Goldstein and attention
John McGahern

A bit of a gap

At my school, the last three weeks or so of the term that's just died are dominated by mock exams for the final year GCSE and A Level groups — and therefore, for us, the teachers, by marking. Hence, in part, my silence. This last week (the start of our holiday), I have been absorbed in things literary: John Burnside came and read for us a few weeks back, and then I wanted to finish his new book, the memoir about his father, A Lie About My Father, before he read from the book at the end of the Oxford Literary Festival (event 136, yesterday).

This is a great book and one that exhausted me: for all the difference between our backgrounds, there is enough in common between my father and John's for the effect to be both illuminating and draining. Blake Morrison reviewed John's book well in the Guardian, but it's to Hilary Mantel in the LRB that I keep going back:

The book ends as it begins, with Halloween, or rather in the light of the day following, as the writer leads his small son along the quay of a small Scottish fishing town on the east coast. We see that this is the child for whom the phantom of fatherhood must be raised. The writer leaves us with a final sharp picture of the man of lies whom the book has transfigured into truth. He sees him, on a distant night, standing on the edge of woodland; white shirt visible against the dark, a cigarette in his hand, he is captured in a moment which holds, on an indrawn breath, all the events and non-events of his life, all that happened and all that ever could. He did not want to die in public, but that was his unheroic fate: collapsing at the Silver Band Club, on his way to the cigarette machine. An ordinary man with an ordinary death, a nameless man with thoughts that few would care to name, he is now one of the ‘spirits’ who ‘feed our imaginations’. To move from the interiority of this memoir back to what passes for ordinary life is like surfacing from under the sea, reshaped by its strong and unforgiving currents. It is a book by a master of language, pushing language to do what it can. Fastidious, supple and unsparing, it is a book about lies that is more true than you can say.

It was a great pleasure to hear John and to have so many friends together: Tim, Colin and Molly, Olly and Ben, Karl, Mark and Georgie … Like that evening when John read at Radley, a couple of weeks back, this one wound up in the wee hours.

The day before, Karl and I had gone to hear Tim talk (event 97; capacity audience) about his latest book, What is the Point of Being a Christian?, and yesterday afternoon we'd taken in Tsotsi, a profoundly moving film — the book of which I'd read over two decades ago. (See also this Guardian piece.)

Tonight, I had the chance to read John's as yet unpublished sequence of poems centred on/inspired by Saint-Nazaire (which he read at Radley a few weeks back). My head is full of these beautiful, resonant poems — annunciation, tradition (Eliot!), the 'actually loved and known' …

On Molly's recommendation, I've just ordered Keeping Mum and am about to start on Memoir — and then news tonight that John McGahern has died. A bit of a gap.

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