Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros70“Bathed in an incredible sweetnes...


“Bathed in an incredible sweetness of light”: A Reading of John McGahern’s “The Wine Breath”

Liliane Louvel
p. 153-166


Les écrits de John McGahern, ancrés dans la société irlandaise rurale qui se développe à partir des années 1950, n’ont a priori rien de fantastique, rien d’une expérience de lieux fantomatiques. Cependant, une forme de hantise s’attache à certaines nouvelles, comme c'est le cas de « The Wine Breath ». Cette simple histoire d’un vieil homme qui renonce au dernier moment à effectuer la course pour laquelle il s’est rendu chez un voisin, est l’occasion de montrer comment, par la grâce d’une vision qui tout à coup fait rejaillir de sa mémoire un souvenir ancien, le vieux prêtre est hanté par son passé. À cette occasion, l’écrivain dépeint une expérience métaphysique et phénoménologique qui amène le lecteur à suivre la récurrence du souvenir revenant trouer de sa vérité mortelle « le tissu fragile de la vie quotidienne ». L’histoire est celle du désenfouissement d’un jour de l’enfance, perdu et brusquement revécu dans la blanche vision éblouissante qui rejoue la neige d’une journée particulière.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

John McGahern

Texte intégral

1No one would think straightaway of associating the writings of John McGahern with any kind of supernatural element, ghost stories or haunted places. His is deemed a “realistic” (whatever it may mean) kind of writing, deeply inscribed in the Ireland of the fifties and onwards with its precise detailing of life in Dublin or on a farm with its rural background and cooped-up families caught up in complex family relationships. Yet, rereading his stories, I realized that haunting as the coming back of past scenes, the workings of memories, the resurgence of past events indeed stands at the core of his work. The power of memory—he was a great admirer of Proust and often wrote inspired by the intricate workings of involuntary memory—is one of the red threads running through his novels (The Barracks, The Leavetaking, Amongst Women for instance) and his short stories. His last piece, Memoir, literally going up memory lane, recalling “when I was three years old I used to walk a lane like these lanes to Lisacarn School with my mother” (3), is a tribute to his mother but also to his childhood. The book-cover features personal pictures of himself and his family.

2Yet even ghost stories may be a subject for his writing. This is what I found reading “The Wine Breath” (from The Collected Stories) a multi-layered story the complexity of which can only be grasped after at least a fourth or a fifth careful reading. It is always surprising to realize to what extent the compression achieved by short stories needs time to develop and for them to take on their full dimension. It reminds me of those Japanese paper flowers which only bloom to their full once plunged in water. “The Wine Breath,” which purports to be the description of a moment in the life of an ageing priest, turns out to be a profound meditation on life and death as well as a tribute to W.B.Yeats, all this rolled into one. I also discovered that the meditation adopts the shape of an old aesthetic form of visual art, the Memento mori, as I will try to show.

3For “The Wine Breath” is a very visual story, that of a vision, that of memory, as well as metaphysical experience and the calling to mind of the beauty of some of the words John McGahern used to love when they were put into a fluid rhythmic shape, that of poetry, that of poetic prose.

Now, as he stood at the gate, there was no awe or terror, only the coffin moving slowly towards the dark trees on the hill, the long line of the mourners, and everywhere the blinding white light, among the half-buried thorn bushes and beyond Killeelan, on the covered waste of Gloria Bog, on the sides of Slieve an Iarainn. (CS 179)

4A Memento mori is a painting which is associated with the ancient enunciation of the reminder to a victorious Roman general of his nature as a human being by a slave placed behind him close to his ear, during his triumphant march through Rome. Memento mori, “Remember Death,” often translated as “Remember you will die” does not place too much stake on mortal glory and possessions. As Benjamin Delmotte shows, the Memento mori can be qualified by its power and the forces it captures (to follow Deleuze on Bacon), the strength of its unveiling of a/the truth, the sudden stopping of all human activity and movement when one is confronted with the truth it reveals to the eye. It is a moment when one stands in silent awe, a moment which puts everything at a standstill, triggering contemplation and reflexion. The human being is seized and captivated, in a moment of rapture which completely takes hold of him/her. These characteristics are exactly what appear in McGahern’s story of that afternoon in the life of the priest whose name we do not know. He remains “he,” “the priest,” all along the story, although some of the minor characters, Gillespie, Michael Bruen, Peter Joyce (no comment) bear a name. Thus the priest acquires a universal quality.

