Bernard MacLaverty (2021) Blank Pages and Other Stories

Many stories I read blend into one another. Some of them I can vaguely remember. They tend to be—by that measure—the best. I’m thinking here of George Mackay Brown, Celia, which is arguably the best short story in The Devil and the Giro, edited by Carl MacDougall. I met Carl a few times and he was great, but not great enough to get in the collection of the best of The Scottish Short Story. Bernard MacLaverty short story A Time To Dance is a standout. That was great. Carl talked about another of MacLaverty’s short stories. A young Catholic Irish woman that cleans a big-wig, Protestant guy’s house and he’s always pestering her for sex, offering loads of cash. But she’s loyal, even though her husband beats her and spends all the housekeeping money on booze. Then she’s not loyal. Or loyal to herself. Carl couldn’t mind the title of it. And neither could I. But remembering it means something has stuck. That’s a long-winded way of saying Blank Pages and the eleven Other Stories won’t stick around very long in my memory. They’ll go the way of another Irish writer, Frank O’Connor, who writes on similar themes of Irishness and Britishness and never the twain shall meet, until they do.

In Blank Pages, the narrator is a writer. It’s not Bernard MacLaverty, of course, but it is Bernard MacLaverty. Stephen King does that. When he can’t think what trade the narrator will be, his fall-back position is writer. I guess we’re in Midwinter Break territory, but the narrator’s wife is dead. She left the cat, Lui, she chose when it was a kitten, or the kitten chose her. A freebie from a farmer’s wife on the edge of Loch Lomond. There’s not much kittenishness left, but there are fleas.

‘For ages after Kathy died, the cat was in mourning. She knew there was something very wrong. A place was missing and the man was no substitute.’

Kathy had left box files for Frank: ‘PENSIONS, TAX, HOUSE, ROYALTIES, BANK’.

The reader knows therefore Frank, to be frank, is a successful writer (with Royalties), much like we imagine Bernard MacLaverty, but it’s the cat in mourning, not the man.

But he can’t write, but still goes through the motions of sitting down at his desk (like many of us do).

Teresa has dropped in to help clear out Kathy’s old clothes. Donate it to charity. It seems sudden, but it’s been two years.

‘The writing comes and goes,’ she said. ‘Hasn’t it always?’

‘I suppose so.’

She pats his arm. And there’s a moment when the old man could have been Nelson, in A Time To Dance, when he could have done something stupid and destroyed everything.  

The collection of short stories begins with ‘A Love Picture: Belfast 1940.’ There are other stories with dates and place names. ‘Searching: Belfast 1971’ (Cal territory). ‘The End of Days: Vienna 1918.’ ‘Blackthorns: County Derry 1942.’ The opening story is the most memorable.

Soup Mix had the narrator forced by his boss to go to a face-to-face meeting in his home town, and seeing his mum and a crocodile of other old women out for a walk, but continuing on the Home, and buys her a spray of flowers to score Brownie points, to be seen to be doing the right thing. A feeling I know well.

In Wandering, the narrator is a teacher, another would-be writer, another feeling I know well. Her mother is very much with her. And she wonders if the Zimmer in the Hall is the equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own plea for would-be writers, with the pram in the hall killing the muse, just as effectively? Discuss.

Memory, like writing, is a strange beast. MacLaverty knows better than most when to pick up the beat. When to let silence do its work. What resonates with one reader won’t resonate with another. Read on.

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