“The nothing that we always learn when we sink to learn something of ourselves or life from a poor other–our own shameful shallowness.”
Kevin has been raving about the merits of Irish author John McGahern with such conviction that I could no longer stand the suspense, so I broke down and tried a novel for myself. The Pornographer appealed to me–no doubt because my mind is in the gutter, but there’s another reason too. I knew a pornographer. Before you get any big ideas, I’ll amend that. I knew the brother of a pornographer. He started off with the usual plans to take the literary world by storm but ended up writing smut under a false name and lying about his profession. So with this image in mind, I bought a copy of McGahern’s novel.
The pornographer under scrutiny is Michael, a thirty-year-old Irishman who juggles his fictional creations with an ugly, troubled reality. When the book begins, he’s on his way to visit his dying aunt in hospital. Cyril, the aunt’s drunken and selfish husband, refuses to visit, so the emotionally draining task falls to Michael and occasionally his aunt’s brother joins him. In a great deal of pain and suspicious of the pills given to her, Michael’s aunt turns instead to the bottles of brandy smuggled in by her dutiful nephew. The depressing visit to the hospital is fraught with awkward moments as both Michael and his uncle keep up the pretense that his aunt looks good and that she’s on the road to recovery, but after they leave his uncle breaks down:
He was diminished and silent as he came out, the raincoat over his arm, and as soon as we got a little way down the tarmacadam from the hospital he put his huge fists to his face and turned away. When I saw the body convulse with sobbing I moved across the road out of way of the traffic and started to move a white lawnblock about on the grass with my shoe as I waited.
There’s the sense that Michael’s life is in limbo. He’s still wounded from a broken love affair, lives in a small flat, and writes pornography built around the sexual escapades of balding Colonel Grimshaw and Mavis–a pair of fictional lovers whose energetic, creative, and numerous encounters are devoid of complications. A few passages reveal the gymnastic couplings of the middle-aged Casanova–a tireless man capable of endless erections and Mavis–a goer who’s always up for the next orgy
Michael’s drab personal life is in complete contrast to his pornographic stories–there’s no sex for one thing, but that all changes when he meets a thirty-eight-year-old spinster named Josephine. Although they have nothing in common, they begin a sexual relationship based on need and loneliness. Michael is brutally honest from the beginning, and he makes it clear that the relationship is not about love. He intends to keep the relationship uncomplicated–a replica of the sort of frequent copulation enjoyed by Grimshaw and Mavis, but when Josephine gets pregnant, she begins to demand more.
It’s easy to see this complication headed full speed at Michael, and yet he didn’t see it coming. Or did he choose to keep his head in the sand at a crucial moment? Michael believes in being brutally, stubbornly honest and not giving any cheap promises. Is he naive to think that Josephine will respond to that? Or is this drama the same age-old scenario played out millions of times in millions of ways between countless couples?
It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the untroubled couplings that take place between the fictional couple–Grimshaw and Mavis and the flesh-and-blood Michael and Josephine. I suspect that readers will draw their own moral conclusions from Michael’s dilemma. And it is a horrible dilemma. As events unfold, I felt pity for Josephine (and part of that pity is founded in her desperation and need), but I could also hear the trap slowly closing around Michael’s life.
Michael isn’t embarrassed about telling people about his dilemma, and some of the novel’s dry humour comes from Michael’s boss, Maloney, who finds it all very funny:
You’ve behaved stupidly, even by your own admission. You’ve got this woman in a frightful mess. In your conceit you refuse to marry her though she is a beauty, a far cry from your own appearance. And your bad behaviour and general situation is making us feel good. It’s making us all feel very good.
How can you ask such a question? Your behaviour has dropped the moral averages to zero overnight. It makes some of our own reprehensible past acts practically beatific. We’re disgusted with you.
The Pornographer deals smoothly with some big issues: death & responsibility. Michael behaves impeccably towards his aunt and in his tender treatment we see that he’s the most responsible male in his family. The novel takes that issue of responsibility and then asks at what point should an individual subsume himself to his responsibilities?