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


Problematic creation in The Beginning of an idea by John McGahern 

Claude Maisonnat (Université de Saint-Etienne)


The very title of the short story outlines its metafictional dimension and its ambition to explore the difficulties involved in the transition from mere representation of other people's works (Eva's job as a stage director is just that), to the actual act of self-conscious, self-assumed, literary creation.

The initial paradox is that Eva gives up her position as a stage director in order to face the uncertainty of a writer's life at the exact moment when she is extremely successful at it. The self-reflexive dimension of the short story however, is not enough in itself to account for its originality. Indeed, writing about the impossibility to write, writing about the writer's fright of the blank page is merely a way for the latter to dramatise his creative impotence in order to exorcise it the better by producing, an actual work of fiction out of an initial lack. This has become one of the most banal topoi of literature, however the main interest of the short story is to be found in the various strategies used by character and narrative agency alike, to overcome their writer's block.

Although the narrative presents itself as a standard third person narrative with an extradiegetic narrator, the narrative set up is such as to suggest that in fact the subject of the énoncé Eva and the subject of the enunciation (the unidentified narrative agency), ought to be collapsed into one and the same figure.

For a start the constitutive ambiguity of the title does not allow the reader to know for certain whether the beginning of an idea which is later reversed into an idea for a beginning, refers to Eva or to the narrative agency. It seems more likely that it refers to both simultaneously. Furthermore the same applies to the first two sentences of the frame story (Eva's) which are supposedly borrowed from Eva's notebook and constitute the first sentences of the biography of Chekhov she intends to write, the core story, but which turn



out to be the incipit of the frame story as well. The frame narrative's quotation of the core narrative functions here as a false start since the core narrative will never be completed further than those two ominous sentences. Even worse, this inchoate core narrative will repeatedly crop up in the frame narrative (no less than eight times). This compulsion to repeat betrays the return of the repressed of the text, namely the fact that frame narrator and core narrator are to be viewed as one. In this respect, if the frame narrator covers his tracks with such consistency (no information about name or gender is provided), it is probably to allow the conditions for a closer identification with the core narrator. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that the narrative follows the rules of internal focalisation, according to which the narrator limits his omniscience to what the protagonist can see and feel, as if it literally borrowed her voice. The fact that the narrative frequently resorts to Free Indirect Discourse also contributes to creating this impression, as it makes it impossible to attribute a given statement to a fixed source of enunciation. It implies that such a statement may have been made either by the narrative agency or by Eva herself, and that the reader is at a loss when it comes to identifying the actual source of the enunciation. However, it would be misleading to assume that writing about the impossibility to write is necessarily the way out of the block. If the narrator manages to write his short story about Eva's predicament, Eva herself fails to write her imaginary biography of Chekhov. The ever widening gap between the énoncé (Eva) and the enunciation (narrative agency) will be the ideal site for our exploration of the subtleties of a narrative strategy that can reveal its secrets only in the blanks of the narrative and in the falterings of the enunciation, in short between the lines, where the signifier is allowed room to develop its activity.

As a consequence it is no chance occurrence that the incipit of the story is precisely the syntagm "the word." It places the whole text under the aeais of the Gospel according to St John which reminds us that in the beginning was the word. At the beginning of the short story then is the word, but the fact that the word in question is the word "oysters" raises more questions which the reader will have to examine especially in terms of the Chekhovian intertextuality which it openly proclaims.

The very structure of the story is quite explicit. At the level of the diegesis the narrative follows a threefold structural pattern that corresponds to the three different locations of the action. The first part allegedly takes place in an unidentified Scandinavian country which is the native land of the heroine. It is structured according to a circular pattern of repetitions and differences. We shall see that it stands as a metaphor of the inability to write creatively. The second part relates the journey from Scandinavia to Spain, to the small village called Vera where some kind of truth will be forcefully revealed to Eva. It stands as a metaphor for the wrong way out of the writer's block through a spatial journey,




an escape into an elsewhere where redemption through writing is seen as possible. The third part describes Eva's short stay in Vera and the beginning of the return journey after the dramatic event of the double rape. This journey is no mere return to the status quo ante because if Eva Lindberg is on the verge of reintegrating her native land it is presumably not in order to resume her stage directing activity, but to become a fully-fledged writer as the following remarks hope to demonstrate.

