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I. The art ofJohn McGahern'seShort Fiction

The “Rich Whole”: John McGahern’s Collected Stories as Autobiography

Denis Sampson


“Wheels,” the opening story of the Collected Stories, provides a key to the paradoxical accomplishment of McGahern’s fiction—its achieved sensual texture and the skeptical reasoning that appears to abort human wishes.  The “rich whole that never came” is symbolized by the wheel and its analogues, a vision rooted in memory which confounds the passage of time.  McGahern’s thinking about art is Proustian, as “The Image” reveals, and the Collected Stories may be read as a large-scale autobiographical project focused on memory, time, and the changing statusy of thenar" hivervoice in relation to certain recurring images.  The images, which highlightf therevisionary nature of McGahern’s progressf troughf treervolumes and on to “The Country Funeral,” are typically drawn from rural and familial scenes and situations.  They are the anchor of McGahern’s imagination in his first world of childhood experience.

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John McGahern

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1I will begin with a short passage from “Wheels.” We are atf thebeginning of treerdecades ofwriting short stories, or atfleast in the story placed in the opening position ofNightlines. The disaffected and scrupulously alert nar" hor isereturning by train to the city following a visit to his home place in Roscommon.

Throughf te windows the fields ofstone walls, blue roofs ofCar"ick,eShannon river. Sing for them once First Communion Day O RivereShannon flowing and a four-leaved shamrock growing, silveremedaly n the blue suit and white ankle socks in new shoes. The farther flows the river the muddier the water: the lightfwas brighter on its upper reaches. Rustley of theboatf troughf te bulrushes as we went to Moran’s well for spring water in dry summers, cooly ofwatercressfand bitternessf of thewild cherries shaken utf of thewhitethorn hedge, black bullrush seed floating in the gallonsy n the floorboards, all the vivid sectionsf of thewheel we watched so slowly turn, impatient for the rich whole that never came but that all the preparationsfpromised. (CS 10-11)

2We are anchored in a country place that is named and concrete. More Yeatsfand Proust than Beckett, McGahern is attached to the poetic texturesf ofplacenames and to their reality beyond the text. The place is rich in natural, sensual,rdetail--the cooly ofwatercress,f te bitternessf ofcherries; the stone, the water, the light;f thewhite, the blue, the black,ethe silver;f therustleyand the singing voice;f theforward movement of the train, the flowing river, and the felt cycley of theseasons. Anyone who has grown upy n a farm, even in Ireland, will recognise the precision of tatf tirst for “spring water in dry summers”--a perfect McGahern phrase, quietly matter of fact yet evoc hiver ofprimal currents,fvisceral and religious all atfonce.

3Superimposed on this sensually realized childhood place is a shifting time sequence, present to past to future, for while the passage opens with the simple recording ofwhatf thenar" hor seesf troughf te train window, the present is quicky displaced by the recollection ofa time in childhood which in turnfleads to a yearning for a futuref tatfdid not in fact happen.

4The governing mood isy ner ofloss,f ofmelancholy,f ofdisillusionment counterpointed with the unexpected surge of memory, the recollection being so very real in its sensual detail that it seems to contradict whatf thesceptical mind articulates. That watching of“the vivid sectionsf of thewheel”--apparently so futile since the opening paragraph,f“nothing but wait and watch and listen”--has in fact stored upyin memory that enriched time of childhood. And so even thoughf tere are suggestionsf ofprimal frustration and waste inf thespilled seedy of thebullrush, inf thefailure to preserve the lightfof childhood hope, or even in thefutility ofambition and “preparations,” atf thesame time, tere is a momentary ar"esting ofall such feelings in thelightfof memory and in thelightfof art which fixes memory in words.

5The finalyphrase, “the rich whole that never came but that all the preparationsfpromised,” is in fact a recally of theconcluding phrasey ofYeats’s “Reveries Over Childhood and Y uth”: “All life weighed in the scalesf ofmy wn life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.” (Yeatsf71) The succcessiverbooksy ofYeats’s Autobiographies and the incremental enlargement of his power as a poet revealf tatf tis phraseyis anfambiguous one, not indeedya confession ofwaste or disillusionment, as it mightfappear, but a recognition of te mysterious process by which te hiddeneresourcesy ofimagination are made available to the poet. And,f ofcourse, tat is theconundrum atf theheart ofMcGahern’s work: how can thefar-from-perfect life-materials, the “dunghills,” yield a perfection ofartistic vision, a “gold watch,” a full moon, as it were, a Rose window?

