A key to understanding Mary Lavin
[STUDIES] Mary Lavin, one of Ireland’s finest short story writers, was at a mid-point in her writing career when Professor Augustine Martin wrote the apprciation of her work below, in Studies, winter 1963. She had published her first book of short stories, Tales from Bective Bridge, twenty years earlier, and since 1958 she had been published many times in the New Yorker, so she was a well-established writer with various prizes and awards to her name. Martin notes, however, that ‘so far no body of criticism has grown up around her writings’, and he means his essay to make up in a small way for this ‘critical neglect’. He is inclined to think that her greatest writings may lie in the future: ‘There is so far little evidence that Miss Lavin has exhausted her chosen material and milieu.’
Lavin’s work is mostly set in Ireland, but Martin insists that her stories owe less to Irish models such as Liam O’Flaherty, Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain than they do to great international writers like Turgenev, Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce, ‘who was far more a European than a specifically Irish artist’. Her subject matter is ordinary life, especially that of ‘Irish lower middle-class existence’, with a particular sensitivity to the lives of women in this world. She conveys their quiet tragedies, their intimate joys, and their struggles to achieve a kind of freedom in the hostile corners of their social and domestic surroundings. Colm Toibín said of her that ‘She wrote with sympathy and emotional accuracy about the Irish middle class; but she described memory, grief and isolation as human rather than Irish themes’.
A skeleton key to the stories of Mary Lavin
Because of the curious position of Mary Lavin in the modern short story, this essay is in the nature of a rapid survey, a preface to criticism, rather than a formal critical essay. It attempts to examine briskly and consecutively (1) her technical and aesthetic approach to the form, (2) her fictional material and milieu, (3) the operation of her creative technique in a selected number of her stories, and (4) her dominant and recurring themes as exemplified in these and – more briefly – in other examples of her work. If the essay is in places unceremonious it is due to the space at my disposal and the wide, and critically uncharted extent of her work. (So far she has provoked only one critical article, ‘The Girl at the Gaol Gate’, a brief and somewhat rambling commentary on three or four of her stories in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 1 No. 2. April 1960.) Consequently the present purpose is to blaze some sort of trail rather than to set up critical monuments by the wayside.
Before setting out I find it necessary to make clear a few basic convictions about the stories of Mary Lavin. The first is that she belongs to the thin front line of Irish short-story writers – to the company of O’Flaherty, O’Connor and O’Faolain. I have no idea how readily this rating of her work will be accepted because so far no body of criticism has grown up around her writings. The reason for this critical neglect, I feel, is almost wholly an extra-literary concern. An explanation of it would belong – to borrow a distinction from Dr Leavis – more to the history of publicity than the history of literature. Finally I feel that she occupies a unique position in the Irish short story. Mr O’Connor has written that the Irish short story is in the nature of a separate art-form. If this remark is true – and it is as true as such remarks can ever be – then Mary Lavin is outside the tradition.
The form of short story she has evolved owes less to Irish models – George Moore, James Stephens, Daniel Corkery, Seamus O’Kelly, O’Flaherty, O’Connor and O’Faolain – than to Turgenev, Tchehov, Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce, who was far more a European than a specifically Irish artist. As the present essay is largely a work of critical pioneering, one feels the need of plotting these basic coordinates.
Mary Lavin has written two novels, The House in Clewe Street (1945) and Mary O’Grady (1950), and six collections of short stories: Tales from Bective Bridge (1943), The Long Ago (1944), The Becker Wives (1946), A Single Lady (1951), The Patriot Son (1956) and The Great Wave (1961). The scope of this review forces me to ignore the two novels completely and regretfully to pass over her greatest single achievement, The Becker Wives, which in its conception is more a novella than a short story. It is such a richly structured work, raising questions of allegory and symbolism, that an adequate discussion of it would unbalance an essay of this kind. But as it has not yet received the attention it deserves I would like in passing to record the conviction that it is one of the finest works of fiction, long or short, to come out of modern Ireland.
Miss Lavin has provided us with only two comments that might be taken as guides to her creative method. The first, characteristically, is embodied in one of her short stories, a shrewdly self-critical piece entitled ‘A Story with a Pattern’ and the other occurs in the preface to her Selected Stories (1959), the only piece of formal literary criticism she has ever written. ‘A Story with a Pattern’ tells how she ‘finds’ herself at a party, being taken to task by a rather forthright guest for failing to supply her stories with the sort of plot and pattern which, he claims, the normal reader demands. Ruthlessly telescoped, the argument goes like this:
‘Now your stories,’ he said, ‘are very thin. They have hardly any plot at all.’
