Dear Mr McLaverty: The Literary Correspondence of John McGahern and Michael McLaverty 1959-1980. Edited by John Killen. Linen Hall Library, 2006. £9stg (€13.70). Order at www.linenhall.com or by calling 0044 28 9032 1707
Since John McGahern's death in March 2006, there has been a genuine outpouring of grief at the loss of one of the most significant Irish writers of the latter half of the 20th Century. Because he was acclaimed as a novelist of substance with the publication of Amongst Women in 1990, a status confirmed subsequently by That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) and Memoir (2005), it is easy to forget the problems he encountered with the censorship board in the 1960s, or his difficulties in gaining acceptance from the literary establishment in his country of birth. The publication of this correspondence with Michael McLaverty is revealing on many levels, but particularly with regard to the dark days at the beginning of McGahern's career.
The fact that Michael McLaverty was also a teacher-writer could explain McGahern's affinity with him. However, the empathy probably had more to do with the carefully-sculpted style employed by McLaverty, which struck an obvious chord with the emerging young Leitrim novelist. This correspondence, which deputy librarian John Killen spotted after manuscripts and letters of McLaverty's were donated to the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, in 2005, is an invaluable resource for anyone with even a passing interest in McGahern's literary evolution. McLaverty, the elder of the two, showed a deep appreciation of his acolyte's early literary production and offered him encouragement and sound advice. He had to be flattered by the first letter he received in January 1959, in which McGahern wrote: “I came across Truth in the Night when I was in the training college. I read it several times that month”. He added later in the same letter: “I believe that it is a great achievement for any man to state, even once, a measure of his experience truthfully. Your books have given me a better appreciation of life as well as their own pleasure.”
McGahern sought out writers who were able to capture in an authentic way their own little parcel of truth. In this he was an admirer of what Saul Bellow, in a letter to Philip Roth, described as “the ring of a real hammer on a real anvil”. McGahern found this ring of truth in the work of someone like Tomás Ó Criomhthain (The Islandman) or Ernie O'Malley (On Another Man's Wound) – and we can now safely add the name of McLaverty to that list. The latter took the liberty of recommending some reading to the younger man: Mary Lavin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Daniel Corkery. McGahern, in his reply, said that he had read them all apart from Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which he described as “the greatest of them all”. A connection had been forged and would continue intermittently for the next 20 years. The difficulty of combining a career in teaching with writing, problems with publishers, poor royalty cheques, unappreciative critics, the censorship board, comments on each other's newly-published work – all these elements are discussed. What emerges is a rich tapestry of the social history of the period.