the OED) at the end of the sentence trivialises what is already without much interest. How can we possibly use the word "tragic" or "existentialist" or "metaphysical" for something weepycreepy? (9)

An annoying habit of Sampson is to blow this domestic drama out of all proportion by bringing into the debate writers of distinction who sit uneasily with McGahern. In this one essay on The Barracks, we find: "[Elizabeth and Reegan] both struggle with Beckettian dilemmas"; "[Elizabeth's] freedom takes on Proustian implications"; "[Elizabeth's] mystical sense of an overwhelming beauty in nature [is] like Gertrude Morel['s] in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers"; there is an "ambivalence of King Lear"; there are echoes of "certain poems of Yeats regarding death" (10). Rather than namedropping and running to the "greats" to find forced, exaggerated parallels, it would have been more helpful to show the specificity of McGahern. What is the particular achievement of McGahern in The Barracks then?

It must be said that McGahern's attempt at a psychological portrait of a woman afflicted by cancer tends to fail in The Barracks. Despite the two hundred pages, we never feel as though we know the main character because there isn't much to know. It is true that we see a woman ground into a daily routine, dissatisfied with her lot, afloat in a world of smallminded, petty, snivelling people. But such is the lot of millions of people. McGahern fails to conceive a character with knowable, identifiable characteristics. Everything about Elizabeth Reegan is banal and profoundly uninteresting. The same can be said for her nihilist exlover, Halliday. He is such a sketchily presented, minor, cardboardlike creation that his oft repeated "cry" which stays in Elizabeth's memory: "What the hell is all this living and dying about anyway, Elizabeth?" (85), is hardly proof of an "existential" crisis.


9. Cf. SAMPSON, op. cit., p. 35 (footnote): "A case might be made for seeing [The Barracks] as a 'modern tragedy'."
10. Ibid., p. 39, 40, 43, 45, 56. There is more preposterous: in Sampson's chapter on The Leavetaking relegated (happily) to a footnote we find "While McGahern's interest in Neoplatonic ideas is demonstrable, his interest is probably primarily literary" (p. 115-16).



If we compare The Barracks with another novel where cancer is a subject of attention, Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, we are struck in the latter novel by many personal and personalised case-histories of cancer. The Russian novelist is able to capture one character's perception and fight with cancer in half a page, whereas McGahern is unable to elicit our interest in his character's cancer in over 200 pages. We believe in Kostoglotov, Rusanov and Ludmila Afanasyevna in a way that makes McGahern's patient no more than a flat, "unrounded" type: the Irish housewife. Michael J. Toolan identifies the same problem in this comment on McGahern: "There is little sense of a consistent expansion of theme or vision, a growing depth to the character analysis, or any general advance from a bleak pessimism of mood" (11).

One of the main criticisms to be made of The Barracks is the perfect marriage of form and content. Given McGahern wants to insist on the run of the mill, dreary, depressing nature of Irish society in the 1950s, but when the prose is itself so flat, deadpan and dreary, there is hardly any pleasure in reading. McGahern's style has hardly altered in thirty years. There is always the same monotonous, paratactic, uninventive string of non-periodic sentences, often bordering on cheap melodrama, or Barbara Cartland-type sentimental romance, as in the following: "She had loved him, still loved him, and would love him till she died, but how was she to tell him so?" (192) Not only is the prose lacking in imagination and inventiveness, but the punctuation is unhelpful and often obstructive. McGahern consistently breaks simple rules of sentence construction with no apparent purpose. One of his favourite lapses is to punctuate with commas where full stops are normally required. For example: "She had never served God much, she had served herself all her life, but weren't the people who were serving God serving their lives too, there was a notion that nobody went to heaven or hell except they wanted to, she'd read it in a newspaper"(122). Five separate thoughts are strung together with ill-fitting commas before we are allowed to breathe thanks to one full stop at the end of the "sentence." McGahern's punctuation on the whole is erratic, annoying, and personal.

An unsatisfactory quality of The Barracks is the fact that there is so little, if any, change or development in the main character. Elizabeth Reegan seems just as blighted, run down and uninspired in chapter 1 as she does on her deathbed at the end. Reegan's daily routine and fights with the establishment become tedious, as they most probably are. The one thing that happens in the novel is telling his superior, Quirke, where to go. This tends to become the climax, turning Elizabeth's death into an anticlimactic accident. There is no


11. TOOLAN M. J., "John McGahern: The Historian and the Pornographer," Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 7. 2, 1981, p. 39.


hope in a world of facts, penury, emotional cripples and victims of the system. The "withering constriction" (12) not only describes Irish society, but it can also allude to a mediocre talent, a depressingly dismal view of the world where hope is non-existent.

The reason for the relative silence of critics, as opposed to reviewers, is that McGahern's art is minor. His fictional creations simply cannot stand under the weight of "serious" critical discussion. McGahern is not Beckett, Proust, D.H. Lawrence, Yeats or Shakespeare. If only readers were to look at the aesthetic, artistic and poetic void in The Barracks, instead of inventing Dostoyevsky-type philosophical discourse, or treating the novel as a sociological / historical document on the way they lived in Ireland in the 1950s, then perhaps it might be evident that John McGahern is not "Ireland's most important contemporary novelist." Nor is he "a complex novelist" (13) as James Cahalan pretends. Accolades such as "the leading novelist of his generation" (14) are misleading, exaggerated sales hype, as is any mention of Joyce in the same sentence, other than to describe country of birth.

If McGahern is such an important, skilled artist, as some critics avow, how do we explain the absence of his name from recent works on Irish literature published in Ireland? In the two books by or edited by Robert Welch, Irish Writers and Religion (1992) and Changing States: Transformations in Modern Irish Writing (1993), McGahern is not even mentioned once. In the work edited by Michael Kenneally, Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature (1988), McGahern finds himself mentioned in three lists and in Richard Kearney's Transitions in Modern Irish Culture (1988) he is part of a list of nine writers. John McGahern's oeuvre is not "contemporary epic" (15) as Denis Sampson imagines. It is a slice of life realism about abuse, oppression, degradation and Godless wandering.


12. KILROY T., Times Literary Supplement, 17 March 1972, p. 302.
13. CAHALAN J., The Irish Novel: A Critical History, Boston: Twayne, 1988, p. 275.
14. OWENS C., "John McGahern," in R. Hogan (ed.), The Macmillan Dictionary of Irish Literature, London: Macmillan, 1980, p. 400.
15. SAMPSON, op. cit., p. 13.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 6. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995)