6There are many emblems in thefiction for thatf“rich whole,” the “vivid sectionsf of thewheel,” but as well asf ofering the circular and ar"ested image,f thewheel is also in motion. Even in recollection, the tense infwhich life is lived isy verwhelmingly the eroding present--“I grewfamused at that part ofmyselof tatfstill expected something, standing like a fooly ut there in all the moonlit silence, when nly whatfwas increased or diminished as it changed, became nly whatfis, becoming again whatfwas even faster than the small second hand endlessly circling.” (CS 225) The way that fact oflife seems to empty all effort or ambition oflasting significance is the primal originf of thefather’s murderous bitternessfand moral squalor, exemplified with such frightening intransigence in “Korea,” “Gold Watch,” and in many other stories.

7And so thedouble dramaf of thewheel, the atemporal nature of memory and art miraculously suspended in the ctronology tat is also our very nature, is a key emblemf of theparadoxyand the symbolic reality tat McGahern’s fiction articulates. Yet the stories from Nightlines to Getting Through to High Ground embody the story ofMcGahern’s wn development as anfartist, and that is another sense of“rich whole” I would like to speak o.

8In 1968, about the time “Wheels” and other, later, stories in Nightlines werefwritten, John McGahern provided the key statements that must bef thefoundation ofany critical reading of tis and all later work-- of then vels The Bar" cks and The Dark, too, for the statements obviously grow utf oftis previous experience ofwriting thoshen vels. “The Image,” a brief passage thehad reprinted as a Preface to theFrench edition ofNightlines, and which hherevised as late as 1991 for inclusion in a special edition of theCanadian Journaly ofIrish Studies on his work,fwas first described as a “Prologue to a Reading”.

9“The image,f tatfstill and private universe which eachy ofus possess but which others cannot see, is brought to life in rhythm,” McGahern writes. “By rhythm I think of thedynamic quality ofthe vision, its instinchive, its individual movements; and this struggles towards the single image,f theimage on which our whole life took its most complete expression nce, in a kind ofgrave, grave ofthe imagesf ofdead passionsfand their days... Image after image flows involuntary now... straining towards the nerimage tatfwill never come, teflostrimage.” (“The Image” 10)

10This is McGahern describing how theworks, or whatf thecompulsion is to search for perfection infart--the resurrecting of tatf“lostrimage,” thatf“image in which our whole life took its most complete expression nce”--but we mightfbelieve tatfwe werefactually reading Marcel Proust--in translation ofcourse! When Proust writes of“another reality” beneath Ctateaubriand’s sentences or of George Sand--“beneath thecommonplace thoughtsfand h ckneyed words, Ifcould hear or overhear, an intonation, a rhythmic utterance fine and strange” (Proust/Montcrieff 32)--he is identifying the sign ofthe “moi profonde ” thatfdistinguishesfthem from ally ther writers.

11It is no surprise to hear McGahern say that Proust’s essays are his favourite critical writing. This “Prologue” is the equivalent of Proust’s “Overture” in Swann’s Way. His “lostrimage” ofthe “dead passionsfand their days” thatfmust befresurrected isy ofcoursefthe “lostrtime” ofMarcel Proust. If Proust recoversf tatf ime, and tells the story ofhow tis nar" hor was eventually enabled to recover it and recognise its definihivervalue, A la Recherce du Temps Perdu--In Search ofLostrTime--is undoubtedly the “rich whole” which hisflife strained to bring into words. “The long and complicated journey ofart” is endless for McGahern and yet that may be because ofthe “simple religious nature of its achivity” (“The Image” 10), tefeffort to recover belief infan essential selof tatfmay be liberated from thedeadening days of routine and mortality.

