John McGahern’s Grammar in That They May Face the Rising Sun - Reading Notes by Bruce Stewart

[Note: The following paragraphs were written in preparation for an essay on the literary stylistics of McGahern's fiction grounded in the observation that common malapropism and vagaries of grammar and syntax have always been an ingredient in his way of writing.]

In That they May Face the Rising Sun, McGahern writes: ‘Because of the expectancy of other children’ (p.91). This is an obvious case of malapropism, not to say grammatical error, where the correct word would have been expectation meaning that the birth of children was expected by the married couple - whereas expectancy, if it means anything in this context, might be taken to mean that the unborn children themselves were in a state of expectancy - a meaning which involves metaphysical suppositions clearly beyond the intention of the writer or any practical outlook on the matter in hand. A mistake of this sort in a nationally and internationally esteemed author may well be regarded by his readership as a mark of Hiberno-English but may equally be due to an unfamiliarity with the vocabulary of Standard English - if not, indeed, the sign of some residue of illiteracy associated with his rural origins. Yet who would staunchly dispute that, whatever its causes, the mistake in question fairly operates as a vehicle of compelling insight - a cultural handicap turned to expressive advantage by dint of a curious form of loyalty to community and fidelity to the novelist’s Irish origins? Perhaps the causes are debatable; but, in the end, grammar is simply not the point with McGahern - indeed, a certain recurrent degree of solecism in this respect is very much part of the expressive force of his writing even if the feeling grows upon the reader that it may also be the exponent of an expressive mask behind which a prefect grammarian may well lurk, pairing his fingernails in pretended indifference to the dictionary sense of English words and phrases. After all, he is not merely not English but emphatically not-English - as, indeed, was James Joyce before him.
 Elsewhere in the novel Jamesie says: ‘There are times when truth is the wrong thing’ (p.94.) This echoes Ruttledge’s rebuke of the plain-spoken Patrick when he says, ‘the truth isn’t always useful’ (p.75). Now, this is either a cause of thematic fixity - that is, emphasis by repetition in various quarters - or an error in the prosaic sense that the same idea - even the same ideolect - has been given to two quite different characters. What are the chances of any two characters or persons chattering philosophically about the practical value of truth in human affairs? As it falls on the page, this recurrence of idea and phrase has the effect of making one think that Jamesie is consciously - even ironically - echoing something that Patrick has previously said. It is possible, in fact, that Patrick told Jamesie what Ruttledge had said, or even that Patrick told John the moment of [the latter’s] laughing departure - viz., ‘there was a clear ring of laughter in the voices’ (p.85). If so, this speaks of the ‘news’ syndrome around the lake as a single web of thought and ideation in which all are connected - a conception which, in spite of obvious moral differences as between the ‘good’ Mary and the ‘bad’ John Quinn - tends to unify the community while conferring on it the ultimate character of a single personality. Otherwise - this hypothesis being discarded - we are looking at another type of novelist error.
 Ruttledge says, ‘Lies can walk while the truth stays grounded’ (p.94). In Standard English this might be taken to mean that someone or something has retained its equipose or balance and can consequently be relied on: it is rooted and fixed in terra firma. But Ruttledge's figure of speech plainly means something different: it means that lies get around but the truth is rarely heard, or remains only among those who know it at first-hand. An interesting idea - but what hyperborean sense of the word grounded is involved? It is certain that he means immobile, lacking the capacity to travel from mind to mind and hence to duly influence those who would hear the true account of things; yet grounded in the common parlance of today refers to the inability of planes to fly in bad weather and, by metaphorical application, a prohibition imposed on teenagers preventing them from going out in the evenings on account of bad behaviour. Perhaps it is intended to show that Roscommon Man misuses English in just such a way, or perhaps it is simply the author himself who has picked up the more metropolitan phrase and blithely misused it. It is certainly not his character Rutledge who, besides being an Englishman sheltering in the Irish countryside - while retaining his role as a long-distance publisher's agent - is, in fact, the nearest thing to a proxy for the author in the novel. If anyone in the novel should think or speak proper English, it is he.
  Similarly, phrases such as the one to be met with in the assertion that John Quinn - the serial-widower-divorcee-bully-rapist who embodies all that is worst in Irish mascho culture - ‘has no value on’ such-and-such a thing assumes a key position in the text through sheer repetition. It is a unifying device and a marker for the curious circularity of the events described, their constant ethical vibration, and their proximity to the moral path along which the novel’s narrative advances. Perhaps it is a leit-motif; the certainly epitomises the distinction between good and evil in what is, after all, a kind of morality play; yet, for all that, it always sounds like a malapropism - or, more exactly, a lexical barbarism where places on value on, or attaches no value to, or even sets no store in might be the standard English expression.
  Repeatedly off-key phrases are dashed down on the page: ‘spreading rumours and lies’ (p.96; cf. ‘He was always well able to swing the lies’, p.209) - and then, out of the blue, a homely epigram: ‘we are no more than a puff of wind out on the lake’ (p.115) or a plangent reflection on social and historical realities which have shaped the Irish world - as in several allusion to national school-teachers: ‘There were terrible beatings in the schools. Some of the teachers were savages’ (p.30), and ‘the savages we had for masters’ (p.110). And then suddenly, in places, the prose achieves an epiphanic clarity without in the least departing from simplicity of expression or the air of channelling what one or other character thinks in his or her own mind:

