Bernard MacLaverty serves up wit and wisdom at Out To Lunch reading
Out to Lunch Festival
The Black Box
IN TERMS of his short fiction, Bernard MacLaverty is up there with Raymond Carver and the American boys. In terms of novels, he is up there with Colm Toibin, who describes the Belfast man's latest, Midwinter Break, as "a novel of great ambition by an artist at the height of his powers".
And in terms of entertainment value, Mr MacLaverty – back in town yesterday from his adopted home city of Glasgow to warm up the lunchtime crowd at the Black Box as part of the 13th Out To Lunch Festival – would put pub raconteurs to shame. The guy is funny in speech as well as on the page, where he also does pathos expertly.
Explaining why he'd waited 16 years since the Booker-shortlisted Grace Notes to put pen to paper, he said life was to blame. His eight grandchildren needed to be able "to speak English properly, to go to school and so on". Plus he invoked Thomas Mann's view, that a writer is "somebody for whom writing is more difficult than for anybody else".
Midwinter Break has been worth the wait. A portrait of a marriage entering its final stages, with the 70-something protagonists Gerry and Stella now less than together, it is sad, funny, and thought provoking. And it asks the big questions, about the meaning of it all.
The couple journey on a city break to Amsterdam where his drinking and her piety threaten to unravel the weft of their relationship.
MacLaverty did a couple of readings, including one where Gerry, drunk on the whiskey he acquires throughout the day, examines his life, This stream of consciousness, like a more comprehensible piece of Joyce, took us though the character's knowledge of his wife and his deep affection for her, as well as his parallel interest in matters eternal, for all outward evidence to the contrary.
It was a bravura performance from the one-time St Malachy's boy and QUB graduate – perhaps most widely known for his novels Cal and Lamb, both of which were memorably adapted for film – and the audience laughed its appreciation.
The ending of Midwinter Break – spoiler alert – is quite uplifting. There is hope, after all, and Gerry is determined to end his love affair with the bottle. We understand the incident from the Troubles that has made Stella's holy pact with her maker, now resolved.
It's all very realistic, although in an aimable Q&A session, Mr MacLaverty divulged that one reviewer said the only implausible thing about the novel was the fact that these older people made love twice in the weekend. Poetic licence!