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John McGahern’s Photographic Eye

L’œil photographique de John McGahern
Adam Hanna

Résumés

Cet article explore les parallèles qui existent dans l’imagination de John McGahern entre l’art du photographe et sa pratique en tant que romancier. Dans son introduction à une collection de photographies historiques, il écrit : « elles donnent à voir une société à un moment et dans un lieu donné, et toutes les images sont choisies avec soin. Le fait que [le photographe] ait choisi de se concentrer sur une pauvre chaumière, une femme pieds nus sur le seuil d’une porte, deux jeunes filles dans leurs plus beaux atours du dimanche, est significatif, mais ce qui est encore plus révélateur de son talent est l’angle de la maison, le balai à côté de la porte, la position de la cage et la roue ». Mon point de départ est la citation ci-dessus, qui évoque immanquablement des techniques et des préoccupations qui caractérisent son travail comme romancier. Je prends ici en considération ce qui est « significatif » dans les reconstitutions intimes (et quasiment « photographiques ») de la vie domestique des personnages que donne à lire McGahern et je fais valoir que ses gros plans de la vie quotidienne en particulier fonctionnent comme autant de synecdoques de circonstances historiques et de forces sociales et économiques plus larges. Comme les photographies que McGahern décrit, ses romans « donnent à voir une société à un moment et dans un lieu donné » grâce à leur attention aux détails de la vie quotidienne. Mon analyse m’amènera à insister sur la conscience sociale et historique qui transparaît en filigrane dans l’œuvre de McGahern.

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Entrées d’index

Index de mots-clés :

MacGahern John, photographie, Irlande, roman

Index géographique :

Ireland, Great Britain
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Texte intégral

  • 1 Mary Price, The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1 (...)
  • 2 Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Picador, 1977, 23.

1As a representation of reality, the photograph is characterized by the limit of its frame. The fact that it has edges means that, no matter how vast its subject, a photograph does not form a continuum but is instead a discrete, comprehensible space that tends to make its subject interesting rather than overwhelming, picturesque rather than sublime. Mary Price’s study of the photograph acknowledged the central importance of this limitation in the subtitle of her book: “A Strange, Confined Space.1” This limitation of what is limitless is, according to Susan Sontag, one of the photograph’s great aesthetic attractions. She writes that part of the reason why photographs are so compelling is that they make reality, in her words, “atomic and manageable.2” The “atomic” character of a photograph, depicting a part of the universe that is small enough to be viewed with affection and sympathy rather than with a feeling of being overwhelmed by it, has affinities with a part of the sky that is contemplated by Joe Ruttledge, a character in John McGahern’s 2002 novel, That They May Face The Rising Sun. Framed by the rafters of a half-completed barn, this sharply delimited section of the sky has a photographic quality. Ruttledge’s epiphanic moment of reflection while he is looking at it gives us an insight into how McGahern saw his own practice as a novelist, as do the many other still lifes that McGahern’s work contains. Taken together, these caught, held, moments suggest that, in McGahern’s work, the wider world is discovered through thoughtful, careful depiction of the particular and confined.

  • 3 Dermot McCarthy, John McGahern and the Art of Memory, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010, 285.

2This novel is an account of a year in a parish in rural Ireland at the end of the 1980s. In this passage, Ruttledge and Patrick Ryan are building a roof for a barn. What follows is, in the words of one of McGahern’s critics, a “metafictive parable”, in which the novelist looks at himself and what he is doing through his depictions of his characters3:

  • 4 John McGahern, That They May Face the Rising Sun, London: Faber and Faber, 2002, 71. Al (...)

Once they started nailing the rafters, the frame to hold the roof took shape. Each new rafter formed its own square or rectangle; and from the ground they all held their own measure of sky.4

3Ruttledge stops work to look up at one of these framed squares of sky through the rafters. When asked what he is looking at, he replies:

  • 5 Ibidem.

