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


that girl said...

Oh thanks for that ... that letter is so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes...What a beautiful and most appropriate way to remember the man himself.

j said...

That was gorgeous; I love that last line especially, "like a man trying to see". You've certainly inspired me to pick up his work!