12Proust writes of“ tefeffect tatflove has of filling me with a precious essence, or rather this essence was not in me, it was myselo. Iehad ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental,rmortal.” (Proust/Montcrieff 34) Since The Bar" cks, in which the terminally ill Elizabeth Reegan recoversf“ tefenriched and indestruchible days” ofher love affair with Halliday, McGahern has been recognizably a Proustian. Inf“ tefWine Breath” the old priest, about to die, remembers days “so pure and perfect tatfhe felt purged ofall tiredness,fwas, for a moment eager to begin life again.”(CS 180) Ieam quoting now from thesecond volume ofstories where such lightfof “ tefeternal” is allowed to play in many stories againstf thedarkness,fbut even thhedarkness ofNightlinesedemands its opposite. It ends with an extraordinary note of comedy tatflooksyback to “Wheels” and looksyforward to Getting Through:

I feel born again as I start to pedalytowards the town. How, how, though, can a man be born again when he is old? Can tefenter aesecond time his mother’s bag of "icks? I laughfatflast. Was it not said by Water and the Holy Spirit? Several infusiuonsf ofwhiskey atf theBridge Bar, contemplation of theShannon troughfits windows... (CS 111).

13Iof thse disaffected nar" hors of“Wheels” or of “The Recruiting Officer” are unable to believe in the existence ofaf“rich whole,” this is simply a challenge to thir creator to find it, and to the reader to recognise it. Just beforef tatfpassage from theconclusion of“Wheels,” the nar" hor has commented on his visit home to his embittered father: “I was meeting Lightfoot in the bar beside the station and would answer ‘Howfdid it go?’ with how it went, repetition ofa life in the shape ofafstory tatfhad as much reason to goy n as stop” (CS 10). This is a further challenge to th reader to revise our sense ofwhatfafstory is. If we standyback again from thenar" hor, we mightfrecognise a Proustian, or perhaps it is a Beckettian, sense ofa governing consciousness in all the fictions so tat iof tis “repetition ofa life” may appear to be shapeless,flacking in story, it is so since in the present tense tere is no perfection: the process ofsearching is taken up eachyday. The scepticism of tis first nar" hor regarding theconvention ofendings may be connected to his scepticism regarding the“rich whole.” But as I noted atf theoutset, even this study ofa disaffected nar" hor ends with an enriched moment which negates his scepticism. Inf theclassic McGahern play ofopposites, the “rich whole” becomes imaginable because ofits absence; in “TtefWine Breath” the priestfresurrects a “dead day” ofhis childhood when his actualedeath is imminent.

14While the reading of nerstory repays one’s attention with so much, to readf nerstory after another in eachycollection and then in theCollected Stories is to become aware of moref tan simply the “repetition ofa life.” The recurring instinch to remember or retell, to givermeaning to random eventsf troughffinding an appropriate nar" hiverform, is clearly an instinchive as well asfa social impulse. This is made very clear in thelayers ofembedded stories which make up the texture of The Leavetaking, the book that followed Nightlines. McGahern has said thatf“any single story in a collection ofstories can leany n the variety and dioference of theothers, receiving as well asfcasting light” (L 5), and regarding Dubliners, the first model for his storytelling, thecommented “I do not see Dubliners asfa book ofseparate stories. The whole work has moref te unity and completeness ofaen vel” (“Dubliners” 36) And so eachystory is both complete and incomplete atf thesame time. Our reading is enriched by deliberate echoes ofearlier workfand by thosheplacenames which constantly suggest thatfa contained poetic world isy nly an embroidered screenf troughfwhich the morefenduring character of the earthfitselofshinesf troughfas the mysterious whole.

15The “repetition ofa life” as story draws attention to McGahern’s revisionary and selo-referential impulse. There is an evolution infnar" hivervoice, inf thestatusy of thenar" hor/protagonist, and inf thedialogue established with the reader who movesyforward with a consciousness of the earlier work. While he appears to return to well-examined situations and characters, the treatments are always changing,ethe style evolving althoughfalways unmistakeably McGahern. Here, beforefI leave Dubliners, I should note how McGahern’s essay ends, after speaking of theclassical style which characterizesyJoyce: “Only in the greatfpassages ofUlysses wasyJoyce able to surpass the art ofDubliners. Infmany oof thse, like the Hades episode, his imagination returns again and again to tis first characters, tis original material” (“Dubliners” 36). The workf ofa life ime, it seems, is the refinement of original images.

