Lavin, Mary (Vol. 99)
Mary Lavin 1912–1996
American-born Irish short-story writer and novelist.
For further information on Lavin's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 18.
Lavin was one of Ireland's most respected contemporary writers. Although her short stories explore everyday events in the Irish countryside, the thoughts and actions of her characters often spark a deep personal resonance with her readers. She describes convincingly the eccentricities and illogic of average people and it is this character development, rather than her plots, which gained her critical acclaim. Born in Massachusetts, Lavin immigrated to Ireland as a child and grew up in the environs of Dublin. In 1934 she received a degree in English, with honors, from University College in Dublin. She continued her studies there, earning an M.A., with honors, in 1936. While writing her dissertation, she wrote and published her first story, "Miss Holland" (1938), which received favorable attention. Lavin subsequently abandoned her graduate studies to write fiction, and, in 1942, married William Walsh, with whom she had three daughters. Widowed twelve years later, Lavin continued to write, publishing thirteen short story collections and two novels. Best known for her short stories and novellas, the form she preferred, Lavin received three Guggenheim Fellowships, the Katherine Mansfield Prize, and the Aos Dana Award. Critics praised her ability to create contained, even isolated settings for her characters with great brevity and efficiency. She often wrote about poignant moments in the lives of families; not necessarily instances of dramatic action, but moments of profound insight. The sparse style of her work and its melancholy mood lead critics to compare it to that of some Russian writers, particularly Anton Chehkov. As Jean Stubbs wrote, Lavin "invites us to contemplate with her the infinite sadness and beauty of the world, the divine inconsequences of life."
Tales from Bective Bridge (short stories) 1943; revised edition, 1978
The Long Ago and Other Stories (short stories) 1944
The House in Clewe Street (novel) 1945
The Becker Wives and Other Stories (short stories) 1946
At Sallygap and Other Stories (short stories) 1947
Mary O'Grady (novel) 1950
A Single Lady and Other Stories (short stories) 1951
The Patriot Son and Other Stories (short stories) 1956
A Likely Story (juvenilia) 1957
Selected Stories (short stories) 1959
The Great Wave and Other Stories (short stories) 1961
The Stories of Mary Lavin 3 vols. (short stories) 1964–85
In the Middle of the Fields and Other Stories (short stories) 1967
Happiness and Other Stories (short stories) 1969
The Becker Wives (short stories) 1971
Collected Stories (short stories) 1971
The Second-Best Children in the World (juvenilia) 1972
A Memory and Other Stories (short stories) 1972
The Shrine and Other Stories (short stories) 1977
Mary Lavin: Selected Stories (short stories) 1981
A Family Likeness and Other Stories (short stories) 1985
In a Cafâe (short stories) 1995
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James F. Clarity (obituary date 27 March 1996)
SOURCE: "Mary Lavin, 83, Wove Tales of Irish Experience," in The New York Times, March 27, 1996, p. D21.
[In the following obituary, Clarity provides an overview of her life and career and comments on the style and major themes of her fiction.]
Mary Lavin, whose short stories and novels about the conflicts in the hearts of her fellow Irish men and women transcended mere tales of life in Ireland, died on Monday at a nursing home here [Dublin, Ireland]. She was 83.
Ms. Lavin was the author of 19 collections of short stories and three novels. She won three Guggenhelm Fellowships and a number of literary awards, including the Katherine Mansfield Prize, in 1961. Her stories appeared regularly in The New Yorker.
Her death was front-page news in The Irish Times, whose chief book critic, Eileen Battersby, called her "one of modern Irish fiction's most subversive voices" and said, "Her art explored often brutal tensions, disappointments and frustrations dictating the relationships within socalled 'normal' families."
Ms. Lavin's favorite form was the short story, which she once likened to "a flash of lightning lighting up the whole landscape all at once." In a 1976 interview she was quoted as saying "Publishers are definitely unfair to short-story writers. Since the essence of...
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Mark D. Hawthorne (essay date Fall 1994)
SOURCE: "Words that Do Not Speak Themselves: Mary Lavin's 'Happiness'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 683-88.
[In the essay below, Hawthorne focuses on language and meaning in Lavin's story "Happiness," arguing that the story suggests an incongruence between language and meaning.]
In the short story "Happiness" (1969) Mary Lavin constructed a text in which the characters', and especially the narrator's, bewilderment over and confusion of the signification of key words points both to the arbitrariness of the words themselves and to the narrator's inability to understand the story that she tells. The narrator's attempt to account for her mother's enigmatic use of the word "happiness" illustrates the futility of trying to comprehend verbal constructs; the speaker's original construct and the narrator's reconstruction of what she thinks that construct signifies negate each other in such a way that the reader must accept that, in the final analysis, words cannot communicate. If "the main purpose of the narrative … is to capture and evaluate Vera's philosophy of life," Lavin has made the inability to communicate a major part of that purpose.
Lavin unabashedly based the story on her own experience: like Vera, she was left after the death of her husband in 1953 with the responsibility of raising...
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Reviews Of Lavin's Recent Work
Craig Brown (review date 29 November 1985)
SOURCE: "Breathing Hope and Despair," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4313, November 29, 1985, p. 1353.
[In the following review of A Family Likeness, Brown comments on Lavin's themes and style.]
There is something rather un-Irish about Mary Lavin's prose: it doesn't sing or soar or weep, it has no lilt, no twang even, and the sentences straggle and falter and thud. There is hardly a sentence in her new book of short stories, her first for eight years, which could be described as "beautifully turned", and she salvages no aphorisms or last-line truths from the sadness of her tales. The only poetic line in the book—"Nature ever was a deceiver"—is uttered by a newly-wed young woman. "Surely this was a strange thing for a young girl to say on her honeymoon?" her husband thinks, years later. V.S. Pritchett recently said that his own short stories are concerned with those moments in which there is a change in his characters' lives; in general, Mary Lavin's could be said to concern those moments when it becomes clear—though not always to the characters—that things will never change. Lavin's sadnesses are too personal to be fêted by rhythm, too isolated to be relieved by a moral, too sparse for beauty.
She writes mainly of marriages and families. Her characters are not alone in a social sense: the...
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C. L. Innes. "Living in Separate Worlds." Irish Literary Supplement 7, No. 2 (Fall 1988): 20.
Favorably reviews The House in Clewe Street, which, Innes argues, "begins to fill a substantial gap in the subject matter of Irish fiction—the world of middle class Catholics in the towns and cities."
Patricia K. Meszaros. "Woman as Artist: The Fiction of Mary Lavin." Critique XXIV, No. 1 (Fall 1982): 39-54.
An overview of Lavin's work focusing on feminist themes in her fiction.
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