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


Leavetaking and Homecoming in the writing of John McGahern 

Cornelius Crowley  (Université Paris X-Nanterre)


Leavetaking is probably the most elementary narrative motif or movement to be found in the novel. Indeed the way in which critics have referred to the origin and development of the novel as a genre – The Rise of the Novel, Roman des origines, origines du roman (1)would seem to posit a congenital link between the novel as a literary form and the enterprise of emergence involved in the hero or heroine's effort to become himself or herself, through separation. The novel is, historically, the artistic form dramatising the emergence of the autonomous, enterprising self of bourgeois modernity. Elements of the novel of education, and also of the kunstlerroman, that more specific version of the novel of education dramatising the growth of the artistic consciousness, are to be found in The Dark, and in The Leavetaking, perhaps also, in a more singular sense, in The Barracks, insofar as Elizabeth is shown to arrive at that quality of attention to the world which for the Russians formalists was the condition of poetry: making strange, defamiliarization. We even see her attempting to write, failing to go beyond the statement that "everything gets stranger and more strange" (187).

But here we must point to a peculiarity in McGahern's treatment of this movement of leavetaking: individual becoming, while it is the simplest and most easily available motif of fiction – it allows a narrator to plot the progress of a moving, changing, figure away from the unchanging native scene – is here a merely provisional moment in a larger movement. The larger movement is a circling backwards, a return, or a homecoming, implying the cancellation of the attempt at selfestablishment which leavetaking had enacted. Thus the movement of leavetaking is never here dealt with as if it were an end or an achievement. Something comes after the hero's triumphant or tragic establishment abroad in the world,


1. The two works mentioned here are those of Ian WATT, London: Chatto and Windus, 1957, and of Marthe ROBERT, Paris: Grasset, 1972.



and what comes after is what really matters: the reality which leavetaking and self-establishment have desperately tried to dissimulate. Leavetaking is an attempt at pure newness, but what it achieves is the merely predictable semblance of innovation and progress. What really progresses is the ineluctable deathward circumnavigation, as one homes inwards on one's end.

Repeated, compulsive innovation gives us the movement of the picaresque. The repeated, compulsive transfer of affections and desires to a succession of objects gives us the movement of the erotic picaresque: a rake's progress. Both the picaresque and the erotic can be part of a strategy of dissimulation. They are of no avail in McGahern's fictional world, the general ethos of which does not contradict the "dangerous notions" voiced by Mullins, speaking to Elizabeth in The Barracks: " 'Do you ever think that gettin' married and havin' a steady job takes the ginger outa life,' he soon broke that silence. 'There's not the same adventure at all any more! It's all more or less settled and the only information missin' for the auld nameplate is the age!' " (149)

If McGahern's art of the novel deals ironically with the movement towards autonomy, in such a way that the euphoric, or the disabused, sense of personal achievement following from leavetaking may be regarded as of no more substance than the upward thrust and burst of brightness in a fireworks display – an ephemeral flourish soon to be brought down to earth –, it is because the "dangerous notion" breaks in upon the consciousness of characters, as it breaks in upon McGahern's singular practice of the novel, where acts are represented in terms of their powerlessness to depart from an unchanging pattern of fate.

This diminishment of the hubris of leavetaking is central to McGahern's work; it determines the logic of his narrative, both his theme and the formal treatment of theme. This diminishment is not exclusive to him; it is probably indicative, in a more general sense, of the singular modification which the bourgeois form of the novel is subjected to in an only marginally bourgeois society. Such a diminishment had been a prerequisite for the artistic coherence of Joyce's achievement. Already within The Portrait, definitively within Ulysses, and endlessly within Finnegans Wake, the heroic, individualistic effort at departure is comically mocked: end and beginning, sleep, birth death, life, all come home to lie down together.