5The story begins with a conundrum:

If I were to die, I’d miss most the mornings and the evenings, he thought as he walked the narrow dirt-track by the lake in the late evening, and then wondered if his mind was failing, for how could anybody think anything so stupid: being a man he had no choice, he was doomed to die; and being dead he’d miss nothing, being nothing. It went against everything in his life as a priest. (CS 178, my emphasis)

6The priest does not need a slave to remind him of his doomed condition as a man in the selfsame terms of the Memento mori, pointing to his end and future state of nothingness, “le rien,” which is one of the revelations of the Memento mori, plunging the being in a state of awe, stopping him in his tracks.

- - - - -

7The story tells of a late October afternoon when the priest goes to see a parishioner, Mr Gillespie, who is busy sawing beech, to tell him a bed will be available for his wife in hospital soon. But when the priest reaches the farm and lays his hand on the gate, he is stopped in his movement by a sudden trick of light which renders visible not only the white chips of beech but also the long-forgotten snowflakes of a day in his childhood.

The priest put a hand to the black gate, bolted to the first of the alders, and was at once arrested by showery sunlight falling down the avenue. It lit up one boot holding the length of beech in place, it lit the arms moving the blade slowly up and down as it tore through the beech, white chips milling out on the chain.
Suddenly, as he was about to rattle the gate loudly to see if this would penetrate the sawing, he felt himself (bathed as in a dream) in an incredible sweetness of light. It was the evening light on snow. The gate on which he had his hand vanished, the alders, Gillespie’s formidable bulk, the roaring of the saw. He was in another day, the lost day of Michael Bruen’s funeral nearly thirty years before. All was silent and still there. (CS 178, my emphasis)

8The subtle writing seams the two times together so that the reader has to unravel the two moments which are thus superimposed. The same tense, the preterite, is used and past and present flow one into the other: “he felt himself (bathed as in a dream) in an incredible sweetness of light. It was the evening light on snow.” The conditions of seeing the scene are comparable to the conditions of viewing a painting, a Memento mori in particular: the viewer stops in his tracks, “arrested” by the onrush of light (“showery sunlight,” so typical of Ireland to compare sunshine to a shower!). The sudden lighting effect reifies Gillespie, reduced to a boot and arms. Then the “incredible sweetness of light” acts as an invigorating baptismal bath (“bathed as in a dream”), the light of which carries the viewer back in time, to a snowy day: “It was the evening light on snow.” Only after the confusing time sequence and sentence is the reader given the “vanishing acts” of the gate, the alders and Gillespie’s formidable bulk and roaring saw.

- - - - -

9John McGahern is very good at this kind of spilling over of memory into the present. This is something which happens in “A Slip-up,” the story about a man forgotten by his wife in front of Tesco’s in England; he is left reminiscing about a day he spent walking to school with his mother in his native Ireland. In “The Wine Breath” the past is again recreated in a vivid scene: it is the long file of mourners going up a hill to the church yard on the snowy day of the burial of Michael Bruen. The event is still very vivid in the priest’s mind because it coincides with a memorable event: the incredible fall of so much heavy snow―“eight or ten feet deep over the whole countryside” (CS 178)―in this part of Ireland that it entailed the cutting of a pathway in the huge masses of snow. As a child, he used to visit the big farmhouse of Michael Bruen, running errands for his father, and was entertained there. The contrast between the roaring fires, the generosity and good humour of the farmer who gave him food and tea (“Empty bags can’t stand” [CS 181], the activity and warm life of the place, and the sudden death of this “lovely man,” whose coffin will be borne by men through the white landscape up to the church, is poignant. The scene is so vivid that its vision is shared both by the reader and by its retro-spectator. The description even takes on the characteristics of a fairy tale and reminds us of the kitchen in Wuthering Heights:

