After the momentum of the first week or so of this blog’s existence I slackened off over the past few days. I hold an extra-long long weekend responsible, but a couple of extra days off allowed me an opportunity that I might not otherwise have had to acquaint myself with the work of Mary Lavin.
I was in my local arts centre and library in Navan on Friday (a couple of times a week, as I pass the Solstice, the words of the Tommy Tiernan stage gag come to mind: “[A Navan] Arts festival? What the fuck do you want an arts festival for? Haven’t yis got a shopping centre?”) last Friday where I belatedly became aware of the fact that Meath County Council are running a series of events to celebrate the centenary of Mary Lavin’s birth.
Lavin published two novels, but she’ll forever be remembered as a short story writer. Where she’s remembered at all, that is, given that most or maybe all of her books are now, sadly, out of print. So it’s fantastic to see the local authority, arts centre and library get together to promote the work and life of this writer, whose rise to literary acclaim coincided with her time living in nearby Bective, which provided the setting for her debut book of short stories “Tales from Bective Bridge” in 1942.
I confess, with plenty of shame attached, that until this week I had never read a single word of Mary Lavin. This is not to say that I knew nothing of her. Growing up within two miles of Bective Abbey, the farm around which Lavin’s family ran in the 1930s and ‘40s, I was aware of the ties between my home place and this renowned writer.
For some reason, though, that perception was as far as it went. I have a foggy recollection that there may have been a Lavin short story in the English book we studied for the Junior Cert 20-odd years ago, but generally the stories we got through were by men – stories by Frank O’Connor and Michael McLaverty spring readily to mind.
That’s a real shame, but holding a series of commemorative events is a decent start to addressing the situation, because reading some of Mary Lavin’s short stories now it is not hard to see how she was held in such acclaim. I got my hands on two collections at Navan Library, where the helpful assistant plucked them from the oblivion of the downstairs store on request.
And reading these books over the last few days has also made me think: when exactly did short stories become so, well, short?
“The Becker Wives” is exceptional, but it would surely never be categorised as a short story nowadays. It’s 60 pages of small type, the density of the slowly unfurling plot mirrored by the density of the text on the page. Given the generous spacing which has become almost the norm in modern publishing, “The Becker Wives” could easily have stretched to 150 or 200 pages, making it more novel than novella, never mind short story.
“Lilacs”, “The Long Ago” and “A Single Lady” were all equally noteworthy, from two different perspectives: readability on the one hand, and worthy of study on the other.
These are stories that deserve to be read by a wider audience. Judging from the fact that events have taken place around the world this year, at which she has been acclaimed by writers such as Colm Tóibín, Lavin is clearly respected by writers, particularly those who have been immersed in the Irish short story tradition.
The list of events in the coming weeks include a talk at Navan Library by Irish Times literary correspondent Eileen Battersby (as an aside that many will be familiar with, Lavin’s youngest daughter Caroline Walsh was the much loved literary editor of the Irish Times until her tragic death late last year) and theatre performances of two of Lavin’s short stories, “Happiness” and “The Widow’s Son”, adapted by playwrights Deirdre Kinahan and Padraic McIntyre, in the fantastic riverside setting of Bellinter House, a half-mile or so from Bective Abbey.
I look forward to reading more of Mary Lavin’s exquisite sentences, and listening to others talk about them, over the next few weeks.
The full programme of events for Mary Lavin Season can be downloaded in PDF form from the Meath County Council website here.