She will not write Chekhov's biography as she originally intended but she will become the subject of her own text, of her autobiography in assuming a new position as the narrative agency cleverly disguised under the form of a third person narrator. Eva's true journey is less a journey away from Arvo and back from Spain than it is a journey that allows her to move from third person narrator in Chekhov's biography to first person narrator in disguise in the short story, which is but a symbol of her ability to assume now her status as a subject of the signifier. The way the signifier is activated in the text is best illustrated by the interaction of two isotopic networks: that of sexuality and that of orality represented by the story's obsession with food. In the end these two networks converge as metaphors of the writer's predicament.

At the very outset of the story, creative writing is shown to be somehow problematic. First at the narratological level, the third person narrative being in the most literal sense invaded by the first two sentences of Eva's intended imaginary biography of Chekhov on which she was supposed to be currently working. This particular form of textual invasion is illustrated by the use of repetition of the those very sentences. The process of literary creation is thus shown to be locked in a circularity that cannot be overcome by the litany-like effect of such repetitions. This compulsion to repeat is not only the acknowledgement of Eva's lack of' inspiration, it is also a symptom of her troubled history since repeating the same pattern of behaviour is exactly what she does in her own life. For instance, to Eva's reiterated demands of a common life Arvo fails to respond positively and merely prevaricates. The scene at the Mannerheim is but an echo of an earlier scene that took place in the very same restaurant after Eva's abortion. What is repeated in Eva's life is the pattern of submission to the desires of men, to the dictates of the male patriarchal system which deprives her of her autonomy as a subject. What the first section of the short story depicts is precisely the moment when she breaks free of that pattern by severing her sexual connection with Arvo for good. Nevertheless she will yet have to cope with the sexual desires of men on many occasions in the course of her journey. First with the poet Severi in Paris, then with the Swedish homosexual on the bus, and eventually with Manolo and his superior the Jefe in Vera. Because she meddled with the latter's sexuality she will have to suffer sexually at the hand of someone she thou-ht was really a friend.




In the narrative, the failure of sexuality can be equated with the failure of her creative impulse. It is as if her relation with Arvo replaced her desire to write. Arvo himself doesn't fail to identify the problem when he exclaims: "Is it that damned Chekbov's body?" (18). Similarly, Eva's ambivalent attitude towards her writing activity is metaphorised by her attitude toward procreation. The abortion Arvo forced on her also testifies to her inability to see herself both as a mother figure and as a figure of the writer. In other words, she cannot give birth to the writer in herself. Her surprising interest for contraceptives for Manolo must be read less as a comment on the socio-political Spanish background than as a symptom of the denial of her own desire to write.

An isotopic network of orality is also omnipresent in the narrative. Numerous scenes take place in restaurants and food is regularly mentioned. Through the theme of orality the two fictional worlds of the short story are made to coincide. The Mannerheim in the diegesis is a double of the restaurant in Chekhov's story. The hunger felt by the father and the child is contrasted with her loss of appetite, she is literally fed up with Arvo and the hypocritical mode of life he represents, and she hungers for a different approach to men, life and art. Just like the child in Chekhov's story she is given the kind of food she doesn't want nor need. He gets oysters instead of more substantial foods and she gets lies, she gets the wrong words from the men that regularly take her to restaurants. This goes a lone way to explain her lack of an appetite: "She was too tense to eat as she nibbled at the shrimps and sipped the red wine" (16). This suggests an implicit connection between food and sex, represented by the polysemy of the word appetite, particularly if we remember that during the meal one of the main topics was her pregnancy and her abortion. What she can't swallow then is less her food than Arvo's lies and the fact that the discourse of men fails to acknowledge her desire for recognition and to grant her the autonomy of a subject with desires of her own. No wonder then that her appetite quickly returns when she eats on her own in Barcelona. Stuffing her with food is but a way of refusing to hear her demands by literally stifling her voice, both as a speaking subject and as a writer. Significantly the short story ends with a scene in which an old Spanish lady offers her some food and drink which she eventually accepts as a token of her reintegration into the world of the living after the trauma of the double rape. This benevolent figure of fate uses food in lieu of language to communicate with her on account of the linguistic barrier that irremediably separates the two women.