Within the house, away from the yard, was the enormous cave of a kitchen, the long table down its centre, the fireplace at its end, the plates and pots and presses along the walls, sides of bacon wrapped in gauze hanging from hooks in the ceiling, the whole room full of the excitement and bustle of women. […] “Give this man something,” Michael had led him. “Something solid that’ll warm the life back into him.” (CS 181)

10And then:

Michael came with him to the gate when he left. […] Before the last flakes had stopped falling, when old people were searching back to the “great snows when Count Plunkett was elected” to find another such fall, Michael Bruen had died, and his life was already another such watermark of memory. (CS 182)

11The kitchen is also reminiscent of a Vanity I recently saw in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Well-Stocked Kitchen by Joachim Beuckelaer (ca. 1533-1575), Antwerpen 1566, profusedly displays in the foreground all kinds of victuals―venison, vegetables, fruit, meat, poultry―and pots and pans, whereas in the background, a small embedded architectural blueish frame (like Velazquez’s bodegon The Servant) depicts the famous visit of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary. The meaning of this painting being, according to the theological thought of the time, “Do not give in to earthly temptations.” A warning echoing the Ecclesiastes' end “Vanity….” But this painting is not a Memento mori but a Vanity, with a moral teaching different from “remember death!”

12The conditions of viewing I alluded to before: the sudden “showery sunlight falling down the avenue” lighting up Gillespie’s boot, his arms and the white chips and “[Gillespie’s] overalled bulk framed in the short avenue of alders” (CS 178, my emphasis) light up the scene and frame it like in a painting or a vision. The visual was of importance to McGahern who wrote about “the Image” in one of his rare critical pieces:

When I reflect on the image two things from which it cannot be separated come: the rhythm and the vision. The vision, that still and private world which each of us possesses and which others cannot see, is brought to life in rhythm—rhythm being little more than the instinctive movements of the vision as it comes to life and begins its search in a kind of grave, grave of the images of dead passions and their days. (12)

13This reflection perfectly applies to “The Wine Breath” and to the way the vision gives rise to, or better, excavates “the images of dead passions and their days” out of their graves. It also finds an echo in the contemplation of the graveyard scene towards the end of the short story.

14The details of the description of the embedding scene―the evening of the visit to Gillespie sawing the beech―not only give the scene a realistic quality but also endow it with an unheimlich turn. All of a sudden the gaze switches to a vision of the mourners slowly carrying the coffin: “slow” is repeated seven times; the movement, hampered by the snow, is similar to that of a slow-motion camera and gives the scene an eerie flavour. The then young boy realizes the mystery of life and its cruelty when a man full of strength and life is brutally removed from this world and put under the earth:

Slow feet crunched on the snow. Ahead, at the foot of the hill, the coffin rode slowly forward on shoulders, its brown varnish and metal trappings dull in the glittering snow, riding just below the long waste of snow eight or ten feet deep over the whole countryside. The long dark line of mourners following the coffin stretched away towards Oakport Wood in the pathway cut through the snow. High on Killeelan Hill the graveyard evergreens rose out of the snow. The graveyard wall was covered, the narrow path cut up the side of the hill stopping at the little gate deep in the snow. The coffin climbed with painful slowness, as if it might never reach the gate, often pausing for the bearers to be changed; and someone started to pray, the prayer travelling down the whole mile-long line of the mourners as they shuffled behind the coffin in the narrow tunnel cut in the snow. (CS 178-79, my emphasis)

15The markers of slowness and the long line of mourners (note the alliterations and assonances) impart the ghostly vision with the ceremonial and ritualistic quality of a community’s shared grief and solidarity. They also impart it with particular rhythm, that of an image dug up from “the grave of dead passions and their days.” The hypallage “painful slowness” also reveals the careful writing of the scene that is enhanced by the use of “as if” which gives it an eerie feel, the comparative “as” pointing to the real and “if” to the unreality of the hypothetical.

