Tag Archives: John McGahern

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

John McGahern is another great Irish writer. Or to put it another way – John McGahern is great writer. That They May Face the Rising Sun was his last novel, published in 2002. John McGahern (1934 – 2006) wrote 6 novels, numerous short stories and radio plays and a memoir, called Memoir. That They May Face the Rising Sun was the Irish Novel of the Year in 2003. Its title in the US is By The Lake.

If you haven’t yet read his novels I urge you to start now.

270 That they

The Story

In beautiful slow prose, That They May Face the Rising Sun follows a rural community over one year, through the farming activities and social lives of the small group of men and women. John McGahern once said that ‘the ordinary fascinates me’, and that ‘the ordinary is the most precious thing in life’. He writes about the ordinary in a way that is deeply moving.

Joe and Kate Ruttledge have come to live on a smallholding near the lake. They had met and married in London where they worked together in an advertising agency. Joe is connected to the place through his childhood and his uncle, the Shah. In a series of scenes the reader meets their neighbours. With Jamsie and his wife Mary they share a friendship and smallholding activities. Jamsie is very newsie (a gossip I guess). Bill Evans was badly treated as an orphan and more or less given into slavery, which he eventually escapes. He is traumatised and unable to manage any idea of the past or the future. The people who know him care for him and provide him with a limited number of smokes and drinks. Then there is John Quinn, who loves women, and is brazen about his conquests, and abusive too. Patrick Ryan is the ever-absent builder. The Shah despite being unable to read or write has made a fortune for himself. He never speaks to his manager, but sells the business to him when he retires, lending him the money to do it and carrying on working there. He is something of a wise uncle to Joe, but also depends upon his nephew to make sense of the world and his negotiations with it. There are cats and dogs and a heron

The narrative emerges through a number of scenes in the year. It opens with Jonny’s annual visit from England (where so many went in the 70s, including John McGahern), and concludes with his death the following year and a moving description of the community that assembles to do the right thing at his death. Throughout this novel neighbours share tasks, do favours, tell stories, drink together and eat sandwiches. It’s peaceable, atmospheric, slow and very moving.

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The style

The nature writing is also wonderful, describing what you see in a rural setting as the year follows its cycle.

September and October were lovely months, the summer ended, winter not yet in. The cattle and sheep were still out on grass, the leaves turning.

The little vetch pods on the bank turned black. Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes. The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed. Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot. Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar. For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean. Jamsie arrived with sacks of vegetables and was given whatever he would take in return. (191)

I love the way the domestic activities of the inhabitants of the lakeshore are included in this description.

Many of the scenes are carried forward through the dialogue, which catches the humour and pain of the neighbours. Irish history is present through recollections of the characters, none so vivid as the ambush by the Tans of a group of republicans from Jamsie’s past. And so we learn on p255 the fearful origin of Jamsie’s characteristic greeting first heard on the opening page: ‘Hel-lo … hel-lo … hel-lo.’ Such details link the scenes over and over.

For a taste of the dialogue, here is an early excerpt, when Bill Evans, much abused and exploited on the farm where he lives, calls in hungry at the Ruttledge house. Joe tells him,

‘You’re welcome to anything in the house but there isn’t even bread. I was waiting till tonight to go to the village.’

‘Haven’t you spuds?’

‘Plenty.’ He hadn’t thought of them as an offering.

‘Quick, Joe. Put them on.’

A pot of water was set to boil. The potatoes were washed. ‘How many?’

‘More. More.’

His eyes glittered on the pot as he waited, willing them to a boil. Fourteen potatoes were put into the pot. He ate all of them, even the skins, with salt and butter, and emptied the large jug of milk. ‘God, I feel all roly-poly now,’ he said with deep contentment as he moved back to the ease of the white rocking chair. ‘Do you have any fags?’ (10)

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern, published by Faber & Faber in 2002. 314 pp

Here are two other recommended books by John McGahern: The Barracks (1963), Amongst Women (1990).

The Barracks by John McGahern

This is a much earlier novel, published in 1963. It is set in an Irish Garda Barracks just after the Second World War. Elizabeth is married to the sergeant, and the novel follows her decline through cancer into death, as she wonders about her life, its meaning purpose and pleasures. The novel ends as it began in the kitchen, with the stepchildren, but she is no longer with them.

There are some acute observations about how people behave in groups, how people relate badly to each other, how people live intimate lives without any connection. In common with That They May Face the Rising Sun, its sense of place is acute. He describes the seasons in the village, the people, their concerns, the rituals of the church with deep knowledge and affection.

The Barracks by John McGahern published by Faber & Faber in 1963.

Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990)

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Moran was once a feared IRA fighter in the 1920s, but the story concerns his attempt to defend himself in the 50s and 60s when Ireland and the troubles are history. His relationship with his family and the way in which he communicates with his daughters are the themes of this novel. Moran is a fierce and mistaken old man, proud, strict, with clear principles, but unsociable … what a character sketch. We have little of description, but as with The Barracks a small world is brilliantly evoked.

Amongst Women was no 97 on the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list. It was published by Faber & Faber in 1990.


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Stoner by John Williams

What is a good life? This question stalks my reading, of fiction about older women, of feminist texts and of last year’s surprise success – Stoner by John Williams. I had read references to it in the end of year lists, and it was especially endorsed by Julian Barnes in the Guardian Review in December 2013. I was also drawn to it by its academic setting, having been employed for the last 20 years in a university.

85 Stoner cover

This is not a novel that made an immediate impact, for it was first published in the US in 1965, and in the UK in 1973. Even today it is apparently more popular in Europe than in the US. I don’t know what made it become a word of mouth success last year, but it did. In his piece Julian Barnes describes how the introduction by John McGahern led him to the opening page and then how he was drawn in.

… And the prose was clean and quiet. And the first page led to the second and then what happened was that joyful internal word-of-mouth that sends a reader hurrying from one page to the next; which in turn leads to external word-of-mouth, the pressing of the book on friends, the ordering and sending of copies.

The narrative follows William Stoner entering the new University of Missouri at 19 to his death, at the age of 64 when he was an assistant professor of English Literature in the same university. His career, we are warned in the opening paragraph, was unremarkable and he was held ‘in no particular esteem’ by his colleagues. Why, then is his life the subject of a novel of nearly 300 pages?

In some ways one might perceive Stoner’s life as a slow accumulation of failure and disappointment. In the closing pages of the novel, Stoner is lying on his deathbed and considers his life.

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that … He had wanted singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. (p285)

He considers his career in teaching, mostly he concedes as an indifferent one. And he asks himself repeatedly, ‘What did you expect?’ And the reader must ask this question, about the novel and about life.

Despite the apparent failure, (and we need to stress the appearance of failure, as Stoner does in the first sentence of the extract above) he has managed a life that is sad, but good. By relating Stoner’s life from boyhood to death in ‘clean and quiet prose’, Williams reveals its small actions, or inactions, all performed from a sense of integrity. His marriage is loveless and gives very little to either of them, and for much of their life together they can hardly be said to share anything. Even their daughter grows up to escape them through an early pregnancy and then alcoholism. She goes to live far away. Stoner’s career is overshadowed by a long feud with Lomax, who becomes his head of department, and they don’t talk for years. Lomax is vindictive, which Stoner accedes to (class schedules) for years until he finds a way to rebel. The breakdown in their relationship occurred because Stoner doubted the competence of a student favoured by Lomax.

He falls in love with a young woman, it is reciprocated and for less than a year he experienced love, companionship and delight with Katherine. Their behaviour was unacceptable in the 1950s, and they part. Their separation marks the end of Stoner’s only happy period.

And he becomes a teacher. He himself was overcome with the importance of English Literature when as an undergraduate he was exposed to Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet. Since that moment he has immersed himself in teaching the subject. For me, this was the weakest element of the book – not the moment of revelation, which leaves Stoner silent, unable to breathe or speak. But we get no sense of his classes, his relationship with his students, the pleasures he derived from teaching. We are told on the first page that ‘very few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses’.

John Williams

John William’s writing is spare and even. He is able to provide insights into his character’s behaviour without flourish. Here, for example, is Stoner’s wife Edith. She is not a bad woman, but she was brought up in a way that did not encourage a decent relationship.

Her moral training, both at the schools she attended and at home, was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other part of her education, which received most of its energy from the recessive and unspoken moral force. She learned that she would have duties toward her husband and family and that she must fulfil them. (p54)

I think that just about sums up the moral education of young women for millennia, and why it has been so important to oppose it.

John Williams is very good a portraying awkwardness between people – Stoner and his parents, who hardly ever speak, with his wife and his head of department. I wished he had had the courage or the beliefs that would allow him to take on his wife as she manoeuvred him about the house as if he was an inconvenient piece of furniture. The prose is spare, never racy or dramatic, reminding me of John McGahern’s novels and also of James Salter’s All that Is. These writers are also skilled at retelling the lives of men who lived in difficult circumstances – not so far removed from our own experiences – and for whom everyday activities and concerns add up to decent lives.

In addition to Julian Barnes’ piece, I also recommend this review on the Vulpes Libris blog.


Have you read Stoner? How did you respond to it?


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