Bernard MacLaverty's flight of the imagination

Bernard MacLaverty won acclaim for his novels Lamb and Cal, but his mastery of short fiction is confirmed by his new Collected Stories, says JP O’ Malley.

Collected Stories
Bernard MacLaverty Jonathan Cape, 20.99

ASPIRING writers take note: “In art, it is hard to say anything as good as saying nothing.”

So said one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

When Bernard MacLaverty read these harsh words, as a young man in the mid-1960s, fear was his initial reaction. They made writing seem a thankless task.

But that anxiety dissipated as he began to perfect the short story form, through trial and error.

“I guess that Wittgenstein quote is heading towards the notion that most ideas within prose are actually hidden. Hemingway was also fond of this: that things are not said out loud, but contained within the story,” says the 72-year-old writer, who lives in Glasgow.

MacLaverty has just released Collected Stories: a book that contains most of his short fiction, from a career that spans nearly four decades.

MacLaverty’s writing has a penchant for the ordinary. For this, some critics have accused him of celebrating the mundane and the parochial. This is partially true.

But his stories dance along with an elegant cadence that only writers of caliber can master. It is the musicality of words.

“I’m very aware of music in my work,” he says. “Us writers tend to think in very mundane ways. Sometimes, phrases come across that are musical.

“And even words themselves have connotations and a certain rhythm to them. You must pay attention to that, as a writer.”

MacLaverty is modest: chatty, mild-mannered, and jocular. He doesn’t over-intellectualise his work. Most issues I raise with him require second-guessing, or a follow-up question that eventually teases out an answer worth discussing.

MacLaverty’s novels have achieved considerable success. His first two books, Lamb, and Cal, were both made into successful films, while his third novel, Grace Notes, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1997. But the short story is a form with which he is comfortable.

“I see the short story as a halfway house between the novel and poetry. I’ve always loved the form. The novel is much more of a public event. But the short story seems to be an individual one. I think the novel is like a public symphony, and the short story is more of a private string quartet.

“Those private moments in the quartet, I think, are somehow more intense.”

Reading through a writer’s oeuvre is a good way of studying their obsessions. It can also be a good way of understanding how their cultural heritage, history, and family background have influenced their artistic vision.

MacLaverty was brought up in a red-brick, Victorian terraced house in Atlantic Avenue, Belfast. It was a home he shared with his siblings, parents, grandparents, and great-aunt.

The older generation brought to the family a strict adherence to the Catholic faith.

This deeply religious upbringing helped him appreciate how myth, ritual and imagery are vital elements for any writer.

Like many secular Irish writers of his generation, religion is a powerful force in MacLaverty’s work.

To paraphrase his old friend, Séamus Heaney, you might say that MacLaverty has a Catholic imagination.

There are a number of stories in this collection in which characters openly express their disillusionment with theology.

In ‘The Break’, a man visits his son, Frank, a cardinal, to explain why he believes “there is no God”.

MacLaverty says he began forming similar opinions in his teenage years.

“Science really takes us right into what the world is comprised of,” he says.

“But there are also things in human nature and the mind that have escaped us, so far. I see religion as a warm and loving deception. My move away from it was a gradual thing. But, in the end, I completely rejected it.”

The cultural aspect of organised religion is acceptable to MacLaverty.

But when we talk about the divisions and tribalism that arise from it, specifically in Northern Ireland, a tone of disgust enters his voice.

I repeat some lines to him from a story he wrote, called ‘On The Roundabout’, which documents a violent ambush by a paramilitary group in Belfast during the 1970s.

The story feels like a newspaper article, rather than prose fiction, such is the grim and realistic portrayal of barbarism that it describes.

It’s worth quoting: “There’s one guy — he’s wearing a black scarf — and he produces a claw hammer. And he whacks the guy hitching in the face with it. And down he goes. And they start laying into him for all they’re worth — boots, the hammer, the lot.”

MacLaverty sighs after I repeat his own words back to him. “I just hate violence,” he says.

It takes him a while to continue. Eventually, when he does, it feels like a sensitive subject he’s tired of discussing.

“In the late 1960s, there were mistakes in the thinking of certain people and it led to an enormous amount of senseless deaths. The hatred of one side for the other: it’s just something I despair of.”

MacLaverty’s writing career began as a hobby in the early 1960s. But when he joined a writer’s workshop at Queens University, everything changed.

The close-knit writing community became known as ‘the Group’: it was founded and chaired by the poet and critic, Philip Hobsbaum, who was teaching English at the university.

The talented bunch of fresh-faced writers included people like Michael Longley, Ciarán Carson, Séamus Heaney, Frank Ormsby, and many others.

Within a few years, however, a toxic sectarian atmosphere had taken over the streets of Belfast.

If the city had once been somewhere MacLaverty saw as a bohemian playground, where artists traded stories and ideas, it soon became an epicentre of bloodshed, conflict, and paranoia.

With a teaching degree, and a young family to raise, MacLaverty left for Glasgow and never returned.

“I decided to leave Belfast in the mid-1970s,” he says. “I wanted to get away from the murder, the bombing, and the hatred. I realised that there is no way you can influence it. It’s like trying to stop a bus with your hand: it’s just impossible.”

MacLaverty doesn’t like to dwell on the past. But somewhere in his laid-back demeanour, you sense a harbouring for home.

In this business of speaking to writers, you become accustomed to those who don’t like to reveal too much in conversation.

In such cases, it’s best to go looking for answers in their work.

In a story called ‘My Dear Palestrina’, perhaps the finest MacLaverty has ever written, there is a music teacher named Miss Schwartz. She is living in a small town in Northern Ireland, but is originally from Praszka in Poland. When a young student asks her why she never returns home, she laughs and replies: “The longer you are away, the more you want to go back. And yet, you realise the longer you are away, the more impossible it is to return.”

Does MacLaverty agree with his own character’s romantic notion of emigration? His answer is short and brief. I fear he may have taken Wittgenstein’s advice to heart, applying it to life as well.

“I love living in Glasgow, but there are friends and places that you do miss. But once you make that decision to leave, you have to live with it,” he says.

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