16The vision of this strange scene prevents the priest from going forward and accomplishing his task: “He was about to rattle the gate again, feeling a washed-out parody of a child or old man on what was after all nothing more than a poor errand: to tell the Gillespies that a bed had at long last been made available […] when his eyes were caught again by the quality of the light” (CS 179). He stops in his tracks, does not open the gate and turns back, overwhelmed by the strength of the revelation, a reaction typical of a Memento mori too, according to Benjamin Delmotte:

The Memento mori abruptly stops quietness and produces intense motionlessness. This intensity essentially works in the confrontation or the superimposition of two incompossible elements : what is and what will be” (44, my translation).

As an inner “voice,” which cannot be ascribed to anyone but is rendered visible, the Memento mori blocks any action and may thus be understood as a strange moral imperative, a “voice of conscience” creating a disassociation unhinging experience in its immobile disquietude. [… it consists] in arresting any action. (45, my translation)

17For it is his own death the priest has just remembered and witnessed, an intimation of his mortality. “Before leaving he stole a last look at the dull white ground about the saw-horse. The most difficult things always seem to lie closest to us, to lie around our feet” (CS 180).

18The priest goes back to his house behind the church, choosing to walk by safe places the details of which―colours, tree names―he can isolate and number:

Safe on the wide main road he let his mind go back to the beech chips. They rested there around Gillespie’s large bulk, and paler still was the line of mourners following the coffin through the snow, a picture you could believe or disbelieve but not be in. In idle exasperation he began to count the trees in the hedge along the road as he walked: ash, green oak, whitehorn, ash; the last leaves a vivid yellow on the wild cherry, empty October fields in dull wet light behind the hedges. (CS 180, my emphasis) 

19The whole mourning scene is remembered in terms of a picture one “could believe or disbelieve but not be in,” as a vision, an apparition, linked to a kind of faith. The priest then seeks solitude, avoiding the sexton, going by a circular road. Once home he makes some tea and remininisces about his meetings with Michael Bruen and his much mourned burial after an exceptional snow storm. His mind relentlessly goes back to the scene the beech chips conjured up and to the truth it holds, alluding to one of Yeats’ poems, “The Vision,” that revolves around the occult. So doing: “the knowledge of reality is a secret knowledge, it is a kind of death” (CS 183) which might be a subtle evocation of Yeats. The burial truly is an unburial of an awesome truth he is confronted with:

Never before though had he noticed anything like the beech chips. There was the joy of holding what had eluded him for so long, in its amazing simplicity: but mastered knowledge was no longer knowledge unless it opened, became part of a greater knowledge, and what did the beech chips do but turn back to his own death? (CS 183)

20Then the ghost of his mother comes to haunt him. A major figure in his life,

His mother had the vocation for him.” Perhaps she had, perhaps all the mothers of the country had, it had so passed into the speech of the country, in all the forms of both beatification and derision; but it was out of fear of death he became a priest, which became in time the fear of life. Wasn’t it natural to turn back to the mother in this fear? (CS 183).

[After his father’s death] “his mother sold the land to ‘Horse’ McLaughlin and came to live with him and was happy. She attended all the Masses and Devotions, took messages, and she sewed, though she had no longer any need, linen for the altar, soutanes and surplices, his shirts and all her own clothes. […] The fences on the past and future were secure” (CS 183-84).

21The short story is replete with references to gates, fences, barriers protecting the self. When they collapse, like in the experience of the confrontation with a Memento mori, times collapse and leak one into the other, in a dangerous revelatory way.

  • 1 “Ever since his mother’s death he found himself stumbling into these dead days. Once, crushed mint (...)