At how the rafters frame the sky. How the squares of light are more interesting than the open sky. They make it look more human by reducing the sky, then the whole sky grows out from that small space. (Ibidem)5

4In other words, the frame provided by the rafters for the barn roof acts like the viewfinder of a camera. The isolated, demarcated space, that was “atomic” to Sontag, is to McGahern “human.” However, it is not just the limitation that is significant to McGahern, it is also the suggestion of the connections between what is inside the frame and outside it: “the whole sky grows out from that small space,” as Ruttledge says. The image that is contained within the rafters takes on the role of a representative of something bigger, while the possibility arises from these lines that the separation and delineation of a part is necessary for a comprehension of the whole. In this essay, I will argue that McGahern’s attentiveness to the scaled-down, the miniature is always, in his work, conscious of and eloquent about the large scale that exists beyond the frame. McGahern’s fiction is allied to photography not just because it is so unflinchingly realist in its detailed depictions of speech and life, but because the idea of synechdochal miniature that is central to the aesthetic of photography is so central to McGahern’s aesthetic as well.

  • 6 John McGahern, “The Image,” Love of the World: Essays, London: Faber and Faber, 2009, 7. I am (...)
  • 7 McGahern spoke of the volume of material that he discarded, as The Daily Telegraph reported i (...)
  • 8 These ideas are set out by Elmer Kennedy-Andrews in Writing Home: Poetry and Place in N (...)

5McGahern thought about his art as a novelist in much the same way as photographers might think about their work. While a photographer might take hundreds of shots and only keep and display a single picture, McGahern wrote of how the long and complicated journey of art is undertaken in the search for “the one image.6” He also discarded what he had written as readily as a photographer discards frames7. In what follows, I will look closely at some of McGahern’s verbal snapshots from That They May Face The Rising Sun – all of them detailed and seemingly dispassionate descriptions of domestic interiors – and will draw out some of the wider socio-economic reflections which these images contain. In doing so, I am making a distinction in literary criticism that geographers make between two interwoven elements of place: “locale”, the settings in which social relations are constituted, and “location”, the effects on locales of the wide sweep of social and economic forces8. In the scenes that I select, I will first look at the locale – the scene McGahern describes, – and then at the location – the larger stories that are encapsulated in these small spaces.

6A national issue about which McGahern felt strongly, and which is explored repeatedly in the confined spaces of the lives of his characters, was the tragedy of Irish mass emigration. This was not a trauma caused by a single event, but by hundreds of thousands of events that happened to hundreds of thousands of people. In the novel, it is condensed and displayed in one memorable scene in the photographic reconstruction of the room of Johnny Murphy, a labourer who has left Ireland and works at the Ford plant in Dagenham outside London. On his annual visit to Ireland, when asked whether he is still living in the same house in England, he replies:

The same house. On Edward Road. A room on the top floor. Sometimes it’s a bit of a puff to climb the stairs, but it’s better than having someone over your head […] The room on Edward is a good-size room with a big window. You can watch the lights come on in The Prince. (83-84)

7That twilit room takes on an interest for another man, who asks him to describe it. The narration goes from being provided by Johnny to being in the voice of a third person. It is as if a photograph is being described to someone who cannot see it:

There was a table in the room, a high-backed chair, a single bed, an armchair for reading and listening to the radio, a gas fire in the small grate. On the mantle above the grate he always kept a pile of coins for the meter on the landing. A gas cooker and a sink were in a corner of the room inside the door. He didn’t have a television. (84)

8There are profound social implications lying dormant in this economical description of an economically-furnished rented room. The single armchair and single bed are both redolent of a life where marriage and therefore even companionship are an unaffordable luxury. Though there is a radio for company further comforts, like a television and a licence to operate it legally, are also beyond Johnny’s means, so that the public house, The Prince, rather than the private house becomes the most significant place in the life of the character. If low wages made a television licence unattainable, they put a separate space for a kitchen or dining room, and, of course, property ownership beyond the bounds of the possible as well. Instead of the regularity of bills we see the stack of coins for the meter.

9The location for this locale is summoned in McGahern’s view of Irish social history in the twentieth century, which he spoke about in an interview with Hermione Lee:

My father and uncles would have fought in the War of Independence and the Civil War and they actually dreamed of a new, democratic Ireland and they saw that a […] fairly disgusting middle class allied to the Church, took over the country, who had no imagination, whose function was to keep people down. And it can never be forgotten that in the 1950s and 60s when I was in my twenties, over 600,000 people emigrated from the country when there were only 3,000,000 people in Ireland […] Some of those felt betrayed by their country and rightly betrayed and were full of anger.9

  • 10 Bernard O’Donoghue, “Telegrams,” Selected Poems, London: Faber and Faber, 2008.

