In AMERICA, sex is much easier than love. It can be enjoyed alone or with others; illustrated, easy-to-read books on sex techniques become best sellers; sexual partners are reasonably accessible to anyone with real determination. And, for the truly lazy, television, novels, movies and magazines offer numerous opportunities for vicarious or voyeuristic pleasure. Love, on the other hand, involves an emotional connection with someone else and, as a result, invites pain and failure. You love someone who doesn't love you or vice versa. Or one person is loved more, or less, than the other. John McGahern's new novel, The Pornographer, makes it clear that the Irish are not exempt from these failures of love.
The pornographer of the title is the book's unnamed 30-year-old narrator. He lives in an almost anonymous Dublin, where he churns out stories about the sexual adventures of Colonel Grimshaw and Mavis Carmichael for his editor, Maloney, an abrasive character who takes unapologetic delight in the miseries of others. The narrator, emotionally numb because of a recent and final rejection by someone he loved, meets a good-looking, 38-year-old woman at a dance bar. They wind up in bed together. The woman is a virgin once removed (having lost her virginity the year before) and completely inexperienced at affairs of the heart. She quotes her uncle as calling her Josephine. But McGahern keeps the two from ever addressing each other by name. Josephine and the narrator become involved and in a matter of weeks she falls in love with him.
When she tells him that she's pregnant and wants to get married, the narrator is plagued by "images that enmesh and fester round a life." Her dream-come-true is his "nightmare." He feels no love for her, only responsibility.
The other woman in the narrator's life is his (again nameless) aunt, a crusty, belligerent old woman with a taste for brandy and a distatse for death. For most of the novel, she is confined to the terminal cancer ward of the local hospital. Birth and death become the novel's crucial metaphors as the narrator shuttles back and forth between love-bed and death-bed. For a man comfortable with life in an emotional and moral void, and caught up in "the nothing that was the rest of our life" the narrator's confrontation with love, birth and death is especially demanding. That confrontation is the soul of McGahern's book.
McGahern is a poetic novelist. His writing combines ornate prose with a story that depends as much on the development of certain images and metaphors as on anything else. Sometimes the book's language seems overdone: "Will others be inflamed by the reading, if there is flesh to inflame, as I was by the poor writing? Is my flush the flesh of others, are my words to be their worlds?" But most of the time McGahern keeps his more heavy-handed tendencies under control. And every once in a while he lets loose with an aphorism or an image that hits home with impact: "People do not grow old. Age happens to us, like collisions, that is all"; "Nothing is worse than being stupid"; "The hearse was parked in front of the church gates, its carraige door raised like an open mouth."
McGahern writes in the tradition of English Romanticism. There are echoes of Blake ("energy is everything"), Keats ("We have to go inland, in the solitude that is both pain and joy"), and T. S. Eliot ("To find we had to lose: the road away became the road back"). His attraction to religious diction and spiritual motifs is a conspicuous feature of his work. And at times, the novel's techniques seem to contrived: pornographic characters with names sharing the book with "real" people who are nameless; a village with houses that, like the novel's characters, all stand "away from one another at angles and distances of irreconcilable disagreements."
The mix in this novel of allusion, symbolism and conventional technique may seem intrusive and uncongenial to American audiences. But McGahern rescues himself. He can create scenes of hard-edged, contemporary reality, as when the narrator tells Josephine the story of his lost love:
"We met much like we met -- like most of Ireland meets -- at a dance. We went casually out for a year. At first she did most of the running, and when she tired I took up the pursuit. It's usual enough pattern. The more I pushed myself on her the more tiresome I became to her, and that speeded up her withdrawal, which made her 10 times as attractive. I felt I couldn't live without her. Which made me 10 times as tiresome. I was ill, lovesick, mad. If she'd finished it then it might have been easier, but who knows. She kept the thing going, interested in my madness, which was after all about her, and we can all do with an awful lot of ourselves. I think it nearly turned into a farce in the end."
The Pornographer remains a philosophical, melancholy book throughout, although it offers a suggestion of redemption at the end. The narrator begins to reject "the road of reason," and with it, the safe and proper conduct with which he has armored himself. He thinks of proposing marriage to a young nurse he has met and moving back to the country.
But even with its optimistic finish, The Pornographer's real power finds its source in McGahern's ability to write movingly about failure. William James would have appreciated this novel. "Failure, then failure! so the world stamps us at every turn," James wrote in The Varities of Religious Experience. "We strew it with our blunders, our misdeeds, our lost opportunities, with all the memorials of our inadequacy . . . ."