BOOKS: The Letters of John McGahern are a treasure trove from the master of putdowns

The Letters of John McGahern, edited by Frank Shovlin

I’m afraid I’m seldom kind when it comes to writing,’ he once confessed. In this collection of his letters, both the man and the writer come vibrantly alive, writes John Boland.

Such is Frank Shovlin’s remarkable scholarship throughout this 800-page collection of John McGahern’s letters that it is worth reading for its annotations alone.

When the novelist mentions in passing an upcoming football match in 1973, a footnote on the same page tells the reader that the game in question was a World Cup qualifier at Wembley between England and Poland, that it resulted in a scoreless draw, with England taking 36 unsuccessful shots at goal, and that it denied the home side a place at the 1974 tournament in West Germany.

There are similarly detailed and absorbing footnotes on every page, while the letters themselves are so compellingly readable that the book provides a treasure trove for anyone interested in the writer, the man, the cultural and social history of his times, or indeed the trials and tribulations of the literary life, including the blandishments and networking entailed in the publishing game: a “savage trade”, as he calls it at one point.

“Implacable courtesy” was McGahern’s advice to Seamus Heaney about dealing with the envy and resentment of other writers, and (like Heaney himself) he was always a courteous man — as well as charming and mischievous and great fun. But he was also a master of the devastating putdown and in my chats with him over the years he often delivered withering verdicts on others — indeed, I sometimes hesitated about leaving the room lest, in my temporary absence, I incur a similar fate.

 McGahern (3)

The banned writer John McGahern walks the lanes of lovely Leitrim with his dog.

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