WHEN Alice Munro recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was interpreted by many not only as a personal triumph for the Canadian alchemist but also a validation of the short story form.
Munro, we were told by a hyperventilating admirer on the Nobel committee, has taken the short story "almost to perfection", at which point one began to wonder about the sanity of those charged with awarding the golden gong.
Of course Munro is not the first such writer to be honoured by the sages of Stockholm. One thinks, for example, of Hemingway and Kipling, both of whom wrote superb stories which remain an essential part of the canon. Neither, however, was known as a short story writer per se. In that regard, Munro, the author of a single novel, is a 21st-century frontierswoman, known as she is for her fealty to a form which publishers and booksellers - and, by insinuation, readers - tend not to have much time for.
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Bernard MacLaverty, though he has written four fine novels, is a writer in Munro's mould. His locus is domestic and his cast and inspiration are drawn largely from personal experience. Like Munro, too, he is literary but not conspicuously so. Moreover, his sentences, like hers, move across the page with concrete smoothness and balletic grace. He is easy to read, which you might think is the least you can expect of him but it is a rarer talent than it ought to be. Above all, he is interesting. From his stories you learn things about people whose lives would otherwise be alien to you. Long resident in Glasgow, he is like Liam in Life Drawing who had never "left home". Rather, "It was more a question of going to art college in London and not bothering to come back."
MacLaverty was born in Belfast in 1942 and, as you might expect of someone of his generation, he cannot ignore the Troubles. However, his early stories, first collected in Secrets in 1977, revolve around family life. As he remarks in an autobiographical introduction, his childhood was spent in a Victorian house which accommodated not only himself and his mother, father and brother but also two grandparents and a great aunt. Across the street lived another grandfather and yet another aunt.
"I thought that everybody grew up surrounded by old people," he writes. Here he had copy on tap. It was a milieu which encouraged the telling of the kind of stories that are part of a family's lore. In A Happy Birthday, for example, unemployed Sammy kills time reading the newspaper in a library before signing on. "Nothing but bloody explosions and robberies again. Something would have to be done." But all Sammy can do is drink, which leads to another kind of an explosion entirely. In The Miraculous Candidate, meanwhile, John stares at an exam paper unable to answer any of the questions, whereupon he prays for divine intervention and gets it.
It is a world in which the Catholic church is still potent, when priests can drop by unannounced and empty the whisky bottle and the biscuit barrel. Superstition, suspicion, narrow-mindedness and philistinism are a way of life. Belfast is a city of boundaries and lines that must not be crossed, be they physical or moral. This is nowhere better illustrated than in My Dear Palestrina, in which a young boy, Danny, is taught to play the piano by glamorous, convention-busting Miss Schwartz, who wears a black dressing gown with nothing underneath.
Miss Schwartz is in exile, in her case from Poland, as was Chopin. "To be cut off from your country is terrible thing," she tells Danny. Such dislocation is at the heart of much of MacLaverty's work, as it is, incidentally, at the heart of many other Irish writers. As this collection of 48 chronologically-arranged stories proceeds, there is an inevitable darkening of tone. And while the Troubles are generally kept in the background they're always there, like toothache and guilt, and growing harder to disregard.
In The Daily Woman, an old man stands outside a church with a black notice board on which he keeps an ever-changing tally of the dead. There are troops on the street and security is tight. Yet what concerns MacLaverty is the plight of a woman who must deal with an abusive boss and a drunken husband.
If this seems grim, it is, as is much of what follows. But MacLaverty is no miserabilist; he's far too humourful to be accused of that. Human beings, he knows, are capable of great folly and even greater cruelty, but there is also, as he would have it, a time to dance and a time for hope.
This is evident in his eye for detail and his sense of the absurd. "Do you know any Winifred Atwell tunes?" Haydn-playing Danny is asked in My Dear Palestrina. Then there's the aforementioned Liam who, as he draws his dying father, thinks of all the women who've left him, one of whom said he made love "the way other people rodded drains". What an image; what a writer.