22On the death of his mother who “must have been the mainspring of his days,” the priest was left bewildered and rudderless: “Now that the mainspring was broken, the hands were weakly falling here and falling there. Today there had been the sudden light on the bits of white beech.” (CS 180). The priest found himself plunged in solitude and repeatedly “stumbled” onto the presence of “lost days” (CS 185). The phrase echoes Proust’s In Search of Lost Days, of course, and the repeated use of “stumble” in relation to the sudden involuntary reminiscence of a memory1 is telltale for it illustrates the fact that the priest is falling, falling into lost days, out of time. “Lost” or “dead”―and not past―stresses the subjectivity of his appreciation of these recurrent days, lost and then recuperated, fallen into oblivion but ready to emerge and suddenly erupt at an unexpected time, as visible in the previous quote: “Once, crushed mint in the garden had given him back a day he’d spent with her at the sea in such reality that he had been frightened, as if he’d suddenly fallen through time, it was as if the world of the dead was as available to him as the world of the living”(CS 180).

  • 2 Moira also is a common name in Scotland for Mary.

23His mother used to sew for the church and her son. He found her one day bewildered, standing in the midst of clothing she had just torn into rags. A powerful image of impending senility, it also recalls one of the myths of ancient Greece, that of the Fates/Moira2 (Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, often associated with past, present, future too). The three sisters used to spin, measure, and cut the thread of man’s life. They were often represented at work on a tapestry too. And the priest’s mother was a seamstress (“He could still see the needle flashing in her strong hands, that single needle-flash composed of thousands of hours” [CS 183]) who had just cut up what she had made, like Atropos. The victim of a loss of memory, she will have to go to a home to be taken care of before her impending death, leaving the priest confused and disoriented.

24Then McGahern’s short story verges on the Gothic when he gives us the thrill of the feared presence of dead priests erring at night in the graveyard in Gothic fashion. For the priest’s mother used to believe and fear ghosts:

He went to draw the curtain. She had made the red curtain too with its pale lining but hadn’t torn it. How often must she have watched the moonlight on the still headstones beyond the laurel as it lay evenly on them this night. She had been afraid of ghosts: old priests who had lived in this house, who through whiskey or some other ill had neglected to say some Mass for the dead and because of the neglect the soul for whom the Mass should have been offered was forced to linger beyond its time in Purgatory, and the priest guilty of the omission could himself not be released until the living priest had said the Mass, and was forced to come at midnight to the house in all his bondage until the Mass was said. (CS 185)

25Although the priest used to soothe his mother, on this, one of the last days of October close to All Soul’s Night and All Saints’ Day, a day on which the tightly closed barriers between the dead and the living are more permeable, “He would be glad of a ghost tonight, be glad of any visitation from beyond the walls of sense” (CS 185). Haunted by memories of his past, the solitary priest is also haunted by the ancient folklore of his country. And one more visitation from the past will return from “the grave of dead days.”

26The narrative mainly takes place in his mind and there is little dialogue. It is made up of major scenes: the burial scene, the visiting of Michael Bruen’s farm and kitchen when a boy, the mother’s presence and her first attack, and lastly a scene between the priest and one of his friends, Peter Joyce who became a Bishop and whom he no longer sees. Once, while on vacation by the Atlantic, they had a “truculent argument,” the subject of which was the disappearance of Latin to say Mass, a fact the priest lamented. His friend upbraided him for his inconsistency: “‘Complaining about the Mass in the vernacular. When you prefer the common names of flowers to their proper names’” (CS 186). But the priest thought that flower names were much more beautiful when in the vernacular (“Dog rose, wild woodbine, buttercup”).

27In the scene, the language of the sacred has disappeared and the two spaces, the sacred and the mundane, run one into the other, like the dead and the living. No more hedges or gates, the presence of which runs through the story. The tired priest is left musing, deeply feeling the aridity of his life and his utter loneliness. Then comes the last haunting scene, confirming the utmost revelation and unveiling of truth, in accordance with the Memento mori injunction (“Remember death”): “Then, quietly, he saw that he had a ghost all right, one that he had been walking around with for a long time, a ghost he had not wanted to recognize―his own death. He might as well get to know him well. It would never leave now and had no mortal shape. Absence does not cast a shadow” (187).

