Friday, March 30, 2007

The Tuning Fork

I asked Ronan Gallagher to send on the letter he wrote to RTE Radio after John McGahern died last year, and he did, and I'm delighted to be able to post it here on John's first anniversary. The talk last night went well enough, and afterwards people were buying McGahern books like there was no tomorrow, a good sign, many of them readers new to him. I couldn't believe the size of the crowd; I had thought that maybe there was not a lot of interest in McGahern here, given that so few people had heard of him when I mentioned him last year. But there was standing room only in the venue, both upstairs where the talk was and downstairs where they'd put some television screens. All evening I meant to read the passage in Amongst Women which McGahern described as his "tuning fork" - the passage which made him realise, once he'd written it, that he had a novel, and the passage against which he measured all the rest of that novel's sentences and passages to come. I never got around to it, so I'm going to post it here as a marker of today. It's significant in that it is a piece of his own prose with which McGahern was satisfied, or half-satisfied in any case; a very rare thing for him, as he was an acute perfectionist. And the idea of writing until that sure passage or sentence comes, and of having it there as the tuning fork, as the measure, for the writer, of everything before and after it, is probably the best writing advice I've ever come upon. That, and just getting the words right. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

Moran went out to the road and closed the iron gates under the yew after returning with the car from the station. He listened for the noise of the diesel train crossing the Plains behind the house but it had already passed. The light was beginning to fail but he did not want to go into the house. In a methodical way he set out to walk his land, field by blind field. He had not grown up on these fields but they felt to him as if he had. He had bought them with the money he had been given on leaving the army. The small pension wasn't enough to live on but with working the fields he had turned it into a living. He'd be his own man here, he had thought, and for the first time in his life he'd be away from people. Now he went from field to filed, no longer kept as well as they once were, the hedges ragged, stones fallen from the walls, but he hardly needed the fields any more. It did not take much to keep Rose and himself.

It was like grasping water to think how quickly the years had passed here. They were nearly gone. It was in the nature of things and yet it brought a sense of betrayal and anger, of never having understood anything much. Instead of using the fields, he sometimes felt as if the fields had used him. Soon they would be using someone else in his place. It was unlikely to be either of his sons. He tried to imagine someone running the place after he was gone and could not. He continued walking the fields like a man trying to see.

That line about grasping water hits me like a physical blow every time I read it.

Ronan's letter is below.

Dear Pat,

John McGahern is dead. The RTE man announced it with a slight hesitation, as if he didn't believe his own news. It stopped me in my tracks as I am sure it did many in this county and beyond in a much wider world. I have to confess that my introduction to McGahern's writings at the tender age of fifteen, had more to do with teenage hormones than literary knowledge. It all started when a very large padded envelope addressed to my father, 'Pat (the Vet) Gallagher' Mohill, arrived, carried with great reverence into our house by our postman as it was too large to fit in the letterbox. Printed on the envelope was the very prominent and glamorous mastiff of 'The New Yorker Magazine' which clearly impressed the Postman. 'Be God Pat, that's a very important looking package' he quipped as he passed the envelope to my father with the care and precision of a man handling a priceless Faberge egg. 'And a heavy one too' retorted my father as he placed the package on a shelf and thanking the postman, continued his work, crushing all my hopes and the Postman's, that its contents might be revealed. Disappointed, I soon forgot about the package until, a few days later I came across it, opened, and unattended on my fathers office desk. Having thought about it for all of a nano-second, I opened the envelope to discover inside, a hardback book by a man called John McGahern with the delicious title 'The Pornographer'. A hand written note attached on headed New Yorker note paper read something like 'I thought a brown envelope might attract too much attention.Ha Ha! Hope you enjoy. Say hello to all back home. John.'

