The Reader Takes Up from where the Writer Leaves

John McGahern discusses his life and art, with his memoirs having been recently published:

‘I never felt a victim,’ he says, calmly. ‘To be a victim is a failure of intelligence. One becomes responsible for one’s own life, however difficult that life may be.’ He closes his eyes, as if trying to catch a thought that is hovering on the edge of his consciousness, then says something that sheds fresh light on all his writing. ‘No matter what happens to you, no matter how depressing the material, if it becomes depressing to write, or indeed, to read, it’s no good. I firmly believe that unless the thing is understood it’s useless, and that the understanding of it is a kind of joy. It’s liberating.’

In autobiography, as in fiction, McGahern adheres closely to Flaubert’s guiding ethos that the writer should ‘be present everywhere, but not visible, like God in nature’. I ask him if writing about his life was a more difficult process than writing a novel. ‘It was certainly a different process, much quicker, but the difficulty always is in getting the words right. In fiction, the most powerful weapon the writer has is suggestion. I think that nearly all good writing is suggestion, and all bad writing is statement. Statement kills off the reader’s imagination. With suggestion, the reader takes up from where the writer leaves off. A memoir is tricky because one was itching to alter it so that it conforms to a certain vision, but one is stuck with what happened.’

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