28As if to go back to the beginning, and ending the story on a more optimistic vision, the last paragraph echoes a former sentence: “Everything in that remembered day was so pure and perfect that he felt purged of all tiredness, was, for a moment, eager to begin life again” (CS 180). A new scene comes to his mind, that of a young man “not unlike he had once been,” ringing at the door of a woman, with a present of a bottle of wine in his hand. In typical McGahern way, like in this seminal story of his, “Wheels,” which points to the importance of circular patterns of structure, echoing “Like All Other Men”: “In my end is my beginning, he recalled. In my beginning is my end, his and hers, mine and thine” (CS 280), quoting T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “East Coker” (his native place), and the 1965 inscription on Eliot’s memorial plaque, “in my beginning is my end…in my end is my beginning,” echoing the Bible. The last paragraph works on this circular effect too: its ending words “[the young man] feeling himself immersed in time without end” form a chiasmus with the words at the beginning of the story: “outside this room that was an end, he knew that a young man…” (CS 187). But it is also a beginning, for the young double figure of the priest is on the point of spending a pleasant evening which will verge on the endless eternal, leaving the lonely aged priest doomed in time and immersed in mortality.

29The story also conjures up literary ghosts. That of Proust and his “petite madeleine” together with the recapturing of past/lost days though the senses. The story delicately points to the five senses in the true allegorical way painting used when pointing to an allegory of life and death. References to smelling, feeling, hearing, tasting and of course seeing, are scattered here and there and put to good use. The smell of crushed mint evokes a day at the sea with his mother (see above). The memory of Michael Bruen is conjured up by the vision of the white chips and then the priest vividly remembers his visits replete with emotions and the satisfaction of the senses: “It was hard to concentrate on Michael’s questions about his father, so delicious was the smell of frying. The mug of steaming tea was put by his side. The butter melted on the fresh bread on the plate. There were sausages, liver, bacon, a slice of black-pudding and sweetest grisceens” (CS 181-82).

  • 3 Bertrand Cardin pointed out this presence in his 2009 article.

30If the name of priest’s friend evokes Joyce and his influence on McGahern’s writing—the end has been compared to “The Dead” too—it is the overwhelming presence of Yeats and in particular of “All Souls Night,”3 which has to be quoted here:

[…] A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine […]

  • 4 Also the title of a poem by Charles Baudelaire, printed below.

31In his poem, Yeats used “the wine breath” to designate a kind of fine ethereal use of the senses which only belongs to pure souls or creatures unreal. Yeats is also famous for his taste of the ethereal and the supernatural which dominate his long poem, “A Vision,” first published in 1925, then revised in 1937. The wine breath is the emanation of a body, a mere essence or bodyless vapour. “L’âme du vin,”4 the soul of wine, as one speaks of “l’âme d’un violon,” “l’âme d’un terroir” or “the angel’s share.”

32In the story, the priest, far from being addicted to “spirits,” as some critics thought, is the one who could only enjoy a whiff of life, its breath and not the wine, the real full-bodied stuff being out of his reach. And to tell the truth, wine was still a rarity in the Ireland of the fifties and sixties, and was reserved for Mass; beer or whiskey were the staple of Irish people. The priest’s double, the young man described in the last paragraph, will enjoy the white wine contained in the bottle he is carrying as a present to share with his woman friend, something the priest wistfully thinks of, the only lasting―and permitted―feminine presence in his life having been his mother, “the mainspring” of his life.

  • 5 Close to Drumcliffe is the site of the big house of Lissadell where Yeats spent some time in 1894 i (...)