Having a good idea that this might not be on my fathers approved list of literary classics for fifteen year olds, and drooling at the promise of the title, I immediately dived into page one. Well I was bitterly disappointed to find that as Trainspotting has no trains neither did 'The Pornographer' have much pornography. However I was absolutely thrilled to discover that it did have the wonderful writing that this mans pen could yield up. Here was a book about people and places that I recognised and could relate to. John McGahern drew a huge amount of his inspiration from his native Leitrim where he lived among the people. He was one of them, and could be seen out and about, often more concerned about having enough fodder for the cattle than winning the next literary award or reading the latest accolade. I cannot claim to have known Mr McGahern save to meet him the odd time at my fathers house or in Luke Early's bar cum Undertakers in Mohill where McGahern the 'Antennae' would sit in a corner listening to stories and banter from my father and his friends Tom Reynolds and Tom Murphy among others. McGahern would soak up the atmosphere, but always with the ability to be a part of it. He was of the people. He saw our history and our past through eyes that did not lie and refused to embellish, a history that many of a certain generation could relate to, but never speak of. Though his work contained beautiful romance, he never romanticised, and he recognised that as there is great beauty in everyday life there is also cruelty and harshness. His were the eyes of truth, a truth we refused to face for many years, that repression and dogma are no substitutes for freedom of expression and creative thinking.

Nearly twenty five years after the padded envelope arrived to our house, it's author John McGahern, was the first person to walk forward and shake my hand as I stepped out of Luke Early's hearse to bury my father. I'll never forget his words to me then, 'There will never be another Pat Gallagher. May God bless him' and they are the words which come to me now on hearing the sad news of his departure from us.

'There will never be another John McGahern. May God bless him.'

Yours in sadness,

Ronan Gallagher
Lough Rinn
Co Leitrim


Thursday, March 29, 2007

McGahern on Film, online

It's all McGahern today, all day; surrounded by notes and trying to put some order on them, to do justice to the man, to get the words right, as he'd say. I've been trying to think about realism and parochialism, the difference between them, about the difference, too, between goodwill and genuine engagement. About the ways in which McGahern will be remembered, about the ways in which he is read, and how they square up to the way he wrote, his intense craft and rigor, the brilliance and clarity of his work which was in no way accidental or quaint.

I got an email this morning from Ronan Gallagher, the Mohill-based filmmaker and writer. I recognised Gallagher's name because he wrote the most beautiful and vivid letter to RTE Radio after McGahern's death last year. I can almost remember the words of it even a year on.

Gallagher has made a short film about the opening of the John McGahern library at the Lough Rynn Hotel in Leitrim last November(the photo of McGahern above, by John Keaney from Carrick-on-Shannon, hangs in the library). The film is called Amongst Friends and you can watch it by going to the Lough Rynn website here. Lough Rynn is a gorgeous place, very peaceful, and they've worked a really understated and lovely restoration and conversion of the old castle, which I used to visit when I was a child.
Have a look at the film. It does start out a bit like a promo for the hotel, and the presence of Bertie Ahern and his cronies becomes quickly cloying (he's barely able to pronounce McGahern's surname, and his comment about the "smashing houses" in the locality rings grimly for anyone who's seen how the blight of new houses is ruining that county, as commented on here). But it gives an interesting glimpse of how deeply-felt the connection to McGahern was in the county where he lived. Which is a more complicated relationship than all of the good will and genuine affection can suggest, I think; again, it feeds into the question of how McGahern will go down in local memory; for his artistry or in terms of his personality and the pride his name came, in later years, to inspire locally. The things are certainly not mutually exclusive. But if the former is brushed over or merely paid lipservice to, in favour of the latter, I think it runs the risk of being a less lasting memory. I'm not saying this of this short clip; it's something I've been thinking about more generally since McGahern's passing.

And the film is worth seeing for the moving moment when Madeline, John's widow, speaks about how, when first she saw the room, she could see John's "wry smile" and his pleasure at the idea and the remembrance.

I also meant to update yesterday with a full list of the films and dramas made about McGahern's work, or inspired by it, or scripts written by him. The IFI event is screening four, but there are others, and radio dramas and of course his stage play as well. A couple of years back, the mobile cinema in Drumshanbo had a festival of most of the works on film, more extensive than the IFI event even, gathering short films and student films from all around.

There's a list, a full one I think, after the jump.

