Joyce Carol Oates called her one of the finest short-story writers of the twentieth century, and there’s much to love about the work of Mary Lavin, whose centenary falls this week; there’s the brilliance with which her fiction gets at the stuff of human interaction, in all its awkwardness, in all the ways in which, muddled and mortified, this interaction will have to do us, because it’s all we’ve got. There’s the immense power with which she depicts the inner lives of women, particularly mothers and widows, women who have no reason to be anything other than honest with themselves about the realities of their situation. Lavin evokes those situations with sympathy and with candor and with, in many cases, a frank and delicious comedy.
Lavin was an Irish writer of the mid-twentieth century, so it’s no surprise that Catholic Ireland is present in her work, but there’s nothing predictable about her portraits of the people who lived in its grip, because what her fiction always looks to are the marvels and the strangeness of individual lives, individual territories carved out regardless of the directives handed down from on high. These lives, mostly rural, could be described as small; they could be described as provincial. Mary Lavin would never stoop to either of those descriptions. They were lives rich and secretive and complicated and contradictory, and for her there was no form suited to them more perfectly than that of the short story, the form she described as being like “an arrow in flight, or a flash of forked lightning: you know the way a flash of lightning appears to be there all in the sky at once? Beginning, middle and end, all there at once.”
But it’s the story of how Lavin came to fiction in the first place that will really strike a chord with anyone who writes, or tries to write. It was one of those moments of painfully honest self-reckoning, the kind that strikes home most mercilessly when prompted by the achievements of another writer. You know what I’m talking about: one of those good old-fashioned “what am I doing?!” moments, a little missile of envy and epiphany and dread. Mine arrive promptly every morning at the breakfast table. Mary Lavin got hers over in 1938 when, as a graduate student in literature, she was asked by an elderly woman who was a client of her solicitor fiancé what it was that she was doing, exactly. A Ph.D. on Virginia Woolf, Lavin replied. “Oh, fancy that,” the client, an elderly lady, remarked. “I had tea with her just yesterday.”
Of course, maybe the old lady was teasing. Maybe she was raving. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that these words gave the young Mary Lavin the most useful kind of shock: the realization that Virginia Woolf was not a problem to be worked out in the pages of her thesis, but a living, breathing author, out there, just across the Irish sea—or maybe, since this woman had had tea with her the previous day, just up the road in Dublin. And more than just a living, breathing author—a working author. “I nearly fainted,” Lavin recalled in a 1991 interview, for the documentary An Arrow in Flight. “I said to myself, What is Virginia Woolf doing? She’s not writing a thesis. And I went home and took my thesis and I tore … I turned it upside down.” And she meant that quite literally; on the reverse of the typescript, there and then, she wrote her first short story, “Miss Holland,” which would be published in Dublin Magazine in 1939. She abandoned the thesis and dedicated herself to writing fiction from that point on.
Lavin wrote as a young mother, and she wrote as a young widow, and she wrote as the mother of three young girls; she wrote longhand early every morning, sitting up in bed before her daughters rose, the pages set down on a wooden breadboard; she wrote at night, at the kitchen table; she wrote in a deck chair in St. Stephen’s Green, while her older daughters were at school in the Loreto convent nearby. The youngest girl, Caroline, bundled into the next chair, played or read. On other days, Caroline sat by her mother’s desk in the National Library, the girl doing her homework, the woman writing her stories. (Caroline grew up to be the literary editor of the Irish Times and, sadly, died suddenly last year.) Those stories were published regularly in The New Yorker, and they won Lavin the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Katherine Mansfield Prize, the Gregory Medal, and two Guggenheim Fellowships. In all, she published nineteen books of stories, including Tales from Bective Bridge, The Becker Wives, Happiness, and A Memory. She also published two novels, The House at Clewe Street and Mary O’Grady.
And there were the parties. The gatherings Lavin threw during the sixties in her mews house off Baggot Street brought together the writers and artists of the time, forcing the younger ones to mingle and encouraging (not that they’d have needed much encouragement) the older ones to hold court. Her guests were mostly men; writers and artists, in that Dublin, were mostly male, as the late journalist and author Nuala O’Faolain recalled in her 1996 memoir, Are You Somebody?—the women at those parties, as O’Faolain put it, “were all women who were going out with the men.” If you were a young woman in this scene, O’Faolain said, “no one asked you what you did, around the pubs of Dublin, or what you wanted to do.” Perhaps because her work has not remained easy to find, or perhaps because there is often so much more interest in the notion of a literary scene than in the actual work of the authors who were part of the scene, Lavin arguably figures in Irish literary history more for her parties than for the emotional minefields of stories such as “In the Middle of the Fields” or “Happiness” or “In a Café.”
Colm Tóibín said recently at an NYU symposium on Lavin’s work that the sense of wisdom and the mystery behind her stories seems effortless and might therefore be “easy to miss.” It was a remark that itself had to it something of the tact and carefulness of Lavin’s prose: the reality is that the power of her work has been very much missed, with much of her fiction long out of print. Tales from Bective Bridge will be reissued this year to mark the centenary, and last year brought a new edition of Happiness and Other Stories, but the oeuvre of Mary Lavin is hard to find, certainly much more elusive than that of her male contemporaries, who created for the Irish short story a mold that did not much interest a writer attuned to the sphere of the domestic, of the private world. She was a writer who knew that the human heart continues to have its dramas and its troubles regardless of the troubles that might be unfolding on the national or the societal scale.
It all lends a grim retrospective irony to O’Faolain’s portrait of the realities of the literary scene for women writers. But then, blunt realities were Lavin’s greatest subject. The arrow’s still in flight.
Belinda McKeon‘s novel Solace is published by Scribner. She lives in Brooklyn.