The Discovery of Truth: Mary Lavin’s Short Fiction
With the closing date for the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year Award at the Bord Gais Energy Book Awards drawing close, Elke D’hoker discusses her new book Mary Lavin (Irish Academic Press). To celebrate the centenary of Mary Lavin’s birth, this collection honours one of the leading figures of the Irish short story tradition.
In an interview with Maurice Harmon, Mary Lavin once said “I write short stories because I believe in the form as a powerful medium for the discovery of truth; the short story aims at a particle of truth. I like its discipline, its combination of experience, imagination and technique”. The short story, which Lavin on another occasion described as “an arrow in flight”, was indeed Lavin’s preferred artistic form. She published thirteen story collections between 1942 and 1985 as well as two novels – “bad novels”, as she called them, although that is no doubt too harsh a judgment. Many of her stories were also published in literary magazines, most famously perhaps in The New Yorker, with which she had a ‘first reading agreement’ for over a decade.
Although Lavin herself had become a prominent literary figure in Dublin in the late 1960s, the setting of her stories is mostly that of a rural Ireland, with villages and small towns, often modelled on the town of Athenry, where her mother came from. Lavin herself lived in the town for a year when her mother – and later, her father – returned from Boston to make a new life in Ireland. This move had a profound impact on the nine-year-old girl and Lavin said about it later, “an abrupt change of continent such as I had when I came to Ireland from America, could awaken one’s awareness. The first eight or nine months in Athenry made a profound visual impression on me. For many years I almost always placed my characters in Athenry. When I thought of a human situation, I seemed to see it enacted in the streets of that little town and often in my grandmother’s house, where I had lived.”
At the same time, this mid-twentieth century provincial Irish setting acquires a peculiar timeless quality in her fiction. As Colm Tóibín puts it in the foreword to Mary Lavin, hers is “an Ireland normalised as calm background, rather than an alarming Ireland”. The absence of revolutionary politics, anti-clerical sentiments or nationalist concerns in her fiction sets Lavin apart from her contemporaries, most notably Frank O’Connor, who wrote about her work, “an Irishman, reading the stories of Mary Lavin, is actually more at loss than a foreigner would be”. Lavin’s failure to fit the mould of the mid-century Irish short story may also explain the comparative neglect of her work in Irish literary histories and criticism – a neglect which this essay-collection hopes to rectify. Yet, the timeless and universal quality of her fiction is also what makes it exceptionally readable and enjoyable today.
The “particle of truth” Lavin seeks to convey in her fiction is mostly one of human character. Her stories zoom in on individuals, marked by their context and character, who try – and often fail – to carve out a fulfilling life. With a remarkable clarity and insight, Lavin reveals their hopes and fears, the decisions they made and the opportunities they missed. Above all, she evokes the network of relations they are embedded in, with parents and children, brothers and sisters, partners and loved ones.
In her so-called widow-stories, written after the early and unexpected death of her husband in 1954, she movingly writes of loss and longing, of loneliness and new desire. In stories such as ‘Miss Holland’, ‘A Memory’, and ‘A Single Lady’, she investigates the arid lives of spinsters who have forsaken love out of decorum, familial duty or lack of initiative, while in stories such as ‘A Family Likeness’ and ‘A Cup of Tea’ she candidly dissects the often fraught relation between mothers and daughters.
Although Lavin is perhaps best-known for the variety, depth and complexity of her characters, her portrayal of male characters too is marked by sensitivity and understanding, as Heather Ingman perceptively argues in her essay for Mary Lavin. About her male and female characters alike, Lavin’s stories ask the question ‘is this a happy life?’ – a question she explicitly addressed in one of her most famous stories, ‘Happiness’. In that story, and arguably throughout her oeuvre, happiness seems to reside in a difficult mixture of self-centeredness and responsibility: a defiant struggle to live life to the full – without too many worries about ‘what the people will say’ – balanced by an intense sense of responsibility and care for family and friends.
To judge by the semi-autobiographical story ‘Happiness’, and perhaps even more by the warm and generous accounts of Lavin by her daughters, friends and fellow-writers, Lavin’s life most probably was a happy and fulfilled one. It certainly was a busy and often difficult one, too. In an interview, she said about this, “a writer who does not accept responsibilities in life is trying to make it easy on himself. But I didn’t want to make life easy on myself; I wanted to write well and live well, and trying to do that made my life very rich and rewarding”.
As a widow with three small children – her youngest was only one year old when her husband died – Lavin struggled to combine her writing with the care for her children and the upkeep of the family farm. And although she often made light of the difficulties in interviews, arguing “There just didn’t seem to be any difference between cooking a dinner or writing a story. No one thing I did was sharply differentiated from any other; the important thing was that, to me, they were all one”, stories such as ‘The Becker Wives’, ‘Eterna’ or ‘Villa Violetta’ do express the tension she must at times have felt between her work as an artist and her identity as a mother.
Lavin also didn’t make it easy on herself by the constant, almost compulsive, rewriting of her stories, even after they were published. In a letter to her New Yorker editor, she wrote “You know I always am a bit sceptical of writers who claim to do fifty versions of a story etc, although I do about ten or fifteen sometimes, but I know that although a diabolic compulsion makes me often rewrite the entire story, the actual change is often a small one. And I do suffer from a need oftentimes to perfect the bit I am going to scrap. It’s like a tailor—a crazy tailor-sitting cross-legged hemming the bits of cloth he has cut away from the pattern.” Still, it is probably through this painstaking process of revising and condensing that Lavin achieved the moving and powerful clarity that marks her best stories. As Colm Tóibín puts it, “part of the power in her fiction comes from what has been left out”.
In his foreword to Mary Lavin, Tóibín also recalls asking Mary Lavin what she herself read and she said “she enjoyed literary criticism because it kept her mind engaged”. While this collection of critical essays on Mary Lavin’s work is primarily addressed to readers, students and scholars of Lavin’s fiction, its attention to matters of style, writing, autobiographical context and aesthetics in Lavin’s work may in a similar sense also prove useful or inspirational for other writers.
(c) Elke D’hoker
Elke D’hoker is a lecturer in English and Irish literature at the University of Leuven, Belgium. She is the author of Visions of Alterity: Representation in the Works of John Banville (Rodopi, 2004) and has co-edited Unreliable Narration in the Twentieth-Century First-Person Novel (De Gruyter, 2008), Women Writers. New Critical Perspectives (Lang, 2011) and The Irish Short Story: Traditions and Trends (Lang, forthcoming). Articles on modern and contemporary fiction, women’s writing, narrative theory and gender studies have appeared in journals such as Irish University Review, Critique, Modern Fiction Studies, Journal of Narrative Theory, Contemporary Literature, and Irish Studies Review. Her current research project deals with the contribution of women writers to the genre of the short story in Ireland.