Denis sampson

How McGahern triumphed over grim circumstances

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott
In a tribute he wrote about the Presentation Brothers who ran his secondary school in Carrick-on-Shannon, the late writer John McGahern said: "I look back on those five years as an adventure that has not stopped."

He recalled that without realizing it, "through the pleasures of the mind, I was beginning to know and to love the world."

"These were the years when he gained intellectual 'tools'," writes Denis Sampson, the author of a new study about McGahern, "and performed exceptionally well in examinations, ending with the top results in County Roscommon in his Leaving Certificate so that he won a scholarship to university and was also 'called to training' as primary teacher."

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In "Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist" (Oxford University Press, hardcover, $45), Samson said he posed the question: "How did a young man living in Dublin in the 1950s enter the mind and heart of a middle aged-woman dying of cancer and write a classic novel, 'The Barracks', in such a mature style?

"How did McGahern learn his art so early and so completely? To answer these mysterious questions,” he said, “I tell the story of his personal and cultural circumstances in Dublin and London, draw on letters and apprentice writing, but most of all investigate his reading of Proust, Yeats, Beckett, Tolstoy and others. He became a supreme writer through being an intensely focused reader.”

Sampson, who has worked as a teacher and writer in Montreal since the 1970s and now divides his time between Canada and Ireland, said: "This is a book about the power of reading and of personal triumph over grim circumstances."

Denis Sampson

Date of birth: March 28, 1948

Place of birth: Limerick

Spouse: Gabrielle Kelly

Children: Conor, Robert, Anna

Residence: Montreal and Kilkenny

Published works: "Outstaring Nature's Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern" (1993); "Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist" (1998); "Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist" (2012), Etc. (academic articles and editing; memoir/travel essays and book reviewing for newspapers and literary reviews).

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

Morning, a rested mind and body, a quiet house; whenever possible, a short nap and have another morning.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Appreciate how style and personality are connected. Develop a voice that is clear, confident and passionate about the subject and the chosen method of approaching it. Communicate with an audience beyond yourself and your friends.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

V.S. Naipaul's "Finding the Centre" and "The Enigma of Arrival"; Eamon Grennan's "'What Light There Is' and other poems”; J.M Coetzee's "Boyhood: A Memoir."

What book are you currently reading?

Laurent Binet's "HHhH" and V.S. Naipaul's "Between Father and Son: Family Letters."

Is there a book you wish you had written?

W.G. Sebald's "The Emigrants," "The Rings of Saturn" etc., or, on another day, in another mood, Colm Toibin's "The Master."

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

George O'Brien's "The Village of Longing," not just for the power of its vivid evocation of an Irish childhood in the '50s but for its design as a narrative.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?


What book changed your life?

"A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (in secondary school, discovery of the idea of liberation); McGahern's "The Leavetaking' (as a young man now settling in Montreal, discovery of the writer whom I will soon meet and write about in appreciation all my life); James Olney, "Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography" (in early middle age, discovery of memoir genre, discovery of Montaigne). And change goes on.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

Dunmore East and thereabouts, that is: Woodstown beach and cliff walk to Portally Cove, although Kilkenny for everyday living.

You're Irish if . . . You want to be.