A Guest Post by Órfhlaith Foyle
Author of Somewhere in Minnesota
Irish Short Stories Week Year Two
March 12 to March 31
Mary Lavin – Private Doors and Destined Paths
Years ago my father managed the village garage in Killmessan in Co Meath and it was my job to man the petrol pumps when I wasn't at school. One day, as I sat in the tiny kiosk between the pumps, a car pulled in for petrol. I said hello to the woman who was driving, asked her how much she needed then filled her petrol tank to the proper penny.
|Mary Lavin- 1912 to 1996|
It was just an ordinary experience. Like any other of those other times I filled cars with petrol. The woman was friendly. I smiled at her and she paid me. I put the money into a tin cash box and took it into the house.
My mother looked at me as I came in the door.
'Do you know who that was?'
'Who?' I said.
'That was Mary Lavin, the writer,' Mum told me.
I knew who Mary Lavin was. I had read her in school. I liked her story 'Brother Boniface,' and because I had now spoken to her without my knowing her,I filled my mind with all the romantic ideas I had about writers and writing.
I loved books and I loved writers. We had 'Tales from Bective Bridge,' in our house and I read it again. My sisters, brother and I used to cycle to Bective Abbey and have picnics in the ruins. I made plans to meet Mary Lavin there. I was going to tell her that I wanted to be a writer, but I never saw her again, either at Bective Abbey or at the petrol pumps.
Mary Lavin is considered to be one of Ireland's great writers. Frank O'Connor said of her work – 'Of all the principle writers of the period, only Mary Lavin has come out of it unmarked. Her work seems to be in a class by itself. It is deeply personal, and there are a great many doors marked 'Private'.
Mary Lavin's ability to create a world is so powerful that whenever I re-read her work, her stories come back to me like memories – not actually personal memories but the memories of how her stories affected me the first time I read them.
Those doors marked 'Private' in her work don't hide the story from the reader; instead they draw the reader inside and yet there are always questions left that neither the story not the reader can answer.
In 'A Story with a Pattern,' the writer/narrator meets an unbeliever of her work. He challenges her ability to tell a real story; one that matters, one that's rounded out. 'Your endings are very bad. They're no endings at all. Your stories just break off in the middle!'
The narrator informs him that that is how life is. It breaks off in the middle. Her unbeliever is having none of it and tells her a story of his own, a story his father told him. A story with its own pattern as 'well-marked' as the carpet they are both standing on. It is a heartsick story of love and and fear and the man breaks off every so often to guide and goad his listener....'Am I telling this badly?..Anyway it isn't the way it's told that matters in this story, it's the story itself.'
The narrator/writer finishes the main story in the exact manner she derides – she 'rounds' it off yet it is testament to Mary Lavin's writing gift that the story within the story still leaves its questions in our heads. The blind love Murty Lockhart has for his wife Ursula; his un-seeing of her deep and lovely nature and now it contrasts with the story-teller's own father's love and understanding for the broken Murty.
The title story 'In a Cafe' tells of Mary, a youngish widow meeting a younger and more recent widow Maudie for a coffee in Dublin. They understand each other's grief and they both have suffered the well-meaning cliched condolences of others. They also appreciate the near un-spoken relief after the death of their husbands. Yet each widow uses this against the other and so their conversation becomes a polite, pseudo-alliance of mourning jagged with well-aimed insults.
Mary is intrigued by a young foreign artist in the cafe. She would like to talk about his work but she stops herself. She goes to his address wanting something. She peers through the slit in the letter box, wondering if this door is like other fairy-doors, and she sees signs of the artist's life and finally his feet shoved into unlaced shoes. She runs. She asks herself what would she have said. 'I'm lonely.' that was all she could have said. 'I'm lonely. Are you?'
In 'A Gentle Soul' the traditional vicious pieties and cultural rules are facing up to new realities. The ruling order is crumbling. The common labourer is being promised new council houses to the disgust of the his 'betters'. This feeling of disgust filters its way into the mind and heart of the story's main character and she fails to change herself for love. She takes refuge in being a gentle soul like her dead mother, and she wallows in her inertia. Her would be lover Jamey Morrow challenges her. 'Why do you think of summers that are gone?' he said. 'Why not think of the summers ahead?'