‘But I don’t think . . .’
‘And the endings,’ he said, ‘your endings are very bad. They’re not endings at all. Your stories just break off in the middle! Why is that, might I ask?’
I’m afraid I smiled superciliously. ‘Life itself has very little plot,’ I said. ‘Life itself has a habit of breaking off in the middle.’
Her self-appointed mentor disagrees. He is convinced that life is full of incidents that have ‘a pattern as clear and well-marked as the pattern on this carpet.’ The author challenges him to tell such a story and he chooses one from an apparently infinite repertoire. It is the story of a man afflicted with club feet who spends his life in pursuit of money and power; who marries, but refuses to believe that his wife could love him for himself. He mistrusts her – unjustly – so much that when she becomes pregnant he savagely asserts that the unborn child is not his. In despair he demands proof, knowing that it cannot be furnished. That night his wife dies giving birth to a still-born child that has two clubbed feet.
This is obviously a story with a pattern; with a built-in scheme of dramatic irony and poetic justice. The man had demanded proof that the child was his and fate provided him not only with the proof but with the appropriate punishment for his disbelief.
The author does not deny the effectiveness of the story; but she sees no point in her writing it, because she would have to go back to her old methods again afterwards:
‘Because I won’t be always able to find stories like that to tell. This was only one incident. Life in general isn’t rounded off like that at the edges; cut into neat shapes – life is chaotic; its events are unrelated, its…
‘Please don’t start that nonsense again,’ he said and he casually walked away.
This story is the closest the author ever gets to an artistic manifesto. She does not deny the validity of the ‘story with a pattern’ but she is emphatic that it is not her sort of story. What is then? Is her aesthetic a simple negation of all pattern, her stories uncritical reflections of life’s disorder? Her preface to the Selected Stories indicates a more positive stance:
I believe that it is in the short story that a writer distills the essence of his thought. I believe this because in the short story shape as well as matter is determined by the author’s own character. Both are one. Short story writing – for me – is only looking closer than normal into the human heart. The vagaries and contrarieties there to be found have their own integral design.
Everything here is highly relevant. It seems that Miss Lavin’s attitude does not entail any real repudiation of pattern in life or art. Life has its own pattern, a subtle pattern that inheres in ‘vagaries and contrarieties’ if one looks hard enough to find it. Hence she asserts that shape and matter are one. Form or pattern therefore must not be imposed from without, as the emphatic scheme of poetic justice was superimposed on the story about the club feet. That, as she tells the man at the party, would be – at least for her – ‘distorting the truth’. Instead she feels that it is her duty as a story teller to approach her living material with an intense and much more humble scrutiny; to find its intrinsic rhythms, choose its significant emphases and deploy them in a meaningful artistic sequence. If I have so far interpreted her position correctly the rest follows.
And it is here that devices of concentration, poetic association and above all implication are sometimes needed. To interpret these devices the reader must be sensitive, alert and above all willing to come forward and take the story into his mind and heart.
This is very forthright, even challenging. The reader is being put on his mettle; his intelligence and sensitivity are made stand by; some of the onus is thrown on him if he is not to miss the story’s point. The challenge might seem even righteously defensive if it were not for its peculiar truth and peculiar relevance to Miss Lavin’s stories. But they do require in the reader this sensitivity and alertness. They do not deliver their impact in one flash of insight at the end, or through any internal progression of emphatic or cumulative incident; they seldom make use of dramatic tension or issue in dramatic resolution. They provide a minimum of kicks. But instead, if read attentively, they set up vibrations in the mind and the imagination which continue in the reader’s mind long after the story has been put down. It is as if the author has so unerringly found the innate rhythms of her human material that the story goes on in the reader’s mind and merges with his own experience.
Consequently – to instance crudely – one will get no value at all from the stories of Mary Lavin by grasping the expository material, rapidly skimming the middle and attending closely to the end. The reason is that she is not concerned with telling a ‘story’ but with mirroring life. Now it may be justly objected that the cursory method of reading I have instanced would be indefensible for any work of literature. Yet it will get one at least somewhere with stories like say Boule de Suif or Twenty Grand or A Lear of the Steppes or Rain, just as it will be utterly useless with The Lady with the Dog, Marriage à La Mode, The Mountains Look Different, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut or The Dead. Mary Lavin’s stories, with a few exceptions such as A Small Bequest or The Pastor of Six Mile Bush – which are exceptions to her general method – belong overwhelmingly to the latter group. And while these are her literary ancestors and kindred, because she is an original and exploratory writer she has evolved from them an attack and an aesthetic of her own.