Leavetaking is the founding act of the identity of the solitary hero: Prometheus, Lucifer, or Icarus are the emblematic personae of this figure. The act involves the proud declaration of non serviam, and the unquestioned belief in the magnitude of the drama of self. As such it is a central episode in the romantic drama of the egotistical sublime. A major topos of English literary history has been the opposition of the Wordsworthian egoistical



sublime to a Keatsian negative capability (2). McGahern's fiction, in one of its discreet intertextual negotiations, has a Christian brother remark on the Sergeant, father of the young boy in the story, Johnny in the story "Old-Fashioned": " 'Like the whole of the country he has a great store of negative capability.' " This judgement is then supplemented through the addition of something very close to the famous phrase of Melville's Bartleby: " 'He'd much prefer not to.' "(High Ground, p. 46). The text thus seeks to qualify a type of withdrawal from action and engagement, from the affirmation of self, going far beyond the usual version of a socially determined paralysis.

I suggest that the reader's sense of the artistic integrity of these fictions has to do with the writer's intimation of the Freudian unheimliche, with his capacity to represent the singularity and strangeness of the familiar: home as the place in which one learns that one is not at home or at peace. What is left for McGahern the novelist, once the poison of "dangerous notions" has taken the ginger out of narrative adventure, denying him the most facile resources of fiction writing, is the art of writing practised as an unflinching return to the umheimliche, to an unchanging and singular condition which is that of the ordinary body in time, as determined by its twin parameters, starting-point and arrival point. If McGahern can, in contradiction to most recipes for fiction writing, give us nineteen times in Amongst Women the same episode of the recitation of the rosary, it is because this fictional world does not try to give the lie to the fundamental truth that nothing changes or progresses, by way of the accumulation of novel experience. McGahern is thus writing against the most basic impulse of narrative fiction to explore the plenitude and variety of the world – the Lawrentian bright book of life – because the metaphysics of his writing involves the sense that the apparent modifications or innovations in no way change the essential, and the essential is the very simple journeying between the darkness of birth and the darkness of death. There can be no euphoria of release or liberation. Acts of choice or liberation whether personal or political –,the transitions between cultural idioms or between lands, are of precious little import, other than as a camouflage of something much simpler and more essential. Thus any departure is merely provisional, a setting-out which will, in any case, be followed by a circling home. Coming home is inevitable, since death is inevitable. Leavetaking itself is the momentary deferral or postponement of the necessity of death's restoration, since life is just a momentary and unnecessary disturbance.

McGahern does however give us one instance of a successful leavetaking. Luke, Moran's eldest son in Amongst Women, succeeds in breaking off all connection. He admits so himself, expressing neither pride nor anger: "I left Ireland a long time ago" (155). The


2. KEATS, "Letter to Richard Woodhouse," 27 October, 1818, Letters of John Keats, edited Robert Gittings, Oxford University Press, 1970,  p. 157-158.


novel punishes him by depriving him of voice and presence: he communicates by telegram, and is informed through telegram of the sacramental, magic, event of his father's death, but "he neither replied nor came" (181). A verdict is pronounced on him by Rose, guardian of family pieties, in the following passage: "Luke always took those things too personally. Differences take place in every family but no one pays heed to them the way he does" (175).

Those who come home to bury their father, the narrative tells us, "in their different way had become Daddy" (183). Luke, who does not come home, becomes, quite literally anybody, perhaps nobody, just as they all feel themselves to be in danger of becoming nobody when they depart from their native place. In terms of the novel of education, Luke, in leaving Ireland, becomes himself. The younger brother, Michael, seems to substantiate this constructive reading of Luke's reference to his leaving Ireland by remarking: " 'I'm afraid we might all die in Ireland if we don't get out fast' " (155-156). The implication here would appear to be that life is elsewhere, but McGahern's fiction undercuts any optimistic investment in the enterprise of living: the homing movement towards death is what matters. And, in any case, as the narrator immediately points out about Michael, "He too was going home to Great Meadow that evening" (156). For this is not a novel of education: it is a fable playing out a slightly modified version of the parable of the prodigal son. Luke acts out of principle, holding out against his father in stern opposition to his madness and cruelty. Michael acts out a melodramatic leavetaking and resistance to the father, comes to blows with him, and subsequently comes home, to engage again in the rituals act of summer haymaking through which the homeplace is maintained through time. Oedipal conflict here ends with the son's becoming a recognizable – albeit lighter – version of his father. Becoming himself, becoming anybody, Luke is preparing himself for an unmourned death, unsanctified and unredeemed by the most primitive of domestic rituals of tradition and preservation, which here provide for the burial of a dead father under a yew-tree, and his living on in those who mourned him. Implacably the fate written out for Luke would appear to be the very fate against which Antigone's primitive religion, in its indifference to the grandeur and reason of state, had sought to preserve her brother, when, in the name of the primitive pieties of family, she gave him a sepulture. For the grave is the final resting-place, to which one comes home. It is that one comes home to.

