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John McGahern: memory, autobiography, fiction, history

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 07:46 authored by Martin Ryle
This article, a contribution to a special issue on the modes and meanings of life writing, discusses John McGahern's rural autobiographical novels. It focuses on their genre, their reception, and their critical import in relation to Irish twentieth-century history and its revisioning. It is first of all noted that the novels' evident basis in the writer's life, and their location in specific places (precisely identifiable by a knowledgeable reader), accounts for their reception by many reviewers and critics as a quasi-documentary record, able to supplement or displace ideas about rural Ireland associated with de Valeran nationalism. Particular attention is paid to the representation in The Dark and Amongst Women of childhood trauma: namely, abuse at the hands of patriarchal authority. Such abuse was prevalent in the Ireland about which McGahern wrote, but impossible to acknowledge publicly (though it has recently been intensively discussed): the banning by the Irish censor of The Dark, at the time of its original London publication in 1965, is an emblematic instance of that repression. The narrative strategies by which McGahern registers and makes manageable the reality of trauma are considered in the context of this collective repression and recovered memory. The article concludes by taking up some points made by Joe Cleary in a recent critique of naturalism in late twentieth-century Irish writing, including McGahern's. A comparison is drawn with Raymond Williams' Border Country, which deploys the socialist perspective Cleary evidently desiderates. It is argued that the terms of such a perspective are already present in the life-world of the young Williams, as they were not in that of McGahern. Moreover, if there is a degree of authorial self-limitation in McGahern, this may be a condition of the particularly intimate response his work elicits from readers; and hence of what Irish President Mary McAleese referred to at the time of McGahern's death as its 'immense contribution to our self-understanding as a nation'.


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Lawrence and Wishart



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