A Mary Lavin talk that touched on Turgenev, Welty, Dickens and Donal Ryan

I’ve never met Eileen Battersby, but I was glad to be in attendance at Navan Library on Wednesday night for her talk about Mary Lavin’s status within the Irish and global literary pantheon (Note: I hate using the word ’pantheon’, especially in an opening sentence. But it’s lunchtime. I’m a bit rushed.)

The Literary Correspondent of the Irish Times, Battersby probably reads more books every year than I’ve read in my lifetime. You get the feeling she’d mop up the 154-strong long-list for the IMPAC and still find time to suggest a dozen books that were shamefully overlooked.

She’s both crazily scatty (one Dickens-related tangent during last night’s talk took her off-road for five minutes, and I’m not sure, by the time it ended, whether anyone could remember exactly what point she’d been making beforehand) and dazzlingly confident in her opinions – I loved her brief but cutting putdown of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad earlier this year.

That scattiness and strength of opinion was firmly in evidence on Wednesday night, and I’ll certainly be reaching for Eudora Welty and Turgenev as a result of her comments.

I will also fast-track Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart to the top of the “to-buy” list on foot of her somewhat breathless recommendation. Ryan, a Limerick-based civil servant, has attracted plenty of acclaim for his debut novel, and Battersby compared him very favourably to arguably the leading light among contemporary Irish writers:

You read [Kevin Barry’s] City of Bohane, and it’s a hoot, it’s very funny, but he doesn’t really have anything to say. The Spinning Heart is a little book but it’s really very good.

The Lavin talk, which is part of Meath County Council’s series of events celebrating the centenary of her birth, also brought an explicit exhortation from Battersby for the Council to make a more enduring commemoration of Lavin’s life and work – namely, by following the road tread by the Munster Literature Centre, which established the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2005.

Battersby’s unspoken words were that Lavin is at least the equal of O’Connor. She went on to use rugby parlance to talk about how an “Irish XV” of short story writers would stand alongside the Americans as the world superpower. Barring a few notable exceptions, including VS Pritchett, the English haven’t mastered the form, while the French have some wonderful practitioners without an established French short story tradition. (Continuing the thread, a “World XV” would see Lavin and William Trevor vying for a place on the team, she said.)

The Frank O’Connor version goes to a volume of short stories, but I wonder whether there’s an opportunity for a prospective Mary Lavin Short Story Award to recognise a single short story every year? (Note to Meath County Council: I live in Navan, so if you need any help…)

The main talk was preceded by a brief introduction by the wonderfully dignified Diarmuid Peavoy, husband of Lavin’s daughter Elizabeth and brother-in-law of the writer’s youngest daughter Caroline Walsh, the former Irish Times Literary Editor whose life ended in tragic circumstances late last year.

Peavoy offered some brilliant insights into Mary Lavin the person – she always wore black but loved white flowers above all others; she worked from morning until lunchtime sitting up in bed with her tea on the locker and notebooks before her on a wooden stand; and that while she was a fantastic cook she steadfastly refused to be photographed in the kitchen.

Well done to all involved on an excellent evening, and here’s to the inaugural Mary Lavin Short Story Award in 2013…

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