By McGahern

Sinclair, radio adaptation of his own short story "Why We're Here", broadcast on BBC Radio 3, 16 November 1971; published in The Listener, 18 November 1971, 690-2.

The Barracks
, radio adaptation of his own novel, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 24 January 1972.

The Power of Darkness, after Tolstoy, submitted to the Abbey and rejected in 1972, produced as a radio adaptation on BBC Radio 3 in the same year (15 October), produced at the Abbey in 1991, directed by Garry Hynes. Published by Faber.

The Sisters, television adaptation of the short story by Joyce. Broadcast as part of Full House on BBC 2, 17 February 1973.

Swallows, television adaptation of his own short story. Broadcast as part of the Second City Firsts series on BBC 2, 27 March 1975.

The Rockingham Shoot
, original television drama. Broadcast as part of the Screenplay: Next series on BBC 2, 10 September 1987.

The Pornographer
, film script adaptation of his own novel, remains unproduced and unpublished.

By Others

The Barracks
, stage adaptation, adapted by Hugh Leonard, first performed 6 October 1969 at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. Directed by Tomas MacAnna

Wheels, film adaptation of the short story. Adapted and directed by Cathal Black, 1976.

The Lost Hour
, television adaptation of The Leavetaking, adapted by Carlo Gebler, directed by Tony Barry. RTE, 1983.

The Key
, television adaptation of a work of McGahern (possibly "Bomb Box", but unverified), adapted by Carlo Gebler, directed by Tony Barry, RTE 1985.
Korea, film adaptation of teh short story, screenplay by Joe O'Byrne, directed by Cathal Black. 1995.
Amongst Women, audiobook, read by Stephen Rea, Faber 1997.

My Love, My Umbrella
, an opera version of that story, "Sierra Leone" and "Gold Watch". Adapted into a libretto by James Conway, score by Kevin O'Connell, first performed 9 October 1997 at the Stamford Arts Centre, England.
Amongst Women [2], television adaptation, screenplay by Adrian Hodges, directed by Tom Cairns. First Broadcast on RTE 1, 17 May - 7 June 1998.
Swallows, film adaptation of the short story, adapted and directed by Michael O'Connell. 2000.

Details from Stanley van der Ziel's annotated bibliography in the Irish University Review special on McGahern, 2005.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

John McGahern, A Year On

Americans are not hugely familiar with the work of John McGahern, as I discovered when he died last year. Even in a school of fiction, only one person I spoke to had heard of him, and some people thought I was talking about Frank McCourt...

Anyway, March 30th is the first anniversary of McGahern's death, and there's an event to mark the occasion at Ireland House, the property donated to NYU by the Glucksmans and dedicated to Irish studies. With writers like Colum McCann and Nuala O'Faolain living in Manhattan, I'm surprised it's not a different, more writer-centric kind of panel, but hopefully there will be lots of contributions from the audience. The event will be followed by a screening of the terrific, moving documentary made about McGahern in 2004 (from which the still above comes).

Still, it's the McGahern event in the IFI in Dublin on Sunday which I'd really love to attend. It's a programme called "McGahern on Film" and will screen three screen adaptations of McGahern's work, as well as a TV drama written by McGahern in 1987. I've never seen any of these films; they're extremely hard to track down. Hopefully the IFI event will spur the release of a McGahern on Film DVD. The IFI event is hosted by Colm Toibin, who will be superb talking about McGahern's fiction, his aesthetic and his inimitable mischief.

Well done to both Ireland House and the IFI for getting the McGahern tributes together. I think there's one happening in his native Leitrim a little later in the year, which sounds great also. If you're in New York, come. If you're in Dublin, go, and report back...

update: Speaking of Frank McCourt, here's something I just found, in an interview with McGahern from 2000. He's responding to a question which was partly about Frank McCourt, partly about Brian Moore.

"Angela's Ashes interested me more [than Brian Moore].I found it a very strange book, a mixture of farce and clearly honed American evocative writing and literary pretension. The pretension was its weakest part. A work it reminded me of was Synge's Playboy of the Western World, also a farce. It was farce as a great kick at misery and passive suffering. If it's not a farce, then the concluding chapter is in serious bad taste and the whole book a sort of porridge."


