‘Gold Watch’ by John McGahern

“It was happiness such as I’d never known,” proclaims the narrator during this stunning story’s airy opening. He and an old girlfriend (unnamed throughout; “beautiful as ever”) have been reunited on a “lazy Saturday morning” in Dublin. The pair soon move into a flat. The narrator buys “fruit or wine or a bowl and, once, a copper pan”. They marry quietly – “two vergers as witnesses” – in a Franciscan church down by the quay. But romantic love – all bliss and ease and freedom – is very much a counterpoint here, a foil to the story’s real centre of gravity – the dismal, grinding pull of the narrator’s family home.

“‘And yet you keep going back to the old place?’
’That’s true. I have to face that now. That way I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel anything.’
I knew myself too well. There was more caution than any love or charity in my habitual going home.”

The meetings between father, son, and stepmother Rose, in the “old place” re-enact age-old psychological battles (this unhappy domestic triangle make strained appearances in other stories too). McGahern portrays – with a touch at once light and grave – each stage of the internecine struggle: the vituperative aggressions, the “false heartiness” of the truces, the doleful silent retreats. And the story’s final, remarkable scene – hinging upon the gift of a gold watch – sees the terrible, eerie transubstantiation of the father’s cruelty into both physical and symbolic form.  

First published in The New Yorker, 17 March 1980, and collected in High Ground and Other Stories, Faber & Faber, 1985, and Collected Stories, Faber & Faber, 2014

‘High Ground’ by John McGahern

The disconcerting ending of ‘High Ground’ exemplifies Moran the narrator’s uncertainty and indecision over whether or not he will take up Regan’s offer to contrive to install him as the school principal. There’s an open-endedness in the conclusion, yet a hint that the narrator will decline the offer. He prefers the objectivity of high ground, the kind of landscape he has observed Regan against as they talk and as he is able penetrate Regan’s motives. Moran sees the machinations of Regan, the local TD [equivalent of MP in the Irish Parliament – Ed.] from a distance, and will not deign to become entangled with them or local politics, although this is never made explicit. Here are the elements of many McGahern stories: land, quarrel, manliness personified in different ways; and, behind this, the difficulties of love and where it is found. I love McGahern’s writing, novel and stories, though I think he excels in the latter. I love the darkly strangeness, the physicality of the countryside, his delight in nature in all its form and the sheer musicality of his prose. It truly sings. He is a master of the form and one only continues to learn from him.

First published in The New Yorker, March 1982, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in High Ground and Other Stories, Faber, 1985, and Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories, Faber, 2006

‘Lavin’ by John McGahern

Lavin, an elderly blacksmith, ‘close to the poorhouse’, in a rural Irish backwater, where most of McGahern’s brilliant stories are set, is the local paedophile. He is taunted by the village kids, who are both frightened and fascinated by him. What’s most clever and disturbing about this story is that McGahern makes you sympathise with Lavin, who was once young and handsome but who had ‘taken no interest in girls though he could have had his pick’. You sympathise with a life wasted in hard work; as the narrator remembers ‘…hardly a day passes but a picture of Lavin comes to trouble me: it is of him when he was young, and, they said, handsome, gathering the scattered tools at nightfall in a clean wheatfield after the others had gone drinking or to change for the dances’.

(from The Collected Stories, Faber, 1992)