Bernard MacLaverty: The gentle art of truth-telling

Bernard MacLaverty is one of the finest writers to emerge from Belfast in the past 50 years. He talks to Christina Patterson about life, death and compassion
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Bernard MacLaverty reaped the first financial fruits of his fiction while he was still at primary school. "We had to write a composition called 'A rainy day'," he explains, "and the teacher held it up and gave me sixpence." It was the beginning of a journey that was to lead to the kinds of accolades most writers can only dream of. Words such as "faultless"and "master" are par for the course in reviews of the four novels and five collections of short stories he has produced over the past four decades."There are some writers," said one reviewer of his Booker-shortlisted novel, Grace Notes, "who are so accurate, so subtle, that you are hardly aware of reading them at all."

Meeting Bernard MacLaverty is, on the question of authorial voice at least, a bit like reading his fiction. You are, of course, aware of the large, shambling figure sitting next to you on the sofa, but you're also aware of his mild discomfort with the whole enterprise. He is friendly and polite, but you can't help thinking he'd be a lot happier if the subject under discussion was anything other than himself. It's an impression that's reinforced by his tendency to answer questions not with "I", but "you". Asked about poetry, for example, he replies, a touch confusingly, that "What I like now... is that you have left school. Sitting down now with poetry," he adds, "you can read as much or as little of it as you like and read it right through without the fear that somebody's going to ask questions."

Well, I'm afraid I am here to ask questions, but I soon adjust to the fact that "you" isn't me. "You were unaware", continues MacLaverty, elaborating on the shock of that sixpence, "that you had any skills whatsover in this direction - and then secondary school knocked it out of you." As so often, it was a good English teacher who rekindled the renegade adolsecent's love of words. "He introduced us to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Graham Greene and D H Lawrence," MacLaverty reveals, "and I suppose it was then that I started to write poems of a dreadfulness that it's hard to believe - "poems", he adds cheerfully, "that your toes open and close with embarrassment on reading." With literary failure, clearly, we're on much safer ground.

In due course, "the line lengthened" and MacLaverty "began to finish small two-page stories". "I remember writing about my grandmother," he muses, "who sat in the corner with her big black handbag. She had everything in that handbag - her rosary beads, her pension book, just everything... She would look at everyone else in the room and then she would go up to bed carrying the handbag." It was while trying to capture the voices and stories that formed the backdrop to his Belfast childhood that MacLaverty discovered that he "loved words and the weight of words". He even loved Roget's Thesaurus. His first ambition, however, was to play for Manchester United.

In the absence of sporting glory, or academic prowess, MacLaverty ended up going to anatomy school (an experience he drew on for his most recent novel) and from 1960 to 1970 he worked as a lab technician. When a student asked him to help with a magazine, he produced a short story, some art criticism and an essay on the pineal gland. Not long after, he had a note from Philip Hobsbaum, then a lecturer in English at Queen's University, inviting him to join a writing group.

"There were all these people in the same room," he remembers "and none of them had published a word: Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby... and", he adds after a pause, "I suppose I haven't worked since 1981 and therefore I'm a writer." Yes, Bernard, I think, fighting an urge to hug him. Yes, I think you can safely say you are.

His first collection of short stories, Secrets, was hailed by Jennifer Johnston as "marvellously good" and in The Irish Press as "small perfect pieces... the art that conceals art". William Boyd, writing in The New York Times Book Review, summoned the shades of Yeats, Joyce, Synge and Flann O'Brien, adding that "Mr MacLaverty sits perfectly comfortably" in their company. The stories, about married love, male friendship, a small boy intruding on adult grief, were all set in Ireland. They were followed by Lamb, a novel about an Irish monk who disappears with one of the boys in his care (made into a film starring Liam Neeson) and then by another short-story collection, A Time to Dance. After that, books appeared about every five years.

