Though the long-term Scottish based but Belfast born Bernard MacLaverty is best known for his novels, two of which were adapted into films, Cal and Lamb, Adam Mars-Jones in The Times Literary Supplement noted that MacLaverty was someone "who has a real affinity with the short-story form." Does this mean that a short story writer is someone whose talent is smaller than that of a writer with a real affinity for the novel, or does the issue reside elsewhere, in the question of event versus character, or rather in expressing character through the singularity of event? Certain writers seem to understand this quite instinctively, and both Jorge Luis Borges and Raymond Carver are monumental writers who were given to the shorter form. They knew that their gifts were for minimalist elaboration, not for expansive character exploration. A writer who possesses this instinct for the short story form but for various reasons has moved in the direction of the novel, is Ian McEwan, so much so that a number of his novels would probably be better as short stories, as they manage to generate a key sequence that the novel exhausts but that the short story form could meaningfully contain. One thinks of Saturday, with its intruders in the house, The Child in Time, as the couple lose their child in a supermarket, Enduring Love with its horrific opening over a ballooning accident, and even Atonement, which makes a big book out of a terrible lie: young Briony's claim that she witnessed the man she is in love with rape someone.
This is of course an essay on MacLaverty and not McEwan, but perhaps they both share the gift for elaboration of character through the specifics of a situation, and consequently that expansion into the novel debilitates the talent rather than expands it. If Lamb is MacLaverty's best novel is it because it is little more than a novella, a book that finds a motif in the opening chapter and runs with it? As MacLaverty says, "The opening of Lamb- I remember writing the first scene, the one on the Larne to Stranraer ferry - has Michael, the religious brother, running away with the boy. He makes it clear 'we don't want to draw attention to ourselves, we're just slipping out, nobody has to see us, no fuss', and he's bought the boy a sandwich and the boy is feeding it to seagulls, and this big seagull comes down and whaap! Whaaps the sandwich from his hand." (The Barcelona Review) MacLaverty adds. "The boy creates the most enormous fuss, and everybody looks round. That was the first day of writing, and I thought, I like that scene. And then I thought, I wonder what would happen if all birds in this book became threatening creatures." Such an approach can be expanded in a long short story, maybe a novella, but would it work for a book of several hundred pages?
There are certain writers for whom the novel seems a natural form, from Balzac to Dickens, from George Eliot to Tolstoy, from Bolano (in 2666) to Gide (The Counterfeiters). In each instance the characters spill onto the page and have to be gathered together again over hundreds of pages. But with other writers one often feels that the premise is small enough to be contained by a shorter form and so the book length doesn't fill in necessary characterisation and event, but instead feels scenically over-detailed and narratively exhausted. It is a point that E.M. Cioran makes in The Temptation to Exist, when he says of the novel, "page after page, for pages and pages: the accumulation of inconsequence." Except his problem is more with the ever encroaching nature of the quotidian that would be evident in many of the great novels as well, and for Cioran was irrelevant next to the mythic singularity of older epics where what people had for dinner and how they wore their suits would be inconsequential. Our point is rather different and less sweeping but perhaps also concerns the nature of the quotidian, where the everyday enters into the novel not as elaboration of narrative and character, but as the inessential, as information that isn't uninteresting but that is far from necessary. Such judgements are obviously subjective, but when one thinks of passages in Saturday, in Atonement, and in MacLaverty's Grace Notes one senses we are idling, where in McLaverty's short fiction the details seem to echo back on the structure of the story. When In A Time to Dance we are offered details about the central mother's clothing, it is because at the same time, as the young protagonist will soon realise, his mother is stripping in the bar he happens to be next to. "He looked up at his mother's things, hanging on the hook; her tights and drawers were as she wore them, but inside out and hanging knock kneed on top of everything. In her bag he found a blond wig and tried it on, smelling the perfume of it as he did so." This is the everyday given tangible form, but it contains within it one half of a primal scene: shortly afterwards Nelson stands on some crates and we realise that what he is witnessing (even if Nelson doesn't get to see the details) is his mother dancing for the men in the bar. The sequence is a very fine example of the quotidian as metonymy: an accumulation of details that lead us to make certain assumptions without being given the whole picture. In such an approach the everyday elements of his mother's clothing, the men drinking in the bar, the smell of smoke, after she returns to the room he is in, all hint at the broader view. As the narrator says, "Nelson could see the bright points of sweat shining through her make-up. She still hadn't got her breath back fully yet. She smelt of drink."
