I’ve just been re-reading John McGahern’s masterly short stories. I love his novels too but perhaps his writing personality gets its most distinctive expression in the short stories. They look so disarmingly simple at first glance – little fragments of daily stuff: a stroll down Grafton Street, a job in a cattle market, a policeman who’s a Gaelic football hero. But at work inside those shapes of ordinary life are the forces which make it mysterious, terrifying, joyous. There’s no effort to make the outward arc of the stories neat or smart or clever: their cohesion is organic, from the inside. One of things that fascinates me is how McGahern isn’t afraid of repetition, of the themes and the patterns of words which come round again and again: the savage father and his tyrannical, twisted bullying; the pattern of a walk by a lake, which becomes beautiful by being returned to, over and over. Over and over, in one story, birds in the dark fly into the centre of a lake. A lesser writer would have put a premium on originality, making the pattern different each time. McGahern knows its power is in its recurring.
I’ve been re-reading Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples, too. Because I’ve just written down that thought about McGahern, it occurs to me that she loves repetition too: she celebrates the dense web of accumulated life in a small community in Mississippi, where the same story-elements come round again and again, handled smooth by being re-told, re-enacted. Everyone knows about everyone else, and that’s both wonderful and terrible; some of her protagonists, the brave and troubled ones, long to get away. If they do get away, then the trouble is that life outside of Morgana may seem too thin to them, not satisfying: they dream of home. Welty’s sentences are thick with sensuality, with the physicality of people. Her expression is ambitious and daring, she experiments; McGahern is more austere. I think that comes partly from the different eras they were writing in. The frisson of late high modernism in Welty, her fantastic southern gothic, couldn’t work thirty years later in an Ireland whose writers – some of them – seem to have needed to make a prose as lucid as plain water. As a reader, you can just love both things, the extravagance and the plainness. As a writer, you have to find out which you need, which expression is the right and natural expression for what you have to tell.
Tessa Hadley has written five novels including The London Train and Clever Girl, and two collections of short stories: Sunstroke and Married Love. She publishes stories regularly in the New Yorker, reviews for the London Review of Books and the Guardian, and is a Professor at Bath Spa University.