One shouldn’t look to fiction for lessons from history, but reading the collected stories of one author across his whole career inevitably exposes the reader to the changing tides of the culture he writes about. Bernard MacLaverty’s Collected Stories displays both his genius with words, and the complexity of life in Belfast.
MacLaverty is a meticulous craftsman, but not a showy writer. He avoids elaborate phrases that draw attention to themselves, and instead displays a sharp ear for natural dialogue. I sometimes feel schitzophrenic that I can thrill to the jagged offbeat stories of Colin Barrett one day, and be held in thrall by MacLaverty’s restrained elegance the next. Surely they’re worlds apart in focus and execution? But, while I enjoy a young whipper-snapper like Kevin Barry pushing the dialogue in his stories to heightened extremes, I know that — although I might wish they would — few people really talk like that. Barry entertains by stretching Ireland’s musical and inventive language to its limits, but reading MacLaverty, we recognize the truth of his dialogue; he catches the regional inflections, the distinctive vocal tics, and unconscious phrases that fill the Belfast air, filling his characters with immediacy and life.
The power of such a close awareness of language is underlined in several of his stories written after the Troubles flared up in the late 1970s. A man out walking his dog is forced into a car at gunpoint and forced to recite the alphabet by loyalists attempting to determine whether he’s Catholic or not. In another, a man hitch-hiking is beaten with a hammer by thugs who can’t decode the subtle indications that connote one’s religion. The power and importance of language is conveyed in his stories in such a seemingly effortless manner, that it feels like lesser writers are simply unaware of the language’s layers of meaning.
These tales unconsciously reveal the changing fabric of Belfast life over time. The escalation of sectarian conflict is an obvious element that no writer could ignore during this period. But, we also see socio-economic changes reflected in his stories: some trades (such as that of a lonely calligrapher) disappear, while others appear for the first time (two middle-aged women turn their talents to phone sex).
MacLaverty’s stories remind me of a Rembrandt painting I saw in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin many years ago, Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. If you look at the picture up close (it depicts the Holy Family gathered around a fire at night) and from an angle, you’ll notice that the surface is varnished to a perfectly smooth and even finish. The only place the vitality and energy of the brushstrokes is allowed to be seen is in the fire itself. There the wild and untamed nature of the flames is matched by the energy and texture of the brushstrokes. The eye is drawn to the fire, this area of passionate brushwork in the midst of serene control.
It feels to me that MacLaverty operates in a similar way as a writer: his prose is polished, the words well-considered and rendered with a precise elegance, but the stories capture a moment of doubt, or opportunity, or uncertainty in the otherwise regular flow of his character’s lives. The mind is drawn to the drama, but the story really works in the contrast: the sense that the character (as well as the writer) understands the social world, the city, the religious context, so completely, so intimately, that when this moment of potential change arises, and both writer and character can’t help but be excited by it, by the potential for growth, for excitement, even as they understand the unlikelihood of overcoming the strict boundaries in place.
So, although MacLaverty’s stories may not be as instantly entertaining or obviously envelope-pushing as a writer like Kevin Barry or new-kid-on-the-block Colin Barrett, the level of craft conceals the author’s almost surgical understanding the motivations and deliberations of his characters, an interest that is utterly ruthless, and therefore unusually enlightening. Unlike the work many contemporary short-story writers, this is a collection I’ll re-read and savor again in future years.
Other recent Irish short story collections you might enjoy include:
Young Skins by Colin Barrett
Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry
Of Dublin and Other Fictions by Nuala Ní Chonchúir