Mary Lavin, by Elke D’hoker (ed), Irish Academic Press, 304 pp, €22.45, ISBN: 978-0716531814
Mary Lavin was undoubtedly one of the most significant Irish writers of the twentieth century. Yet her work has, in the last few decades, attracted very little interest from either readers or scholars. As Elke D’hoker, the editor of Mary Lavin, states in her introduction, Lavin received significant recognition in the 1970s – when she had already been writing for some thirty years – but since then only a dozen scholarly articles concerned with her work have appeared and her books have largely gone out of print. The recent centenary celebrations of her birth have sparked some renewed interest in her writings, and two of her short story collections (Happiness and Other Stories and Tales from Bective Bridge) have been reissued, suggesting that a change may finally be under way. Mary Lavin has been conceived in that same context, seizing the moment and looking to contribute towards rectifying the neglect of Lavin’s work. The publication’s expressed aim is “to offer a comprehensive overview of her oeuvre, which spans almost half a century”. To this end, eleven scholars from various backgrounds have been brought together to discuss her work.
The question of neglect of Lavin’s work forms one of the book’s recurrent topics. Some authors address it directly, suggesting possible reasons for the slippage into obscurity; others engage with it indirectly through analysis of the writing – presenting new angles of inquiry, shedding light on overlooked aspects of Lavin’s work, showing how she was only partially understood, or in some ways completely misunderstood, in the past. One of the acknowledged strengths of Lavin’s writing lies in the way in which she captures in it the structures and atmosphere of mid-twentieth-century Irish society. As she grew up on a different continent, in the United States, her perspective on Irish reality is intrinsically comparative, and this gives her narratives a unique texture – at once intimately familiar and detached. Because her stories are so firmly rooted in the Ireland of a certain time, they have often been reduced to the status of well-written social commentaries. A number of the essays in Mary Lavin draw attention to this issue and focus their energies on demonstrating how Lavin did more than just put up a mirror to Irish society – how her works in fact offer a deliberate artistic stand. These essays make a very good case for Lavin as a multi-faceted artist whose works deserve more serious attention.
Over the years, critics have attempted to discuss Lavin’s texts in line with certain seemingly relevant trends in Irish literature – namely the phenomenon of the modern Irish short story as represented by Frank O’Connor and his contemporaries, and feminist studies. This, however, has proven to be of limited value; the writer does not sit comfortably in either of these contexts. As is made apparent in several of the essays in Mary Lavin, the writer had her own unique creative agenda, and her writing was often innovative in unexpected ways. The absence of a suitable critical framework thus emerges as a likely reason for her work having fallen into neglect. Accordingly, what the volume promotes – and presents – is a fresh reassessment of her texts. Breaking new ground, it points towards an exciting new phase in Lavin criticism.
The essays range between a broad overview of the writer’s life and work (by Maurice Harmon) and a detailed, in-depth discussion of a single story (by Julie Anne Stevens). While each author has his/her own specific area or aspect of Lavin’s work to address, and the essays thus cover a remarkably wide range of topics, there at the same time exist interesting overlaps between them, producing an illuminating multiplicity of views on some subjects and pointing readers back to the texts.
Drawing on previously unexamined correspondence, Gráinne Hurley offers an account of Lavin’s long-distance communications with her New Yorker editor Rachel MacKenzie, demonstrating that the writer’s willingness to comply with the magazine’s often rather extensive editorial suggestions was partly artistic and partly financial. It is also made clear how very important the New Yorker connection was in the context of Lavin’s return to writing following her husband’s death. Heather Ingman writes about Lavin’s portrayal of Irish masculinity, asserting that the writer anticipated much of the theoretical writing on the subject that would emerge at the end of the century. She observes that Lavin devotes the same degree of attention to male and female characters, and that she “persuasively conveys the anxiety that hides behind masculine performance”. Giovanna Tallone’s essay also engages with the issue of performance, from a different critical angle, uncovering theatrical elements present in several of Lavin’s early stories, showing how concepts such as rehearsal, performance, actor and spectator function as a metaphor for the fixed social roles everyone seems to play. Particular attention is paid to those characters who struggle to find a script that would bring them out of their loneliness and make them belong. The Irish-American background to Lavin’s stories forms the topic of Theresa Wray’s essay. Arguing for a biographical reading of the writer’s work, she examines her unconventional Big House narratives which she considers “noteworthy because of some fictional distance from the locations of the middle-class, mid-range economy”, as well as for the unconventional marriage of the subject of the Big House and the genre of the short story.
Jeanette Shumaker examines class distinction in Lavin’s “The Small Bequest” and “The Mock Auction”. Drawing on the theories of René Girard and Julia Kristeva, she shows how these stories question rigid postcolonial dichotomies in relation to class. In the course of her discussion of the characters in focus, whose predicament arises from the fact that they are neither servants nor members of the families they live with, she engages with the subtleties of Lavin’s narrative technique, offering a great deal of insight into the writer’s intentions. Shumaker opens her essay by considering the question of Lavin’s place in Irish literature, and the related issue of her work’s neglect. In this context she points to the existence of censorship in Lavin’s time, hinting at the impact it may have had on the writer’s style, especially where social critique was concerned. It is interesting to note that this is the only place in the volume where censorship is mentioned, tentatively, as a possibly significant factor in the context of Lavin’s writing. It has occurred to critics elsewhere that in order to avoid censorship of her works, Lavin may have learned to rely on devices such as ellipsis, allusion and irony more extensively than would otherwise have been the case. What has not been considered by anybody, however, although it arguably represents the missing piece in the puzzle of the neglect of Lavin’s work, is the impact of censorship on the writer’s reputation and legacy.
