Blog Tribute #1, Reading Matters: The Leavetaking, by John McGahern

Mid-November to mid-January tends to be my period for “catch up” reading. With various prize competitions finished and very few new releases on the horizon, it is a time to finally get to all those books that have hit the radar during the year and been put aside due to more pressing demands. When I looked at that pile this year, it came with another observation: Almost all the books at the top of the pile had come to my attention from the blogging world. KevinfromCanada did not exist as a blog at this time last year, but I was an active commentor on a number of blogs that I found informative — indeed, I eventually started this one because I was getting embarrassed by the increasingly lengthy posts I was putting up on other people’s blogs.

So as KfC approaches its first anniversary — and the 2009 “catch up” season begins — I’ve opted for a mini-project. It is a tribute to some of the bloggers whom I followed before I got into this most enjoyable hobby and will feature novels that came to my attention through their thoughts and comments. First up is Reading Matters, the literary blog of kimbofo, an ex-pat Australian, a journalist based in London (tweet, tweet — and that is not a reference to Twitter) and a frequent visitor to Ireland (it is amazing what love does when it comes to travel). She lives in a constricted flat in that wonderful city (space is a major issue for any devoted reader in London and kimbofo certainly shares her challenges — the picture above is her recently posted TBR pile), so that makes her my current expert on matters ranging from the West End to Kensington and even Bloomsbury, since she visits there often — they are important literary neighborhoods, so that is no mean recommendation. I appreciate that expertise very much (please, kimbofo, could you find the shop where Henry James purchased “the golden bowl”? — I know it is near Great Russell Street). If you don’t already know, kimbofo is also the blogging world’s leading expert — and advocate — of John McGahern, the outstanding Irish novelist who died just three years ago. I’d always been reluctant to try McGahern (he seemed just too Irish by description); it was kimbofo on her blog and in comments at John Self’s The Asylum who convinced me he deserved attention. I started with his best known work — Amongst Women — and loved it (you can find my review here and kimbofo’s here). I resolved to read more.

Purchased from the Book Depository

The Leavetaking is one of McGahern’s lesser-known works. While all of his novels have strong autobiographical components (his mother died of cancer when he was young, his father was a brute — those two elements are almost always present), this novel, first published in 1974, includes another element. Just as McGahern lost his job as a teacher in a mess of Irish Catholic politics, Moran, the central character of this book, is about to lose his. Moran’s “crime”? While taking a year sabatical in London, he fell in love with and married an American divorcee — that means he is living in sin in the eyes of the church and cannot teach school.

While that may be the framing event for the narrative, The Leavetaking comes in two very distinct parts. We know from page one that Moran is facing his last day as a teacher and it has sparked a train of memories, starting with the day the Master hired him:

“Should we have a drink to celebrate?” I asked and his face fell: fear that he had just hired a drunkard. His finger searched to his lapel, “I must have left my pin in the other suit,” he explained in confusion.

“I didn’t mean in a pub,” I quickly corrected. “An orange or a lemonade in a sweet shop.”

“That’s an idea,” he relaxed in relief.

We passed The Yacht as if it was a house of shame.

“Young teachers should stay clear of the pub. There can be too much free time in the profession. I’ve seen too many in my day come to grief on the high stool,” he advised as we reached a sweet shop and stood for a few minutes beside a pile of Sunday papers drinking lemonade from bottles through pale straws, but my appointment was now secure. It was all of nine years ago.

As Moran begins contemplating his “leavetaking” from the school, his mind goes back to another leavetaking — his relationship with his mother and her early death:

We chant the prayer before work. They take out their books. Mechanically I begin the lesson of the afternoon but I have no desire to bend to its arid discipline today of all days, if indeed I ever had. I’d never have been a teacher, I see clearly, but for my mother. Her dead world comes to life in my mind as I drift away from the classroom and out of this last day in it on a tide of memory.

“Who do you love most in the world?” my mother used often to ask me in the evenings.