The flurry and excitement of the arrival died away. The brown hens returned to their pecking in the dirt, raising a yellow eye sideways from time to time to inspect with comic gravity the strangely crowded street. From within the house one of the clocks began to strike an earlier hour. A blackbird landed with a frenzied clatter in the hedge beside the hayshed. Completely alone and part from the crowd, Mary stood mutely gazing on her sone and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were not her own. Across her face thre seed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change. But how can time be gathered in and kissed? There was only flesh. (p.125.)

This is, of course, a signature statement - a reflection on time but also a clue to the profound, agnosticism, the spiritual nihilism, of the novel. In all of its transactions the conventional solace and security of traditional religion have been abstracted. The novel knows the score and, all said and done, the score with humans is not at all different more, nor more important in the natural order of things than with hens, or the other avians which populate the novel almost as importantly as its individualised characters. All are subject to the same processes of natural attrition - but especially the inexorable passage of time and its reluctance to make recompense for what it steals from us.
Sometimes, of course, the prose is deeply informed by literary allusion to the classic topoi where these things have been epiphanised before. Thus it is when Patrick Ryan teases Bill Evans, the abused child-grown-to-manhood and now approaching old age who was formerly sent out from an orphanage to work as one of the illiterate ‘homeboys’ sent - or sold - to work on farms. When Ryan speaks of dinners unavailable to Evans, the latter says, ‘Stop torturing me, Patrick’, in a crying tone.
It was the same unmistakable cry that had to be bowed to then as the silence in the car respected it now. Bill Evans could no more look forward than he could look back. He existed in a small closed circle of the present. Remembrance of things past and dreams of things to come were instruments of torture. (p.107.)
In writing thus, McGahern encapsulates his understanding of the treatment and condition of the marginalised and abused children whom the 1916 Proclamation vainly promised to cherish equally. His manner of doing so, moreover, entails a seemingly deliberate simplicity and directness of style but also a explicit - one might almost say a glaring - allusion to Marcel Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu in the title bestowed by Scott Montcrieff upon its classic English translation, a title which itself echoes a line in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. All of this is probably far from the consciousness of the characters but it is intrinsically akin, if not in fact constitutive of, the project of the author as an Irish man of letters. What is striking here, finally, is the oscillation between the English of the folk in Co. Roscommon and the English of the literati in the Bloomsbury circle. It is McGahern’s mission, in a sense, to unite these two, or at least in some sense to bind these two together. But it cannot be said that, in doing so, he achieves anything like an fluent and convincing stylistic amalgam.
 What he certainly achieves is an act of homage to a class of unremembered people - or people who would be unremembered in the classical scheme of things. Except that Irish country people enjoy a paradoxically illustrious position in the cultural scheme of things under the aegis of the Irish literary revival. They are, after all, the vessels of a kind of dialect-lyricism and anthropological poetry in the plays of W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and - most of all - John Millington Synge. They are the ’folk’ around which the folklore literature of modern Ireland, together with its high, more spiritualised, evolutions under the sign of literary Symbolisme, was constructed.
 It is for that reason, presumably, that when Johnny Murphy’s ruinous love for Anna (which leads him to leave farm and homeland for a wasted life as worker in the Ford factory at Dagenham) is explained in terms of her appearance in a local performance of Synge’s famous Playboy of the Western World Mary Ruttledge is allowed to say: ‘[...] it was terrible oold eejity stuff, [... especially when you’d compare it with what was happening under your eyes.’ (p.97.) Judiciously enough, Ruttledge is allowed to answer, ‘When it was new it had power enough to get people very exercised and excited’ (p.97) - a knowing reference to the so-called Playboy Riots at the Abbey Theatre in 1907. But the verdict of the novel seems to be that it does, indeed, miss the woof and warp of rural Irish society in the particular that it represents the Irish as forthright exponents of romantic ardour (‘It’s Pegeen Mike I’m seeing only, and what’d I care if you brouhght me a drift of chosen females [...]’ (italics sic, p.97).
  What, then, is the expressive norm of the community in Roscommon? Three-quarters of the way in to the novel, the author tells us in terms which lean in and out of indirect speech. The immediate topic is, what to do with Johnny now that he has come back to Roscommon - whether Jamesie and Lucy should take into their family home though ’Johnny and Lucy never got on’, a Jamesie tells Ruttledge in the course of his appeal to the latter for advice.
