Mary Lavin Lavin, Mary (Vol. 4) - Essay

Lavin, Mary (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lavin, Mary 1912–

An Irish short story writer and novelist, Mary Lavin is concerned in her fiction with the despair and frustration of lonely people. See also Mary Lavin Criticism (Volume 18), Mary Lavin Criticism (Volume 99), and Mary Lavin Short Story Criticism.

Affinity is the key word that, without announcing itself as a word, suffuses the mind of at least one reader when he lives within the stories of Mary Lavin. Maybe, it is more of a quality than a word: it is not nailed to a page in a dictionary; rather, it emanates from people in relationship with nature, with houses, with (rarely) the ways of cities, with, above all, each other—with all of these, in fluent conjunction. It also includes its opposite, for, through her tender irony, Mrs. Lavin causes loneliness itself to be a quality that does not categorize, but, rather, runs through, human kind. Contrast may often provide her dramatic effect; but unity is her theme.

No story in In the Middle of the Fields could illustrate this point with more beautiful firmness than "The CuckooSpit." As in all of her narratives, the subject is simple, almost banal. She is not an author who has to prop up mediocre writing and lack of insight with off-the-trail excursions. Nor does she over-decorate simplicity. Even investigation is not her main interest. It is a hovering empathy that is her chief effect. She darts from character to character—centering, for emphasis, on one, but being all of them….

There is a quality of genuine refinement which is native to Mrs. Lavin's work, and unforced. It establishes the tone….

Surely, though, the big test for an author of Mrs. Lavin's stature is the taking of some of the drab constituents of life and, basing her story on one character yet moving from individual to individual, finding new insights into known human traits, new understandings. This is found in her story "One Summer." There is no apology for human weakness or attacks upon it. Again, there is empathy. But there is also a new look at the bared ironies of the human state, no comment made, but a suggestion of understanding acceptance, as of a kind helpfulness before the dying, a thoughtful pause in hopeless movement, a stillness which is an action in itself, an acknowledgment of union….

Mrs. Lavin's plotting is so simple that it can almost be predicted: it is essence for which she is looking, with which she identifies herself; and it is the typical in which she finds it….

The country and nature and its characteristic parts play a large role in these stories; but they do not obtrude, take over, become a character or a rhetorical flourish on a banner or (much worse) all of these, as they tyranically do in the case of some Southern writers of the United States. They are established in a phrase, in a delicately suggestive human relationship…. Very, very rarely is there overwriting….

[This] is … a volume of stories whose delicacy of perception is matched only by firm control of situation and theme. Here is contemporary and honest storytelling, honorably unanxious about demand and successfully committed to greatness.

John Hazard Wildman, "Affinity-and Related Issues," in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 515-19.

The thing about Mary Lavin is that she knows how to start. Contrary to popular conviction, a tremendous number of people know where to chop it off—too many, in the short story: they write without conviction, but with excessive craftsmanship…. Only they never got anything started in the first place. They pretend inscrutability. And hope.

Not so Mary Lavin. She gives at once the impression of knowing what she is going to do, having been caught up in one of those human entanglements which are not "way out," which we ourselves recognize as going on about us. Only she finds that which eludes us or which at least leaves us mentally and spiritually tongue-tied, so that we can formulate it neither to other people nor (more hopelessly graspingly) to ourselves. She can, and does. Typically, the prime matter is tenderness. We feel that she recollects in tranquillity, has it eventually all there, and talks it into her typewriter….

So simple it is to begin a great short story—when you know where you are going…. There is Wordsworthian simplicity, without the leech-gatherer bent double under his load of pompous pantheism….

Mrs. Lavin is the short story writer of our times who is capable of viewing philosophically, in the wide sense of the word, the relationship between life and death without being prosy or melodramatic. She knows that the two go together. She knows that in life we must always take life. In "A Tragedy" she pretends to give us a choice between loneliness and life on the one hand and death on the other. But she gives us no choice, and we don't want one. Life is potentiality, she insinuates, even on its loneliest, most nearly sordid, terms. And in "A Pure Accident," her fine study of a bulky, sad, pathetically, mentally foolish priest, she avoids easy brutal caricature. Instead, she shows her usual firm, restrained but genuine tenderness: here, too, even on the grubbiest level, life has its potentialities….

[She] is never overwhelmed by anything. Life for her is always examining and finding, within the suggestive guidance of a large Catholic conception. Within Mrs. Lavin's stories, there is a cosmic awareness, something of grandeur.

John Hazard Wildman, "Beyond Classification-Some Notes on Distinction," in The Southern Review, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 233-42.