10The worlds of Irish emigrants in English cities were outside the social and familial structures in which their formative years were spent, and their inhabitants were often too impoverished and culturally marginal to play a full role in their adopted country. McGahern is far from the only Irish writer to have explored this world of marginalized, poorly-housed Irish emigrants who were never properly integrated into the places where they lived. Protagonists whose emotional lives were from necessity centred hundreds of miles from their places of residence are also part of the work of Bernard O’Donoghue, as is shown in his poem “Telegrams”10. Three striking similarities exist between Johnny and this poem’s unnamed protagonist. The first is their poor labourers’ dwellings, called “digs”; the second is the pervasive sense that they live at a remove from what they most love and value; the third is the importance to these men of the public house as an alternative site of company and belonging. The title of O’Donoghue’s poem is ominous as telegrams, as opposed to letters, were usually used to announce deaths. This poem describes one of these dreaded communications from Ireland arriving at digs similar to Johnny Murphy’s in England. As for Johnny Murphy, the remoteness from home and the centrality of the pub as the consolation for and distraction from other wants are at the fore of the anonymous speaker’s story:

  • 11 Bernard O’Donoghue, “Telegrams,” Selected Poems, London: Faber and Faber, 2008, 99.

End of a day in a wet trench
you’re all so tired you can hardly pull
the boots off, but you have to
before the pub will let you in.
Polite notice: site footwear
not admitted.

On the dark table,
inside the digs’ front door:
the buff envelope, face down.
Whose father, sister, brother, mother
this time? Come on; leave it. Eat first,
play a hand of cards in the Bell,
face it after closing-time.11

11Later on in McGahern’s novel, Johnny is made redundant and attempts to return to Ireland, but his brother refuses to let him live with him and he is therefore forced to stay in England. When he explains what has happened to another character, McGahern gnomically comments that he “was speaking for multitudes.” (274) At no point in the novel does McGahern comment directly on the national tragedy of mass emigration; the limited frame of the single character and his rented room is enough to suggest the wider reality. Johnny does, however, return to Ireland on holiday each year, when he stays with his brother, Jamesie. The bedroom that is made ready for him in the farmhouse belonging to his older brother is as carefully depicted as Johnny’s flat in London, and speaks eloquently of settled domesticity as the opposite of Johnny’s itinerant lifestyle:

They [Johnny’s brother and his wife] would have taken the mattress from the bed in the lower room, Johnny’s old room, and left it outside to air in the sun. The holy pictures and the wedding photographs would be taken down, the glass wiped and polished. His bed would be made with crisp linen and draped with the red blanket. An enormous vase of flowers from the gardens and the fields – roses and lilies and sweet william from the garden, foxglove and big sprays of honeysuckle from the hedges – would be placed on the sill under the open window to sweeten the air and take away the staleness and smell of damp from the unused room. (4-5)

  • 12 Joseph J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (...)
  • 13 John McGahern, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” Love of the World: Essays, London: Fabe (...)

12I will dwell for a moment on the use of the iterative “would” and “would have” in this passage. It underscores the characters’ actions as ritual, suggesting yearly repetition of the ceremony of preparing the room, but the accompanying passive forms also suggest that the author has taken on the tentative voice of someone who does not know the whole story and is deducing contextual information from a visual image. This technique suggests a certain degree of impersonality, as if the scene that is being described in being lifted out of the particular and made archetypal. The reason for the contrast between the two rooms – the one in Ireland and the one in England – might be sought in the laws and social norms of the former country. As historian J. J. Lee points out, the economic imperatives of inheritance meant that the farm was preserved as a unit of property. The children who did not inherit it often had to emigrate12. In an essay, McGahern quotes a line from Lee’s book: “few people anywhere have been so prepared to scatter their children around the world in order to preserve their own living standards.13” Though Johnny is said to have left Ireland for love rather than necessity, in the novel he appears to represent a whole generation who had less choice. Though the ephemeral loveliness of the room he stays in when he is on holiday is emphasized, the unlovely economic realities which permit its existence are not far beneath the surface.

