Bernard MacLaverty

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 18th October 2017

In a dream life, Bernard MacLaverty would be a pianist. He can’t play the piano; he can’t read music either, but he’s a passionate listener, and has been so since wisps of opera drifted up the stairs when he lay in bed, in Belfast as a boy.

Music, it turns out, is one of the main reasons for the 16 years that have passed since the 75- year-old last published a novel.

“That, and the arrival of eight grandchildren who have to be babysat and talked to,” he says.

In Dublin from his home in Glasgow, MacLaverty is publicising his fifth novel, Midwinter Break. He arrives at the hotel with his engaging wife, Madeline, who then goes shopping with a sense of adventure. Bernard, too, seems in holiday mood, and the interview is punctuated by his exuberant laughter.

In that gap since The Anatomy School was published, MacLaverty has been enjoying different projects; not least, the writing of three Libretti. The first, with music by Gareth Williams, was based on King James 5th of Scotland, the section featured music by the Russian composer, Vitaly Khodesh. Both these 15 minute pieces were commissioned by Scottish Opera. The third, an hour-long opera for schools in conjunction with Gareth Williams, was called Elephant Angel.

About a woman keeper who took an elephant home each night to avoid the bombs of world war two, it played in 12 regions in  Scotland, and in the Opera House in Belfast, as well as in Omagh.

“In each place the children from the primary school did the singing. Those that could not sing did front of house activity. It got great reviews from opera critics.”

MacLaverty’s passion for music, and instinctive knowledge of it, so impressed a Radio Scotland interviewer, that he offered the author his own two-hour long show. Running on a Sunday afternoon, MacLaverty told stories of his grandmother, and interviewed other writers, as well as poets and musicians.

That he has gained such knowledge will come as no surprise to anyone who read his Man Booker shortlisted novel, Grace Notes, published back in 1997. Featuring Catherine, a young composer who struggles with early motherhood, his writing of how a composition of music works is masterly.

Gerry Gilmore, the male protagonist in Midwinter Break shares MacLavery’s passion for music. The novel opens on the eve of a holiday. As Stella prepares for bed, her husband of fiftyish years is downstairs, earphones blasting classical music, a glass of whiskey at his side.

“I listen every night,” says MacLaverty. “Music helps me live.”

There are other autobiographical elements in the novel. Bernard and Madeline left Belfast for Scotland in 1975 to avoid the troubles. Like the Gilmores they live in Glasgow – and they, too, enjoyed a holiday in Amsterdam. And that gave MacLaverty the genesis for the novel.

“It was 2001,” he says. “I came across the Beguines – a lay religious community –  and I was really impressed with the indefinable atmosphere. I began to take notes, and, gradually the story unfolded from there.”

He conveys the atmosphere of the city with such skill – but is even stronger on the subtleties of the relationship between the couple. As they traverse the city – taking in the sights – art galleries and the Anne Frank house, it becomes clear that their familiar love for each other is being punctured by their differences in outlook.

“In a marriage of long standing, when you are at home there is a kind of railway of silence, but then you go away and are off the railway line, and you have to talk to fill the space.”

A devout Catholic, Stella is upset that Gerry, an unbeliever, mocks her religion. As the weekend progresses, and the couple remember earlier traumas, we gradually understand why their relationship has reached breaking point. Gerry’s constant drinking is key. Such is MacLaverty’s skill at describing the wearing down effects of alcohol, it has, surely, to have been written from experience?

“I’ve been a drinker, sure, but not like Gerry. No, no, no! That is dangerous drinking. I compare a work of writing to a mosaic, with each piece a different colour. One would be the truth, one a memory and one would be completely made up. It’s a mixture of those. And if I have any craft as a writer you won’t be able to tell which is which.”

The precision of the writing; the depth and compassion of his observations and his moments of humour make this a quite outstanding novel. There are frequent observations of things one might have thought, but never seen written down before. It’s no wonder he has been referred to as the Seamus Heeney of prose.

“I pay attention to every sentence and every word. I find getting to know these characters as interesting as the stuff I write as the novel progresses. Everything is used in another way and another guise.”

MacLaverty shares with his countryman, Brian Moore, that rare and innate ability to get into the mind of a woman. How does he do that?

“Madeline is very open. She is absolutely intelligent and we discuss these things. For Grace Notes she talked about how in the midst of having a baby she thought about her mother, and that was something I don’t think a man could think up. She wanted to join with her mother after having a baby girl.”

With five volumes of short stories to his name, film scripts for his first two novels, Lamb, and Cal, a children’s book, and some TV and Radio plays, MacLaverty is clearly a master of every genre. Yet it was, almost, by accident that he became a writer. He started life as a medical technician.

“I’d been working for 10 years on chromosomes,” he says. “And I published papers because the doctors who were doing their PhD thanked me for my help and asked me, would I like my name on it? I published in The Lancet on Ring D Chromones.” He laughs. “When Jonathan Cape signed me for the first novel, I, with tongue in cheek, put that on the form about previous publications.”

He also contributed to the Anatomy Student’s magazine, and through that, was invited to join a group of young writers which included Michael Longley and Seamus Heeney. He used that connection over 30 years later, when, in 2003, he asked Heeney if he could adapt one of his poems, Bye Child, for a 15-minute film.

“He said, ‘do what you like with it!’ Absolute generosity! I developed the story line slightly, and we got a Bafta nomination, and a Bafta Scotland for First Director.” He laughs. “First Director. At my age!”

We’re talking on the day of publication. Early reviews, he says, have been kind. (I would say ecstatic,) but he’s nervous of the ones due to follow.

“Will people like this book, or will they hate it? You never know.”

Meanwhile, there’s a story he wants to write.

“I’ll write it sometime. It jumps into you head and you hold it there for a couple of years, and kind of, weigh it up. It’s like what my mother said when she picked up a dead bird. She said, ‘you would have known by the weight of it that it was dead.’ I’ll know by the weight of the story. It’s like the difference between a dram and a pint. A Dram is private and a pint is public. But I think,” he says, “that this one might be a novella.”

He enjoys the start of a project.

“It’s the best stage,” he says, “Because it’s not destroyed; you haven’t yet bolloxed it up. It’s like Hitchcock said of film. ‘The best moment is the minute you conceive it, and it’s downhill from there.”

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty. Jonathan Cape: € 16.60. Kindle: €11.06

Published in The Irish Examiner, 30th September, 2017.

© Sue Leonard. 2017.

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