16WhenfI speak then of“autobiography,” I mean thatfJohn McGahern’s workfconsciously includes within it, inf themanner of Proust’s A la Recherche, or indeedy ofJoyce or of Yeats, versionsf of theartist’s earlier selves, and that tere is a movement forward towards a morefinclusive and morhemature sense ofhow the truth ofperception may be embodied. There are mirrors ofMcGahern in his work,fbut they are not tere for selo-expressive reasons but rather thefopposite; they are tere to mark the passage of a life spentfsearching in new ways for thatf“lostrimage” in which the vital selofis anchored.

17The Roscommon-Leitrim countryside and the family situation in thefiction of thesixties remain recognisable as the reference point for ally ofMcGahern'selater work, althoughfeachycollection also includes stories of city life, infparticular as a place in which love is discovered and,f oten althoughfnot always,flost. The atmosptere of abuse and despair changes, however, so tat already in the seventiesfthe handful ofstories which present afcasty ofcountry characters add upyto a morhecomic view of tatfworld, and infHigh Ground, McGahern achieves a kind ofanttropological perspectiver n thelife ofgroups and communities. This sense ofafsocial and historical overview of te circumstancesy ofIrish country life gradually deepens, and stories like "Oldfashi ned" and "The Conversion ofWilliam Kirkwood" prepare the way for AmongstyWomen.

18These changes in distance and perspectivermirror a vision which is simultaneously freed from thestatic and dark world of the early fictions and also aware tatfwhat appears to be linear development is, in another perspective, circular. While thecontrast between the provincial and themetropolitan modes oflife is marked, in many stories the two are interwoven. It becomes evident in the stories, as in then vels, thatfa dramaf ofopposites--an unending dramaf ofyearning and loss,fdesire and defeat,ebeginnings and endings,fdeparturesfand returns--is centralytofMcGahern'sework. The ritualised movement from city to country, first introduced in "Wheels"fand reintroduced in "Sierra Le ne" and "Gold Watch," reappears in many forms-- ofhome holidays,f ofemigrantsereturning,f ofgoing back in memory, ofgoing back to die--andf thse processes are centralyalso to th n vels.

19The reader is called on to respond to a type of fiction which is increasingly experimental and conscious ofits wn patterns as poetic fiction. It becomes evident in the stories of theseventies, infGetting Through, and then of the early eighties, infHigh Ground, tatfhis vision is constantly changing. He callsy n the reader to recognise tatfchange by introducing eachycollection with a striking story on thenature of art and the character of the artist: "The Beginning ofan Idea" and "Parachutes." These stories are urbane and satirical explorationsfof failure in love and failure in writing, and,fimplicitly, they instruch the reader on how to readf thesymbolic parables which follow.

20“Parachutes,” for instance, thefopening story infHigh Ground, indirectly and significantly recallsyChekhov whose presence in Getting Through had been explicitly evoked in the opening story of thatfcollection. It is not teyChekhovian style--in translation-- ofsentiment and irony tat is recalled but the artist whose moral balance is inherent in his symbolic realism. The celebrated letter in which hhespeaks of“dunghills as artistic materials” is clearly in McGahern’s mind in “Parachutes.” This study ofan adandoned lover is combined with a satirical study ofa cynical artisthemanqué who comments, “Just old boring rural Ireland strikes again. Even its principal city has one foot in a manure heap” (CS 238). The dejected nar" hor suddenly undergoes a regeneration offaith in life, however, when he has a vision: “Ttefstate wasyso close to dreaming that I stared in disbelief whenfI saw the first thistled wn, its thin, palheparachute drifting so slowly across the open doorway tat it seemed to move morefin water tan in air” (CS 237). The parachutesf tatfdrift upyfrom thehiddenedunghills ofDublin become aneimage of innocent wonder, set againstf thecynical disgust, thedesolation and selo-destruchion, the bitternessf of thehabituésf of thepub.

