Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1230
With the American publication in 1983 of Cal, a novel depicting the complexities of the Protestant-Catholic-British conflict in Northern Ireland, Bernard MacLaverty became the best-known Ulster writer on this side of the Atlantic. Following Cal, Lamb (1980), his first novel, and A Time to Dance and Other Stories (1982) is Secrets, and Other Stories, a collection of fifteen stories published in Ireland and Great Britain in the 1970’s. The stories avoid the political context of Cal, with only an occasional reference to British soldiers. Written in a simple, straightforward style, these stories examine the everyday lives of working-class people whose joys and sorrows are so universal they could be living almost anywhere. That they are citizens of Northern Ireland makes their situations seem even more desperate, the frequent humor of these situations unexpected and all the more effective.
At their best, MacLaverty’s stories resemble those of James Joyce and Frank O’Connor, his obvious models. The stories, however, are uneven, too often merely sketches, clearly the work of a writer still learning his craft. Some are pleasant but insubstantial. In “A Pornographer Woos,” the opening of which recalls Leopold Bloom spying on Gerty MacDowell in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), a writer, inspired while watching his wife on a beach, creates a mildly pornographic sketch; she reads it, and they return to their hotel room to make love. In “The Miraculous Candidate,” a schoolboy prays for help during an exam, levitates, and receives divine assistance. MacLaverty has a talent for whimsey, but the best stories in this collection deal with the more commonplace.
Dick, the protagonist of “The Bull with the Hard Hat,” has eight noisy children and a ninth on its way. Unfortunately, he is more successful at impregnating his wife than at his job: the artificial insemination of heifers. He can get no peace at home and none at work since increasingly (despite ten years’ experience) he fails to impregnate the cows and knows that he is to blame. Even if he were good at his job, he would find it an ordeal: “The long rubber glove, the cow’s hot insides, the constant prevailing smell of dung, the muck and clabber yards he had to tramp through. It was either that or home, he didn’t know which was worse.” Dick finds happiness only in his fantasies. Driving from job to job, he imagines he is Grand Prix champion Emmerson Fittipaldi. Pulled over to the side of a road to eat the bland lunch his wife has prepared, he imagines having sex with Carmel, one of the women in his office. Carmel represents not only the prospect of sex but also something even less likely—an ordered life: “With Carmel it would have been so different. They could have had two nice children and she would be there crisp and clean for him when he came home, the house immaculate, the toys tidied away.” In his pathetic retreat from the chaos of his life, Dick is typical of MacLaverty’s characters.
The nameless protagonist of “Between Two Shores” has a happy home life threatened by the fulfillment of his sexual fantasies. He thinks about the mess he has made of things while on a boat returning to Belfast from England where he has gone to work for a time. Hospitalized to have his appendix removed, he falls in love with a nurse. He is sexually attracted to her but also needs company in this alien land. He acquires a venereal disease from her and spends his passage home both worrying about what to do about it, afraid to tell his faithful wife, and trying to forget about it by approaching a pretty student. Unable to resolve his problem, he tries to wish it away. MacLaverty does not seem to be implying anything about England infecting Ulster but is simply presenting a man’s inability to deal with loneliness, guilt, and despair.
“Anodyne” is a lighter, more ironic look at loneliness. James Delargy, a teacher, has been devoted to his invalid mother. After she dies, a doctor suggests that he go away and begin rebuilding his life: “He must begin to see himself as an adult.” James goes to a seaside, hoping to meet people, especially females. He has spent most of his time with his mother, who once threw away his copy of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice because she killed a fly with it, and knows few people. Like Aschenbach in Mann’s novel, James discovers a vision of pure loveliness at the beach and makes a date. Her father arrives instead, informing James that the girl is only fifteen. The father is a professor of English at Trinity College, and the two spend the night discussing literature. James is much happier than he would have been with the girl. After meeting the professor’s charming wife, James thinks “how sad it was that his mother would never meet these lovely people. He was sure she would have approved.”
“Hugo,” the longest and best-written story in the collection, underscores MacLaverty’s debt to Joyce. As a boy, the narrator develops an attachment to one of his widowed mother’s tenants, Hugo, a pharmacy student. Hugo, who resembles Joyce, helps cure the boy’s stammer. He is also a Joyce expert and devotes his spare time to writing a novel. When the narrator goes to university, Hugo asks him to read the novel, and he is shocked: “It was all too embarrassingly bad. He had not even grasped the first principles of good writing.” After he tells Hugo, “as kindly as I could,” what he thinks, his friend shuns him. Some time later, Hugo hangs himself.
The narrator interrupts this story halfway through to explain how difficult it is for him to write about his friend, to give some sense of this man’s tragic life, “to swell a few fragments into something substantial.” This, of course, is what MacLaverty is attempting to do in each of these stories, and in “Hugo,” he succeeds well in connecting his themes of desperation, responsibility, guilt, and people’s ineffectual efforts to help one another, to save themselves.
In “St. Paul Could Hit the Nail on the Head,” a housewife visits her husband at his work, a demolition site. Walls ripped away, the interior of a house stands exposed: “Mary felt she shouldn’t look, seeing the choice of wallpapers: pink rosebuds, scorned in her own family, faded flowers, patterns modern a generation ago. She felt it was too private.” MacLaverty clearly disagrees since he is exposing the private moments of everyday lives in these stories. Like Mary, one may occasionally want to turn away, but MacLaverty’s skill and compassion keep the reader’s attention where he wants it to be.
MacLaverty’s talent, like that of so many Irish and British writers, is quiet, understated. In “Hugo,” the title character explains what his creator is trying to achieve:Literature is the science of feeling. The artist analyses what feelings are, then in some way or other he tries to reproduce in the reader those same feelings.Nuances. That’s the secret. The lines in the spectrum between pity and sympathy. Literature is the space between words. It fills the gaps that language leaves.
There are enough such nuances in Secrets, and Other Stories to make reading it a moving experience.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49
Booklist. LXXXI, October 1, 1984, p. 192.
British Book News. August, 1984, p. 192.
Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, October 4, 1984, p. 24.
Kirkus Reviews. LII, August 1, 1984, p. 707.
Library Journal. CIX, October 1, 1984, p. 1860.
The New Republic. CXCI, November 26, 1984, p. 39.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, November 11, 1984, p. 12.
Newsweek. CIV, January 14, 1985, p. 70.
Times Educational Supplement. June 8, 1984, p. 32.
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