Friday, March 16, 2007

The Fish Award

Here's an example of the kind of rapid-fire literary posting I was talking about in the n+1/TEV post: for the first time in its history, the prestigious Fish Short Story Prize has been awarded to an Irish writer, Kathleen Murray from Dublin. The 2007 Anthology will take its title from her story, A Paper Heart is Beating, A Paper Boat sets Sail. She began writing when she took a course with the poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill in 2004; this was probably the one at the Irish Writers Centre, from which the anthology The Incredible Hides in Every House was produced. I like what Murray says about how she began writing - "I think good writing gave me the inclination to attempt to write" - and also about how she feels, having won the Fish award:

I feel that it is the story itself that has won though, not me, and I am pleased most of all for the story itself.


The Inelegant Variation

We're subscribers to the literary journal n+1 in this house, and daily readers of Mark Sarvas's literary blog The Elegant Variation, too (why am I using the first person plural all of a sudden? I blame Josh Ferris). Both are excellent. But the spat between the two camps which has exploded on TEV and also on the litblog The Millions (also a great blog, by the way) is just embarrassing. Confusing, also, and more than a little hysterical, and petty, a lot, but mainly just embarrassing. A couple of months back, I added the n+1 editorial in question to my course syllabus (I teach uni writing to freshman students), in a section which also included essays by William Cronon and Caroline Bassett. I added it, along with excerpts from Sven Birkerts' book The Gutenberg Elegies, and some recent media analysis of blogging, myspace, second life, etc, because I thought it was an interesting counterpart to those texts. Most of the students didn't like it, the n+1 editorial, for different reasons. They didn't think it convincing, or they thought it preachy, or they thought it too disjointed, or they thought it was "just showing off" (they tend to think a lot of writing is "just showing off", I should add). Or they didn't see the irony which I think was at work in much of the editorial. But they articulated their problems with it in a manner a damn sight more coherent and more reasonable than can be said for the leaders of the current litblog bitchslap.

For my part, I hugely enjoyed the editorial (which is currently excerpted on the n+1 homepage); I read it partly as satire, partly as polemic, and I found a lot of truth in what it had to say about blogging, about the e-mail bind, about mobile phones. It was, I think, too hastily dismissive of literary blogging - there do exist litbloggers who write considered criticism on their blogs, who do more than blow "wet kisses" or flick fillips of contempt, although they're in the minority. It's hard work to write a serious literary blog, and it's long work; when I started this blog, I hoped it would be a place for me to write about books I'd read and plays I'd seen. My friend Miglior does this kind of blogging about his particular area of interest very well, and very diligently. But I'm not that diligent, I guess. I read for work, and I read for school (apologies to non-American readers; I've caved in and started saying "school" instead of "college", like they do here), and I write for work, and I write for school, and I just plain write, and when it comes to blogging, I've found that it's the very immediacy of it - the very "reflex" criticized by the n+1 editors - the gossipy, news-sharing, info-sending aspect of it that most appeals to me. I'm a reflex blogger, and when I blog about books, it's rarely in a very considered way, or in a way, come to think of it, of which I'm particularly proud. I mentioned earlier this week, for example, that I was enjoying Liam Callanan's All Saints - well, that changed soon afterwards, and I began to be slightly horrified by it, and I kept going with it only to abandon it, unable to muster the enthusiasm to go on, roughly 20 pages from the end. Now that, there, what I've just written; that's not a review. It's a blog post. And there's no reason the two things shouldn't go together, and, on other blogs, they do, which is something the n+1 editorial ought to acknowledge, I think. But it's true, too, that there are many, many more examples of the kind of blog to which they do refer. And here's one of them.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

That Person We All Know

Today's Gawker Underminer (a column written in the voice of the friend whose brilliance always makes you feel like topping yourself) hones in on the literary overachiever. Specifically, the poetry overachiever, but it works for every genre. Read it and guffaw. Then go back to staring at your inbox and reminding yourself you're not 23 anymore and vowing to read David bloody Foster Wallace and generally asking soul-destroying questions of yourself.