There is an unrelenting, nearly fevered side to Miss Lavin's short stories, for they are about nothing so much as the probing of one mind by another. That sort of thing does become oppressive in her work from time to time, but never enough to diminish seriously the art of her stories. Her characters are always nagging but interesting. There is a sadness in the view they have of their lives, which seems not out of place, given those lives. They are full of that hopelessness that is the underside of wild ambition; their relationships are tainted by a general disappointment with things but are moved forward by spurts of hope just as surely. Miss Lavin is an expert reconnoiterer in this sort of territory….

[Suspense] is what keeps Miss Lavin's stories afloat when they are in danger of being weighted down by sensibility….

There is a kind of scholarly ascetic type among the Irish that Miss Lavin knows well and punishes roundly. It is her capacity to create characters whose fate seems both just and terrible that puts her among the better practitioners of her craft.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 11, 1973, p. 44.

If anyone is interested in encountering great art, then let him turn to the breathtaking title story of Mary Lavin's new collection, A Memory and Other Stories. Mary Lavin is a superb writer, and to one degree or another the other four stories in the book are worth your careful attention, but inevitably they suffer from being placed in the same volume with "A Memory."

It is a story of the utmost simplicity, without effects. Dialogue is sparse. Most of the action is interior….

Mary Lavin never raises her voice. Her illumination in this story, as in her others, is invariably quiet. Ireland, her country and the setting of most of her stories, is a country of omissions, repressions and silences….

Certainly the subject matter of Mary Lavin's art has been determined by the landscape of Ireland. Its other writers tell us as well of its life-denying ways, the slow oozing away of lives, the bitterness that fills up the emotional world as the fog does the physical one. And from James Joyce's Dubliners down through the work of Liam O'Flaherty, Frank O'Conner, Sean O'Faolain, Bryan MacMahon and a healthy handful of others, we have been introduced to the tyrannical old fathers and mothers, the ardent young priests and the arid old ones, the laughing girls soon to cry and the lovers who will find their only joy in death. For a small country with a difficult history, its literary harvest has been astonishing; notoriously, it is a land of great talkers where the artistic impulse is channeled almost exclusively into literature and theater.

Even in such company Mary Lavin stands out by the quality of her art. It goes without saying that she writes well in a graceful style that calls little attention to itself, but she is neither a stunning stylist nor an innovator. Her triumph is her vision of life and her attitude toward her characters, and it is these that turn "A Memory" into a great work of art. No matter how reprehensible her characters are, no matter how much suffering they have caused, she does not grow at their expense or hold them up to us for shared contempt. It sounds old-fashioned, and perhaps it is, to speak of a writer's humanity in an age when parody, black humor and self-conscious despair dominate fiction, but so be it.

Michele Murray, "Human Voices Wake Us," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 30, 1973, p. 3.

[One] can only celebrate the attention finally being given in her natal land to this most polished and Jamesian of Irish storytellers. With the septuagenarian Sean O'Faolain, who is a decade older, [Mary Lavin] stands presently as the class-of-the-field in the cameo genre which Irish writers have graced and dominated for a half-century.

Her territory [in A Memory and Other Stories] is again the resurgent human heart that wrests victory from the piquant melancholy of worldly circumstances that weigh it down. Her stories, like Henry James's, build outward from cluttered narrative occasions toward "the distinguished thing," the still-point of special, sad, and bravely encountered understanding.

R. J. Thompson, in Best Sellers, October 1, 1973, pp. 293-94.

"A Memory and Other Stories" is Mary Lavin's fifteenth book, and her thirteenth collection of short stories. She has long been recognized as one of the finest of living short-story writers. Uninterested in formal experimentation, she has concentrated her genius upon certain archetypal or transpersonal experiences as they touch—sometimes with violence—fairly ordinary people. The five stories in this collection emphasize the universality of certain experiences—love, self-sacrifice, the need to relinquish the world to those who follow us—but never at the expense of the particular. Mary Lavin's ability to transcribe the physical world, especially the green damp world of rural Ireland where many of her stories are set, is as remarkable as ever. She rarely strains for metaphors, yet her prose is "poetic" in the best sense of that word; if her people talk perhaps more beautifully than might seem credible, that is what art is all about.

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 25, 1973, p. 7.

According to John Braine's recent sensible-absurd anti-Anti-Novel handbook Writing a Novel, what masterpieces do is penetrate to the heart of the human condition. And 'once a reviewer uses the phrase [the human condition], you're home and dry.' The second volume of Mary Lavin's stories—justly celebrated for celebrating provincial Irishness—demands, like the first volume, every tribute about penetrating to the heart of the human condition the critic might muster. Her intense preoccupation with the lovingly charted detail of the narrowest of Irish and Catholic lives expands magically to catch the widest kind of humanity. The comparison with Turgenev that 'An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands' invites, is thoroughly just and applicable to the whole collection.

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman, July 5, 1974, p. 23.