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.

Bernard MacLaverty (2017) Midwinter Break

As usual I was trying to remember if I’d read Bernard MacLaverty’s work before. I’m a great reader but not very good at it. His work Cal strikes a note, but what kind of note I’m not very sure. Memory wise, nothing. Midwinter Break is quite a simple story that follows that clichéd pattern of nothing happens twice.

An elderly couple Gerry and Stella Gilmore go on a short break from their home in Glasgow to Amsterdam. They’re Irish enough to split their faith between them. Religion is woman’s work and Gerry, once an architect and then a lecturer, is happy enough to indulge her and get on with his drinking. MacLaverty is good on this one. The little sins of indulgence that becomes obsession and then possession. One of Gerry’s pals, for example, once told him that he shouldn’t drink alone that people like him needed other around him to slow him down, he was a pace setter, drinking more and faster than others. I’m in the slow lane here. At home Gerry can away with it because they live separate lives, him with his music and his few drams before bedtime. Stella with her school-marmish ways and memberships of local committees and church groups.

One of the dramatic principles often repeated is characters must want different things and this produces conflict. When in Amsterdam Gerry has a bit of a fall and finds it difficult to hide how much he’s drinking from Stella. She throws a bombshell of her own, not as large as when her and her first-born son were almost killed by a bullet during the Troubles in Ireland in the early seventies, forty-two years earlier, but small enough to hurt and cause pain. Her reason for the Midwinter Break wasn’t just a holiday, but an exploration of dedicating her life to God, fulfilling a vow after that bullet had passed through her and joining a semi-religious community in the city called Beguines. Gerry’s hidden alcoholism is old news for her and she demands separation and a new life, a turning of the page, away from settled ways and shores. Dramatist as he is MacLaverty, of course, shows that resolution is not always resolution.