Reading Bernard MacLavertyposted on 26 Nov 2017
Reading Bernard MacLaverty
Belfast-born, Glasgow-based novelist and acclaimed short story writer Bernard MacLaverty has developed an international reputation for his avowedly realist fictions usually set against a backdrop of Ulster at its most troubled and most violent, and typically involving the bitter and usually disappointed efforts of his central characters to escape the limiting horizons and suffering of a society at war with itself. He is also widely known – indeed, almost infamous – for the long hardscrabble effort that some of his writing has required. His latest novel, for instance, Midwinter Break, apparently took him sixteen years to write.
MacLaverty came to fame in the early 80s with bleak and somewhat unrelenting novels such as Cal and Lamb set in the Northern Ireland of the Troubles. His latest novel, Midwinter Break, which concerns the unravelling marriage and mid-life disappointments of a middle-aged couple who are taking a short holiday in Amsterdam, was seen by many as a broadening of MacLaverty’s usual canvas. I read it recently and enjoyed it immensely. Beautifully written in tough unadorned prose, the novel is shot through with just enough hinterland – architecture, classical music, religious conviction (and loss of) – to make the characters utterly rounded and believable.
MacLaverty’s characters are deeply grounded in the real – at times one might say the all too narrowly real. In Midwinter Break, for example, the husband is struggling to adapt to retirement while also hiding a growing drink problem from a wife whom he cherishes but not always very well. His wife has a secret dream: to enter a women’s religious order and make a new life dedicated to peace, reflection and spiritual contemplation – away from her husband’s corrosive disappointment and self-destructive drinking. She is also damaged – both physically and mentally – by an episode (only obliquely explained) at the height of Troubles when she was accidentally shot. That they do, despite the odds, reach a new accommodation with each other is the book’s triumph. In a sense, although existing now on a wider canvas than the Northern Ireland of the Troubles they remain hallmark MacLaverty characters in that they are deeply scarred by the bitter legacy of sectarian conflict.
His longest novel, The Anatomy School (2001) I found impossible to finish. It seemed to lack direction and conviction at times and it may well be that his methods are better suited to the shorter novel form and especially to short stories – and so far I haven’t read any of the latter although I do intend to. As a novel, though, it also seemed to have other problems – the characters were somehow not quite convincing; the dialogue was sometimes a bit ‘unreal’; and the narrative sometimes seemed to be struggling to find a way forward.
So far – I’m still reading it – I have been more impressed with his 1997 novel, Grace Notes, about a young woman who has escaped Northern Ireland and has tried to build a life for herself as a contemporary classical composer. It sounds unlikely, doesn’t it – that a woman from a working class background in Belfast would be able to make her way in the world of avant-garde music; and it is unlikely. What I can’t decide at the moment is whether the unlikelihood of the central scenario is the book’s fatal flaw, or in fact the audacious leap of imagination (and faith) that makes it uniquely interesting. Perhaps I’ll be clearer when I finish it.
MacLaverty’s body of work is not huge and I have read only a small part of it. It is also a curious experience to be attempting to write about someone’s work when one’s own ideas about its success are not entirely clear.
What I am clear about, however, is that MacLaverty’s work is hard-won and deserves to be read slowly and carefully, with an effort and attention and determination similar to that which one senses it has cost him. This is what I am trying to do.
Writing in The Sunday Times in June of this year, Peter Kemp said: “As always…everything is alive with absorbing actuality. Characterisation has total credibility. Dialogue is pitch perfect… Seamus Heaney recorded Ulster’s tribal butchery in great poetry. MacLaverty does so in great fiction.” This too is what I want to believe about MacLaverty. His effort deserves to be rewarded, and amply so. What I can’t quite decide yet on the evidence of his three most recent novels (bearing in mind that they cover a twenty-year period) is whether this is the case.
At the moment, if I am perfectly honest, I admire the dogged determination of the novels, and I admire their refusal to strain for effect or to engage in small-talk. But whether they are books I will want to return to remains unclear. The hardbacks – which can be found very cheaply – do have the most lovely covers, though (especially the perfectly chosen detail from Hammershoi’s Interior With a Girl at the Clavier on Grace Notes).