Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Pornographer by John McGahern - Book Club Review

At long last the Book Club Review of 'The Pornographer' and I can tell you it was a very interesting night with many conflicting views which is what makes the whole reviewing process so intriguing, not least of which because we all are willing to do it again next month.  John McGahern's novel 'The Pornographer' of course had the added value of people feeling embarrassed reading it on the bus for fear that the wrong understanding would be taken from their choice of reading material, or wondering after they googled it at work, would someone take them to task about searching unsuitable material.  I suppose in a way this put the novel in context of how brave it was at the time of publication, that all these years on in our world of political correctness that even the choice of title is not for the fainthearted.

Really glad to have read it.  Can’t for the life of me understand why all the woman are throwing themselves at Michael.  He’s a depressive, cynical bastard who is trendy in youth and a pain in the ass when aged.  He and his country relatives drink like fishes.  Josephine is fantastic.  She, for me is the triumph of then novel – the self righteous martyrdom, the old style Catholicism is captured beautifully in her; the way she chases him, tries to corner him, the scheming, her sentences, the Oh boy, Oh boy phrase – I can feel her, touch her, see her.  I know a hundred people like her, mostly aged, but not all.  Every character is perfectly drawn except Maloney.  For me he remained a caricature, sketched in black and white upon the page with no blood pulsing through him. I think the plot was genius.  McGahern took the oldest story in the book and made it fresh by doing two things – writing it from the absconding male perspective and making Michael a pornographer.  It’s a very tightly crafted novel with one of the straightest plot lines I have ever read.  Everything is clearly foreshadowed.  There are no surprises.  Indeed that for me was the surprise.  I kept expecting some twist but there was none.  But for all that the pages turned themselves.  It might not have been a totally enjoyable read because of the pervading disenchantment which only the character of the second nurse escaped, but it was riveting and every sentence was beautifully written.  Indeed the perfection of every line, the capturing if every scene so that I could almost be an invisible presence, drove me to such maddening envy that I almost felt like flinging the book and telling myself it did not read with such sublime ease, really.  Let me just say before I go that I loved the anger in the book but I hated his bloody philosophy, his moralising.  As they say, once a teacher, always a teacher.  Also, I am not sure I would recommend this book to anyone except the oddest person.  This is due to its central thesis of the damn pointlessness of it all, the merry-go-round of life. 

The Pornographer is a brave, admirable book, but its austere aesthetic left me cold. For me, its attack on all forms of Irish 'greyness' wasn't enough to override the fact that the book itself is as drab and grey as the times it critiques.  I can see that it is a necessary book - a novel about the stifled and warped national imagination and sexuality of our past helps us understand where we have come from, but I feel that McGahern's own imagination and nerve fails him - this is a very narrow, parochial book. This is my own personal preference - I would have liked some more of the visionary power McGahern displays in his final novel and in his memoir. I think The Pornographer could have been pushed much further.

The Pornographer drew me in. Unsympathetic characters, in a depressing era, yet utterly compelling. This contradiction just serves to demonstrate the skill of McGahern's writing. Read this book, you may not enjoy it, but it will be hard not to be fascinated.

I read it quite a while ago, the book had left a long lasting impression of superb writing on an interesting and well crafted journey.  One I'd keep in the keepers section, especially for the shock value of the title, but also because John McGahern is always good company.

I really liked the main character Michael.  He provoked strong feelings in our group - others didn’t like him - and that made for great debate and discussion.  To me he was like a classical hero on a sort of archetypal journey with as many or more moments of blindness as there were moments of insight.  After great disappointment in love he was determined to be the prodigal son, to keep his emotions under control, to be direct, to keep things uncomplicated and simple – which is, of course, impossible. McGahern set him up wickedly when he created Josephine.  She looked great but 'boy' was she mercilessly, relentlessly vapid.  Far from keeping his emotions in check Michael grew to almost hate Jospehine. The novel had very black moments.  Michael revisited his and Josephines 'conception' scene on the Shannon by bringing his steamy fictitious characters Colonel and Mavis there and having them commit a heinous act of non consensual sex. His publisher Maloney was also a sobering, underworld, shadowy, hopeless sort of character.  But there were beautiful relationship moments in the novel too and there was was hope for Michael in the end.  McGahern gave him some beautifully poetic insights - which I'm not sure I entirely believed him capable of. I would have like to read more about this character.  I think McGahern is great and wish he had left us more than six novels.

The Pornographer was a very readable novel. McGahern has a knack for telling a story, however the protagonist had too many faults and no redeeming qualities. So, although the pace and plot would keep a reader involved, the book just falls short of good.


The Pornographer is beautifully written, and McGahern's ability as an engaging storyteller and brilliant writer is undoubted.  He has the ability to make the most ordinary of things intriguing in their simple truth.  For me it was a page turner and one with a lot of merit.  Also it was an important novel as McGahern took risks to expose a society that may have been lost with the onset of years, an Ireland that could easily be forgotten, but one that in many ways has formed our society of today and from which we should draws many lessons.  The fact that the novel was written from a male perspective, and written with such raw truth, gave me an insight into character creation that was refreshing in it's unique honesty.  Plus we found love, like the relationship between the main character and his Uncle, that was beautiful in it's own way and surprising because of the subtlety of the writing.  All in all, I am glad I read this book, and have learned much from it. 


  1. Ooh, thank you for that. I haven't read, but I'm going to now. Cheers to all the reviewers.

  2. I'll watch for it, based on that review. I think I'm odd enough.

  3. Good on ye all, a book worth a read, and Kat glad you think you are odd enough, normal people scare me!!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...