33This short story is a reflection on the power of memory to conjure up the ghosts of our own inner life which return and are often more powerful than the physical presences we encounter and live with. It is a metaphysical reflection on the confrontation between life and death and the silent shock it can provoke. It is also deeply indebted to the ghost fathers of Irish literature McGahern used to love and quote, in particular W.B. Yeats with whom he shared the same landscapes and places. Yeats is buried in Drumcliffe5 at the foot of Queen Maeve’s seat very close to Sligo, where John McGahern and his family would go on holiday when he was a small boy, a fact he describes in another short story, “Strandhill the Sea.” The placenames are very precise in the story and serve to anchor it both in a reality John McGahern knew very well—they are in County Leitrim where he used to live (Killeelan Hill, the sides of Slieve an Iarainn, Gloria Bog)— and in the reality of a literary tradition.

34The story is modelled on the shape of an old pictorial genre itself resting on an enunciation, that is language, the Memento mori which is the confrontation of a living person with death. The characteristics of the aesthetic of anguish are so cleverly interwoven with the tenets of this story that they provide its structure in an amazing way, as I have tried to show. This approach shows the depth and wealth of what seemed to be the simple story of an old man unable to perform the errand he came to run. The story is also a phenomenological and metaphysical experience carried out in its most discreet form, making the reader follow its different stages which comply with the effects of a Memento mori: the rising of a vision, the feeling of in-betweenness, the repetition of the vision, the backing away from the world, the becoming an outsider (standing at the gate), the state of stupefaction, and the unveiling of an experience and of a deathly truth under “the flimsy tissue of everyday life.” This story about a remembered burial is also the story and experience of an unburying, the involuntary digging up of lost days.

35The homely/unhomely elements which unravel in the poetic prose typical of McGahern’s writing, is not one of the least fascinations under which McGahern holds us. The “Wine Breath,” which could also find an equivalent in “the angel’s share” of whisky Ken Loach referred to in one of his recent films, makes us share the feel of an evanescent vapour, rising out of a glass of wine only transparent ghosts could enjoy. It is the essence of life (wine standing for blood, which is part of the sacrament of Holy Communion when the believers are sharing the blood of Christ). This subtle “spirit” is the substance of possible enjoyment without really being it. And last but not least, it stands for what it takes to live and have a soul (whatever one may understand as such) : that is a mere precious breath or vapour.

36The sense of “Mystery” the young boy experienced on this particular day, confronted with the vision he had: “Never before or since [that day in February 1947] had he experienced the Mystery in such awesomeness” (CS 179), was a revelation to him. “The Mystery” being a subtle mixture of the sacred and the profane, the transcendent and the immanent, rolled into a strong awe-inspiring religious feeling. John McGahern once said that religion gave him the sense of mystery he would never have had to that extent otherwise.

37“The Wine Breath” thus turns out to be a story about the discrepancy between the eternal and the finite, the sacred and the profane, the transcendent and the immanent. Food for thought and drink for those doomed to die.


Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du mal. 1857. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1964. Print.

Cardin, Bertrand. “‘Absence does not Cast a Shadow’: Yeats’s Shadowy Presence in McGahern’s ‘The Wine Breath.’” Journal of the Short Story in English 53 (Autumn 2009): 111-25. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Logique de la sensation. Paris: Le Seuil, 2002. Print.

Delmotte, Benjamin. Esthétique de l’angoisse. Le Memento mori comme thème esthétique. Paris: P.U.F., 2010. Print.

McGahern, John. “The Image.” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 17.1, Special Issue on John McGahern. Ed. Denis Sampson (July 1991): 12. Print.

---. The Collected Stories. London: Faber and Faber, 1992. Print.

---. Memoir. London: Faber and Faber, 2005. Print.

Yeats, William Butler. “A Vision.” The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats. Volume XIV, The Revised 1937 Edition. Eds. Catherine Paul and Margaret Mills Harper. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2015. Print.


Charles BAUDELAIRE (1821-1867) , Les Fleurs du mal

L’âme du vin

Un soir, l’âme du vin chantait dans les bouteilles :
« Homme, vers toi je pousse, ô cher déshérité,
Sous ma prison de verre et mes cires vermeilles,
Un chant plein de lumière et de fraternité !

