Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"The Beginning of an Idea" by John McGahern

"The Beginning of an Idea" by John McGahern (1978, 14 pages)

The Irish Quarter:  Year Two
A Celebration of the Irish Short Story
March 11 to July 1

Please consider participating in The Irish Quarter.   If you are interested all you need do is to post on an Irish short story or related work and let me know about it.  Guest posts are very welcome.   

Ireland is a land of literary giants.   Lots of people who have spent decades reading Irish literature have tried to explain how one small country could produce so many great writers.   This is not ancient history, it is as true now as when Yeats and Joyce were with us.   I already know there are at least 50 authors that would be considered national treasures in much bigger countries that are just seen as another writer in Ireland.  

John McGerahern (1934 to 2006, County Leitrim, Ireland) is best known for his classic novels, The Barracks, The Dark, and Amongst Women.   In 1992 a complete collection of his short stories was published.   William Trevor included McGerahern's "The Beginning of An Idea" in his anthology The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories (a wonderful book).   "The Beginning of An Idea" is a magnificent story, in a way a tribute to the master short story author, Anton Chekhov.   This is  a very sophisticated story with a brilliant structure.   It is the story of  Eva  Lindberg, a well know theatrical actress.    I think she is probably from St Petersburg, Russia though she might be living in Stockholm.   As the story opens we are in Russia wondering at first what the opening line means.   The story seems to be about an poverty stricken man and his son who have begged for some oysters, set in Russia.   Then we realize this is a part of a short story Eva Lindberg is trying to write.   We sit in at dinner in a fancy restaurant with Eva and the man whose mistress she has been for a long time.  It is not totally clear where the restaurant is located but Stockholm is a good guess.  (I Googled the name of the restaurant they ate at but this did not give me a clear answer).  It is for sure set after the Russian Revolution but before airplanes became the normal way for people of any affluence to travel between European cities.   Part of the story is set among Russian emigres in Paris.   I do not  wish to relay the plot in any detail.  Basically Eva is tried of her relationship with a man who will never marry her and never give her more than stolen time (and a good bit of money).   She aborted his child and is now trying to get him to give her a bigger apartment.    When this does not seem to have any future she tells the manager of the theater that at the end of the season she is going to quit the theater to become a writer.   She will live in Spain in the empty house of wealthy friends.

I do not want to relay more of the plot.   This story is, just as Frank O'Connor taught us, about deep loneliness.   Eva is very alone, she encounters others who are alone.   The story is very much about the nature of  European culture between the wars.   She loves Chekhov and took with her a set of his complete works (wonder if she would have them on an Ipad now?) and accepts some work as a translator of The Sea Gull.   The concluding events of the story are shocking, as much for the calm way Eva deals with them as anything else.

This is a great story very worthy of serious study. "The Beginning of an Idea" is a superb work of art.  If there were a Kindle edition of McGahern's short stories I would buy it now.  

Please share your experience with McGahern with us.

Free Listens posted on "The Wine Breath" by John Mcgahern for The Irish Quarter and has provided us with great insigthts and a link to a podcast of one of McGaher's story on The New Yorker fiction podcast

Mel u


Harvee said...

I'm not familiar with this writer or the Irish short story writers. But I have always enjoyed Irish and Welsh poetry.

@parridhlantern said...

another great introduction by what is fast becoming the motherlode of information of short story writing from Ireland. thanks

Séamus Duggan said...

McGahern is probably the greatest Irish writer of the second half of the Twentieth Century. I envy anyone who has yet to discover him.

Mel u said...

Harvee Lau-thanks very much for your comment and visit-

Parrish Lantern-thanks very much

Seamus Duggan-I so wish there were some Kindle editions of his work available-If this story is representative of his work I think I agree

Padrai gMac said...

Just read the story this afternoon, so went online to see what people have written about it. I agree it is a great tale. I think, however, that it is set in Helsinki - the name of her initial lover, Arvo, is a Finnish name. The restaurant, the Mannerheim, is probably named after Marshall Mannerheim, the Finnish military leader. McGahern's (first?) wife was Finnish also. Anna Lindberg, from the name, is probably Swedish or Finnish. not Russian