John McGahern’s prose

Listening to the repeat of and RTE Radio 1 programme about the life and work of the late John McGahern this morning, I actually heard the poet Seamus Heaney make the remark about McGahern’s prose that is always attributed to him:  

But, I always think of cello music when I think of McGahern.. he’s tuned to grief somewhere in his writing.

You can see what Heaney means even when you read short passages of McGahern prose – this one from his novel By the Lake is as good as any I can think of:

The days were quiet. They did not feel particularly quiet or happy but through them ran the sense, like an underground river, that there would come a time when these days would be looked back on as happiness, all that life could give of contentment and peace.

Here a piece of writing so carefully measured that you have to read it over and over to recognize imperceptible changes of emphasis – almost musical modulations – that deepen the readers (or listener’s) understanding of what is being said.

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