Let us test these general assertions against a selected number of her stories. To choose from the substantial body of her writing, stories that are at once typical and especially meritorious would be a most difficult task. My idea, therefore, is to start with a series of pieces dealing with the same family, which she has written over twelve years of her career and through three volumes. They concern the Grimes family and though they are not all typical of her best work they are typical of her milieu and serve to point up her characteristic techniques and some of her central themes. In this sense they are satisfactory as the purpose here is not to dispense accolades but to examine significant aspects of a writer’s art and artistic material. For the main body of the author’s work is set against the background and amid the milieu of Irish middle class existence – the small town with its shop-keepers, priests and farmers from the surrounding country-side. On the surface it is a drab uneventful world where the chief occurrences are marriages, deaths and unspectacular scandals.
It is a world where outward, emphatic action scarcely exists, where human tensions are muted, where love, joy and desperation are subsumed into a common ethos of stoic respectability. But it is her especial genius to pierce beneath these colourless surfaces and wrest significance from the most outwardly commonplace situations. Hence it is altogether typical that the rather squalid saga of the Grimes family begins with an apparently insignificant visit to a disused graveyard where the mother of the family has been buried.
‘A Visit to the Cemetery’ appeared in her collection A Single Lady (1951) and it introduces Liddy and Alice Grimes, two daughters of the family who have come to visit their mother’s grave. The cemetery has been closed for some time and it is a jungle of twisted grass and tottering headstones. Alice, the elder of the sisters, keeps expressing her disgust at the condition of the place and saying what a pity it is that her mother had not been buried in the bright new cemetery on the other side of the town. Having completed their devotions at the grave they are about to leave when Liddy, on seeing a dislodged bone, is suddenly struck by a horribly real sense of death. She gets a shuddering vision of her mother’s body in the dank earth. Alice, the more pragmatical one, tries rather impatiently to console her.
‘After all we must all die-we know that’ she said. But Liddy was incorrigible.
‘That’s what I mean,’ she said quietly.
The desolate mood has completely taken hold of her:
‘I cannot believe that I won’t go on feeling: feeling the cold and the damp – you know, even after –’
The realization is borne in on Alice too; it seems almost as if death is reaching out at them from the dank earth. It is then that Alice makes the remark that magically transforms their mood and at the same time gives the story its shrewed ironical lift:
‘Well thanks be to goodness we won’t be buried here anyway!’ she said, impulsively.
Liddy is shocked into curiosity. Alice rushes on to explain that their father will be the last to be buried there. As for themselves –
‘there aren’t any more plots to be got here now, thanks be to God, so our husbands will have to provide them – in the new cemetery – thanks be to God again.’
Our husbands – it was an intoxicating thought! Like a flash Liddy’s depression lifts and a whole new vista is opened up to her imagination. The old cemetery with its dank emblems of decay loses its grip upon her as she rushes Alice out into the sunlight which has suddenly been switched on again. Now, by a natural, but quietly hilarious association the new cemetery becomes a symbol of life and marriage; a focus for all the romantic aspirations of young womanhood. The author, of course, makes no overt reference to this – but it is shrewdly planted in the dialogue.
‘It must be lovely up there on an evening like this: we would walk around and read the names on the stones – they’re all names we know: not like this old place. I don’t suppose –’ she hesitated – ‘I wonder if –’
The mood infects Alice. Why not walk out towards the new cemetery! So arm in arm they set off – towards marriage, death, destiny, towards whatever hazily formed images have taken shape in their imaginations – but before they go they take care to close the gate of the old graveyard behind them.
I feel that this story is a little masterpiece. If it were only for the accuracy with which the varying moods of the girls are caught in the descriptions and dialogue it would be masterly. But its genius is even more manifest in its rich suggestiveness, its specifically fabulous quality; and so its insights into life, love, human aspiration and human mortality take on the authority of a universal statement. And then there is the quality in Mary Lavin’s stories to which I have referred already: their ability to get up vibrations in the mind, to capture the essential and characteristic rhythm of her chosen situation so that the reader’s. imagination can be carried forward in sympathetic resonance well beyond the limits of the story itself.