PS I couldn't find an image of a New Yorker rejection slip to go with this post, but look what I did find, via cartoonist Royston Robertson's blog: Who remembers the brilliantly vile comic Oink (see here for a history and here for some online issues)? My mother used to buy it for me every Friday, along with the Beano and Bunty. This was when I was seven or eight. One day, after I'd read every issue for about a year, she actually looked through an issue and never bought it for me again.
update: turns out they just stopped publishing it in 1988. That was why the issues stopped coming. Sorry, mum...


Monday, March 12, 2007

And Then We Came To The KGB

After the Irish reading, we legged it up to the KGB for another reading, because I'd read a lot about Joshua Ferris's new novel, And Then We Came To The End (check out the fancy website here), and I wanted to hear him read from it. Ferris was an engaging guest blogger on The Elegant Variation last week, which I chatted to him about when he found himself inescapably stuck beside me in the tiny, overcrowded venue. He seems like a nice guy - talked about how time-consuming blogging was, and how he only ever did it at night, and how he couldn't imagine trying to do it all the time, while working on his fiction too - and he hung my coat up, so I'll definitely be buying his book. Oh, and it also sounded very good (if a little cinematic) - it's about office dwellers, and narrated in that horrible, cloying "we" voice, the first-person plural, beloved of HR departments everywhere - a nice touch, which knifes straight into the deadening, depersonalising heart of corporate culture. Anyway, they weren't selling the book in the KGB, so I'll have to hunt down a copy, and I'll report back when I have read it. I'm sure it will be a lot better than the novel I read last week, Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name; I don't know how Colm Toibin and Nicole Krauss could blurb it with straight faces. He wrote it in four months -clearly after having gorged on To The Lighthouse - and it shows. I like his non-fiction a lot, but

Getting back to the KGB reading - which will eventually be available to hear, along with interviews, here - Ferris was preceded by two other very enjoyable writers, Liam Callanan, whose new novel All Saints I'm reading at the moment (it was on sale on the night) and really enjoying, and Elise Blackwell, who read from her novel The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, which is about the floods which struck Louisiana in 1927. The book was all but finished when Katrina hit last year, and Blackwell felt it had to be completely rewritten, and relocated, in the light of what had happened. So her narrator now tells the story of one flood on the eve of another.


Some New Haunts

New blogs I've stumbled across, or been meaning to post about, of late:

The Convex Mirror
: a blog about art in New York, which may or may not be written by someone living in this very apartment (not me, and not the cat, above, pictured hogging the reading material behind the blog's title).

Sexagenarian And The City: my friend "Mimi's" blog about being a (nearly) sixtysomething on the dating scene in New York...hilarious and utterly true, every word of it...

The Poetry Snark
: does what it says on the tin. Merciless interrogation of the many sacred cows of the American poetry scene.

Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant: a literary blog which makes me feel dizzier than do the Elegant Variation, the unread pile of New Yorkers in my sitting-room and the Strand Bookstore combined.

Ed Park's Blog: Aptly entitled The Dizzies, this is another literary blog, by a co-founder of the excellent Believer magazine. Ed Park's first novel is due out later this year.

Brit in Brooklyn: Great photography, commentary on how developers are gobbling up this and other boroughs, and depressing hurricane-related news (if it hits, Brooklynites are goners. Oh well)


Ugh, Look What He's Done With His Copy of The Irish Book Review*...

"You'll never guess who's here," A. said the other evening, as we waited for a reading by some lesser known Irish fiction writers to begin in a Chinatown restaurant. The reading was part of the series Good Words at the Good World at the Good World Bar & Grill on Orchard Street; each month it has a different theme, and this month, to coincide with Paddy's Day possibly, the theme was Ireland - or "Out of Ireland", to be exact. Mary Burke, who teaches Irish literature at the University of Connecticut and was published in the Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories 2004-5, and Martin Roper, who wrote a novel called Gone and teaches nonfiction at NYU, both read from new novels in progress. The place was packed, standing room only, and for some reason there were replicas of the same couple - the distinguished-looking, grey-bearded man, and the long-haired, long-skirted, outdoorsy-looking middle-aged woman - in every corner. They all looked vaguely familiar - probably because they all looked so much like one another, so when A came back from his cigarette break with a glint in his eye and news of a celebrity sighting, I prepared my best fake-excited face, expecting to hear tell of some obscure modernist poet. Or worse.
"Please don't say Frank McCourt," I said.

