“new ways of reading the silence”

Stuck for a last minute present? If Joseph O’Connor’s review is anything to go by, you could do worse than pick up this reworked collection of short stories, Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories by John McGahern, who died earlier this year. The Guardian also has the title story online – part one and part two. Or you could just buy the collected stories anyway..From the review

The collection also serves as a form of farewell to the characters that McGahern made his own. They walk through these assiduously crafted miniatures like the archetypes of a modern folklore: the inarticulate lover, the distant, damaged father, the schoolteacher who doubts or despises his vocation. Several times we encounter the former student for the Catholic priesthood who abandoned that path on the verge of ordination, or the man who missed his cue when it was howled by the fates. These are lives marked by abrupt turnings, roads not taken, promises broken, the hopes of childhood crushed, but somehow a faith in the world survives, a notion that redemption is possible. This Chekhov of small town, pre-confident Ireland is brilliant on human weakness, on what it means to be powerless. His people have feelings of agonising complexity, but their language does not give them the power of expression. Like Beckett’s outcasts or Brian Friel’s lovers, they seem caught in a perpetual struggle between silence and speech, but the style McGahern developed, shifting subtly between scrupulous plainness and high lyricism, somehow gives voice to their condition.

The collection draws so skilfully from a well of Irish familial images, returning them reminted, infused with quiet force. In that way, the stories may be read as rehearsals for the novels, or as tributaries of one another, workings-out of implications. The father in most of them is a version of Amongst Women’s Moran, the disenchanted republican burnished hard by pain. The women, especially the elderly women, are so achingly recognisable that you forget they are products of an imagination. They talk about rain, about children and preparing food, and all the time something else is being discussed. The troubled couple in the masterful “Sierra Leone” cannot communicate except in evasions. Yet McGahern finds resonant beauty in such halting attempts at empathy, and his dialogue, so loving and carefully poised, crackles with the vividness of popular speech.

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  • Christopher Eastwood

    Girlfriend gave me this book last night, as an early Christmas present. Can’t wait to get stuck in!

  • Rory

    I do not know McGahern’s short stories, but as a novelist he is surpassed only by Joyce in the modern Irish canon. As a short story writer he will be up against, not only the the master but O’Connor and O’Faoilain as well. To be considered fit to run in such company would be prize enough for any writer. I can’t wait.

  • The Third Policeman

    Its tara too that I’d have to remind you all that the master of Irish literature is of course Flann O’Brien. Honestly, if you can read at all then pick up At Swim Two Birds. Certainly its my favourite book anyway.And its the perfect gift for your sister, well, in the words of Dylan Thomas, “if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” Even better to keep it for your self though…

  • T.Ruth

    Might I suggest as Christmas or New year reading “The Minstrel Boy” by Hubert Dunn. it deals with Francis Ledwidge and the literature of his Time. It is a fascinating read and has important messages for all about our shared history, in particular those who see the world through Republican spectacles.
    Another must read is Born fighting by James Webb which tells how the Scots-Irish shaped America. It should be required reading in schools for all the children of Ireland, north and south. It makes it clear that simplistic Planter/Gael notions are unlikely to lead to a proper understanding of our shared past.
    T.Ruth

  • Barry Turner

    “I’d have to remind you all that the master of Irish literature is of course Flann O’Brien.”

    Yes!!! A sample of O’Brien:

    “I was thinking of Fred Astaire the other day. I hear he’s worth a lot of money but still works very hard. Incidentally, I’ll tell you a crowd who have a lot of dough – Bolands. Fred Astaire’s way wouldn’t be mine, of course. If I were in his position I’d never do a tap. He does it the hard way, though. (Per hard way ad Astaire, as a lesser man might say, but not me.) (Not I? Nonsense!)

    Ah, of course, there is nothing like the hard work – is there such a thing as easy work? – and it’s what pays dividends. (I must show you some Irish shares I have – they pay quotients.) Take the Pro Arte Quartet now for instance that I’m sure many’s the time you listened to out in the RDS. (Per RDS ad Artists? No, hardly.) How much more popular they are than my own Anti-Arte Orchestra? I have an orchestra now, incidentally. I had to save for years to get it. It cost me 5,000 notes, but it looks much better than the previous job I had – the argentestra. Do you know what the word cor means in Gaelic? It means reel. (Cor irlandais?)

    Now let us turn to this UNO business, the pax take it!

    I’ve devised some things I’m going to offer to UNO – I think they ought to be useful, particularly the . . . . . the pro-aircraft gun, an invaluable prodote for air raids. I have also an invention by which tanks can be used for developing and printing without much expense on conversion. I won’t bore you – O superb and glorious confidence of youth! – I won’t bore you with a shortlhy recital, suffice it that I think the thing that will interest them most will be a quintessentially peaceful organisation, a . . . . . a leggy. (Yes, I do believe that the army has had its day.) This leggy will be quite a show, particularly as I’ve made it a condition that I must choose most of the personnel myself. Drill in the leggy will, I may tell you, be just the simplest sort of field work using the simplest sort of ploughs. Manœuvres will be few and far between: so will womanœuvres if things go to plan. Barracks will have to go – I’ve told Joe Connolly just exactly the sort of loungeracks that will take their place. (All right, but nobody ever says ‘barrackses’!) Corporals also will have to go but I can promise that the spirituelles who take their place will not appreciably lack esprit de corps. It’s quite a good idea really – all it means is that instead of having to troops we’ll have troupes. UNO is tackling the problem the wrong way in trying to outlaw war. If they’re really against war and really want to give it a good beating, my advice is don’t outlaw it. In-law it!

    What can one make of the allegation of UNO’s Russian delegate that the presence of British troops in north Ireland constitute a threat to world peace? Or of the assertion, appearing in the loyal Irish Times, as follows: “The Northern Ireland Minister for Health and Local Government, Mr. W. Grant . . . . said he had no house himself . . .” No house? The perversity of that! How can anybody, least of all a minister, be healthy and locally governed unless he has a house? In the southern reaches of the immense Irish tundra, it’s a comparatively simple thing to get a Grant for a house. If in the boundless fastnesses of the northern champaign a house cannot be got for Grant – why doesn’t he bring the whole miserable business before the UNO? Or live in some other place where there are houses – Dublin, say? (Though I doubt it. If you live in Ireland, surely, in a way, you are in a house? I agree there’s no roof but the walls are solid enough and there’s a very nice crowd in the top flat – Orangemen, I believe, every man jack in ulsters.)

    Has anyone considered Belfast as a seat for the UNO?”

  • Barry Turner

    Sorry, in the penultimate paragraph “instead of having to troops we’ll have troupes” should read “instead of having troops we’ll have troupes.”

    Goes to show I’m not even worthy to transcribe the words of the master 😉