Bernard MacLaverty short story collections begins in 1977 with Secrets and ends with his fifth collection in 2006 with Matters of Life & Death. I read one or two of his short stories a day, in no particular hurry. An uneven bunch. I’m looking at the contents page. Some stories stick in the mind more than others. Perhaps that has more to do with the more recently read story. I re-read the introduction, MacLaverty taking a look back at his own collected stories in 2013. Like much of his writing it was dry and funny. As a reader and sometimes writer I laughed at the explosion of creative writing schools and classes (money-making schemes). MacLaverty quotes Flannery’s take on it:
Flannery O’Connor…when she was asked if she thought universities stifled young writers said they didn’t stifle half enough of them.
My favourite short story in the 600 page collection is from 1982, A Time to Dance, which is also the name of the collection. Nelson with his eye patch and his determination to make his own way in the world, a world he can’t see in front of his own eyes, his mum a stripper, who can’t do anything with him, but has got to try, is perfect in its imperfections. I’d read it before, but didn’t realise until now it was MacLaverty’s work.
In the first collection, Secrets, the short story Hugo stuck out. The narrator’s father died when he was eight. MacLaverty’s father died when he was twelve. Hugo is a lodger in the house his mother keeps to make ends meet. Her favourite lodger is Paul and she takes Hugo on as a favour. Both are pharmacy students. Paul is bumptious keen with the charm but not good with his studies. Hugo is a brilliant student, but not good with life. But Hugo has a secret he wants to be a writer. ‘Literature is the science of feeling’. Hugo’s book…his masterpiece…well…having been in that position myself and I’m sure placed others in a similar predicament as the narrator without the tragic denouement. See Flanner O’Connor’s advice above.
I liked My Dear Palistrina. Danny, the narrator is a sickly boy. His mother sends him to learn the piano with Miss Schwartz. A musical step-up here into the middle class, a kind of advanced aspirational elocution lesson. Miss Schwartz has fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and ended up in Catholic Ireland, where even the Angel Gabriel would be viewed as a suspicious foreigner and he’s not a Jew or a woman. She teaches music to make ends meet. But Danny is the kind of musical prodigy few people are lucky enough to teach. She believes in music the way that poets such as those around Auden in 1930s thought that they and poetry could change the world. Danny is too young to understand why the locals hate Miss Schwartz, but he remembers what she said about the power of music.
One of your Popes had a great thing to say once. He had been listening to some music by Palestrina with Palestrina himself. He said to him, “The law my dear Palestrina, ought to employ your music to lead hardened criminals to repentance”.
On the Roundabout in Matters of Life & Death is a reminder of how crazed The Troubles were and have the potential to be again. The Trojan Seat is a kind of knock-about story playing with that theme. Not that there is a theme, drunkenness and forgiveness and the looking back of a live such as A Belfast Memory, where the most important fact seems to be not that the young girl is dead, but she died a virgin, died without having sex. Winter Storm seems to prefigure MacLaverty’s novel Midwinter Break, but I guess you could say that of other stories such as The Break. Have a look and see.