Now if MacLaverty is seen as a very fine short story writer, he is also admired for his ability to get into youthful consciousness, a gift he feels he might have lost in more recent years. "Although I could see myself writing a book about a young person, I'm terrified of that because I just don't know what young people think and listen to and say. It would be very weird to try. I see kids going up and down here from the local school and I wonder 'what are they thinking?' They've all got their hair dyed blonde, they've all got the same tights - it's a girl's school by the way - they go out on weekends, they do wonderful things, but I just don't know what it is they do. I missed out on drugs. I missed all of these things, except for alcohol and nicotine." (The Barcelona Review) MacLaverty is perhaps acknowledging that the gift for metonymy links up to what one would conceivably know as a young child in a particular time and place. If a younger generation has a different set of assumptions, a different way of perceiving and shaping their reality, the story wouldn't work.
In stories like 'A Time to Dance' and also 'My Dear Palestrina', the young central character isn't at all perceptually unreliable, but he is perceptually limited, and central to these limitations are aspects surely based on what MacLaverty believes he would have known as a child of a particular generation. This is a variation of what MacLaverty calls, quoting Flannery O'Connor, "the gifts of the region". Equally we can talk of gifts of time: a generational awareness of what can be said and what one is likely to know. It is this instinct affiliated to the metonymy of the everyday that makes some of MacLaverty's stories precisely located, where the partial perspective creates a quiet mystery around the edges of the tale, maybe especially evident in 'My Dear Palestrina'.
Here we have a music teacher who sees that Danny has a talent, but where we also see that Miss Schwartz is not without complications. At one moment early in the story she tells Danny, "Music is why I do not die. Other people - they have blood in their arms...I am kept alive by music. It is the food of love, as you say. I stress that you will not believe me, but what you must do is trust me. "This is a pep talk of professional intent containing within it the revelation of creative loneliness. But Danny's role in the story isn't to understand this but to intuit it, to make of the various comments she offers, gestures she provides, and remarks from his parents and others, a world of quietly empathic focus, mixed with sexual awakenings. The complexity of the situation cannot be matched by his awareness of what is going on, and MacLaverty's achievement is to find a place between the boy's complexity of feeling and the complex nature of the events surrounding Miss Schwarz, without them being completely interconnected. If Danny were an adult then this might be very different. The empathy would be there because Danny would have a more complete view of Miss Schwarz, and his possible compassion for her would be based on understanding her place in the town. His feeling for her confusion wouldn't be matched by his own. When his parents offer judgements at the end of the story, calling her "a slut [as they spoke] of marriage and sin and Our Blessed Lady", they do so from a position of social authority: they understand the lay of the land, morally, and Miss Schwarz is a woman incapable of living up to these standards. A grown man might agree or disagree, but the young Danny is caught in contrary feelings: he enjoys the warmth of Miss Schwarz's home, knows she admires his playing, even comments on his good looks. But she is also a social pariah, someone whose pupils have steadily stopped coming, due to various rumours. Perhaps these feelings are exacerbated through the blacksmith, a man as individualist as Miss Schwarz, but whose position is political rather than aesthetic. "This bloody country is full of yes-men, and most of them's working class," adding, "'Yes, your honour, no, your honour.' Dukes and bloody linen lords squeezing us for everything we've got. Divide and conquer." When he says to Danny that "you haven't a baldy notion what I'm talking about, have you", Danny replies no, but this doesn't mean it falls on deaf ears: more that the ears are still young and susceptible to many different forces of influence from sources that have their own means of persuasion. At the end of the story Danny may run away from home, hiding out in his hut for several hours, but he also returns home eventually, "numb, past the point of shivering," with his mother now supporting him. "'Come into the heat, love', she said, 'come in from the night. Join us.'"