Je sais combien il faut, sur la colline en flamme,
De peine, de sueur et de soleil cuisant
Pour engendrer ma vie et pour me donner l’âme ;
Mais je ne serai point ingrat ni malfaisant,

Car j’éprouve une joie immense quand je tombe
Dans le gosier d’un homme usé par ses travaux,
Et sa chaude poitrine est une douce tombe
Où je me plais bien mieux que dans mes froids caveaux.

Entends-tu retentir les refrains des dimanches
Et l’espoir qui gazouille en mon sein palpitant ?
Les coudes sur la table et retroussant tes manches,
Tu me glorifieras et tu seras content ;

J’allumerai les yeux de ta femme ravie ;
À ton fils je rendrai sa force et ses couleurs
Et serai pour ce frêle athlète de la vie
L’huile qui raffermit les muscles des lutteurs.

En toi je tomberai, végétale ambroisie,
Grain précieux jeté par l’éternel Semeur,
Pour que de notre amour naisse la poésie
Qui jaillira vers Dieu comme une rare fleur ! »


1 “Ever since his mother’s death he found himself stumbling into these dead days. Once, crushed mint in the garden had given him back a day he’d spent with her at the sea in such reality that he had been frightened, as if he’d suddenly fallen through time, it was as if the world of the dead was as available to him as the world of the living” (CS 180, my emphasis).

“The priest hadn’t thought of the day for years or of Michael Bruen till he had stumbled into it without warning by way of the sudden light on the beech chips” (CS 182, my emphasis).

2 Moira also is a common name in Scotland for Mary.

3 Bertrand Cardin pointed out this presence in his 2009 article.

4 Also the title of a poem by Charles Baudelaire, printed below.

5 Close to Drumcliffe is the site of the big house of Lissadell where Yeats spent some time in 1894 invited by the Gore-Booth family who owned the estate. Later on, he wrote the famous “Lissadell” poem there starting with: “Two girls in silk kimonos, both Beautiful, one a gazelle,” which John McGahern recited to me once when he took me to Drumcliffe. He knew Yeats’s (but not only Yeats’s) poems by heart. See for more information and pictures, consulted 13th October 2015.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Liliane Louvel, « “Bathed in an incredible sweetness of light”: A Reading of John McGahern’s “The Wine Breath” », Journal of the Short Story in English, 70 | 2018, 153-166.

Référence électronique

Liliane Louvel, « “Bathed in an incredible sweetness of light”: A Reading of John McGahern’s “The Wine Breath” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 70 | Spring 2018, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 23 octobre 2020. URL :


Liliane Louvel

Liliane Louvel is Professor emerita of British literature at the University of Poitiers and specializes in contemporary British literature and word/image relationship. She has published five books on the relation between word and image: L'œil du texte (PUM, 1998), The Picture of Dorian Gray, Le double miroir de l'art (Ellipses, 2000), Texte/image, images à lire et textes à voir (PUR, 2002), Le Tiers pictural (PUR, 2010; translated by Angeliki Tseti, Routledge, 2018), and Poetics of the Iconotext (translated by Laurence Petit, edited by Karen Jacobs, Ashgate, 2011). She has edited several collections of essays on the word/image relationship: Like Painting (La Licorne, Poitiers); the proceedings of the Cerisy conference: Texte/image, nouveaux problèmes with Henri Scepi (PUR); Actes du colloque Photographie et littérature with J.-P. Montier and D. Meaux and P. Ortel (PUR); Around Stieglitz with J.-P. Montier and Jay Brookner (PUR); Intermedial Arts with Leena Leilitta and Sabine Kim (Media Cambridge Scholars P, 2012); Musing in the Museum, with Laurence Petit and Karen Brown (Taylor and Francis, 2015). She is the current president of the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE). She is also the president of IAWIS/IAERTI, the International Society of Word & Image Studies.

Articles du même auteur

Droits d’auteur

© All rights reserved

  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search