The Pornographer by John McGahern

“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?



Filed under Fiction, McGahern John

25 responses to “The Pornographer by John McGahern

  1. This is one of the McGahern’s I haven’t read — it is next in line. My impression from reviews (including this one) is that it is somewhat different from most in some aspects (the pornography and what results from that) while similar in others (the tension always present in family relationships). I appreciate your thoughts as I get ready to tackle it.

    • I’m glad you brought that up Kevin since you are a McGahern connoisseur. Going into the novel, I was a bit concerned that the plot would include religious pressure placed on Michael (my copy has a faceless figure in scarlet and a crucifix on the front). But the book didn’t take the simple way out, and while everyone has an opinion about what Michael should do, he goes his own way.

      The tension in the family is between Cyril (the aunt’s husband who can’t be bothered to visit his wife in the hospital) and her brother who lives with them (the uncle that visits the hospital with Michael). The aunt is the glue that holds the relationships together, and if she dies, then most of the tenuous relationships will disintergrate.

  2. I always meant to read McGahern and also have the one or the other here. I first read the title of the book of your post and then the author and was somewhat astonished to see the two together. Kevin does confirm my idea of Gahern’s work still it seems he explores themes he is known for in this novel as well.
    It does sound interesting in a way but I could imagine it might infuriate me to a certain extent. I have a huge problem that women getting “accidentally” pregnant ask a man to take responsibility. Why is the responsibility with the man, why was she not resposnsible to avoid it in the first place? It’s a cliché and a dilemma. I have seen it happen many times. I guess the power women have over men through the fact that they conceive is still largely underestimated.
    The discrepancy between the pornographer’s writing and his life are probably common for writers of many other genres. I wouldn’t want to know how many romance writers are divorced or facing divorce. It seems that in some cases it isn’t only the reader escaping into another world through writing but the writer as well.

    • I can see what you mean about it being cliched, but I’ll be honest and say that that never occurred to me. I could have found myself getting annoyed with the characters (Michael for being an idiot and walking into the situation & Josephine for thinking that she can make things happen by getting PG), but I didn’t get annoyed at all, and this is a compliment to McGahern’s talent, I think. He makes an everyday dilemma interesting and unique so that you want to read and find out what happens.

      If I had to make a judgement, I’d say that Michael saw many warning signs. He must have been reading the porn and its uncomplicated scenarios and thinking that life could be like that. It wasn’t.

  3. I confess I’ve had the same reaction as Caroline: how can a 38 year old woman get accidentally pregnant? Does she come from a covent and think children come from immaculate conception?
    But I trust you if you say it didn’t sound unrealistic.
    PS : is abortion still forbidden in Ireland?

  4. This is a bit of a spoiler but I don’t think it’s an accident at all. That’s just my opinion.

    As for the abortion question, according to wikipedia, it isn’t legal.

  5. leroyhunter

    No, it’s not legal in Ireland. In fact, it only recently (ie last 8-10 years) became legal to circulate information about abortion. It’s a divisive issue with a turbulent history of bitter campaigns based on various referenda that have been put forward to liberalise matters down the years. None have really succeeded and the legal consequences are still ambiguous and unsuitable.

    • I thought I remembered something like that. Maybe Brussels will put their nose into this one day. Or Luxembourg via the European Court of Justice, instead of being horrified by the discrimination between male and female drivers in France. (Insurance companies invoiced lower fees for women because they cause less expensive accidents. It’s been considered as a discrimination against men.)

      • leroyhunter

        I saw that insurance thing alright, bookaround.

        No, I don’t expect the EU to get involved, in fact abortion (and the potential legal/constitutional issues involved) became a significant, distracting and draining red herring in the referenda to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. Such was the furore about this (and a couple of other “1-off” issues) that specific (and I believe unnecessary) protocols had to be attached to the treaty guaranteeing the right of Irish courts and legislators alone to influence the situation.

        The anti-abortion groups here are extremely vocal and expert at creating “burning platforms” when it suits their agenda.

  6. leroyhunter

    Are you tempted by more McGahern, Guy? I didn’t get the sense you thought this was anything special.

    It’s probably not up there with his best but the style and the themes are strongly representative. I thought the ending (without giving anything away) was very strong.

    • Leroy: I liked it. I wasn’t wowed by it. But that said, it’s already growing as I move away from it. The characters were very well drawn I think. I’ve asked myself if it lacked something and I’ve decided yes. Perhaps it’s that we know what all these people do but not what they think so much (although they do act on their thoughts).

      Will I try another? Yes. I liked this one enough to take another plunge.

      • leroyhunter

        Fair comment Guy, he’s not a wow writer and I think his effects need to distill. Glad you’re interested in having another look.

        • When I pick a book from an author’s body of work, I know I tend to make a judgement about the rest of it. I suppose we all do. Some experiences are so negative, just the thought of another excursion with that author is sheer agony (and you couldn’t pay me to do it).

          I’ve really enjoyed some Queneau but then found others disappointing. I suppose I read a few I liked first before hitting one I disliked.

          In the case of McGahern, I felt a compatability–enough to try again.

  7. McGahern’s my favourite writer. This is the only one of his I haven’t read — I’ve been saving it up, because I don’t want to be in a position where I no longer have any McGahern novels left to read.

    I actually went on a McGahern pilgrimage last month, and visited Co Leitrim, where he was born and lived, and visited places that feature in his fiction, as well as seeing the library that is dedicated to him at Lough Rynn Castle Hotel.

    I’ve written about the library, but haven’t gotten around to posting about the rest of the trip yet…

  8. If I can be as bold as to suggest your next McGahern read, I would go with “The Barracks”. It was his debut novel and I’ve yet to read a book written by a man that feels so authentically female. For that alone, it deserves much praise.

  9. I’m still wondering where to start with McGahern and I’m not sure this is the best place. The Barracks might be more suitable, given it’s his first novel.

  10. I did recently review The Barracks — also have posted reviews on Amongst Women, The Dark and The Leavetaking. All four are good; Almongst Women would by my favorite McGahern so far, but The Barracks might be a better place to start.

  11. That’s two votes for The Barracks. I was a bit worried about that one because of the cancer issue but he handled it so well in The Pornographer, it should be alright. (I usually avoid books that deal with disease–unless I know it’s done well).

    Amongst Women, I have the DVD of that but haven’t got it yet.

  12. The DVD of Amongst Women is excellent, with the caveat that it does overlook some of the most powerful aspects of the novel. That is not meant as a criticism — there is only so much that can be put into a video version and overall I would say the director made wise choices.

  13. Una cunningham

    Going to a book club toinight and only began reading the book last night…feel bad as I think I will love it. Thanks for helpful comments..I am not going to bluff ie will fess up that I have not read but didn’t want to be really out of discussions!! interesting to read reviews and commentary before book -wonder will it effect my enjoyment? My friend knew author very well .Another had wedding in Lough Rinn and it was amazing the amount of people who took time out from wedding to read John McGahern;s wrok. Amongst Women seemed to be the favourite of most.

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