In both a 'Time to Dance' and 'My Dear Palestrina', MacLaverty works from a partiality of perspective through youthful limitation, and he gives us the quotidian without one feeling the everyday as arbitrary. When MacLaverty describes in the latter the character of the musician Mr Wyroslaski it has all the pertinence one attaches when we are young to someone we take against. Initially the narrator describes him as "a tall man with a very thin face. He had dark brown eyes, deep eyes, not unlike Miss Schwarz's own. His hair was very long, almost like a woman's", and shortly afterwards Danny wonders, after hearing that the man is called Mr Wyroslaski, why "all musicians have funny names". Later, he decides he dislikes Wyroslaski after the "man's bony hand had held the back of his neck", and watches as Wyroslaski listens to Miss Schwarz, his "mouth hung open and his eyebrows were raised liked pause markings, as if he did not believe what she was saying." A knowing, adult perspective could succinctly say that Mr Wyroslaski was a bohemian with designs on Miss Schwarz who saw in the young boy a strange type of rival. But the expansion into metonymic details captures well the partial perspective of young Danny.
However, a number of MacLaverty's stories are not about the young, so can he still offer the everyday without lapsing into needless description, of padding the narrative out with information that might be essential from a youthful perspective because no overview is attainable, but that can seem random from an adult? One of the problems perhaps with much contemporary writing it is that it has absorbed a formal innovation as a narrative stalling device. Stream of consciousness may have been a term first used by William James in Principles of Psychology, but became immensely useful in works by Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and others, as the flow of inner experience captured thought in motion. There is in Woolf's 'The String Quartet' lines like: "why then grieve? Ask what? Remain unsatisfied? I say all's been settled; yes; laid to rest under a coverlet of rose leaves, falling. Falling. Ah, but they cease. One rose lead, falling from an enormous height". In Joyce's Ulysses, we have passages like "He had seen a fair share go under in his time, lying around him field after field. Holy fields. More room if they buried them standing. Sitting or kneeling you couldn't. Standing?" In each instance there is the flow of life passing through the characters' consciousness, with the character's thoughts not at all 'immature', but instead vulnerable, provisional, associative. However, if we feel that this is not the phenomenology of all things temporarily stilled, but the exposition of character contained within the developments of modern technique, we may see that it has neither the radical flow of consciousness, nor the pertinence of detail that makes for a contained piece of prose. The novel then contains passages that build a character but don't illuminate the notion of character. However, if the stream of consciousness techniques in Joyce, Woolf and others are so important, it resides in them going beyond details in the life of the Blooms, Dedalus, Mrs Ramsay, Mrs Dalloway and towards utilising the novel to understand the possibilities of consciousness. It is consistent with Milan Kundera's claim that the novel is a great, impossibly paradoxical opportunity in which to explore man's inner existence, saying of Joyce: "Joyce's great microscope manages to stop, to seize, that fleeting instant and make us see it. But the quest for the self ends, yet again, in a paradox: The more powerful the lens of the microscope observing the self, the more the self and its uniqueness elude us." (The Art of the Novel)
Next to this type of ambition, MacLaverty's small truths are rewarding, but are they not the truths of discovering new areas of consciousness but instead fiction that stays well within the contours of the average individual, possessing conventional thoughts and feelings? If Kundera expects from the novelist new possibilities, MacLaverty is closer to the sort of writer the late period Tolstoy would have admired. "It will not be a separate class or rich people that appreciates art, but the whole people; so that for a work of art to be recognized as good, to be approved and disseminated, it will have to satisfy the demands, not of some people who live in identical and often unnatural conditions, but of all people, of the great mass of people who are in natural working conditions." (What is Art?)