Belfast in the Sixties was, says MacLaverty, "just horrible". Escape arrived in the form of a teaching job in Edinburgh, followed by eight years on the isle of Islay and then Glasgow, where the family ended up staying. MacLaverty has now lived almost as long in Scotland as in Belfast, but you wouldn't know it from his fiction. "Graham Greene said that everything that's important to a writer happened up until 18 years of age," he explains. "That is a well you go back to frequently - in fact, all the time."

In his new collection of stories, Matters of Life and Death (Cape, £14.99), MacLaverty returns to the territory, and themes, of all his work but manages, as ever, to make it fresh. The first story, "On the Roundabout", about a random act of sectarian violence followed by an act of kindness, is clearly a metaphor for Northern Ireland, its cycle of violence and acts of bravery. It is juxtaposed with one called "The Trojan Sofa", about a child who acts as a spy and infiltrator for his Catholic burglar dad. A complex and delicate mix of a child's vulnerability and a parent's glorification of petty crime as an act of political courage, it is classic MacLaverty, combining clear-sighted coolness and compassion. It is tempting, in fact, to use words like "forensic" and "anatomical" about his gaze, words that bring you neatly back to that anatomy school. Is that too simplistic?

"The metaphor is there," says MacLaverty, "and you dissect it, but it's more a quality of watching and looking and observing, rather than taking out a scalpel and cutting things up." On the question of compassion, he doesn't argue. "It is the way I see the world. People I think are basically good, though there are some very bad people about..."

Certainly, Matters of Life and Death has some spectacularly unpleasant characters - a drop-out who rapes an artist on a remote island, a man who betrays his next-door-neighbour - but the vast majority are ordinary people struggling with ordinary concerns. As the title indicates, death features prominently, not just the violent deaths of a people beset by the Troubles, but also in the spectres of illness and old age. "The Assessment" is a moving glimpse into the life of an elderly woman, waiting to hear if she's going to be sent into a home. "Visiting Tabukati" is the tale of another elderly woman, one who takes her nephews on a trip to a museum and dies in the bus on the way home. Like all the best short stories, they offer snapshots of a life captured and frozen, one that resonates way beyond the immediate incident it depicts.

"I used to think that the short story would have been overburdened with a death in it," MacLaverty confesses, but in this collection almost each one has a death... It must be your age," he adds. "You have the silver hair. You're moving into a phase where your friends are all dying... It's resignation, really. The vast arc of a life, that I started off as an altar boy with total belief... now it has taken me throughout my life to unburden myself of such superstition."

If he has finally lost all vestige of the Catholic faith so central to his childhood, he's not sorry for the experience. "It was", he says, "a terribly enriching background. You're introduced to symbol... At Easter, one candle is lit at the back of the church and that spreads throughout the church. All of that is wonderful. The trouble is," he adds, "it's just not true."

It has also given him a rich source of stories for his work, stories that are the warp and weft of any Irish childhood and also, sadly, of the vicious cycle of violence that has played such a central role in Ireland's recent history. "If your world collapses around you and you're a person of reasonable sensibility and self-awareness and people start getting killed, it must affect you..." he explains. "But there was the other aspect of Northern Ireland which could be very positive. The place and the people and the talk. And if you render that correctly then it doesn't just become parochial, it becomes universal." Which might be as near as Bernard MacLaverty will ever get to admitting that he's a very good writer indeed.

Biography

Bernard MacLaverty was born in Belfast in 1942. He worked as a lab technician in the anatomy department at Queen's University for 10 years before studying English and training as a teacher. In 1975 he went to live in Scotland with his wife, Madeline, and their four children. MacLaverty has published five collections of short stories - Secrets, A Time to Dance, The Great Profondo, Walking the Dog and, now, Matters of Life and Death (Cape, £14.99) - and four novels: Lamb, Cal, Grace Notes, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and The Anatomy School. He has written for radio, television and screen; his short film Bye Child recently won a BAFTA. He lives in Glasgow.

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