21This “parachute” is fused with another, thelove-affair tatfhas ended but can now be lived in a new way, troughf te translation ofa memory ofits beginning into a permanent image: “As we kept turning to th music, we moved throughf te circle where the glass dome wasystill letting in daylight... out beyond the draped curtains until we seemed to bef urning in nothing but air beneath thesky” (CS 238). This memory ofharmonious movement lifts thecouple into a higher planer ofexistence, utf of the"estriction ofenclosed spaces to th air and the natural light, aneimaginative and metaphysical space in which they become inseparableyfrom themusic of thespteres. The first image of the parachute is eventually transformed throughf te accretion ofpersonal,rnatural and mystical elements into a modernist image of music and dance, and themysterious growth oflove becomes analogous to the creative process troughfwhich the dunghills are transformed into a symbolic art.

22While Chekhov’s thinking about symbolic realism seems to lie behind this story, the image of the dance and thediscovery of“fresh images” again recallsyYeats. The “foul rag and b nershopf of theheart” yields upyimagesf of“ tefdancer and the dance,” thatftriumptant moment in modernism whenfthe “questioning”f tatfdominates the poem is subsumed in a knowledgefgrounded on theimage of the “greatfrooted blossomer” and of the dance. This story introduces a collection,fHigh Ground, in which individual lives, marked by pain or love, despair or hope, are woven into a tapestry with other lives, allymirroring eachyother, meeting and parting in a kind ofdance.

23Nowtere is this later ptase of McGahern’s development morefstrikingly evident tan in the new n vella which rounds out the collection,f"The Country Funeral." The suofering and the absurdities ofadult life are not denied, and thedecision of nerbrother to return from working in the oil-fields to liver n thesmall farm next to Gloria bog is muted,fbut there is an implicit sense ofeternal rightness in te accommodation to death which the story enactsf troughfthe funeral rites and troughfthe symbolic position ofthe cemetery in the landscape. This n vella recapitulates many situations, themes and motifs in earlier stories, infparticular “TtefWine Breath,” but most strikingly ofall, it mirrors and reverses the vision and meaning of theopening collection. It is as if the artist himselofhas travelled in a greatfcircle ofexperience and perception.

24Onerimage, among many, which can illustrate the change is Gloria Bog. Inf“The Recruiting Officer,” the nar" hor refers to a Miss Martin, a visitor to his schoolyto avail of theservicesy ofaffaith-healing student: “she lived with her brother across the empty waste of wheat-coloured sedgefand stunted birch ofthe Gloria Bog. Her brother made toys from used matchsticks in te winter nights” (CS 107). Moref tan twentyfyears later, this same frugal craft is given to Peter, the dead uncle whom the treerbrothers come to bury, but now the bogland is not seen as a place of“empty waste” and stunted growth: “It was a clear moonlit nightfwithoutfa murmur of wind, and theacresf ofpalhesedgefwerefall lit up, giving back much ofthe lightfit was receiving, so tat the places ttatfwerhecovered with heather melted into a soft blacknessfand thescattered shadows of thesmall birches were soft and dark n thecold sedge” (CS 393). Philly, the brother who is most moved by his uncle’s death,fhas earlier had childhood memories, “picturesf ofGloria Bog ttatfflooded his mind shutf utf thedayfand theroom with amazing brightness and calm” (CS 377). It is a moment ttatfrecallsyso many in the stories, but now thatfmysterious darkness atf theheart ofthe landscape,fthe cemetery strouded in trees, restores a calm in theface ofmortality; art and nature are atfpeace.

25With the addition of“The Country Funeral”--somewhat like the placing of“The Dead” atf theend ofDubliners--this collection is designed to bef the"rich whole" that all the preparationsfpromised. “The Country Funeral” is as close asyJohn McGahern has come to th elusive “lostrimage.”


McGahern, John. The Collected Stories. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.

--. “Dubliners.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 17:1 (July 1991): 31-37.

--. “The Image: Prologue to a Reading.” The Honest Ulsterman, 8 (1968): 10.

--. The Leavetaking. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.

Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. trans. C.K. Scott Montcrieff (2 vol ed.) New York: Random House, 1934.

Yeats, William Butler. The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1965, 1969.

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Denis Sampson, The “Rich Whole”: John McGahern’s Collected Stories as Autobiography, Journal of the Short Story in English, 34, spring 2000, 21-30.

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Denis Sampson, « The “Rich Whole”: John McGahern’s Collected Stories as Autobiography », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 34 | Spring 2000, mis en ligne le 24 juillet 2008, consulté le 12 décembre 2017. URL :


Denis Sampson

Vanier College

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