The Collected Stories
by John Mcgahern
Good writers are often compared to great ones, and the Irish fiction writer John McGahern surely falls into one of these two categories. He has been compared to Joyce and Proust, to Carver and Faulkner, and he has been called Ireland's finest living fiction writer. It is, perhaps, the human impulse to categorize, to judge, to say that this art is great and that is not. Certainly Mr. McGahern's voice is an extraordinary one, one that immediately announces itself as distinctive and recognizable, and his fiction creates a quietly graceful universe that we can watch and believe.
But to Mr. McGahern, the question of overarching literary value is more or less a futile, comic exercise, as he said in a recent interview with the Crimson. His definition of good writing is a simple one. "The best guide," Mr. McGahern said, "to what's good writing is what interests us or gives us pleasure. It's not the only guide, but I think it's the least fallible."
Mr. McGahern's Collected Stories, released in paperback in March, speak to the difference between an abstract greatness and what we like. When Tipperary, a character in the story "Hearts of Oak and Bellies of Brass," asks the narrator if he thinks Shakespeare was all that he was bumped up to be, the narrator answers that people say so, and it is people who do all the bumping up or bumping down. "Who is people?" asks Tipperary. "People is people," says the narrator,"...they might even be ourselves."
That is what Mr. McGahern is interested in, what he called "our own lives, the only lives we'll ever have." It is an enormous task, one that he must approach one life at a time, because rather than telling stories to make a point, he is simply telling stories. In "Strandhill," the Sea," another character labors to prove that Shakespeare must provide lessons for the modern world. He wants literature to be education, from the Latin educo, "to lead forth."
Mr. McGahern is not concerned with lessons, but with the facts and images that form narratives. He is a writer's writer, so to speak. "you're just trying to get your images and your rhythms together," he said, explaining whether he has an audience in mind when he writes. "In fact, I think that if. I didn't need to write, I wouldn't write."
His stories are not, however, mere mimetic renditions of an unordered world, presented to readers as simple records of life. Although they generally are composed of plot and dialogue only, without narrative interpretation or explanation of the events they contain, Mr. McGahern says that they are not bereft of an attempt to answer questions, only that they are bereft of the actual answers. "I would think that all good writing makes suggestions," he says, advancing his definition of quality in literature, "and all bad writing gives answers. In that sense, the images comment."
Stories make clear that Mr. McGahern is not a writer who has assembled a fixed view of the universe and packaged it for us neatly. Often the stories show lives that seem to move on parallel lines but end up in vastly different places. In "Peaches," a marriage stinks like the dead shark festering near the unnamed couple's house. They live in a universe where everthing has been decided for them, and decided badly. But in "Bank Holiday," Patrick and Mary manage to find unexpected reprieve from the routine of life, ending up "so tired and happy that it was as if they were already in possession of endless quantities of time and money."
Mr. McGahern writes with a pure and plain grace, lighting up the spots of life hidden in confused, blundering places. In both "Wheels" and "Gold Watch," he shows two narrators, each in the process of becoming finally, completely estranged his father. In "Wheels," the narrator leaves, free and alone; "Gold Watch" ends with the narrator outside his father's house as the lights go out, newly married and happy in it. In each story, time continues exorably, and the prose carries the reader along effortlessly almost to the place that escapes us while engaged in the business of living. where time is moving. In telling stories, Mr. McGahern lets us think we can see time, or love, or pain, or life, even if all we may really see is an unhappy man or dim pub room.
Mr. McGahern is often described as a great Irish writer, but he see that as a foolish categorization." "Somebody who set himself up to be an Irish writer would be a fool," he said, speaking of himself, "because you're Irish anyhow. It's an accident, and the less said about it the better." If he is a great writer, this may be his greatness, that his stories concern themselves with people and not nations, things he can know that may speak to things he cannot. "The very sky, the speech, all those things I inherited from the fact that I was born in Ireland, and what you make of them is what's important," he stated. What he makes of them, perhaps, is the grander things he cannot know: "Sometimes you realize all stories are the same story, and the quality of the language is what counts, because you're reading about your own life."