One of the main characteristics of the short story is the way it combines the three isotopic networks of orality, sexuality and writing to dramatise the predicament of the writer-to-be which lies at the core of the narrative. At first, Eva's desire to become a writer takes the form of an attempt to write an imaginary biography of Chekhov. However this desire is thwarted in many ways, which induces her to question her ability to become a




writer one day. Once she has broken her connection with the past she is for the first time in her life confronted with the actual task of writing and she can no longer seek shelter behind conventional alibis. She is indeed free to write, liberated from the usual restraints of domestic life and yet she cannot get down to it. The first half of the story shows her unconsciously resorting to various strategies of escape as if she unwittingly meant to postpone the moment when she would have to deliver the goods. In spite of her repeatedly asserted desire to write, her patterns of behaviour testify to the contrary.

In the first place, she flees from her native land under the fallacy that she needs peace and order to write. In fact her trip to Spain exposes the fallacy because even before the rape she proved unable to write a single word of the proposed biography. Contrary to appearances then, her escape to Spain metaphorises her inability to address the problem. Her recoil from the hazards of becoming a creative writer is also apparent in the various activities she pursues instead of actually putting pen to paper. Her initial profession, let us not forget, is precisely concerned with the staging of the discourse of other people which is a way for her to put her own voice in the service of others. However success doesn't prevent her from experiencing a sense of frustration that she expresses thus: "I felt I was getting stale. I wasn't enjoying it anymore" (21). Furthermore, Eva openly inscribes her writing project within the framework of Chekhovian intertextuality, as if she were trying to find some protection in the shadow of the great ancestor in order to exorcise the fear of the blank page. The fact that she proves unable to go further than the two sentences already written, which recur again and again in a repetition that is a threat of death for the text, amply shows that even intertextuality cannot do the trick and break the block. In this respect, Eva uses a tell-tale expression when speaking. of the house in Spain lent to her by some friends and where she hopes she will be able to write Chekhov's biography: "She could be their cuckoo there till then" (19). Short of being a fully-fledged writer she would then be the cuckoo that occupies the nest of intertextuality.

The very formulation of title of the short story is also interesting, since beyond the fact that it leaves the reader in doubt as to whether it applies to the subject of the énoncé (Eva), or to the subject of the enunciation (the unidentified narrative agency), both being lumped together as suffering from creative impotence, it unambiguously lays the emphasis on the primacy of the signifier over the signified as far as the creative dimension of fiction is concerned. What such a formulation indicates is the fact that if Eva seems to know perfectly well what she wants to write about, if her subject is well-defined, that is if she has in mind the signified of her biography, on the contrary she lacks the words to write it, she is still looking for the actual signifiers that will give shape to her ideas, that will allow her to acquire the status of a writer with her own words, her own style, with a voice of her own.



