Book review: Love of the World: Essays

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by John McGahern Faber & Faber, 448pp, £20

JOHN McGahern, at the time of his death in 2006, was arguably Ireland's foremost writer. He carried his reputation lightly.

To catch a glimpse of him at home, the tonsured scribe hunched over his books at the scrubbed deal table in the kitchen of his farm in County Leitrim, was to see, as though in a vision from far away and long ago, the fleeting presence of a medieval monk attending the pages of an illuminated manuscript.

Riffle the pages of his books (including this one), and you taste the weeping rushes, the tang of the bog and, somewhere, a church bell chiming its ting across a lake, like a flaw in the wind, as though he had written it fresh that instant.

His work is immeasurably prized (especially his stories) by grateful readers who find in its rigour the gleam of genius. Love of the World is his last hurrah. Comprised as it is of bits and pieces never intended for publication as an entity, one might expect it to lie in shards. And yet it doesn't – because of the unity of its vision and the tenor of its voice.

"I write because I need to write. I write to see. Through words I see," McGahern spells out at the start of his single page reflection "Playing With Words". He tells us: "Through words I could experience my own life with more reality than ordinary living." He ponders reality once more, when he describes how the universal and the local live as one: "One room or town or locality can be made into an everywhere. The universal is the local, but with the walls taken away."

The collection's editor makes clear the sporadic nature of McGahern's non-fiction forays. Stanley Van Der Ziel points out the fluidity of a mind that seamlessly shifts from autobiography to travelogue to literary criticism, sometimes within the space of one paragraph. He arranges the book in six sections: "Writing and the World", "Places and People", "Autobiography, Society, History", "Literature", "Prefaces and Introductions" and "Reviews".

Whereas "Writing and the World" deals in abstractions, "Places and People" slides under the skin of real life lived. McGahern beguiles us into his favourite Irish pub; he goes on a spree in Galway City, and soon we're embarking on a marvellous evocation of Morocco during one of his rare travel assignments, the author taking the pulse of outlying vastness and serial poverty, not afraid to confess his discomfort.

In every instance McGahern's writing dissolves the local, disclosing a world full of implication and translucence. In the essay "County Leitrim: The Sky above Us" he writes with a documentarist's eye and a humorist's wryly detached affection: "Mohill is our town. In its plain way I think it beautiful ... the outskirts glistening with frost, the excitement on the faces of the people in from the countryside for the late Saturday-night shopping." He describes it as "one of the happiest towns in the world", thereby expressing his own simple happiness, something you rarely find so plain in the novels and stories.

The essays permit him to be opinionated, speaking out as he rarely did, about censorship (his second novel, The Dark, was banned in 1965 in the Irish Republic) and the Booker Prize (Amongst Women, his penultimate novel, made the shortlist in 1990). He is reticent and polite about those who insult him out of ignorance, yet he is principled, often critical of sectarianism in Ireland, north and south, unafraid to condemn the Catholic Church's demands for subservience from its flock or the state's repression of moral choice.

The essays on literature (a concept McGahern disliked) provide homages to writers he greatly admired or felt were unreasonably neglected: John William's novels Stoner and Augustus are held to the light and shown to shine. The now almost forgotten Forrest Reid is dusted off and presented anew in an amply generous appreciation and, vaunted supremely for his uniqueness, Alistair MacLeod is admired for his "every weighted sentence", "gentleness and sympathy" and "largeness of vision".

Here we return to the universal's covert love affair with the local, showcasing those qualities which McGahern not only held in the highest regard but also evinced. Love of the World is his final shutting of the window, his breath on the pane.