It is easy to dismiss Tolstoy's book as the work of a religious crank and a great artist taking a wrong turn, but his point is not a useless one, and would perhaps have been all the better expressed if he accepted an art of elitism and an art of populism as two sides of the aesthetic coin. When Kundera talks positively of elitism, in an entry under the word in The Art of the Novel, he was writing at a time when he was living in exile because of the very policies that would come to pass nineteen years after the Russian Tolstoy published his book. Kundera had suffered at the hands of populist policies the great Russian was predicting and thought were necessary.
However, to see literature from the point of view of an ongoing tension between the universal that Tolstoy so insists upon, and the experimental Kundera regards as vital to the life of the novel, is also to help us understand what is fresh about a writer, while at the same time seeing what is stale, predictable, unnecessary. If one admires in MacLaverty in much of the writer's best short fiction his ability to view events from the tentative perspective of youthful protagonists, then equally we can see in a novel like Grace Notesthe superfluous that adds nothing to form and arrives at conventional, even predictable, character feeling. The entire relationship between central character Catherine and her partner seems tired, without at all being untrue. It achieves a universalism of feeling but does so through the predictability of recollected event. The partner is seen exclusively from Catherine's point of view - just as Miss Schwartz is seen from Danny's in 'My Dear Palestrina' and the mother in 'A Time to Dance' from Nelson's - but hers is full of contextualizing hindsight, where there's is allusive insight. When Catherine says after Dave fails to pick her up from the airport in Iona after she's flown back from Glasgow with their newborn baby, "this is bloody typical", we might feel the same: that we are in a predictable situation of the unreliable boyfriend. Here is a man whose only act of consistency lies in his unreliability and his capacity to generate disappointment. He is a charming drunk who can turn charmless and violent at night's end and without much provocation. As Ambrose Clancy says in a review in The Washington Post: Dave "is a lout who abuses Catherine and is finally carted off to dry out. He is weakly drawn, a plot device to provide a profane immaculate conception - here and then gone for good, an afterthought." This seems equally the case with the father, whose death opens the book and contextualises it, a man whose devotion to the holy spirit was matched equally by the stuff that came out of a bottle - another drunkard. MacLaverty taps into the universal, but it is crude oil.
The area of distinctiveness in Grace Notes is MacLaverty's exploration of music: Catherine is a composer. Yet even here we might feel less that the writer is exploring new terrain, than researching a novel into existence. A lot of the writing is descriptively specific, showing MacLaverty's knowledge of music, but one could also say the same of McEwan's Saturday, where detailed accounts of brain surgery allow the novel to pause imaginatively as the documentative takes over. It is a return to naturalism (which Tolstoy disliked), where Zola insisted on the importance of research in relation to novel writing. In the contemporary novel it can often look like filler: a writer producing a novel out of their library time rather than their creative intuition. In the acknowledgements to Saturday, McEwan thanks Neil Kitchen MD, saying "it was a privilege to watch this gifted surgeon at work in the theatre over a period of two years." It's as if the research allows the story to pass for a novel. Though MacLaverty says "I don't ever research much" (Culture), Grace Notes' take on music sometimes reads a little like McEwan's cognizance of brain surgery.
Perhaps one reason why one feels MacLaverty has a real affinity with the short story, and more specifically with the limited consciousness of youthful figures, is because the story and the often third person but contained point of view can't allow for this sort of empty elaboration. There is no space in terms of length and no opportunity, in terms of angle of attack, for the knowledgeably digressive. Now interestingly where there is a passage in Grace Notes that suggests this youthful limitation, it retains mystery but at the cost of plausibility. There is a moment from the past where the narrator mentions a man called Jack Bolton. He would usually stand by the swings making sure the kids were okay, but one day the police came and he was carted off. Catherine asks her mother why, and her mum replies that she shouldn't talk to strangers, adding "they could hurt you". Not much more is made of Jack Bolton than this, but he seems a distant cousin to Miss Schwarz, where gossip and authority lead to lives being destroyed. But where 'My Dear Palestrina' gives texture to this question, in Grace Notes it becomes just another memory in Catherine's mind, and we might wonder whether she wouldn't have known a bit more about it than that if it still concerned her years later. From a youthful, immediate account that we find in 'My Dear Palestrina', context is necessarily missing. In Grace Notes do we not feel with the combination of years past and Catherine now a grown-up, that more information could, and should be provided?
