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Bernard MacLaverty Biography

Nationality: Irish. Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1942. Education: Queen's University, Belfast, B.A. (honors) in English 1974, diploma in education 1975. Career: Medical laboratory technician, Belfast, 1960-70; teacher of English, St. Augustine's High School, Edinburgh, 1975-78, and Islay High School, 1978-81; writer-in-residence, University of Aberdeen, 1983-85. Since 1981 full-time writer. Awards: Northern Ireland Arts Council award, 1975; Scottish Arts Council award, 1978, 1981, 1982; Pharic McLaren award, for radio play, 1981; Jacobs award, for television play, 1982; Irish Sunday Independent award, 1983; London Evening Standard award, for screenplay, 1984.



Lamb. London, Cape, and New York, Braziller, 1980.

Cal. London, Cape, and New York, Braziller, 1983.

Grace Notes. New York, W.W. Norton, 1997.

Short Stories

Secrets and Other Stories. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1977; New York, Viking, 1984.

A Time to Dance and Other Stories. London, Cape, and New York, Braziller, 1982.

The Great Profundo and Other Stories. London, Cape, 1987; New York, Grove Press, 1988.

Walking the Dog and Other Stories. London, Cape, 1994; New York, Norton, 1995.

Uncollected Short Stories

"For My Wife's Eyes Only," in Redbook (New York), February 1985.

"A Foreign Dignitary," in Best Short Stories 1989, edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes. London, Heinemann, 1989; as The Best English Short Stories 1989, New York, Norton, 1989.

"Life Drawing," in The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, edited by William Trevor. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.



Cal, 1984; Lamb, 1986.

Radio Plays:

My Dear Palestrina, from his own story, 1980.

Television Plays:

My Dear Palestrina, from his own story, 1980; The Real Charlotte, from the novel by Somerville and Ross, 1991.

Other (for children)

A Man in Search of a Pet. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1978.

Andrew McAndrew. London, Walker, 1989.


Critical Studies:

"An Introduction to the Stories of Bernard MacLaverty" by Arnold Saxon, in Journal of the Short Story in English, Spring 1987.

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Vivid imagery and emotional dialogue distinguish much of Bernard MacLaverty's writing, and combined with his use of such compelling themes as isolation and dissociation, the reader quickly becomes engrossed in MacLaverty's art. A concern with the artist and his relationship to the audience occasionally emerges and blends with the major thematic concerns found in MacLaverty's pages, and he skillfully shapes his writing with the proficiency of an experienced craftsman, all the while giving time and attention to the Irish culture and people. MacLaverty's first major literary work, Secrets and Other Stories, introduces the reader to an intriguing array of characters who regularly face a myriad of conflicts including loneliness, isolation, and the frustration associated with human relationships. The title story features a young man who grapples with the guilt he feels over past violations of secrecy and trust. "Hugo," along with "Secrets," introduces the strong, recurring theme of the relationship between the artist and audience. This theme of aesthetics runs throughout the entire canon of MacLaverty, and he adeptly mingles his observations on art with the main narrative, yet the reader never loses interest in the characters or their struggles.

Shortly after publishing Secrets and Other Stories, MacLaverty produced his first novel, Lamb, which tells the story of Brother Sebastian, an Irish priest who runs away with Owen, an unwanted, sickly young boy. Brother Sebastian attempts to rekindle the love he remembers from his youth, but problems arise when he learns that nurturing a child (especially a sick and rebellious child such as Owen) involves much more than simply being called "Dad." Brother Sebastian fails to reach Owen in any significant way, and his failure demonstrates MacLaverty's fascination with the intricacies involving human relationships. Society rejects and abuses Owen through the course of his short life; his despair is such that he states at one point, "I don't care if I live or die." The novel ends with the death of Owen and the bewilderment of Brother Sebastian. The ending encourages the reader to ponder the thematic hints at the "troubles" of Ireland; hints that suggest that while people may possess the basic components for a successful relationship, Ireland's social ills so dominate her citizens that survival becomes at best a whimsical fantasy.

MacLaverty's fascination with human relationships continued with the publication of A Time to Dance, a collection of short stories that offers the reader a fascinating look at a myriad of relationships and how they succeed, fail, or maintain a level of impartiality. In the title story, Nelson rebels by refusing to wear his protective eyepatch in school, thus speeding up his chances of going blind via eyestrain. Nelson's rebellion exemplifies the attitudes of many protagonists in this work, and while many of the characters wind up facing isolation, anger, and despair, Norman in "Language, Truth, and Lockjaw" finds some success by going against the grain and attempting a reconciliation with his family. This optimistic ending suggests that, at least for some, hope may be found if one puts forth the necessary effort.