“You, mother,” I answered in that dead June evening.

“That’s not right. You know who you love most.”

“You, my mother.”

I was not raised a Catholic but even I know the youthful Moran has got the answer wrong:

To get her love I’d have to trot out the catechism answers that I hated.

“God,” I said.

“And after God?”

“Mary, my mother in Heaven.”

“And after Mary?”

“You, mother.”

“No, you know that’s wrong.”

“I love my earthly mother and father and brother and sisters equally.” I resented then having to affirm what I did not feel.

The rest of the first half of the book is devoted to Moran’s memory of that relationship (his mother wanted him to be a priest but teaching was entirely acceptable as “the second priesthood”). Like McGahern’s own mother, Moran’s has a difficult relationship with her husband, again like McGahern’s father, a member of the Garda who comes home from the barracks only occasionally, usually to father another child. Moran’s leavetaking of his mother is one of the more poignant that can be found in fiction.

The second half of the book is much faster-paced, less introspective and quite a bit easier to read. It tells the story of Moran’s year in London, how he came to fall in love and how he returned to Ireland, in the full knowledge that his unChurched marriage would eventually lead to his dismissal. It shares with part one an inevitability that is reflected in the title of the novel: everything that we do will eventually result in a leavetaking. McGahern rewrote this section of the book a decade after it originally appeared: “The more I saw of it the more sure I was that it had to be changed. The crudity I was attempting to portray, the irredeemable imprisonment of the beloved in reportage, had itself become blatant.” I haven’t read the original version, but this rewritten one is anything but “crude” or “blatant” — there is not a lot of anger or even emotion to Moran’s reaction to his unfortunate circumstances, rather there is a certain weariness about what must be, however unfair that is.

For me, The Leavetaking is not as complete or accomplished a novel as Amongst Women — it lacks the depth of story and characterization that that book has. Yet when you know McGahern’s own story and how closely this book parallels it, this becomes an important book. It is an author’s clear-eyed and unforgiving look at a version of his own history and it is told with a muted passion that can only be admired.

Thanks, kimbofo. Without you, I would never have read McGahern — and I am glad that I have now moved two books into the project. Interested visitor’s can find reviews of all of his novels but one (kimbofo is reluctant to finish her reading of McGahern) at Reading Matters.

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6 Responses to “Blog Tribute #1, Reading Matters: The Leavetaking, by John McGahern”

  1. Isabel Says:

    Will it really be a year since you started the blog? Wow! congrats.

    I am happy that you started. You have introduced books to me that I would have never heard of.

    Enjoy your hibernation time.

  2. kimbofo Says:

    Oh, thank-you, Kevin, I’m flattered. Mind you, I’m not really an authority on McGahern, more an “enthusiast”. I’ve just received a magnificent volume of his essays courtesy of Faber & Faber, and can’t wait to see whether his non-fiction is as wonderful as his fiction.

    Am pleased to see you appreciated The Leavetaking.

  3. Kerry Says:

    I have not read McGahern, but now he goes on the list of authors I must read. The passages you quote remind me, somehow, of William Maxwell (an author you turned me on to). The intimate family moments, the intimate mother-son moment particularly, I think, is the connection.

    I really like this concept, Kevin. The execution of Tribute #1 is outstanding. If possible, I am now looking forward to your coming posts with greater anticipation than before.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: You can’t proclaim yourself an expert, but I can — and you are (and by all means call youself an “enthusiast” — a very un”McGahern term, if I might be permitted).

    Kerry: Quite right on the Maxwell comparison, although McGahern is bleaker and, beneath the surface, angrier. He is definitely a serious reader’s novelist and I don’t think you will be disappointed when you read him. Were I you, I would save Amongst Women for down the road — in some ways I am sorry that I read it first, but I have every intention of reading it again.

  5. Gavin Says:

    One of my favorite authors ever since I read By The Lake. Thank you for writing about him.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gavin: You are ahead of me with By The Lake, but I will get to it eventually.

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