‘One of the great writers of the 20th century’
Frank Shovlin, Professor of Irish Literature in English at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, told David Hennessy about his book the Letters of John McGahern and his forthcoming biography of the literary great.
John McGahern is often described as one of the great Irish writers and in the same breath as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.
Born in 1934, McGahern was raised in Leitrim.
Having trained to be a teacher, like his mother who died when he was nine, but was dismissed from a teaching post when his second novel, The Dark, was banned by the Irish Censorship Board in 1965 for obscene content.
McGahern would go on to write six novels and four short story collections.
He was shortlisted for the 1990 Booker Prize for Amongst Women and awarded the Irish PEN Awards, the Prix Ecureuil de Littérature Etrangère and the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
When he died in 2006 at the age of 71, the Guardian described him as ‘arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett’.
A recent collection of his letters, including those exchanged with writers like Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Colm Tóibín shows a different side to the intensely ‘private’ author.
Edited by Frank Shovlin, Professor of Irish Literature in English at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, The Letters of John McGahern reveals details some may not know of the Amongst Women author such as that he had a son.
It details his relationship with other authors, the closest of which would have to be his longstanding relationship with Seamus Heaney although the author did reveal late in his life that his passion for Heaney’s work had ‘faded’.
The book has been a labour of love for Shovlin, taking him seven years from start to finish.
However, Shovlin’s work on the author does not start or finish there.
He has been researching the author’s life for more than a decade, previously publishing the examination of his writing Touchstones.
He is now set to write the John McGahern biography which, like with the Letters of John McGahern, will be done with the blessing and consultation of John’s widow Madeline.
Frank Shovlin told The Irish World: “I was originally approached by Madeline McGahern in the summer of 2014.
“Madeline and I became very good friends over the years.
“So we had very long, open conversations in which nothing was hidden, nothing was off the table.
“She has amazing recall of their life together and she was extremely generous, helpful throughout.
“And all of the better footnotes and best information in the book come from the long conversations that I had with Madeline over the years.
“I did get to know him.
“I knew the work obviously, very well already.
“I published a book on the work in 2016.
“But it’s one thing knowing the work, it’s another to know the man.
“And now that hopefully I know both quite well it will put me in a strong position to write the biography.
“There has been a really overwhelming reaction to it and very positive, great reviews.
“It got very positively reviewed in the Irish Times and the independent, the Sunday Indo, the Sunday business Post.
“I did an event in Carrick-on-Shannon the first week it was out.
“Ireland was just starting to reopen after COVID so it was an outdoor event limited to 50 people.
“But it was great. It was great to be on his home patch and his widow Madeline was able to come along to that, which was great.
“I have had lots of emails from total strangers congratulating me and thanking me for the book.
“I couldn’t have asked for more really.
“It’s been very busy but very pleasing.
“I guess 95% of the book is really about writing, and how he wrote, how he put the novels and short stories together to dealings with publishers and dealings with agents.
“Perhaps the only life surprise was the fact that he had a son.
“Some people knew that before, but it wasn’t widely known.
“The son was the result of a very brief love affair that John had with a woman in Dublin in 1962.
“And that whole story is kind of fictionalized in his fourth novel The Pornographer in 1979 where a journalist has an affair with a woman and a baby ensues. The man doesn’t want the baby, doesn’t want to be a father, and the woman wants to be a mother.
“There are a handful of letters from 1979 and 1980 in my book where John is talking about going to visit the woman in question and his son.
“There’s still a great deal more that I would like to find out about that, but haven’t as yet.
“I had a journalist ask me if I could put him in touch with the son, which I can’t because I’ve never met the man.
“I don’t know where he is. I believe he’s alive. But I have no way of contacting him.
“I may do in the years ahead because I’ve just signed a contract with Faber to write the biography now.
“So that’s all ahead of me.
“With the letters, I very deliberately decided not to go down the biographical road and not go down to speculative road.
“So any footnote I wrote was purely factual.
“I would say, ‘This is what he’s talking about, this is the date it happened’.
“So I think that’s work that’s ahead of me writing the biography.”
Frank had the pleasure of meeting the man and actually studying under him.
He says: “I was an undergraduate in University College Galway from 1990 to 93 studying English and History, and in my final year there in the spring of ‘93, John taught a small class for about a dozen of us.
“It was a lovely class. It was a privilege to be around him. I found him a very, very nice, quiet, very clever, authoritative man.
“I was a fan of his work before then anyway which is why I applied to take the class.
“And my admiration for his work has been a lifelong thing really, from the first time I read a story of his when I was about 18 right up to the present.
“Working on The Letters.. hasn’t dulled that at all, I’m still as enthusiastic, if not more enthusiastic, about his fiction than I ever was.”
Asked to explain why McGahern speaks to him, Frank says: “There’s an essay that John wrote, called The Solitary Reader, which is in his collected essays that was published after he died called Love of the World.