Why does Elizabeth Reegan come home, and what does she come home for? She comes home to be at peace, her decision to marry Reegan the effect of the stillpoint in summer when time appears to stand still, when the distance between childhood and the adult body in time appears to have been effaced, and she feels at home, as she felt at home before birth:



A cart was rocking past on the road when she came out, its driver sunk deep in the hay on top of the load, a straw hat pulled down over his face. The way his body rolled to every rock and sway of the cart he could have been asleep in the sunshine. The reins hung slack. A cloud of flies swarmed about the mare's head and her black coat was stained with sweat all along the lines of the harness, but they rolled on as if they had eternity for their journey. (14-15)


She marries Reegan for the possibility of living on in her place, so that in time she may die into her place. Her being already at home is one of the preconditions for her acquiescence in her death. (McGahern does not, in this implicit assimilation of dying to the consummation of homecoming, at all depart from the pieties of a culture in which, partly out of Victorian sentimentality, partly out of a more secret disengagement from the business and adventures of the world – the whole enterprise epitomized in the achievement of walking through the doors of the Shelbourne Hotel –, it was once customary to say of someone dying that he, or she, is going home: McGahern plays this trope of homecoming to the full, using it to cast a singular, unfamiliar light upon the adventures of life, and on the provisional resting-places experienced in the course of life

houses, beds, doorways, the bodies of others. For if death may be regarded as a coming home, life may be seen as the taking of a wrong turn, a process of perdition or a getting lost, and the temporary resting-places which characters may come upon in their movement are anticipations of the real one.

Let us continue to tease out the implication of this idea of homecoming through death. Death is the real thing, ultimate and unspeakable satisfaction. All satisfactions known in life aspire to the condition of death, but fail to achieve it. In the story "Faith Hope Charity," the following is what the narrative sententiously affirms about Cunningham and Murphy, who dig trenches on building sites in England through the year, and come home to Ireland every summer:

 This money that they slaved for all the year in the trenches they flashed and wasted in one royal month each summer in Ireland. As men obsessed with the idea that all knowledge lies within a woman's body, but having entered it to find themselves as ignorant as before, they are driven towards all women again and again: in childish hope that somehow the next time they will find the treasure, and then the equally childish desire for revenge since it cannot be found, the knife in the unfathomable entrails; and they grow full of hatred. (Getting Through, p. 51)


So there is one "royal month" of sexual coming, a desperate and repeated quest for knowledge. This quest is "childish," as also is the disappointment and resentment consequent on its failure. This quest carried out under the dictates of the pleasure principle is what underlies the business of life: life goes on and on, as McGahern's fiction repeatedly reminds us, work gets done, the reality principle of building houses and motorways is complied with, all through the drive of Eros, itself the undercover agent of Death, leading on, cheating on, till it has enticed Cunningham to his death: Cunningham dies as a trench collapses around him. Satisfaction is at last final, as it can not yet be for those who go to the charity dance organized to pay for the funeral expenses, and who leave the dance to court "earlier and earlier", as it is remarked upon by James Sharkey, schoolteacher, a Tiresias figure in McGahern's fiction, who foresees and foresuffers all, and, in reply to the postman's piece of wisdom to the effect that " `Still, I suppose they're happy while they're at it' ", ventures the opinion: " 'No, I wouldn't be prepared to go as tar as that with you now' " (57).