What Eva needs in order to become a genuine creator is less "a room of her own" to paraphrase Virginia Woolf's famous statement echoed in the text with the phrase: "she determined to have a life of her own" (15 ), than a truly personal idiom, a tongue of her own, that would testify to her inscription in the symbolic code of language and to her attempt at coming to terms with the primacy of the signifier. The narrative illustrates this particular point too, through Eva's reaction to the admirative remark made by the Swedish homosexual on the bus, about her incredible mastery of foreign languages. Her angry response is: "It's no more than being able to run fast or jump. It means you can manage to say more inaccurately in several languages what you can say better in your own" (22). Her interlocutor has clearly touched a soft spot as she interprets his well-intentioned remark as a mockery. But it can be argued that she also speaks the truth about her own case, as too many is too much, and it betrays her predicament, namely the truth that she has no access to the truly creative dimension of writing, that is she cannot yet cope with the necessity for her to mark clearly, as a writer, her entry into the signifying chain, into the symbolic code of language, through the mediation of an original idiom, of an elaborately articulate style that transforms the words of our everyday language into a form of artistic creation. Such an entry into the symbolic (in the Lacanian sense) would provide her with the landmarks necessary for the speaking subject to identify himself, to the extent that the signifying chain that represents him/her is simultaneously a means of expression that is outwardly oriented (a social act of communication) and a strictly private act of identification, literally, an act of subjective creation, to be understood here as the creation of a subject.

We are now in a position to understand why the signifier "oyster," repeated no less than forty times in the narrative, is so mesmerising, for Eva. In this very signifier the three isotopic networks of sexuality, orality and writing, are fused. To the child in Chekhov's story it first appears as an empty signifier, e.g. a signifier without a standard signified, hence the metalinguistic nature of his question: "What does oysters mean father?" (12). Furthermore the oysters themselves appear for the first time in the narrative in the guise of a signifier, here the inscription of the word "oysters" on the wagon carrying Chekhov's body.

I would argue here that the whole narrative can be read as an exploration of the possible signifieds that could be attached to the signifier "oysters." It is first associated with Eva's activity as a would-be writer as it is borrowed directly from the title of a short story actually written by Chekhov. Eva's plan to write Chekhov's biography is literally an expansion of that single signifier that functions as a real matrix for the whole text because it articulates in a problematic way the afore-mentioned isotopic networks. Thus the basic polysemy of the signifier encapsulates the forces at work to release or deny Eva's creative impulse.



In the English language the word "oyster' is associated with silence, muteness, with the impossibility to speak as in phrases like "to be as close as an oyster," or in the fact that a taciturn sort of person is called an oyster. Thus the signifier "oyster" both conceals and betrays Eva's unconscious resistance to genuine verbal creation.

Conversely oysters are popularly associated with fertility, sexual activity, conception which are fore-grounded at the beginning of the story. What the narrative implicitly suggests then is that Eva's desire to write takes the form of an impossible gestation, Giving birth to a child being the analogue of writing fiction. Let us note that this desire to bear children stands in complete contradiction with the abortion she went through and with the images of death suggested by her fascination for Chekhov's funereal wagon. In this light the association of the signifier "oysters" with death can only be interpreted as the death of her intended biography, the unconscious wish to bury her plan in oblivion. It follows that the necessity for Eva to face the hazards of a new mode of writing surfaces. In this perspective the wagon and its inscription could well symbolise the symbolic debt she has to pay in order to become a writer on her own. She will now be able to write her own text, that is to sty her own story instead of Chekhov's, all the while acknowledging the influence of this acclaimed master of the short story on her artistic choices. It is now time for her to part from him, to go through a sort of work of mourning in short to stop being a cuckoo in another writer's nest. It seems that the very writing of the short story achieves exactly that.

It is quite significant that on the bus that takes her back home Eva should wake up with the bitter taste of oysters in her mouth, and that instead of the vision of Chekhov's wagon which she expected to find as she opened her eyes, she should only see an anonymous crowd and the old Spanish lady sitting in front of her. Thus the fantasy of writing about Chekhov, or even after Chekhov is replaced by a return to reality. It can thus safely be asserted that Chekhov's biography will never get written, as the fact that this preoccupation completely disappears from the rest of the narrative implies, so that she will now be in a position to develop an idiosyncratic mode of creation.