“And he talks about how if you’re going to kind of progress as a reader, then a moment must come in a reader’s life where they find a book that acts as a mirror for them, and they suddenly see something in that book that chimes with their own life.
“And I think that is probably what happened to me when I read a book like say, Amongst Women, in 1990.
“He was describing a world that I knew very well. I grew up in the west of Ireland. I was living in Castlebar, County Mayo at the time.
“My mum’s a Mayo woman, my dad’s from Donegal.
“The world that he describes of the evening rosary, Sunday Mass and playing cards and keeping score on the back of an old Lyons tea box, these are all things that I had done, and that I recognized.
“But then, of course, the very quality of the writing catches you in a way that if I would try to write that, it would not work, but because he has this gift for dramatizing that private world of his, it struck me very forcibly, almost physically, the first time I read him and that feeling has never, never gone away.”
As knowledgeable as he was on the subject before he embarked on the project, Frank learned things along the way about McGahern that he had no idea about.
“There were lots of facts about his life I just didn’t know.
“I didn’t know how much he had travelled for instance. He lived in London, Paris, upstate New York. He lived in Newcastle upon Tyne for two years, that really surprised me. I had no idea about that.
“Although once I started to think about it, I could see how that impacted upon his work.
“Some of what he was reading surprised me a lot.
“It became clear to me that his influences and the writers he most admired were mostly poets rather than fiction writers.
“I got to know Madeline extremely well over the course of researching the book, and I spent a lot of time in her house, the house she and John bought in the early 70s, where she still lives in Leitrim.
“So, in a way, the letters were full of surprises, some of them quite trivial, but some of them major particularly the types of reading and the worldwide travelling that he did.
“I laughed a lot. There are very funny pieces throughout.
“He’s even funny about his own impending death in a couple of letters.
“He was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2003. He died in 2006.
“He writes some very profound moving letters about that diagnosis, but he is still able to joke about it.
“And he’s able to joke about his own work. He describes to Seamus Heaney about Amongst Women that it was a pig of a book to write.
“And he gossips to Heaney about what’s going on in the locality around Foxfield where he lives and priest’s retirement do.
“He’s very human in lots of the letters, and warm.
“With Heaney especially, I think, there’s some very nice warm letters.
“You get a very strong sense of a sociable, open kind of man.”
How close was his friendship with Heaney? “I think it was quite close in the 1970s.
“They first got to know each other because they were both published by Faber and Faber.
“Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist, was published by Faber in 1966.
“And so John and Heaney got to know each other.
“And then John, when he was working as a visiting fellow at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne from ‘74 to ‘76, John invited Heaney to come and read.
“There are some quite warm letters from around that time.
“I think the friendship fades. I don’t think there’s any break in friendship or anything like that.
“The very last letter, it’s an email actually, in the book is an email John dictates to Madeline in his dying days to the Irish poet Paul Durcan where he is annoyed at something Durcan has written. It’s not quite clear what that was.
“But in the letter- It’s quite a short letter- he talks about how his admiration for Heaney’s work had faded.
“That was news to me. And it was interesting. But I don’t think that indicates any break in friendship.
“I’m not gonna say they were good friends because in a way, John was such an intensely private individual.
“It’s hard to say that he was good friends with more than three or four people really over the course of his life, none of whom were for writers.”
Has work already begun on that biography? “I’m already sort of well into it in one way and I have a lot of material but there’s still lots of questions that I’d like answered, that I haven’t answered to my own satisfaction yet.
“There’s people I’d like to meet.
“I don’t know, for instance, if John’s first wife is still alive.
“She’s a Finnish translator and theatre director called on a Annikki Laaksi.
“She may still be alive. I don’t know.
“I’d also like to go and visit Colgate University in upstate New York where he lived and worked for many years.
“There are still people there who will remember him and I’d like to talk to them.
“There’s work to be done, but I’m excited about it.
“It won’t be easy. It’s not going to be easy to do a good job of anybody’s life. Never mind John McGahern.
“What do you decide is important? What do you decide to leave out?
“And you how do you capture the spirit of the man?
“That’s what a really good biography manages to do and that’s what I’ll be trying to do.
“The book was a great pleasure from start to finish. Seven years is a long time but I never doubted the value of what I was doing.
“I wanted to do the man justice because it’s not just that he’s one of Ireland’s great writers, he’s one of the great writers of the 20th century in the English language.
“I want him to have his proper place.
“In Ireland he’s revered and that’s very clear.
“I’d like to get him out to a wider audience, both in Britain and beyond.
“I loved working on it and I know that I’m going to equally love working on the biography.
“It’s not going to be easy, but it’s been a great pleasure and privilege to be entrusted with it by Madeleine.”
Professor Frank Shovlin delivers a lecture on The Letters of John McGahern at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith at 7pm on Wednesday 13 April.
The Letters of John McGahern is out now on Faber and Faber.