The insatisfaction of sexual relation has to do with its failure to be final, definitive. It momentarily takes characters out of their condition of desire, regret, craving, a condition most memorably endured and cultivated by Reegan, who always projects himself forward to a time of future accomplishment. It does so by proposing a plenitude and accomplishment in the present. But its unsatisfactory nature ensures that characters are inexorably thrown back into the movement of time. Cunningham and Murphy, after their "royal month," go back to work. Insatisfaction, presumably, is what also leads to this desperate tendency to be "at it earlier and earlier." The narrative here establishes paradigmatic equivalence between a body, a trench and a grave: Cunningham moves through three successive resting-places: trench, body, grave. Other, similar, equivalences are established in McGahern's work: coffin/doorway, doorway/body, and, most interestingly, between the confessional and the entering through the "door of love" into another body, which is in turn an anticipation of one's entering the grave. This last term is the underlying instance of the series, of which all the other places of rest are the temporary displacements. Here then is one of the evocations of confession in The Barracks:

 The shutter shivered against the wall of the confession box, there was no one now between you and the heavy curtain, your hand groped to pull it aside. It drew you to its darkness like the attraction of death but you wanted to start preparing for it all over again, wait safe at the other end of the queue, going through the five little formulas you knew so well; or you wanted to rush outside and vomit or something between the evergreens and tombstones. (79)



So the confessional involves the opening of a shutter, of a door into the dark (like the laying bare of the body one will enter into: twice, in McGahern's fiction the phrase "door of love" is used, in a context which refers it to the consolations sought in, and the impossibility of, the relation of being together, suffering together, which engages two bodies in time). This darkness of the confessional is compared to the "attraction of death", but it is not a death, since one re-emerges unsatisfied, having sought purification, having failed to live up to the demands of the situation, having held back, as one can hold back, whether in love or in the confession of one's sins. The result, both in the case of love and of purification through confession, is that, instead of an absolute fulfilment which might break through the tyranny of chronos, one has simply gone through the routine the formulas or gestures, thus ensuring the necessity of one's coming back again. Confession fails to be the real thing which might relieve one of the burden of one's past inadequate acts. As it is put in another account of confession in The Barracks: "She'd go steeled and prepared to tell the truth to God and end in the squalid drama of trying to get a named printed on a card outside the box, a voice in the darkness, a smell of aftershave lotion to understand" (158).

The failure which is inevitable in sexual relation is of a kind with the failure of confession. Both acts aspire to a sacramental effectiveness – a coming-together in time, a purification in tune­ which is an intrinsic contradiction, since confession and love are both condemned to the condition of routine and repetition, leading inevitably back into the unsatisfactory continuation of time which they had aspired to put right. For there can be no sacramental release from the condition of finitude. In McGahern's representation of all ritualised, sacramental moments – love, confession, holy day, there is, to begin, the representation of the attempt at plenitude, followed by the inevitable withdrawal and falling away, the decline from this momentary semblance of fullness. The Christmas day scene in The Barracks is a good example of this. The rhythm of the prose slows, as it tries to do justice to the event, just as the rhythm of eating slows among those eating a meal which would be a sacrament of community:

It was a mere meal no longer with table and table-cloth and delf and food, it was that perfectly, but it was above and beyond and besides the wondrous act of their reality. All other meals throughout the year might be hurried and disjointed, each one eating because of their animal necessity, but this day and meal were put aside for celebration. (183)


3. The Barracks, p. 149, and the short story, "Along the Edges," Getting Through, London: Faber, 1978, p. 120.


Soon however comes the inevitable movement away from this moment of plenitude, and the ritual accomplishment is merely "another Christmas day over" (185), something waited for and then gone through, another deceptive and disappointing promise through which people have allowed themselves to be had. Reegan, as one practised in the sentiments of self-pity and disappointment, gives the definitive formulation of this condition: "I hate the day. A whole week of waitin' for it and then it goes like a wet week. Whatever people be waitin' for anyhow?" (185)