But it is more comfortable for her to dream of being in love with Jamey Morrow and when he is killed, she colludes with her sister and her father at the inquest. She comforts herself with fantasies of visiting his grave and telling him of her deep and true love.
In 'The Widow's Son,' the writer shows the reader two versions of the same story. A young man fiercely loved by his proud, hard mother dies in an bicycling accident because he swerves to avoid killing one of her precious chickens. She cannot fathom this. The chicken was worth only six shillings. And so the writer turns the story around. The young man survives, the chicken dies and the mother berates him out of her own twisted self-pride. Her son runs away and sends her money for the chicken. He writes with more money but never sends his address.
Mary Lavin's stories portray the foreigness in everyday life; the questions that people will not answer and the sham identities they have built for themselves that they are unwilling or unable to destroy for the sake of living another life.
'The Widow's Son' ends with this paragraph:
'And so the people may have let their thoughts run on, as they sat by the fire with the widow, many a night, listening to her complaining voice saying the same thing over and over. 'Why did he put the price of an old hen above the price of his own life?' And it is possible that their version of the story has a certain element of truth about it too. Perhaps a great many of our actions have this double quality about them, this possibility of alternative, and that it is only by careful watching, and absolute sincerity, that we follow the path that is destined for us, and no matter how tragic that may be, it is better than the tragedy we bring upon ourselves.'
End of Guest Post
Órfhlaith Foyle was born in Africa to Irish parents. Her first novel Belios was published by The Lilliput Press in 2005. Revenge, an anthology of her poetry and short fiction was published by Arlen House also in 2005. Her first full collection of poetry Red Riding Hood’s Dilemma was published by Arlen House in 2010 and later short-listed for the Rupert and Eithne Strong Award in 2011. Her first full collection of short stories Somewhere in Minnesota and Other Stories is to be published by Arlen House in 2011. The title story was recently published in Faber and Faber’s New Irish Short Stories; edited by Joseph O’ Connor. Órfhlaith is currently writing her second novel.
The author has her own blog here.
I recommend Somewhere in Minnesota to all lovers of short stories.
"Somewhere in Minnesota" is included in New Irish Short Stories edited and introduced by Joseph O'Connor (2010).
My recent post on her fantastic story "Somewhere in Minnesota" is here
Please consider joining us for Irish Short Story Week Year Two, March 12 to March 31. All you need do is post on one short story by an Irish author and send me a comment or an email and I will include it in the master post at the end of the challenge.
There are other posts on Mary Lavin by participants in Irish Short Story Week Year Two
Buried in Print post on Lavin's collection of short stories In The Middle of the Field
Bibliophiliac has a post on "The Will" which Frank O'Connor said was Lavin's best story.
Suko's Notebook has just done an post on Lavin's "In a Cafe"
I did a post on her "A Wet Day" (there is some background information on Lavin in my post.
|"Yes, please join us for MY event, Rory is just|
here to repair shoes"-Carmilla
great post, love learning what inspires a writer
Parrish Lantern. I agree on both accounts
Very interesting guest post! Having recently read In A Café, I can attest to Mary Lavin's great abilities as a writer who brings people and places to life. (I felt as if I were in that casual café, nervously awaiting an acquaintance.) I hope to read more of Lavin's short stories soon.
I by mistake erase a few comments today so I am posting them myself-
from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat
Caroline has left a new comment on your post "A Guest Post by Órfhlaith Foyle Author of Somewher...":
I am going to see if I can find something of Mary Lavin.
Here is my link to Foyle's short story.
I am glad you liked my post, Parrish. Thank you Suko and Caroline. And Mel u.
Thank you very much for this. I had never heard of Mary Lavin and appreciate the introduction to her and to Ms. Foyle. "Somewhere in Minnesota" is at the top of my list now!
"Mary Lavin's ability to create a world is so powerful that whenever I re-read her work, her stories come back to me like memories – not actually personal memories but the memories of how her stories affected me the first time I read them."
I absolutely love the way that you've described this; that's how I have felt about re-reading Alice Munro's stories. I'm relatively new to Mary Lavin (having just read my first collection for this event), but I can certainly see how her stories would have that effect as well.
Your guest post was wholly enjoyable: thanks for sharing your experience and observations.
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