Thus at the end of ‘A Visit to the Cemetery,’ not only can we see the girls walking around among the graves of the new cemetery – though it is not described – but we have a fair sense of what their future lives are to be like. Despite the strictures of the man at the party the story does not break off at the end; the whole point is that it goes on-at least for those who have picked up its imaginative frequency. This is surely the salient virtue of this type of story. Twenty Grand brings us up short at the end-it exerts no forward pressure on the imagination. But in The Lady with the Dog, Hills Like White Elephants, The Dead or Uncle Wiggily the reader as it were falls into step with the imagined characters and moves forward with them well beyond the formal terminus of the action.
Finally ‘A Visit to the Cemetery’ has, as perhaps its most engaging quality, a complete absence of author comment; it is the most shameful case of literary eavesdropping; The transition of mood that changes a tombstone to a wedding cake is carried solely by dialogue and imagery. One could say quite accurately that it is all done with tombstones.
The next three stories in the Grimes saga occur in the author’s next volume, The Patriot Son, published five years later in 1956. The first of the three ‘An Old Boot’ is a rather slight piece, important only in that it introduces another one of the Grimes sisters, Bedelia the eldest, who is to play a pivotal role in the future fortunes of the family. The father of.the family, Matthias Grimes, has·by now turned odd with the death of his wife and Beddia is preparing to get her claws on the family business. In ‘An Old Boot’ we find her making crafty overtures to Daniel, the seedily eligible manager of the shop. In the midst of their furtive negotiations-no element of Jove seems to arise they are rudely silenced by the clump of old mad Matthias Grimes’s boot-‘hot and smelly with the heat of a living foot’-on the ceiling above. But though their tepid intimacies are momentarily suspended, the reader has no doubt as to who shall be in control when the old man dies. Therefore at the beginning of the next story in the sequence, ‘Frail Vessel’, we find that the father has died and that Beddia and Daniel – well in control of the business – are preparing for their marriage of convenience.
Apart from being a fine sample of the story-teller’s art, ‘Frail Vessel’ enacts a central theme in the author’s consciousness, and its two chief actors, Bedelia and Liddy – the younger sister of ‘A Visit to the Cemetery’ – represents two recurrent and crucial types in her stories. Bedelia cold, practical, inflexibly determined, is summed up in the author’s phrase, ‘a conniving woman’; Liddy is the opposite – warm, whimsical, romantic, outwardly frail. Liddy is the frail vessel of the title and against her is levelled all the very formidable artillery of Bedelia’s ruthless connivance.
The first confrontation takes place when Liddy interrupts Bedelia’s marriage preparations with a sudden request for permission to marry an unsuccessful solicitor, Alfonsus O’Brien, who has recently come to town. Bedelia, though deeply suspicious of O’Brien and secretly livid that Liddy should be so obviously in love, gives her consent for purely selfish reasons-the chief one is that she foresees certain embarrassments in having Liddy around the house when Daniel moves into her bedroom. But afterwards when both of them are married, she regrets her generosity, not because Liddy and her husband are wretchedly poor but because she realizes how useful Liddy would be to her, now that she is heavy with child. So by a series of calculated and unscrupulous financial manoeuvres she breaks up the marriage, sends O’Brien packing and leaves Liddy no choice but to return to live with herself and Daniel. It is here that the muted irony of the story begins to accumulate. Too late Bedelia discovers that Liddy too is pregnant; instead of a dependent hand-maid she has an added encumbrance on her hands. Worse still she realizes that Liddy is still in love with her worthless husband; her secret store of happiness is still undamaged. Bedelia’s carefully laid plans for power and patronage have blown up in her face and in a burst of thwarted malice she tries again to destroy Liddy’s inner serenity:
‘Do you know what I think?’ she cried. ‘I think that you’ve seen the last of him – do you hear me – the last of him!’
But she couldn’t make out whether Liddy had heard or not. Certainly her reply, which came in a whisper was absolutely inexplicable.
‘Even so’, Liddy whispered, ‘Even so!’
