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The Virginia Quarterly Review
Sunday, June 18th, 2006
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All Will Be Well: A Memoir

by John McGahern

An Irish Upbringing

A review by Floyd Skloot

Irish novelist and short story writer John McGahern faces a daunting challenge when writing a memoir: "[It] is impossible to know oneself, since we cannot see ourselves as we are seen." Further, he acknowledges that "it may be almost as difficult to understand those close to us, whether that closeness be of enmity or love or their fluctuating tides." Almost, but not quite: understanding others is, at least, not impossible. Yet now, at seventy-one and urged on by his siblings, liberated by his father's death, living again along the same lanes where he spent his traumatic childhood, and facing his own mortality, McGahern feels compelled to write a memoir, to see and know himself despite his doubts about being able to do so.

McGahern's approach as a memoirist is further complicated by the fact that his fiction has almost always been highly autobiographical. He has said it all before: the rural Irish childhood with seven siblings in County Leitrim; the brutal policeman-father and kind teacher-mother; the mother's early death from cancer, the son's wild grief, and the father's ongoing bitterness, ongoing savagery; the son's subsequent battles with his father and efforts both to protect his siblings and to escape; the discovery of literature and writing; the return many years later to settle in the same landscape where he grew up.

Full of doubts about the possibilities of self-knowledge, having seldom as a writer strayed far from the core material that constitutes the memoir, McGahern makes the only choice he must have seen open to him. He raids the fiction. Vast sections of All Will Be Well, often with nearly identical wording, appeared in McGahern's fiction -- the son hiding in the outhouse to escape a beating, the son meeting with a priest to discuss educational opportunities and the father's efforts to sabotage them, family life in the police barracks. The memoir is more than familiar to a McGahern reader; it presents the same settings, same characters, the same events, sometimes almost scene by scene, all told in the same lyrical prose laced with fury which defines his fiction. As a result -- to be expected from a writer convinced he cannot know himself -- All Will Be Well is ultimately a memoir that sheds more light on the fiction than the man, giving readers a sense of confirmation that, indeed, these awful things McGahern always wrote about were true-to-life.

None of this makes All Will Be Well a failure as a memoir, especially for a reader new to McGahern. Neither does the fact that it is a hesitant, sometimes repetitive, misshapen book, with the first two-thirds of its 289 pages devoted to the first ten years of his life and the remainder a rushed summation of the next sixty-one years. "This is the story of my upbringing," he writes late in the book, having recognized its odd proportions, "the people who brought me up, my parents and those around them, in their time and landscape. My own separate life, in so far as any life is separate, I detailed only to show how the journey out of that landscape became the return to those lanes and small fields and hedges and lakes under the Iron Mountains."

McGahern's writing about his childhood is deeply disturbing and deeply moving. There is a grace and elegance, a genuine poetry to his presentation of rural life and its rhythms, to the time he spent with his beloved mother, and to his connection with various aunts or uncles. When he discovers reading and study as a teenager -- the world of books -- he writes tenderly of the boy he was: "Now I had the heady feeling that my life was gathering like cupped rainfall in my own hands."

But there is such savagery in his time with his father, who is presented as unrelentingly dangerous and dominating, who beat the children so viciously that his police colleagues occasionally had to interfere. One daughter lapsed into a protracted state of catatonia; all learned how to placate and dodge, how to stick together. "All our energies," he says, "were concentrated on surviving under our father. We learned to read his moods and to send out warnings in an instant so that we could vanish." After their mother died, lacking any buffer, "we were in disarray. We had no defense against the sudden rages, the beatings, the punishments, the constant scoldings."

McGahern is given to pronouncements, resonant and hard-won. "A child can become infected with unhappiness," he says. "Though children are seldom fair, they have a passion for fairness. In their need of certainty in an uncertain world, they demand that all promises be kept." When he generalizes about children in distress, he speaks with grave authority. So too when he speaks of a dying parent, having spent months alone with his mother as cancer destroyed her: "[T]hose who are dying are marked not only by themselves but by the world they are losing."

Sad and mournful, especially as it remembers the mother, All Will Be Well is also, understandably, an angry, often ferocious book. As it progresses, and as the scenes of abuse are presented without significant shades of difference, its details tend to proliferate rather than penetrate. McGahern seems to be building up an elaborate case against his father, to be settling the score by incorporating as many instances as he can, even though the point has already and devastatingly been made. He is a more rigorous fiction writer than memoirist, especially in the novels -- The Barracks (1963), The Dark (1965), Amongst Women (1990) -- that deal most fully with his childhood.

"All true stories," McGahern says, "are essentially the same story in the same way as they are different: they reflect the laws of life in both its sameness and its endless variations." With so many memoirs covering a subject similar to McGahern's -- abuse and family dysfunction, childhood misery and the thrill of escape -- All Will Be Well risks being just another account of mistreatment, an Angela's Ashes from Leitrim instead of Limerick, an Irish Bastard Out of Carolina.

The quality of McGahern's writing and the vividness of its scenes lift his book from the ordinary. So does his ultimate return home, an intriguing variation on the usual theme of escape. McGahern left Ireland and his family situation for several years -- for two marriages and a successful literary career -- and then returned, mature and sufficiently balanced, to live in the very landscape where his awful childhood took place. "My relationship with these lanes and fields extended back to the very beginning of my life," he says, emphasizing the way in which he has embraced his past. All of it.

"In certain rare moments over the years while walking these lanes I have come into an extraordinary sense of security, a deep peace, in which I feel that I can live forever. I suspect it is no more than the actual lane and the lost lane becoming one for a moment in an intensity of feeling, but without the usual attendants of pain and loss." Given what happened there, this is an astonishing, impressive achievement, one made possible by McGahern's repeated imaginative engagements with his past, and made convincing by the aptly titled All Will Be Well.

McGahern may feel that he cannot know himself, but he does know his own story cold -- the events he lived through, the things he witnessed -- and he knows his landscape as well. This enables him to put together, in memoir, a composite picture that adds up to a believable likeness of himself after all.

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