Young John McGahern – Becoming a Novelist
Oxford University Press
1 March, 2012, paperback, November 2013

Excerpt: “Pleasure and Knowledge”

John McGahern was the most admired Irish novelist of the past fifty years. His accessible fiction won him a wide readership throughout Ireland, but the accomplishment of his craft ensured that he also became known as a writer’s writer. He set his novels in places he knew intimately-Dublin, London, and the West of Ireland, where he grew up-and became known for the intimacy and honesty of his mapping of home truths of Irish life. His first novel, The Barracks, was widely hailed as a classic on publication in 1963, and his later work, including Amongst Women and That They May Face the Rising Sun, and, indeed, Memoir, is built on the stylistic foundation of that novel.

This book explores a young man’s discovery of literature. McGahern’s youthful realization that books provide both intense pleasure and a spiritual lifeline towards a unique kind of knowledge matured in his twenties. Struggling to overcome desolating experiences in childhood, and abandoning conventional beliefs, he found his anchor in European literary classics. His discovery of how a powerful individual personality could be embedded in novels and stories inspired him. He became an impassioned reader of Proust, Tolstoy, and Flaubert as well as a select few local writers, the poet Patrick Kavanagh and the novelist Michael McLaverty, whose work more closely mirrored his own experience and aspirations.

Denis Sampson recreates McGahern’s personal and cultural circumstances in Dublin and London in the fifties and early sixties: his absorption of the lives and the work of classic writers; his shrewd observations of those he encountered; his definition of the kind of poetic writer he wished to become. He consider McGahern’s first efforts as an apprentice novelist and weaves the inner story of the writing of The Barracks in 1960-62 into a narrative of his imaginative formation.

This is an account of McGahern’s triumphant emergence from what he called ‘my years of training in the secret Dublin years’. In the decades that followed, whilst he experimented in styles and genres, the foundational aspects of his identity as a writer remained constant.


“A spell-binding account of an artist on the verge of greatness. Sensitive, vigilant and graceful, this recreation of McGahern’s early life and deep reading is a work in which imaginative audacity is chastened only by sound scholarly scruple.” – Declan Kiberd

“A scrupulous book, a distillation of thinking and reading that does McGahern and his work proud.  Densely rich, confident, lucid, readable, profound.” – Angela Bourke

‘Sampson complements and extends his earlier work with this richly detailed literary biography. . . .  The book painstakingly sheds light on what was passed over in Memoir; it is also a necessary complement to the recent non-fiction collection Love of the World. . . . [McGahern’s] reverence for Proust, Yeats, and Tolstoy is scrutinized with great expertise by Sampson, leaving the reader in little doubt that this is an important work of literary archeology and reconstruction.’ Richard Robinson, English

‘With this engaging biography, Sampson provides a valuable complement to McGahern’s own Memoir written at the end of his life.  Whereas Memoir is a family history, Sampson’s study portrays an emerging artist tracing his intellectual and literary formation from adolescence to when he honed an individual literary style while writing his first novel. . . . Highly recommended.’ J.S. Baggett, Choice

“Scrupulously researched by Sampson, with the few gaps ably patched with extrapolations from the author’s fiction, Young John McGahern is a serious study of a unique Irish talent’s journey from naivety to novelist … Sampson’s intense little volume offers the closest thing that thus far exists to a biography of this beloved writer. For that alone he has earned our attention and our respect.” – Val Nolan, Irish Examiner

“informative, well-researched … [an] absorbing compendium.” – Emer O’Kelly, Irish Sunday Independent

“Sampson’s undoubted enthusiasm for his subject, which is expressed in an engaging style, allied to the Oxford University Press imprint, makes this a significant addition to McGahern scholarship.” – Eamon Maher, Irish Times

“Denis Sampson’s new book is a timely reminder of why we should honour this fastidious chronicler of Irish society … it offers engrossing correspondences between the life of the budding writer and the prose fiction into which his experiences were transmuted.” – Irish Independent

“[a] sensitive and subtle exploration of McGahern’s upbringing” – The Scotsman

“Sampson is good on the array of literary influences that formed McGahern … There is excellent use of footnotes and McGahern enthusiasts will rejoice in this addition to the critical scholarship on his work.” – Lorraine Courtney, The Sunday Times

“[Sampson’s] particular skill as a reader, sensitive to ‘the intimate bond of memory and art’ (113) . . . emerges as the book’s principal strength. . . .  [His] critical sophistication and sensitivity to influence and intertextual reference are unparalleled, and the chapter in which he analyses ‘The End or the Beginning of Love’ reads particularly well.  . . .  As an account of literary development, Young John McGahern is forensic in its attention to detail; in its focus on ‘the secret Dublin years’, it also places McGahern in a cultural context other than the remote parochialism of most familiar works. In this, it is a timely contribution to McGahern studies.”  Irish Studies Review

‘Sampson’s new study brings aspects of literary Dublin in the fifties to life again, as it recounts McGahern’s days as a student at St Patrick’s Training College and at UCD at night. . . . McGahern’s education owed as much to the theatre and cinema as it did to formal instruction at colleges.’ Hugh McFadden, Books Ireland

‘Denis Sampson’s illuminating study treats the making of the novelist in terms of context, literary affinities and disposition.’ Patricia Craig, Times Literary Supplement