MacLaverty's next novel, Cal, features a young man who makes a valiant effort to exist in a perplexing world, but fails due to the violence perpetuated by the Catholics and Protestants. Cal 's powerful narrative and gripping story line illuminate the socially pervasive "troubles" of Ireland and bring the reader, natives and aliens alike, into a world where warring religious factions dictate almost every citizen's action. Cal (a Roman Catholic) abhors the terrorist tactics of his friends in the IRA. He only wants to live in peace, but if Cal refuses to aid the "Catholic Cause," he will become an adversary to both sides. Cal further complicates matters when he falls in love with Marcella, a widow who lost her husband to a violent death orchestrated by Cal's friends. Cal feels guilt over his role in the death of Marcella's husband and his "abandoning" the "Catholic Cause," and his guilt forces him to avoid making a decisive choice, either for or against the Catholics. Cal chooses neither, but he does not get to enjoy his neutrality very long; he falls victim to a divided Ireland when violence and hatred overcome his best efforts at peace. MacLaverty's powerful dialogue (a trademark of many of his works) helps make Cal a moving tale that admirably depicts the "troubles" that plague Ireland.

MacLaverty's The Great Profundo continues to explore and develop the themes of isolation and despair he introduced in Secrets and Other Stories. Many of the protagonists in this collection of short stories experience isolation and despair due to their failed attempts to reconcile a medley of deep emotional scars firmly embedded in past atrocities. A motif concerning aesthetics subtly traces the relationship between artist and audience, especially in "Words the Happy Say" and "The Drapery Man." The title story deals with a magician whose skills break down and fail him in front of an unsympathetic audience. The Great Profundo derives its strength from an energetic and compassionate narrative that binds universal themes with Irish concerns and exciting characters with their struggles. At times, MacLaverty feels the weight of his literary forefathers, but he also feels the tension created by the Catholics and Protestants. Consequently, the author's skillful narrative and vivid imagery not only allow readers to share the character's concerns and cares, they also force us to confront the everyday horrors felt by many Irish citizens.

In MacLaverty's next collection of short stories, entitled Walking the Dog, many of the protagonists grapple with the problems usually held to the confines of close personal friends and family. The title story examines the fears of a man who tries to avoid the violence associated with the Catholics and Protestants. John insists he "believes in nothing," but to no avail: two members of the IRA kidnap, interrogate, and beat him, then eventually leave him to ponder his neutral position. Like Cal, John learns that a neutral position does not exempt him from the emotional and physical duress associated with living in a divided country. Perhaps the most compelling feature of Walking the Dog is the brief italicized stories that occur at odd intervals. These brief stories examine the private concerns of a writer as well as the problems some artists experience while creating art. With this ingenious structuring device, MacLaverty shrewdly voices his concerns about the relationship between artist and audience and between art and connoisseur, all the while maintaining the delicate balance dictated by the short story's literary form.

MacLaverty's critically acclaimed Grace Notes observes Catherine McKenna's struggle to balance her music career with her home life. The narrative fluctuates back and forth between Catherine's musical career, her childhood history, and her adult years, thus giving the reader a wealth of information. Like Cal, Catherine faces serious dilemmas and paradoxes and no matter what choice she makes, it does not turn out to be the right choice. As a single woman, Catherine gives birth to a baby girl, but her fears of being rejected by her parents and ostracized by society force her to give up her daughter. As the novel progresses, Catherine's music career stagnates and her relationship with her live-in lover deteriorates. She has hopes of making a fresh start, so she returns to visit her daughter, but her plans for reconciliation fail. Catherine finally returns to Ireland, and the novel ends with an enthusiastic performance of one of her musical compositions. All of Catherine's relationships fail, but her efforts at music succeed; the audience gives her a standing ovation at the end. Once again, MacLaverty provides an intriguing look behind the scenes of creative art. Beauty may indeed be produced, but there is always a price to pay for such accomplishments, and in the end, willing or not, Catherine learns this truth.

MacLaverty's ingenious use of spatial imagery combined with color and sound resonates throughout Grace Notes, and even though the novel's primary concern lies with the artist and the demands of her art, MacLaverty still introduces and sustains thematic references to the troubles of the Irish. As an Irish novelist, MacLaverty remains true to his culture and the plight of his people, but his writing talents and skills invite readers of all nationalities to explore his literary works. MacLaverty's literature in general and Grace Notes in particular delivers something for everyone, and his art whets the reader's appetite for future literary efforts.

—James Ortego

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