They could not live with him and they could not be seen - in their own eyes or in the eyes of others - to refuse him shelter or turn him away. The timid, gentle manners, based on a fragile interdependence, dealt in avoidances and obfuscations. Edges were softened, ways found round harsh realities. What was unspoken was often far more important than the words that were said. Confrontation was avoided whenever possible. These manners, open to exploitation by ruthless people, held all kinds of traps for the ignorant or unwary and could lead into entanglements that a more confident, forthright manner would have seen off at the very beginning. It was a laugnge that hadnt’t any simple way of saying no. (p.186.)
This is certainly an important deposition on the subject of Irish social and cultural life in the sense of lived experience - the real stuff of the novelist’s art. Arguably, the novelist misses a narrative beat when he interpolates a discursive observation of this sort, and the interrupted dialogue - as at several other points in the novel also - seems creaking when it is resumed with ‘after Jamesie had spoken’).
  Yet the passage is written in an intellectual idiom - very like McGahern’s own - which hovers between the rural manners it describes and a more standardised version of English speech, English decorum. Thus, when one reads of ‘the words that were said’, one feels how tenuously this is connected with the normal patterns of speech to be met with in ‘English’ novels. In English words are spoken, not said, while an emphasis on the verbal formula is likely to invoke the comparatively sophisticated modifier ‘actually said’ as in such a phrase as, what he actually said was ... - as distinct from what he might be thought to have meant or what other people might think that he intended to say.
 This leads us on into the area of cultural and linguistic epistemologies, or the truth-value of statements in a given language. Much of the inner drama of McGahern’s fiction is about those truth-values and the radically undependability of what people say in relation to what they mean, even in those cases where they actually know what they mean at all - which are not always in the majority. Such horizons of epistemological uncertainty seem to be part and parcel of the cultural patrimony of rural Ireland towards which McGahern has come to stand as a prose laureate. And in that sense, his works are monuments to the treachery of Irish-English as much as to the revelatory power of Anglo-Irish literature.
 All of this is subject to some shading of post-colonial theory which would compute the actualities of an imposed language and the traces of inferiority and superiority - including the Joycean sense of ’beating’ the colonist in his own tongue - which such a legacy implies. However, McGahern’s novel has another narrative thrust and another thematic focus and this centrally concerns to return to Ireland and Roscommon of Johnny who has been lost to emigration decades before. Once home, on this his last journey, Johnny dies of a heart-attack after the conclusion of a day in the companion of ever-kindly Ruttledge which he - Johnny - judges to have been ’a wonderful evening’ which not only ’helped round the whole day’ of his return, but made ’[e]verything completely alphabetical.’
  In the light of this daring and inspirational locution - doubtless intended as part of the hybrid vocabulary that Johnny has acquired in his long sojourn in Dagenham - it might be ventured in a somewhat more than a metaphorical sense that McGahern’s novel is concerned to make everything alphabetical - that is, to make everything okay after all that has been endured but also to transpose it into literature in the form of realistic homage and ethnological memorial for all that we have been and have become. But to write about this - in effect, the elegiac aspect of the novel - would be to move beyond the grammatical questions raised here and to engaged with the spirit of the novelist in a very conscious act of bringing down the curtain on his own fiction-writing career, a career in which he came to represent - and probably to see himself - as an embodiment of some central strand of Ireland’s cultural and spiritual reflection on its own existence in modern times.
 Patrick Crotty has said that John McGahern is not so much a political as a metaphysical novelist, and this is true; but it is also true that he has always written with a sense of reflection on the state of the nation - a function carried out in American by the chief executive and in Ireland by the leading writers. In his climactic version of that act of national summation, McGahern aimed at and attained the highest point. Like Johnny in Luke Henry’s pub, ‘each throw went home’ except one perhaps - and that one missed ‘by no more than the thickness of a wire.’ In this reading of the novel, the wire is the question of McGahern’s deviation not alone from standard English grammar but also from any entirely cogent version of phraseology in English - a deviation which is not always attributable to the dialectic variants of Co. Roscommon. For, if "put round the winter" is true to Roscommon parlance, ‘[only] one throw was missed’ is neither true to English nor Hiberno-English, but simply shows that, when dealing with passive grammatical formations to which he was peculiarly addicted - ‘I heard. Word was brought’ (p.276), says Patrick about the news of Johnny’s sudden death - John McGahern had an oddly tin ear. [BS Notebook / 10.08.2011.]
See further quotations from That They May Face the Rising Sun - infra.

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