Those caught in time are fated to wait for an event, to look for a sign – the infinite in time, meaning, satisfaction: the names can vary. Characters who have waited simply know they have been had, and will be had again, like the character in "The Gold Watch" who knows that the night's momentary achievement of the impression of calm is merely time's mirroring of that which it is not, and that the momentarily wrought impression is contrary to the intrinsic nature of time: "The night seemed so full of serenity that it brought the very ache of longing for all of life to reflect its moonlit calm: but I knew too well it neither was nor could be. It was a dream of death." The voice heard here is that of one deceived and disappointed in time, and who, as best he can, is engaged in the business which the title of another of McGahern's stories epitomizes: getting through. The speaker gives the following characterization of the nature of time, and of the desires of a consciousness in time:

 I stood in that moonlit silence as if waiting for some word or truth, but none came, none ever came; and I grew amused at that part of myself that still expected something, standing like a fool out there in all that moonlit silence, when only what was increased or diminished as it changed, became only what is, becoming again what was even faster than the small second hand endlessly circling in the poison. (119)

 It is not time that is out of joint. The last sentence of "Gold Watch" qualifies time in the following manner: "time that did not have to run to any conclusion" (119). What is out of joint is the pressure of desire and expectation: consciousness as the derangement of time. It is the conscious body which generates expectation (the dream of a night so full of serenity, for example) in time. The Barracks, dramatising Elizabeth's apprehension of her own body as she is made ready for her surgical operation, shows her envisaging it as the body "excreted" (119) by her mother: this is the body which has been let loose in the world and in time, and which longs for the atonement and cancellation of the aboriginal wound. Confession and sexual relation are therefore two versions of this expectation of a moment or event through which the world of a being "excreted" into time may appear to be set right. But this expectation is based on a double



misapprehension: (i) the idea that the infinite can come in time (confession is a sacrament implying the transfer of an eternal grace of divine pardon through the office of this priest, who is a man smelling of aftershave); (ii), the idea that one might find one's end and completion through relation to another. McGahern's world is thus a world of implacable and unsacramental finitude.

The Barracks gives us the representation of one sexual relation to Reegan. It evokes Halliday's sense of the tenor or quality of the sexual relation between himself and Elizabeth, that is, what Elizabeth might have represented for Halliday. It also seems to give us, fleetingly, the intimation of a relation of love envisaged and refused between Elizabeth and Mullins. Whether or not it involves a carnal consummation, the "door of love" is at once desirable and beyond achievement beyond achievement. I shall quote this last example:

She wished she could be honest and giving, that she could strip her own heart bare in answer, for his words were but the cry of a fumbling loneliness, but the only answer she could make was to join his seeking with her own; and she knew she neither could nor would, she'd he deliberately dishonest, smiling and presenting him with the mirage of flattery that'd more than satisfy him. To answer truly could only lead to compassion or the discovery of each other's helplessness and squalor, and the one possible way to go that way was through the door of love. It would probably end the same, but at least it'd be with the heart and not in the cold blood of boredom. (149)

Regarding the relation between Halliday and Elizabeth, which he forgoes through the decision to break with her, Halliday dwells regretfully on its intended import in the following manner: "She'd not be there when a mad fit of sexual desire came, to blind it in the darkness of her womb before it grew to desperate sight enough to see his life moving in a hell of loneliness between a dark birth and as dark a death" (93).

The function of sexual relation is here an impossible one, since it is being called upon to bear a burden of meaning that is too great for it: the achievement of a blindness in her womb, as antidote to the desperate awareness of a life moving between two darknesses. The demand is impossible, contradictory, since sexual relation, as an element in the paradigmatic series – birth, womb, body, tomb –, can by no means be a source of blindness, since it is an exposure to precisely what Halliday would have it dissimulate, the movement of life between the darkness of birth and the darkness of death. It is not any simple male chauvinism, but the very conditions of sexual relation, implying the



reiteration in time of what would be, and fails to be, sacramental, that provides the motivation for the two phrases in The Barracks which adumbrate the general drift apart of two lives lived together through time: "silence lay between them like a knife" (111), and "people rotted apart" (100).