13I will now turn to a third verbal picture of a domestic interior and put some pressure on the images it contains. This is the description of the tumbledown cabin of Patrick Ryan, a star amateur actor and bachelor labourer who lives in the community in Ireland that Johnny has left. The primitive rural cabin in which he lives could be one from a previous age, and the uncomfortable living conditions endured by this character say something about him, but something about Ireland as well:

The brown dresser, the settlebed, the iron crook above the open hearth, the horse harness hanging between the religious pictures on the wall – the smiling Virgin, the blood drip from the crown of thorns, all faded now with damp spots underneath the glass, the cheapness moving, since it too had been touched and held in the depths of time. (212)

  • 14 Seamus Heaney, “The Settle Bed,” Seeing Things, London: Faber and Faber, 1991, 28; also, Denn (...)

14This is a domestic interior that is perhaps more recognizable from a poem by Seamus Heaney than one by Bernard O’Donoghue. The settlebed in particular, an item of furniture that Heaney has said is “vernacular with a capital V”, suggests a dwelling which is very much marooned in time by the late 1980s, when the book is set14. Affluence might have brought changes to this domestic space, but, as it is, the house has been arrested in time by the poverty of its inhabitant. Like Johnny’s room in England, the domestic interior is deeply redolent of male solitude and of lack of means. However, unlike the description of Johnny’s room, the focus of this passage is on the religious iconography – “the smiling Virgin, the blood drip from the crown of thorns.” Furthermore, sexual denial is suggested in the image of the virgin, an image whose relevance to Ryan’s own life is made evident when the reader discovers that Ryan has lived all his life in a community where nothing could be concealed and had never had a sexual interest in another human being.

15However, this celibacy does not mean he is without passion. One of the most moving scenes in the novel is his joyous greeting of Johnny when he comes back from England on holiday, with its patterns of ritual conversation and jokes which serve to re-knit the social fabric that has frayed during the returned labourer’s year-long absence. The depth of Ryan’s feeling for Johnny is revealed when, as mentioned above, Johnny is told he cannot come back from England permanently, and Ryan is recorded as fixing a cold stare on the man who he suspects wrote the letter which confirmed this. Finally, when Johnny dies, Patrick, in defiance of the tradition which held that his brother should ride in the hearse with the body, sits next to the undertaker during the final journey. This, I think, displays authorial and societal tact at once in acknowledging the depth of feeling between the men. This turns the love that dare not speak its name into a love whose name everyone in the novel knows but that no one speaks. The faded Catholic imagery which gives the atmosphere to Ryan’s cabin is redolent of the source of the moral teachings which normalized and condoned heterosexual love while condemning love between men, and points to the role of the church in determining the lives of the novel’s protagonists.

  • 15 Maria DiBattista, “The Bogey of Realism: The Ghost of Joyce in John McGahern’s Amongst (...)
  • 16 John Donne, “The Good-morrow,” in Songs and Sonnets of John Donne (ed. Theodore Redpath), Lon (...)
  • 17 McGahern in conversation with Hermione Lee, op. cit.

16I have tried to show how the photographic details of the rooms McGahern depicts have a synechdochal relationship to the historic, religious, social and economic pressures that shaped, or more often deformed, the lives of his characters. This is never done overtly and is often detectable in the subtlest details within the frames that he creates. This perhaps makes it all the more ironic that he has been criticized for focusing too closely on the quotidian and of insufficient attentiveness to the wider world. In an assessment by Maria DiBattista, with which I would disagree, McGahern’s perceived lack of political engagement means that he, in her words, “risks becoming an increasingly marginal, even irrelevant figure in the ideologically contentious world of contemporary Irish writing.15” However, I hope I have demonstrated that his depiction of small spaces, places delineated by their frames, always open out into wider stories and a consciousness that is shared rather than individual. I would further argue that McGahern’s up-close depictions of the material circumstances in which everyday life was lived was itself a form of political engagement, in that it highlighted the damage that repressive and regressive ideas caused to ordinary lives. The possibility of a world beyond the frame is central to photography as well as to McGahern’s practice as a novelist. In his interview with Hermione Lee he quoted with approval John Donne’s command, “let us make one little room an everywhere16” and has pointed out that what gives the frame its significance is the imaginative prompt it gives towards what lies beyond it: “the local is the universal but with the walls removed.”17

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Bibliographie

ANONYMOUS, Obituary for John McGahern, The Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2006, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1514386/John-McGahern.html>.

