Sunday, March 21, 2010

`Our Task Is Not to Solve Enigmas'

“There were many good secondhand bookshops, especially along the quays. One book barrow on a corner of Henry Street was extraordinary. Most of the books the barrow carried would now be described as modern classics. How the unusual Mr. Kelly acquired them we never asked. We assumed he stole them. Books were discussed and argued about around the barrow...”

That the remainder of this paragraph is devoted to the sexual and other moral machinations of Mr. Kelly – “…he observed no contradiction once his self-interest or pleasure came into play.” – will surprise no reader of John McGahern, a writer for whom the bookish and human are mortally twinned. Every workmanlike writer of fiction, especially short fiction, is eventually likened to Chekhov, seldom with justice. McGahern is indelibly his own man, writing a pared-down lapidary prose while extending the line of luminous realism pioneered by Chekhov and refined by the Joyce of Dubliners and the Leopold Bloom-centered heart of Ulysses. He is the less comic cousin of our own J.F. Powers. Roger Boylan nicely writes in tribute to McGahern, who died almost four years ago, on March 30, 2006:

“He never overwhelmed; he was unsparingly spare, even austere, more of a word-painter, adding a daub here, wiping away a stroke there, than a word-musician orchestrating vast themes. His language is luminous; he was a Vermeer of words.”

Of all the painters I know, the Dutch master is closest in spirit to the Irish master. In Still Life with a Bridle, Zbigniew Herbert includes “Letter,” an essay in the form of an imaginary letter written by Vermeer to his friend Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the Delft lens grinder, inventor of the microscope and pioneering microbiologist. Herbert has Vermeer question van Leeuwenhoek’s reductive approach to science, verging on pure materialism. The painter writes:

“Our task is not to solve enigmas, but to be aware of them, to bow our heads before them and also to prepare the eyes for never-ending delight and wonder.”

This is close to McGahern’s vision, though the “never-ending delight and wonder” may seem less in evidence. A writer of sophisticated realism renders enigmas – that is, human hearts and minds – without presuming to solve them like differential equations. They are not reducible to simpler forms.

The passage quoted at the top of this post is from McGahern’s memoir All Will Be Well (2005). “The Barrow” would make a fine name for a book-minded blog, and you have my permission to use it.

[On the back cover of the first American edition of Flann O’Brien’s final novel The Dalkey Archive (1965), under the rubric “If you enjoy Irish fiction, we recommend:” are listed books by Walter Macken, Mary Lavin, Michael McLaverty – and John McGahern, his first novel, The Barracks (1963).]

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