"People rotted apart," though through no deliberate wish to do so. The representation of the sexual relation between Reegan and Elizabeth insists upon the moment when the bodies suffer the inevitable "wrench" (187) that will separate them, send them back into the solitude which is that of a body in time. The passage also insists on the desperate attempt made to delay this wrenching. McGahern's characters thus do harm to one another, by the mere fact of their condition, that of bodies born by way of separation, striving in time to achieve a coming together which is the negation of this being separate in time. At most characters might decline the possibility of scheming their pointless enterprises through which to do harm to others. Between the polarities defining the movement of a life – the darkness from which one emerges, the darkness to which one goes – the singular person can elaborate two surrogate wombs: (i) a module fashioned from one's hatred and passion, one's enterprise and resentment, providing one the shelter of a "microscopic world" (190); (ii) an envelope or membrane of "mystery" – "it surrounded her life" (211) – through which consciousness in time can connect with the world.

"Rotting apart" is an inevitable movement, given the axioms constitutive of McGahern's fictional world, formulating this impossibility of compassion, of substitution, of being together. Confession and sexual relation have involved an effort at a renewal, a striving for purification in time, in lieu of the ultimate renewal of one's effacement. The technique is a failure, since it can not overcome temporisation, the fatal onwards flow. The exact terms of the dilemma of a body in time are therefore the ones stated in the evocation of the emigration-boat for England: "Hard to know you can't hide for ever in the womb and the home. You have to get out to face the world" (113).

So there does exist a more primitive and more painful leavetaking, of which all subsequent wrenchings are a repetition and a dissimulation, a leavetaking which is not the voluntary act dramatised in the bildungsroman, since the leavetaking in question has not been plotted, is not an act of will and endeavour. It is this which gives McGahern the coordinates of his much more elemental drama, between the darknesses of womb and tomb, first leavetaking, last homecoming, and which pre-empts and disqualifies the possible recourse, for narrative interest, to the representation of the various ways in which to cheat this sense of the umheimliche in the world, of not being at home or at ease in the affairs and elaborations of culture, elaborations devised precisely as a dissimulation of, and compensation for, the initial severance. (Motherland, for example, is one object for the



transfer and reterritorialization in the Deleuzian sense – of pieties and ties. In McGahern's world it does not function as a credible surrogate).

It leaves McGahern with the writing-out of the entbildungsroman: the story of diselaboration, of the body in time refining itself, wintering out, shedding the various shelters, consolations and habits, its self-absorption, through which a character is spared the exposure to the inevitable. Such a writing dramatises the withdrawal from engagement and enterprise. The moments of this "facing the world" are a sort of sublime absolute. They arrest the narrative flow. They require, as their precondition, the certainty of a monadic identity which is not interchangeable, thus excluding any possibility of the redemptive representation of the self by another: "no one can find anybody to suffer their last end for them" (165). This monadic self is thus fated to go home alone. It is for this reason that the narrative repeatedly gives voice to the heroine's reaffirmation of her identity: "I am Elizabeth Reegan. I am coming home and I am alive" (97), and that this affirmation is connected to the certainty of homecoming, involving the sense of one's final destination. The following is the narrative's representation of Elizabeth's consciousness as she comes home – westwards – from hospital:

She was going home and it was such a thing to have a home to go to. What did it matter that she'd have to adjust herself bitterly to the lonely reality of it later, for if that reality wasn't there how could she ever know the ecstasy of these hours that burned every boundary down? (139)

Richard Kearney, in an essay dealing with a "counter-tradition in the Irish novel"', quotes the passage from McGahern's novel The Leavetaking about "memory becoming imagination." He comments that: "What interests us particularly in McGahern's novel is the persistent attempt to break out of the circular time of memory toward the linear questtime of imagination" (397). He goes on to state: "The struggle between linear and circular structure, between journey and sterile repetition, expressed thematically in the conflict between imagination and memory, remains for McGahern a struggle, a crisis, a problem of writing."