This theme, the indestructibility of human love, given generously, is a constant energizing principle in Miss Lavin’s stories. It occurs in ‘The Will’ where the love of Sally, who married beneath her, survives all the pressures of her respectable and uncomprehending family; in ‘A Happy Death’ where the dying man salvages from a lifetime of oppressive shrewishness an image of early love that irradiates his end; in ‘A Tragedy’ where the act of surrender to conjugal love is proof against. the corroding and malicious influence of a sister-serpent beneath the same roof. The converse position is equally dominant and articulate. Failure to give oneself generously in love carries its own punishment-that limbo of the affections inhabited, for instance, by Elgar in ‘The. Convert’ who neither marries Naida Paston whom he loves nor loves Mamie Sully whom he marries; or Rose Darker in ‘A Gentle Soul’ who through sheer pusillanimity twice betrays the man she loves, once in life and once after his death; or Brede in ‘Bridal Sheets’ who through some inscrutable meanness of spirit allows her hidden finery to stand between her and complete surrender to her husband’s love, even after she has died.
(It seems to be a conviction of the author’s that people, even when given a second chance, will behave exactly as they did before. Both Rose Darker and Brede reject their second chances to make amends: one by refusing to give the evidence that will vindicate her dead lover’s character, the other by refusing the body of her dead husband the bridal sheets that she had never shown him in life.)
If ‘Frail Vessel’ establishes the impregnability of romantic love, the next story in the sequence dramatizes the destructive and self-destroying power of connivance as it operates in the soul of Bedelia. In ‘The Little Prince’ Bedelia sets about removing her younger brother Tom from the field of her activities. Tom is gentle but feckless and Bedelia has little difficulty in forcing him to emigrate. But Tom’s very impracticality takes its revenge on her because he departs without claiming his share in the business and he never writes to let her know of his address. Her scrupulous husband Daniel lodges Tom’s shares of the profits to his – Tom’s – account in the bank every week, and as the years pass it grows into a substantial sum-an ever-present and maddening reminder to Bedelia of both her ruthlessness and lack of foresight. (In Mary Lavin’s stories, as in life, extreme craftiness in some things is often accompanied by obtuseness in others.)
As time passes Bedelia becomes obsessed by anxiety – partly familial, mostly financial – about Tom’s fate till eventually word reaches them from America that an old tramp called Tom Grimes is dying in a New York hospital. In desperation Bedelia and Daniel set out to identify him. During the voyage the author introduces a characteristic device, obliquely underlining the central theme. Bedelia takes up with a widow on the ship, a woman who is transporting the corpse of her husband for burial to America. The body in the hold becomes an almost obscene symbol of human chicanery. An Englishman remarks to Daniel as he watches the two women pacing the deck:
‘I must say she looks a cold fish to me. I bet she has some shrewd motive in taking the poor stiff back to the States. Look at the face of her. I can’t stand a conniving woman!’
It was with a shock that Daniel realized that the other had mistaken Bedelia for the owner of the corpse.
The voyage continues and so does Bedelia’s equivocal remorse while the corpse in the hold is ‘like a shuttle, rattled backwards and forwards with each uneasy movement of the water.’ This macabre and inexorable motion brings Bedelia to New York and to the unresolved crises of her anxieties. Because there she fails to recognize Tom’s corpse; she is brought up against the grey stonewall that she has been unconsciously raising between herself and her brother:
She looked again into the dead man’s face, But if it was her brother something had sundered them, something had severed the bonds of blood and she knew him not. And if it was I that was lying there, she thought, he would not know me. It signifies nothing that they might once have sprung from the same womb. Now, in this fateful moment they were strangers.
By her actions, by the whole crafty pressure of her life Bedelia has renounced the right to recognize her own flesh and blood; and so, fittingly, she is punished. And the mind of the reader acquiesces because the punishment is as much a part of the integral pattern of her life as were her • grey ambiguous crimes. The biblical ‘she knew him not’ is justified. (I can find no such justification for the cliche ‘this fateful moment’ which arises from a stylistic carelessness of which the author is sometimes guilty.)
In Mary Lavin’s scheme of things you cannot violate the ties of love, in any of its forms, without involving yourself in unhappiness. This has nothing to do with any doctrinaire invocation of poetic justice; it is the relentless working out of an organic human sequence.
