Letters from a Scattered Place

Clair Wills

Clair Wills reviews The Letters of John McGahern (ed. Frank Shovlin) in the New York Review of Books.

“Seamus Heaney once characterized the Irish novelist John McGahern as a ruminant, given to chewing the cud. He meant it as a compliment. He was defending McGahern’s third novel, The Leavetaking (1974), against the charge of recycling material from his first, The Barracks (1963). The accusation wasn’t unfair. The death from cancer of McGahern’s mother, Susan, when he was ten, is at the core of both novels, and it’s described in very similar terms. Later he returned to it again, in terrifying detail, in his memoir All Will Be Well (2005). But, Heaney suggested, the echoes and repetitions were irrelevant. This is how memory becomes imagination, by repeating itself.

John McGahern was born in County Leitrim in the northwest of Ireland in 1934, the eldest son of a police sergeant and the village schoolteacher. He was of the same generation, broadly speaking, as Heaney, the playwright Brian Friel, and the poet and critic Seamus Deane, who were growing up on the other side of the newly constituted Irish border, and like them he was lucky in his schooling. While Heaney and Deane got to take advantage of the British government’s extension of free secondary education for all, landing themselves places at St. Columb’s College in Derry, McGahern’s good fortune was the newly opened secondary school run by the Presentation Brothers in Carrick-on-Shannon, the largest town in Leitrim, an eight-mile bicycle ride from home.”

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