In the introduction to her Selected Stories, Mary Lavin wrote in 1981 of the process she used to choose the stories to be included. One from each of her eleven short story collections, she explains.
Hoping that “readers would not be presented with a bookful of stories with which they might already be too familiar from their inclusion in innumerable anthologies”, she plucked the title story from each. As such, the only story which I had read before was “In the Middle of the Fields”.
That was for Irish Short Story Week in 2012, and this year I had selected another author, but then came across the article in Brick 90 by Colm Toíbín about Mary Lavin.
In the article, Colm Toíbín writes of discovering a passage in her short story “Happiness” which gave voice to an aspect of his personal experience which he has never found on the page since. Later, he interviewed Mary Lavin, in 1981, after her Selected Stories was published, and found that she “spoke like the mother in the story ‘Happiness'”.
His second reference to this story took me directly to the bookshelf for this volume. I was already hooked on the idea, long before he calls it “one of the best short stories written by an Irish writer in the twentieth century”.
“The story sets out to lull the reader into trusting that the voice speaks of matters that are odd and gentle, almost eccentric,” Colm Toíbín states.
Indeed, “Happiness” begins with the mother: “Mother had a lot to say. This does not mean she was always talking but that we children felt the wells she drew upon were deep, deep, deep.”
One might think that in short fiction, there is always as much not said as said, but that is not the case. (I think of stories by Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Elizabeth Crane and Amy Bloom.) But with the opening to “Happiness”, it is immediately evident that the author might prize not talking — and say a lot with it — as much as the mother in this story.
It is true that one might debate the ingredients of a successful short story just as the mother debates the ingredients of happiness, with opinions varying as dramatically as the mother’s and Father Hugh’s on happiness. He believes, for instance, that sorrow is a necessary ingredient in happiness, whereas she acknowledges that there might be a “freakish truth” in that for some but not for her.
Father Hugh plays a central role in this story, which makes sense, for he plays a central role in the life of this family, following the loss of its true father. Still, it’s unexpected, the way that the mother and her girls behave around the priest. “As for Mother — she thought nothing of running out of the bathroom in her slip, brushing her teeth or combing her hair, if she wanted to tell him something she might otherwise forget.”
He offers a kind of support that the girls’ mother does not receive from elsewhere, at least not following the death of her husband, whether or not she had received it from him when he was living. Father Hugh is there to offer another voice, an adult voice, whereas the narrator is recalling events that unfolded when she was a child.
“As for Father Hugh, he had given our grandmother up early in the game. ‘God Almighty couldn’t make that woman happy,’ he said one day, seeing Mother’s face, drawn and pale with fatigue, preparing for the nightly run over to her own mother’s flat that would exhaust her utterly.”
The exhaustion born of the death of a spouse, the continued caretaking responsibilities for three daughters and an aging parent: “Happiness” is the stuff of everyday.
“And then the voice takes on an undertow that is unforgettable in its precision,” Colm Toíbín writes. “It moves from the domestic to a set of images that are deeply disturbing and utterly original in their contours and their rhythms and the fresh truth they have to tell about the nature of loss and grief and memory.”
Readers shift from the exchanges between the girls and their grandmother (which are humourous on the page, but which would be infuriating at worst, tiresome at best, in reality) to darker memories that the girls harbour.
“How strange loss is when it becomes personal, how sharp and unpredictable, and how interesting and wayward it is when reduced in this way, and how open and large it can become once trusted, as she in her art learned to trust it, if handled with all due attention and care, as Mary Lavin did when she worked.”
This was a whimsical read, inspired by my Brick browsing, but I followed the urge because I also had Mel’s Irish Short Story Month in mind; both the magazine and the event reminded me that I have two of Mary Lavin’s novels on my shelf, as well as many of her short stories to enjoy.