I shall not dwell on the last story of the series ‘Loving Memory’ chiefly because I find it especially problematical. It occurs in her latest volume The Great Wave which was published in 1961. I find it difficult to judge as an independent work in its genre because it seems to set out to explain why the Grimes family turned out as it did. It tells how the father Matthias Grimes first married their mother Alicia, a rather supernal young woman-a sort of reincarnation of Flora of The Becker Wives-and lived with her in an intense, exclusive, lifelong relationship with scarcely a thought for the children. It tells how Alicia died young and how Matthias, imprisoned even more rigorously within her memory, haunts her grave and slips slowly into madness. In it, one finds it difficult to be sure whether the author is committed to writing a fresh short story or to extending and rationalizing the Grimes saga. So, even though it contains some of her most energetic writing – her energy seems to ino-ease not only in control but in intensity with each new volume – I shall pass it over; in any case we have had enough of the·Grimeses for the moment.
However, taken together with ‘A Visit to the Cemetery’ and ‘The Little Prince’ it raises a broader issue in the author’s work as a whole – her virtual obsession with the theme of death. These three stories deal specifically with the power of the dead over the living and to them might be added at least three other stories involving this theme, ‘A Gentle Soul’, ‘The Convert’ and ‘Lemonade.’ Perhaps it is significant that the theme has had a strange attraction for many of the great short story writers; one recalls at random Chekov’s ‘Easter Eve’, Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Stranger’, all piercing and memorable tales. In Mary Lavin.’s stories it is difficult to generalize on its significance except to note that with one exception – ‘A Visit to the Cemetery’ – the memory of the dead person acts so as to paralyse or impair the grip. of the living upon living reality. Matthias Grimes, Bedelia, Rose Darker, Mad Mary and Elgar are all in different ways trapped within their memories. But the exception is so forceful as to reduce the validity of this generalization; Alice and Liddy are quite emphatically projected towards the future and the business of living by their epiphany in the graveyard.
This fixation of memory is only one of the many instances of the author’s preoccupation with death; the theme looms large throughout the body of her work. Even a glance at the titles establishes its pervasive presence in the author’s mind-‘The Green Grave arid The Black Grave’, ‘The Cemetery in the Demesne’ and ‘The Will’ might be added to the titles already cited. An investigation of its provenance and causes would be unlikely to yield much of critical value-in fact it could be explained better in terms of sociology and Irish sociology in particular. But it ties up in a strange way with another stream of the author’s sensibility which is likely to yield more specifically critical dividends.
In her work there is a whole range of characters who recoil from the more fullblooded implications of life and settle for a cool cloistered compromise; over against them stands an equal rank of figures who are characterized by their energetic commitment to the hot realities of living. Several of her stories enact the conflict between these two basic life attitudes and it is especially significant that in one of her very earliest stories ‘Love is for Lovers’ the tension is quite clearly epitomized. Here Matthew, a character of the first type, is almost tempted from his ordered, emotionally tepid existence by a stiflingly full-blooded widow, Mrs. Cooligan, but he retreats quite deliberately into the cool cloister of his bachelorhood. As it is an early story the author presents the issues less subtly than in her subsequent work and the contrast is quite aggressively deliberate:
Life was hot and pulsing and it brought sweat to the forehead. He didn’t·know anything about marriage, but it must be close and pulsing too . . . Life was nauseating to him. Death was cool and fragrant. Of course, he had a long way to go before its green shade lengthened to reach him. But in the meantime he could keep away from the hot rays of life, as he had always done before he had got familiar with Rita.
Surely this is the death wish presented in a most assertive, not to say unnerving form. If it cropped up only in one early and rather clumsy story, one might dismiss it as a transitory if curious tangent of the author’s creative imagination. But it re-emerges inexorably though more subtly through her later work: in the contrast between Miss Holland and her fellow lodgers; in the contrast between the prim and pathetic spinster and her father in ‘A Single Lady’; in Daniel’s rejection of the little servant girl in ‘Posy’-where even the heroine’s nickname is redolent of the life principle; in the disparity between the vigorous and sweating Magenta and the two pallid old maids; and more subtly in the contrast between Mamie Sully and Naida Paston in the two stories in which they appear. This persistent dichotomy could be expanded and developed. There is little doubt that the author is on the side of life despite the fact that many of its protagonists in her work are little short of repellent-Mamie Sully, Annie Bowles, Rita Cooligan – and many of its deniers are sympathetically, almost tenderly evoked – Naida Paston, Miss Holland, Matthew and Daniel. Again it is difficult to be sure whether the author is-however unconsciously presenting the death wish as something central in the human condition or merely posing the question of its peculiar relevance to Ireland. It is sufficient here to note that the psychological tensions which surround it are a constant principle of energy in her creative consciousness.