How are we to interpret the phrase "memory becoming imagination"? As Kearney does, as the opposition between the two, between circularity and linearity, between repetition and making new, between enclosure and liberation? Is the opposition between terms quite so clear? McGahern's fictional world would appear to be irremediably


4. KEARNEY R., "A Crisis of Imagination: an analysis of a counter-tradition in the Irish novel," The Crane Bag, vol. 3, n° 1 (1979), compendium edition, Dublin: Blackwater Press, 1982.


cyclical: "It would go on and on, even as it had gone on before it had been passed on to us" (The Pornographer, p. 203). The "It" in question is the process of becoming in time, the Yeatsian dying generation, which momentarily has become through us, and which goes on in its indifference to us. Consciousness, for its part, lives out its return-trip: "the road away became the road back" (5). In McGahern's world the pressure is weighted toward the backward pull, as the thrust to innovation is brought back, down to earth. The novel thus dramatises an implacable version of the difficulty of becoming and of growing into the self: not the Gramscian crisis, the moment of indecision between the death of the old and the birth of the new, not the moment of anxious waiting expectation, for McGahern's world disqualifies expectation.

The sense of the existential necessity of the pull away, but also of the cost of this pull away, is repeatedly dwelt upon in Irish writing. The silencing of Luke is exemplary: he has nothing to say in the saga of family. But what does Moran, incarnation of establishment, savage preserver of the pieties of family, have to say? Moran who has not himself become, who has merely presided over a moment in this endless dying generation which goes on and on. For McGahern, statement is perhaps neither here nor there. To say that one becomes is to claim too much. The dilemma of being born, as he presents it, is thus a much bleaker version of the drama than that which the bildungsroman writes out. This dilemma is a constant one in Irish writing:

I felt the dead
Drag at my feet
Like roots
And at every step
I heard them


 5. The Pornographer, p. 203. The almost identical phrase in The Barracks is "the road away becomes the road back" (158). From The Leavetaking: "Two worlds: the world of the schoolroom in this day, the world of memory becoming imagination; but this last day in the classroom will one day be nothing but a memory before its total obliteration, the completed circle" (35); and the ending of this same novel: "And I would pray for the boat of our sleep to reach its morning, and see that morning lengthen to an evening of calm weather that comes through night and sleep again to morning after morning, until we meet the first death" (171).



I heard the roots
Snap. The rying
Stopped. Ever since

I have been
From the top. (6)

In McGahern's fiction the roots snapped once, in birth. Birth is a diminishment. The body born into time goes about its roundabout business of dying. Bildung is a dissimulation artfully elaborated in order to disguise this diminishment. "Facing the world" implies the "dangerous notion" of seeing the entire short-circuit of a life, life that is a fizzling rather than a heroic Promethean flame. The Barracks achieves a rare miracle. The "dangerous notion" does not here lead to a tone of nihilistic railing, to an absorption in the self that is as intense in its self-indulgence as it is in the insistence on nothingness. For such is the tonality of aggressive and self-pitying nihilism which many of McGahern's male characters give voice to. In the case of The Barracks, the formal achievement of the narrative ensures that the end to dissimulation is a renewed openness to the world. It implies a quality of attention that is beyond the passionate intensity of male nihilism: this is their monologic version of the egotistical sublime. "Openness to the world" is what is given. That is all there is to know, after the first leavetaking of birth. The loss of the mother is the openness to the world. Writing can thus be McGahern's attempt to discover the singular evidence of these two correlative axioms of a human condition.


 6. DEANE S., "Roots," Gradual Wars, Irish University Press, 1972, p. 46.




The editions quoted from are the following:


The Barracks (1962), London: Faber, 1983.

The Leavetaking (1974), London: Faber, 1984.

The Pornographer (1979), London: Faber, 1990.

Amongst Women (1990), London: Faber, 1991.

High Ground (1985), London: Faber, 1986.

Getting Through (1978), London: Faber, 1988.

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