Not What Richard Did

by John Harvey

I’d just walked out, after twenty long minutes, of a film at the Renoir – a well-reviewed Irish film, What Richard Did, self-consciously concerned, it seemed to me, with a bunch of shallow young people I cared nothing for – when I changed direction on the way to the bus stop in order to stop off at Judd Books on Marchmont Street, a good second-hand shop that specialises in Art and Film and Music, as well as fiction.

After picking up and putting down Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever several times – interesting, certainly, seemingly well-researched and written, but 770 pages … – it didn’t take me long to settle on a couple of nicely dressed American paperbacks… a John McGahern called By The Lake, that somehow I’d never read, and a collection of short stories by Colm Toibin, The Empty Family, that I failed to recognise.

When I got home and leafed through the books, I realised not only had I read them, I had them both already, there on the shelves. By The Lake was the American title for That They May Face The Rising Sun, probably my favourite McGahern novel, and the reason I hadn’t immediately recognised The Empty Family was that the order of the stories had been changed from the British edition, so coming face to face with Lady Gregory on the first page instead of the moon hanging glow over Texas, made me think this was something new.

The slight annoyance I felt soon passed. I had extra copies of two favourite books for less than the cost of one cinema ticket, and, of course, now I would read them again. Browse through them, at the very least.

The morning was clear. There was no wind on the lake. There was a great stillness. When the bells rang out for Mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves.

That’s how the McGahern begins.

I have come back here. I can look out and see the soft sky and the faint line of the horizon and the way the light changes over the sea. It is threatening rain. I can sit on this old high chair that I had shipped from a junk store on Market Street and watch the calmness of the sea against the misting sky.

So begins the title story in The Empty Family.

Albeit those strokes trembling on the water give me pause for thought – a small moment of over-writing? – both seem to me to be just about as perfect a way of beginning a story as one might find. And I’m only too pleased to have the occasion to read – and admire – them again. With any good luck, learn something too.