In centering this critique around the Grimes saga I have been forced to exclude, except for passing mention, several areas of the author’s work which would have made incomparably more exciting material for criticism. There would have been much more colour and liveliness in stories like ‘My Vocation’ or ‘The Yellow Beret’ which are set against a Dublin background; again there are stories like ‘The Haymaking’, ‘Brigid’ and that powerful and grievous story ‘Assigh’ which exploit the ethos of agrarian society; finally it has been necessary to bypass that handful of stories set in Synge and O’Flaherty country, the western sea-board, stories like ‘The Green Grave and The Black Grave’ and her recent ‘The Great Wave’ with its rich biblical implications. But for all their colour and excitement these stories are really on the periphery of her artistic vision. The centre of her focus is the ‘vagaries and contrarieties’ of the human heart as seen in its small town habitat. This is her objective correlative and it is on this murky prism that she concentrates the strongest creative light; it is here that her human concern is most sustained and urgent. Out of this material she builds not only the Grimes cycle but her only other related sequence of stories – those featuring Naida Paston, Elgar and Mamie Sully – ‘The Convert’, ‘Limbo’ and ‘The Mouse’, though in the last of these for some inscrutable reason she gives the character new names.
Outside of this small-town ethos Miss Lavin has written accomplished and powerful stories but it is within it, one feels, that she is most consistently close to the hard core of the human predicament. ‘The Great Wave’ is more exotic and spectacular, more overwhelming in its symbolic overtones than say ‘Frail Vessel’, but it is also more remote from the authentic problems of living. With all its lyrical splendour it is really no more than an illuminated capital on the parchment of life. It is in the tedious and unadorned script of the Grimes history that life’s meaning is to be read. It is the final proof of Miss Lavin’s integrity as an artist that she has pursued this. squalid chronicle with such relentless and minute concern and forced it to yield up its hidden and unexpected riches. Of course we must not be ungrateful that she has paused from time to time to give us such a finely worked capital as ‘The Great Wave’ or such diverting and irresponsible marginalia as ‘My Vocation’ or ‘The Patriot Son’ – that irreverent footnote to Irish revolutionary literature.
Concluding, one gets the very strong impression that the really critical portion of Miss Lavin’s career lies ahead. If she were to stop writing now she would, of course, have left an enduring corpus of work behind her but she would also have failed to exploit the full potentialities of which that work gives evidence. Frank O’Connor seems to have held such a view three years ago when he wrote of her:
She fascinates me more than any other of the Irish writers of my generation, because more than any of them, her work reveals that she has not said all that she has to say. (‘The Girl at the Gaol Gate’: A Review of English Literature, Longmans, Vol I, No.2, April 1960)
And while Mr O’Connor claims her for his generation it must be remembered that she is some ten years his junior, Consequently the years ahead ought to be artistically very rich if she determines to resist the temptation to write solely New Yorker type stories. This is not to suggest that her New Yorker stories are in any way inferior – it is the limitation of scope and amplitude that might prove most dangerous. I feel that Mr O’Connor is again absolutely right when he goes on to suggest that her best future work is likely to be in the novella where he foresees for her a story-form ‘more expansive, more allusive, more calligraphic.’
This view is certainly warranted when we think of some of her longer stories like ‘The Happy Death’, ‘Assigh’, ‘The Little Prince’ and above all her superb novella The Becker Wives which Mr O’Connor must have had in mind when he coined these three epithets. There is so far little evidence that Miss Lavin has exhausted her chosen material and milieu. She does not seem to share either Mr O’Connor’s or Mr O’Faolain’s impatience at the limitations imposed by the little island on which they live. While Mr O’Faolain in his latest collection has been moving back and forth with a fascinating restlessness between opera houses in Turin, tenements in New York and Yacht Clubs in Dublin, Miss Lavin has been content to carry on her tireless investigations of the Irish lower middle-class existence. She may be running a certain critical hazard here in a world that is apt to confuse geographical with artistic range. But then she can console herself with the thought that her country’s most universal artist, James Joyce, was in this sense its most parochial.
If one can judge, however, from her most recent New Yorker stories her latest trend seems to be in the direction of more specifically personal material. This would indeed be a new development in a writer who has hitherto rigorously excluded the autobiographical element from her work. It would also be a most promising direction for one who has tempered her skill on the most unpromising material that her surroundings had to offer and built from it a body of the most authentic literature.
— Studies, winter 1963