Story writer Mary Lavin dies at 83


THE celebrated writer Mary Lavin, who died yesterday aged 83, was one of modern Irish fiction's most subversive voices. Her art explored the often brutal tensions, disappointments and frustrations dictating the relationships existing within so called "normal families". She never exploited extremes, she could see the claustrophobia in ordinary situations, she never used special effects, she didn't have to. For Lavin the realist, writing was always a case of "only looking closer than normal into the human heart, whose vagaries and contrarieties have their own integral design."

Born in East Walpole, Massachusetts, on June 11th, 1912, she was the only child of Irish emigrants. Her family moved to Ireland - to Athenry, her mother's birthplace - when she was 10. In 1920 the Lavin family moved to Bective, Co Meath, where Tom Lavin worked as an estate manager. Educated at Loreto College, St Stephen's Green, and later at University College, Dublin, she wrote her first short story in 1938 as a student. Her first volume of short stories, Tales From Bective Bridge, appeared in 1942. Success was immediate and she won the James TaitBlack Memorial Prize. The Long Ago followed within two years; the novella The Becker Wives and At Sally Gap were published in 1946. She looked at rural life with truthful, unsentimental but never savage eyes.

Meanwhile, she had married William Walsh, a solicitor, in 1942. They had three daughters, but her husband's sudden death in May 1954 left Lavin a widow at 42, already devastated by her beloved father's death. The work continued: A Single Lady (1956), The Great Wave (1961), In the Middle of the Fields (1967), Happiness (1969), A Memory and Other Stories (1972), The Shrine and Other Stories (1976).

Flamboyant and unpredictable, Lavin practised her craft in Bective and Dublin while raising her children, who enjoyed their mother's colourful approach to the business of living. Royalties were often spent on travel. When writing a pre amble to In a Cafe (Townhouse, 1995), Elizabeth Walsh recalled an exciting childhood in the company of her singular mother: "Mary and I liked to perambulate along the River Arno in Florence, or through the pedestrianised Roman thoroughfares. I had been right over the Vatican Museum before I reached the age of 14."

Acutely aware of the minority status of the short story, Lavin said in an interview in 1976: "Publishers are definitely unfair to short story writers ... since the essence of the short story is its conciseness, an addiction to change is an occupational disease and not the self indulgence publishers think."

In 1969 she married Michael MacDonald Scott, whom she had first met when both were college students.

Mary Lavin wrote three novels: The House in Clewe Street (1945), Mary O'Grady (1950) and A Likely Story (1957). But like Raymond Carver, another master of the short story, Lavin had to snatch time for writing, often working, on a story while sitting on a bus or waiting in Bewley's.

Comparisons with Liam O'Flaherty and Sean O'Faolain were often made, her influence on Trevor noted, but Lavin's genius for subtle and ironic observation, with its echoes of Balzac, Chekhov and Saki, was ideally suited to the short form. Exactness, a quality she had learned from Jane Austen, whose work she admired from her youth, shaped Lavin's work. "I don't think a story has to have a beginning, middle and end, I think of it more as an arrow in flight ... or a flash of lightning, lighting up the whole landscape all at once, beginning, middle and end."

Her stories grew out of arresting opening sentences: "Sarah had a bit of a bad name" or "She was one of the most beautiful women they had fever seen and so they hated her."

In the Middle of the Fields is as moving an examination of vulnerability and loneliness as has ever been written. But then many of Lavin's stories are among the finest written this century because she understood the fine balance of sympathy, intelligence, humanity and, above all, honesty.

On arrival in South Africa yesterday, the President, Mrs Robinson, said she was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Mary Lavin, who had made such a remarkable contribution to Irish literature. "Mary was held in great esteem by people both in Ireland and abroad and her sad departure will be a profound loss to Irish writing."