Instead of the circularity which was the hallmark of her intended biography – "It would begin with oysters and end with oysters" (14) – which can only lead to a form of closure of the text, also illustrated by the recurrence of such stereotypes as "you go to Moscow by going to Moscow" (15) or "I'll only find out by finding out" (19), the text ends literally with the disappearance of the signifier "oysters" and the wagon bearing it, as if they were no longer needed to maintain an illusion. The journey back home must be seen as a journey towards the beginning of creation so that her life will no longer seem to her "like a dialogue from a play that has run too long and the acting gone stale" (18). From now on Eva




will live her life, not play it. This will be achieved by means of her writing when she is able to assume her position as a writer.

What is therefore clear from the story is that she will reach the status of a truly creative writer provided her own production allows the possibility of a gap between signifier and signified, énoncé and enunciation. The ambiguity between the third person nature of the énoncé and the first person angle of the enunciation is precisely a manifestation of that gap. In other words Eva will be able to re-construct herself as a subject of the signifier on condition that she submits to the relative autonomy and primacy of the signifier, on condition that she accepts her status as a split subject divided because of the impossibility to bridge the gap between the subject and his/her representations. In fact, for Eva to become the real subject of her discourse (the first person narrator that the story implies), she will have to accept the impossibility of mastery over the signifier, a position that Grants the text itself a form of knowledge to which she has no access, and represented here by the use of a third person narrator. In short the narrative strategies that have been outlined here all point to the independent status of the text, which is also the hallmark of a truly artistic écriture.

Indeed there's no lack of textual evidence to show that the narrative invites us to superpose the two agencies of the énoncé and the enunciation, the subject of the enunciation also functioning, as a spokesman/woman for the author himself, John McGahern who not only writes short stories like Chekhov but also tried his hand at writing for the theatre. In the end, and in spite of the presence of the adequate linguistic markers, the division between third person narrative and first person narrative appears to be somewhat bluffed because there is in the narrative a wide range of subject positions available that brings the boundaries of first person and third person narrative so close that they overlap. What is suggested here is the fact that beyond the purely linguistic elements, the narrative invites us to read it as an oblique first person narrative. Such an interpretation would be in keeping with the acknowledgement that, at a deeper level, all creation is necessarily autobiographical, and with the fact that the story of Eva's tribulations takes the place of Chekhov's story.

However if we are justified in granting the story an autobiographical dimension, how does it relate to McGahern himself? The foregrounded reflexive dimension of the text compounded with the fact that the short story comes first in the whole collection, leads us to surmise that the short story achieves for McGahern the same goal as it achieves for Eva in the diegesis. Eva must be seen as a figure of the double for the author himself to the extent that through the writing of it he seems to do metaphorically what Eva does diegetically in the story, that is escape into an "elsewhere" looking for inspiration, so that we may read the whole story as a metaphor for the difficulty of having to write about Ireland today and of the necessity of critical distance as an attempt to regenerate a failing inspiration.



The inescapable question is therefore why should McGahern choose to deal with the problem precisely through the mediation of the only short story in the whole collection that is not connected even in the remotest way to Ireland? All the stories in Getting Through are remarkable for their central Irishness. Why then should he open the collection with the apparently non-Irish short story in it and close it with "Sierra Leone," a story in which a character (the narrator's girlfriend) leaves for Sierra Leone while the Irish narrator remains in Ireland to tell the story? The answer could be that the opposition between Irishness and non-Irishness reduplicates the opposition between first person and third person narrator and illustrates the predicament of an Irish creator who must at the same time remain within the culture for which he acts as a spokesman and outside this culture to describe it and participate in its transformation through the medium of his art.



 McGAHERN J., Getting Through, London: Faber and Faber, 1978.

QUINN A., "Varieties of disenchantment: narrative technique in J. McGahern's short stories," in The Journal of the Short Story in English, Université d'Angers, n° 5, 1985.

 TOSSER Y., "Théorie de 1'image, sensibilité absurde et aspects de la pratique textuelle dans Nightlines," in Cahiers du Centre d'études Irlandaises, Université de Rennes, 1979.

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