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John McGahern: The Pornographer

While the title might put some people off – and, yes, while this book is to a certain extent about pornography à la Bad Sex Award – it is ultimately about relationships. Our unnamed narrator is a professional pornographer. He works for a man called Maloney, a former journalist colleague who has now become a soft core pornography entrepreneur. His job is to write soft-core pornographic stories for Maloney’s publications. During the novel he writes several stories about the adventures of the Colonel and his secretary/lover, Mavis, and we do get excerpts from these stories. He is not particularly happy about the job but nor does he feel any shame or regret about it, not least because he can do it in his own time and at his own pace. But this is only a relatively minor aspect of his life.

At the beginning of the novel he is visiting his aunt, who had brought him up, who is dying of cancer. He continues to visit her during the novel, bringing her brandy to dull the pain (she is reluctant to take the pills provided by the hospital) and also spending time with his uncle, his aunt’s brother. Early in the book, he goes to a dance where he meets Mary, a single woman eight years his senior (he is thirty). She has had sex just once in her life, the previous year, with a famous man (she doesn’t say who) and lives with her extended family. They soon start having sex but don’t use contraception, as she says that it is safe. She falls in love with him. He definitely is not in love with her and makes that very clear to her. He confirms this when she does, of course, get pregnant. What is he to do? He discusses it with Maloney and with a doctor friend, who has the pregnancy test carried out, as well as with Mary. She does not want an abortion. She wants to get married, arguing that as they are both good people, things will work out. He admits that he is prepared to marry her but will later leave her, when she has the baby. Meanwhile, he is looking for a way out. That way out seems to come, when an old friend of hers, an older man married to a woman who has mental problems, comes to visit her and takes her back to London to live in his basement flat. The narrator hopes that the man will marry her and, indeed, that is what the man, a well-off publisher, wants. When the man’s wife kills herself, it seems much easier. But, of course, it doesn’t work out. In the meantime, the narrator starts dating one of his aunt’s nurses.

McGahern leaves us with no happy, easy endings, as life all too often does not have happy, easy endings. But his tale is superbly well told, heightened by the comparison with Maloney’s pornographic writings and career, and the life of his aunt and her husband, Cyril, who never visits her in hospital. As an examination of a relationship that is unbalanced, accidental and doomed to failure, it is a first-class novel and one that put McGahern at the forefront of Irish writing.

Publishing history

First published in 1979 by Faber & Faber