MacLaverty gets the balance frequently right in his short fiction, even if the characters are, like Catherine, older people looking back. In both 'Secrets' and 'Hugo', the aunt in the former story and the eponymous character in the latter retain their mystery without at all forcing us to call into question the plausibility of the tale. In 'Secrets', the unnamed central character asks his maiden aunt Mary whether she has any stamps since he's started collecting, and as he steams off the stamps he comes across a bundle of letters that his aunt insists aren't to be touched. One evening his aunt goes out and the boy starts looking through the letters and reads details of a love affair, and his aunt later catches him with the bundle. "'You are dirt', she hissed, 'and always will be dirt. I shall remember this till the day I die.'" The boy isn't that much older when his aunt dies - he is doing his A levels - but time has clearly passed, and he is desperate for Mary to forgive him. As his aunt's letters are being put into the fire, he asks whether Mary said anything about him before she died, and his mum replies, "not that I know of - the poor thing was too far gone to speak, God rest her." MacLaverty tells us that the boy felt "a hardness in his throat...and he cried silently into the crook of his arm for the woman who had been his maiden aunt, his teller of tales, that she might forgive him." Here we might feel that the level of awareness and the degree of mystery are nicely balanced, with the boy possessing enough maturity when he is slightly older to understand something of his aunt's anger, and a little of his own need to be forgiven. The sequence about Jack Bolton from Grace Notes could easily have been opened up into a short story, but sits awkwardly within the context of the novel.
In 'Hugo', the first person narrator is again someone looking back on his younger self, and while the gap is a little wider, it is still a story of a youthful self reminiscing about a still younger one. Here the character is someone intrigued by the lodgers his mother takes in after his father dies, and especially Hugo, who seems to have read almost everything, and later, works on a novel. When a little older and of pub age, Hugo and the narrator have a drink in the bar and Hugo tells him of a novel he's been writing, the narrator asks to look at it, and discovers it to be terrible and Hugo seems to grasp this. By the end of the story, while at the wedding of the other lodger who shared a room with Hugo, the lodger and the narrator wonder what they could have done differently as they discuss Hugo's suicide not that long before. But the problem resides much more with the fact that for all Hugo's intelligence, he couldn't write the novel he needed to produce, could not join Joyce, Beckett and others in the grand tradition of Irish writing. At least that is what we might surmise, since of course we are getting the narrator's point of view, and have to take as given that the book is awful: as the narrator says, "I was tempted to quote some passages of the novel here but after deep consideration I have decided against it. It was all so embarrassingly bad. He had not even grasped the principles of good writing."
In 'Secrets' the central character feels justifiably guilty about an action he could have prevented, but where he would have to accept the death was inevitable and natural. In 'Hugo', the narrator feels equally awful but for very different reasons. It is not his fault that Hugo was without talent, and should he have pretended the book was a great work to keep Hugo's false hopes alive and his body alive also? In each instance the stories contain subtler shades of ethical thinking than a book like Grace Notes which manages given the 277 pages to detail the characters of the father, Dave and Catherine's mother, but not give them shade. In the shorter works MacLaverty's necessary brevity allows subtleties that leave us wondering, interpreting, without the certitude we feel the added length has given us in the novel.
If MacLaverty has a gift for the shorter form it might be useful to look at his and other contemporary writers' work where we believe added length leads to diminishing returns when it comes to point of view and the consequent possibilities in ambiguity of behaviour. MacLaverty more than most writers of his generation seems to know this: Grace Noteswas his first novel in more than decade, and in between and thereafter he has focused mainly on short stories: a total oeuvre of five collections to four novels. He might not be an important figure whose short fiction illustrates a major talent, like Carver or Borges, but he is someone who, if working in a literary climate where stories were as respected as longer works, would have been seen as a consistent figure. When Clancy says of Grace Notes "this is a bad book by a good writer", we are inclined to agree.
© Tony McKibbin