Maurice Harmon on Mary Lavin, in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1996)

Details: Maurice Harmon, ‘A Bouquet for Mary’ [on Mary Lavin], in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1996), pp.4-5; p.5.

Mary Lavin holds a commanding position as a short story writer, nationally and internationally, a position all the more likely to endure because it has not been dependent on political and social developments in Ireland or on international literary trends. Her career began in 1938 when she turned over the pages of her Ph.D. thesis on Virginia Woolf, wrote the story “Miss Holland”, and published it in Dublin Magazine. In the following year she had a story in the Atlantic Monthly. She was 28 years old. Within two years her first collection, Tales From Bective Bridge, appeared, with a preface by Lord Dunsany. In that year, also, she married William Walsh. A year later, the first of her three daughters was born.

It was a promising start to a dual career as writer and mother. But if the beginning seemed favorable, the outcome was difficult. Her greatly loved father, Tom Lavin, died, then her husband, and she was left with three small children. But adversity brought out Mary Lavin’s indomitable spirit. She raised her daughters, continued her writing, got a contract from The New Yorker, and steadily built her reputation as one of the outstanding short story writers of the century. She published her Selected Stories in 1959, received two Guggenheim awards, and traveled in Europe with the three girls. A second marriage to Michael Scott in 1969 brought her a companionship that was somewhat darkened by the death of her mother in the same year. She and Michael, or “Mick,” as she called him, were familiar figures in Dublin’s literary and culture life for many years.

All the time she wrote and could do so almost anywhere - at home in Bective, Co. Meath, in the mews beside the Grand Canal in Dublin, in the National Library, in Buswell’s Hotel, in Bewley’s Cafe, even in buses. The process was always the same: a great mass of manuscript rose and fell in response to the rhythms of her mind and imagination. She seemed to wrestle with words, calling them to her aid, cutting them back, as she searched for the inner life of the subject. She was persistent, patient, tireless, dissatisfied, hard upon herself.

She drew upon her own experience. Her stories explore and reflect the patterns of her life: the return of the little girl from America to the strange, puritanical society of her mother’s people in Athenry; the puzzling relationship between her father and mother; the outgoing, colorful father, visibly proud of his daughter; the demanding, intense mother, who has never lost the tone of superiority she had absorbed in her middle-class background; the lush fields of Bective with the community of farmers and laborers; the beautiful home that looked out at the Boyne as it curved behind Bective Abbey and under the ancient arches of the bridge. Then there was the Dublin she knew. St. Stephen’s Green, Leeson Street, the cafes around Grafton Street, her life as a student at Loreto on the Green, and at, University College Dublin.

Within her work she captured the changing patterns of Irish life as it evolved in the decades after independence. Her conserns run through her stories. In her short story “The Will” she found her subject matter. She describes the vitality and integirity of a girl who runs away to marry the man she loves and is rejected by her family. Her mother leaves the daughter out of her will. IN later stories we come across the consequences: life of hardship in Dublin, quite different from the security and comfort of her mother’s house. But we also find Mary Lavin’s portrayal of those who turn steely hearts against love and against their nearest and dearest. The capacity of some, especially girls, who follow their dreams, are drawn by and capable of love’s transforming idealism, also shines brightly. The timidity of those who stop to count the cost, whose hearts close up like tight hurtful fists, who are capable of coldness and malice is merciless exposed. And there is another theme: self-deception. They blind themselves to reality, refuse to face it, and are diminished as human beings. They also diminish those around them.

Mary Lavin’s honesty shines through everything she wrote. She had to cope with indecision in her own makeup. She was mentally alert, impetuous, endlessly questioning, and this make it hard to be decisive. Through writing she coped, turning her own complicated sensibility into portrayals of complex, shifting psychological and mental states, dramas of the mind, in which the narrative method, the, syntax the organization, register the intricacies of human nature. She called them “vagaries and contraries” of the human heart.” She spoke of the need for “careful watching” and “absolute sincerity” in,how we manage our lives and loves.

At the high point of her career she wrote about widows who refuse to be passive in the face of death, who keep their memories of love, and go forth to encourage experience with openness and with the wisdom of the years. In her final stories she tells what it is like to be old. The generations overlap, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, a new generation of small children. A lesser writer might have shirked the reality of these relationships, their stresses and stains. But Mary Lavin was not a lesser writer. She as always courageous and clear-eyed. Once again she wrote about the vagaries of the human heart, about tensions and failings in the old and young, about the impulse towards love, understanding and tolerance and the feelings and urges that sometimes undermine them.

She is a wonderful writer not for brilliance of technique or formal experimentation, but for the precision, honesty and complexity with which she describes the way we are. Her passing diminishes us, but it also leaves a legacy that enriches us.

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