Mary Lavin published her first few books in the 1940s, when in the politically charged post-independence climate there was in Ireland little appreciation for literature and art in general, as in the wake of the civil war the country stood on rather shaky ground and the search for national identity was being conducted in political and religious terms. Censorship of publications was introduced in 1929, and over the four decades of its existence virtually all Irish writers of note would see their works banned under its terms. The central ground for the prohibition of books was (sexual) indecency, but as the letter of the law was rather vague, the censors often relied on the spirit of it, which in practice meant that the definition of the term “indecent” could be extended to include blasphemy, social criticism and various aspects of the reality of modern life. Consequently, such big names of Irish literature as Kate O’Brien, Frank O’Connor, Samuel Beckett and John McGahern would appear (often repeatedly) on the official lists of prohibited publications. Interestingly, Mary Lavin was never one of them; her work was never banned. It could be argued, however, that this made little difference to how she was and would later be perceived by Irish readers.
Nevertheless, though none of her books was actually banned, Lavin belonged to what could be termed the “censored generation” of Irish writers, and her name would come to be associated with what was seen as a bleak time in Irish cultural life. Later, people would be happy to look away from those years, and consequently most of the writers who had peaked at that time would be regarded with reserve. It is true that following the abolition of censorship in 1967 – which reflected the huge change in Irish society that had by then taken place – Mary Lavin received considerable recognition. It should, however, be noted that a lot of this recognition came from the United States, which is also where two of the three monographs dedicated to her work were published. While she received a number of honours in Ireland as well, these did not generate a vast readership for her writings, and the level of attention afforded her works at that time was not sustained into the future. What makes the lack of interest in Lavin’s work in post-censorship Ireland even more surprising is the fact that some critics (including Maurice Harmon, whose essay opens the volume under review) regard the later stories, written between 1967 and 1985, as her best. All these points suggest that the (subliminal) association of her name with a troubled age of Irish literature – when writers were regularly condemned as indecent, and/or standing in opposition to the country’s mission – had a detrimental effect on how her work was perceived.
The authors in Mary Lavin who engage with her creative agenda and the artistic aspect of her texts help pull the writer away from the limiting socio-historical background against which she has usually been discussed. In her magisterial essay on Tales from Bective Bridge, Anne Fogarty examines Lavin’s stories in the context of literary modernism, asserting that she “at once departs from and carries forward aspects of the modernist experiment”. Arguing that the writer was more radical than has generally been recognised, she identifies certain affinities between Lavin’s writings and those of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Elke D’hoker writes about Lavin’s Grimes stories, a loose sequence of five texts composed over a period of nine years. Intent on uncovering the writer’s intentions with these fictions, she shows that based on the links between them, one may be tempted to read them in a unifying way, but this is frustrated by the writer through the numerous inconsistencies in their chronology and plot. She asserts that “the setting and the characters are [for Lavin] of secondary importance to the more general ‘human situation’ she seeks to address”. Reassessing the role of the social context in Lavin’s stories, D’hoker argues convincingly that it enables the writer to express “a fundamentally social world-view” which has at its centre the necessary connection between individuals and their community. Sinéad Mooney considers Lavin’s widow stories, another sequence of texts, written after her husband’s death and loosely linked by the central character. Offering a compelling Freudian reading, Mooney suggests that the inconsistencies, or inexact repetitions, contained in these stories betray the writer’s endeavour to achieve a resolution through the process of writing and rewriting, arguing that these fictions “operate as a form of intermittent narrative elegy, engaging in a version of the Freudian work of mourning”.
Julie Anne Stevens presents a detailed analysis of Lavin’s 1960 story “The Yellow Beret”. She starts by stating that the text is preoccupied with visual perception and the dual nature of reality, and then goes on to explore the various sources of influence reflected in it, in order to engage with the multiple levels of its meaning. The way in which she traces the motif of the colour yellow, for example, back to other works of literature and visual art, is fascinating and has a feel of detective inquiry to it – which, considering that the text in question is at least in part a mystery story, is befitting. She demonstrates successfully that the story “self-consciously comments on the art of the form”.
In the only essay that considers the longer genre, Derek Hand points to the prevailing reductive assessment of Lavin’s two novels as failures by comparison with her short stories. He presents a new approach to the books, reading them within the context of the novel form as it had been employed in Ireland. He shows how Lavin departed from a received formula when she chose not to write about the national question, intent on telling the story of Ireland in her own way. While not glossing over the novels’ shortcomings, Hand makes a strong case for them as worthy of our attention. He argues that “[a]t an unconscious level perhaps, what The House in Clewe Street charts formally is the progression of the novel form in Ireland […], from a national to a personal story”, adding that “both novels not only tell that story but also enact it”.
Mary Lavin gathers some exciting new scholarship devoted to various key aspects of the writer’s work. It is inspired and well-assembled, and readers as well as scholars will no doubt benefit from the rich material comprised in it for years to come. The volume successfully draws attention to the fascinating, unique writer that Lavin was, pointing towards a greater, wider appreciation of her work.
Jana Fischerova received her doctoral degree from University College Dublin, where she wrote a comparative thesis on literary censorship in Ireland and Czechoslovakia. Her main research interests include twentieth-century literature and culture, the relationship between literature and society, and censorship. She is currently teaching at the UCD Adult Education Centre.