Peter Mair has been teaching comparative politics in a variety of different universities and countries for the past thirty years, and is currently based in Florence, at the European University Institute. He is one of the editors of the journal West European Politics, is co-editor of Political Parties and Electoral Change, and of The Enlarged European Union, and is co-author of Representative Government in Modern Europe, now in its fourth edition. In this essay, Peter writes about John McGahern's That They May Face the Rising Sun.
Peter Mair on That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern
John McGahern, who died recently at the age of 71, grew up in the county of Leitrim, and spent most of his working life there. Leitrim has always been one of the poorest counties in Ireland. It has a most beautiful landscape made up of low craggy mountains and small lakes and rivers, but it is grounded by a mean and sometimes unworkable soil. It is a long, meandering lamb-chop shaped county that runs from a small foothold on the western Atlantic coast - its coastline stretches for just four miles - to deep into the Irish midlands. I grew up in Sligo, the county next door, which was at once more populous, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan. W.B. Yeats spent his childhood in Sligo, and it was also the home of his friend Constance Markievicz, née Gore-Booth, who in 1918 became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons - although as a Sinn Fein MP she never took her seat in Westminster. Part of Leitrim has usually been joined to Sligo to form one of the forty-odd multi-member Dáil constituencies, but that is not the part of the county where McGahern lived. His end of Leitrim was joined to Roscommon for electoral purposes, and this also helped put his world beyond my ken when growing up. But even though I don't know the particular villages and townlands where McGahern roamed and which he describes in such loving detail in his writings, I could recognize the contours of his landscape, and I found familiar the culture which he depicts. For me, he was always more than just an Irish writer, he was also a local writer. Like Yeats could be.
Not long before he died, McGahern completed a short volume of autobiography, Memoir, which was published to great critical acclaim in 2005. It is a strange and moving book in which he records the very deep and still emotional love he held for his mother, who died when he was a relatively young boy, as well as the hostility and sometimes even the fear which marked his and his siblings' relationship with his widowed police-officer father - an authoritarian and sometimes violent man who lived with the children in the local Gárda barracks. The details and the reality in this autobiography were new to his readers, and were sometimes also shocking in the intensity with which they were related, but the basic emotions and the circumstances have been familiar since the publication of The Barracks (1963), his famous first novel, and The Dark (1965), his second, which was banned in Ireland and which led to his dismissal from his teaching post. One way or another, most of his fiction has been autobiographical, culminating in Amongst Women (1990), his most successful novel to date, and the basis of a popular television mini-series.
His last novel was the awkwardly titled That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002), or By the Lake in the American edition. It is his best book. It tells the story, if such it is, of a year in the life of a small Leitrim community, from a summer to a summer, in which nothing much happens, as days pass and seasons pass, as people come and go, and as relationships between friends and neighbours ebb and flow. There is no great need or rush, as one of the characters remarks at the end of the book. But while nothing much out of the ordinary happens, you find when reading it that you become wholly absorbed in these lives and in this community.
Ostensibly, the story is about Joe and Kate Ruttledge who have left their careers in London and returned to Leitrim to settle on a small farm beside a lake. But we learn almost nothing about Joe and Kate themselves, apart from about their hospitality, and their readiness to welcome even casual visitors with tea, whisky and sandwiches. Instead, we learn of the community and its stories as seen through their eyes, both being good observers and good listeners. And we learn about the lake, and the birds and the animals that live around it, and the country lanes and the hedgerows and the flowers and the plants. And, as in Memoir, we learn about them again and again, since McGahern is particularly fond of lulling his readers through constant repetitions and refrains. This should be a boring book. In fact, it's enthralling. It is how McGahern could write and see the world once he had finally exorcised the ghosts of his childhood in Amongst Women. There is little sense of anger, anxiety or fear in this book. Instead, there is a great sense of peace and harmony. There is also a wonderful sense of optimism. In Memoir, in 2005, McGahern recalled the long slow walks that he made with his mother down the narrow country lanes, and notes how unchanged they had remained, even into the early years of the Celtic Tiger and the new prosperity.
The very poorness of the soil saved these fields when old hedges and great trees were being levelled throughout Europe for factory farming, and, amazingly, amid unrelenting change, these fields have hardly changed at all since I ran and played and worked in them as a boy.In That They May Face the Rising Sun Ruttledge and his wife also walk these lanes, and in this case the shifts in the seasons are also lovingly marked - as are the signs of the death and rebirth in nature which have always so entranced McGahern and which now allow most human anxieties to fade into insignificance.
In the earlier novels, as well as in many of his wonderful short stories, the anxieties and concerns of the principal protagonists tended to overwhelm everything else. There is always a great sense of place in McGahern's fiction - he is a local writer - but it is usually as background to the more human and often interior drama that is driving the fiction. This is no longer the case in That They May Face the Rising Sun. The tone, for once, is calm, relaxed and confident, and the narrator is able to appreciate both the people and the places which surround him. Life is enjoyed for what it is rather than for what it might be. It is in this sense that the book is wonderfully optimistic and life-affirming. As he concluded in Memoir...
... the best of life is lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything.But precisely because it is seen through the ever-changing, constantly recurring prism of the nature by the lake, life is also something that comes and goes, and need not be regretted or mourned.
The puzzle of the awkward-sounding title of the novel becomes clear at the end, when Ruttledge and his neighbours help to 'lay out' the body of a local man who had spent many years working unhappily in England, and who had died during one of his return visits home. They then also help dig the grave, and are reminded that the head must be placed to the west, 'so that when he wakes he may face the rising sun'. The knowledgeable neighbour who explains this adds that in this way 'we look to the resurrection of the dead'. Ruttledge and Kate, who explains at the beginning of the novel that her parents were atheists - 'they thought that all that exists is what you see, all that you are is what you think and appear to be' – seem to find their hope instead in the everyday resurrection of the rising sun. As he put it in Memoir, 'those who are dying are marked not only by themselves but by the world they are losing'.
Unlike most of McGahern's earlier fiction, That They May Face the Rising Sun deals in the first place with the world in which we live, and only later with the particular lives that are led within that world. It is this which helps to make it one the most life-affirming books that I have ever read.