But no! It was the semen-daubing sensation of the Downtown art scene, Dash Snow, described by a controversial New York Magazine profile in January as looking like "the son of Jim Morrison and Jesus Christ"; Dash Snow, who comes from the De Menil family, one of the richest art families in the world, but who ran away at 13 to be a thief, a graffiti artist and, pretty soon, a scuzzy, elusive scene legend. He makes art out of newspaper clippings and his own semen, out of skulls, out of phlegm. He had a piece - a series of polaroid pictures, one of a dog scavenging in trash - in the Whitney Biennial last year, and he also had a piece - a semen/newspaper collage - in the Saatchi Show. He and his set - Ryan McGinley and Dan Colen, McGinley arguably being the genuine talent among them - have been dubbed Warhol's Children, existing in their own mythology of weirdness, privilege and self-absorption. They're known for their Hamster's Nests, which they create by shredding up to fifty phone books, winding all the blankets and curtains in the room around themselves, turning on the taps and taking a lorryload of drugs "until they feel like hamsters".

And here was their leader, quietly sitting at the back of an Irish writers event. And not a hamster in sight.

Except, of course, Snow hadn't come for the Irish writers. He was at the Good World for his breakfast bloody mary, more than likely, it being the downtown breakfast hour of 5 p.m. And chances are (we couldn't see), he legged it out of there very soon after the first soft rumblings of an Irish accent came over the loudspeaker. He certainly didn't stick it out to the end. But I hope he was there for at least some of the first reading, so that his well-trumpeted paranoia might have been piqued by Mary Burke's descriptions of an early 20th century European bohemia (her novel is based on the story of Lucia Joyce) which, at times seemed both to mirror and to parody Snow's downtown scene, right down to the bodily-fluid-soaked artworks. There were a few strangled noises from the back in response to that bit, come to think of it...

* (on that business with the Irish Book Review)...well, who could blame him?

update: A. has helpfully pointed me towards this account of the making of a Snow/Colen Hamster Nest. Now I really wish Snow had stuck around. Cause that's the kind of Irish book party I'd like to see. Which Irish scribes are up to it, though? I see Des Hogan and Colm Toibin, holding forth over a mountain of coke and Cutty One Rock and surrounded by shredded 01 directories and Dublin pigeons named McDowell, while Tony Cronin and Tom Murphy roar encouragement from the sidelines.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Conde Nasty

In half an hour, I have to be at 4 Times Square, otherwise known as the Conde Nast building, otherwise known as The Scariest Place in New York, to do an interview with the poetry editor of the New Yorker. She, Alice Quinn, is not part of the scary bit - she was one of my teachers last year, and is a very sweet and approachable person. The scary bit, obviously, is the prospect of the Conde Nast girls, the skinny, pouty, cheekboney, Prada-clad swarm of Vogue-associated women, who will be stomping their $700 snowboots into the lobby just about the time that I arrive in my cat-hair-covered coat, slightly holey tights (please stay above the knee, ladder, please stay, nice ladder), odd vintage-meets-Belgian-weirdo-designer outfit, and hair which has not been combed because I this morning, of all mornings, I cannot find the comb. And of course, since it's pelting down snow and something like minus ten outside, I will also be red-nosed, sniffly and trailing hats and scarves in a Wurzel Gummidge manner.

Yes, I know I'm going there to talk about poetry. And I have been there before, and I survived. But seriously, I think I'm allowed this wobbly. Anna Wintour shouted at one of my classmates in the elevator there last week.

At least I haven't eaten any breakfast. That might help me to fit in.

Oh yes: forgot to add, because it is so flippin' cold, I will also be wearing red furry earmuffs which my mother bought me for Christmas, probably from Lidl. Got a clear enough picture?