DIBATTISTA Maria, “The Bogey of Realism: The Ghost of Joyce in John McGahern’s Amongst Women,” in Karen R. Lawrence (ed.), Transcultural Joyce, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

DONNE John, “The Good-morrow,” in Songs and Sonnets of John Donne (ed. Theodore Redpath), London: Methuen, 1983.

HEANEY Seamus, “The Settle Bed,” Seeing Things, London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

KENNEDY-ANDREWS Elmer, Writing Home: Poetry and Place in Northern Ireland 1968-2008, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008.

LEE Hermione, in conversation with John McGahern, 7 April 2004. <http://www.lannan.org/images/lit/john-mcgahern-040407-trans-conv.pdf>.

LEE Joseph J., Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

McCARTHY Dermot, John McGahern and the Art of Memory, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010.

McGAHERN John, That They May Face the Rising Sun, London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

McGAHERN John, Love of the World: Essays, London: Faber and Faber, 2009.

O’DONOGHUE Bernard, “Telegrams,” Selected Poems, London: Faber and Faber, 2008.

O’DRISCOLL Dennis, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, London: Faber and Faber, 2008.

PRICE Mary, The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

SONTAG Susan, On Photography, New York: Picador, 1977.

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Notes

1 Mary Price, The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

2 Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Picador, 1977, 23.

3 Dermot McCarthy, John McGahern and the Art of Memory, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010, 285.

4 John McGahern, That They May Face the Rising Sun, London: Faber and Faber, 2002, 71. All subsequent references to this work are taken from this edition and the relevant page numbers will be indicated in brackets in the text.

5 Ibidem.

6 John McGahern, “The Image,” Love of the World: Essays, London: Faber and Faber, 2009, 7. I am grateful to the photographer and lecturer Dr. David Farrell for suggesting to me that a possible reason why photographic parallels are so prevalent in McGahern’s fiction and essaysis that the novelist’s second wife, Madeline Green (to whom That They May Face the Rising Sun was dedicated), was a photographer.

7 McGahern spoke of the volume of material that he discarded, as The Daily Telegraph reported in his obituary <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1514386/John-McGahern.html>, accessed February 9, 2014.

8 These ideas are set out by Elmer Kennedy-Andrews in Writing Home: Poetry and Place in Northern Ireland 1968-2008, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008, 227

9 John McGahern in conversation with Hermione Lee, 7 April 2004. <http://www.lannan.org/images/lit/john-mcgahern-040407-trans-conv.pdf>, accessed May 2, 2012.

10 Bernard O’Donoghue, “Telegrams,” Selected Poems, London: Faber and Faber, 2008.

11 Bernard O’Donoghue, “Telegrams,” Selected Poems, London: Faber and Faber, 2008, 99.

12 Joseph J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 374.

13 John McGahern, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” Love of the World: Essays, London: Faber and Faber, 2009, 129.

14 Seamus Heaney, “The Settle Bed,” Seeing Things, London: Faber and Faber, 1991, 28; also, Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, London: Faber and Faber, 2008, 326.

15 Maria DiBattista, “The Bogey of Realism: The Ghost of Joyce in John McGahern’s Amongst Women,” in Karen R. Lawrence (ed.), Transcultural Joyce, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 33.

16 John Donne, “The Good-morrow,” in Songs and Sonnets of John Donne (ed. Theodore Redpath), London: Methuen, 1983, 227.

17 McGahern in conversation with Hermione Lee, op. cit.

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Référence électronique

Adam Hanna, « John McGahern’s Photographic Eye », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XII-n° 3 | 2014, mis en ligne le 06 juin 2014, consulté le 22 octobre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/5996 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.5996

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Auteur

Adam Hanna

Université d’Aberdeen, Royaume Uni. Adam Hanna is currently (since September 2012) a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen, where he is investigating the politics of social class in Northern Irish poetry and the legal contexts of Irish literature. He is also a Teaching Assistant in the University of Aberdeen’s English Department and a Lecturer on its English Department’s Summer Access Course. He gained his doctorate in September 2012. His thesis bears on the politics of representations of domestic spaces in Northern Irish poetry since the 1960s.

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