Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mary Lavin's "The Will"

Mary Lavin was said to have felt that "The Will", the story I read this weekend, was "the finest expression of her art". The story is from a collection called In a Cafe, which was compiled by her daughter. Lavin was an Irish author, born in 1912. Her stories were published in quite a few collections as well as in a variety of magazines such as Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. I am always pleased when a publisher takes the time to ask someone knowledgeable to write a foreword for a book like this. Usually I can glean some interesting information about the author or their motivation for writing a story. I know a story should be able to stand on its own without any additional information about the writer, but I'm always curious to know just a little bit more.

In this case the foreword writer, Thomas Kilroy, was a friend of Lavin's and it seems as though Lavin was something of a mentor to him. Writers she impressed upon him as being important or influential to her included Turgenev, Flaubert and Tolstoy. He writes that "this (Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata), she had told me, was a story that had profoundly influenced her when she had first started to write". I'll have to add that one to my list. Although I've only read the one story, Kilroy makes me want to read more.

"The stories are always about a family, although the name, Conroy, Grimes, Becker, may change from fiction to fiction. The recurrent antagonism is that between a conniving, cold pursuit of material prosperity on the one hand and a flame-like spirit of passion on the other. The typical battlefield exists between sisters. In the language of the stories, one side is associated with darkness and heavy, clumsy movement, the other with mobility, adventuresomeness, even to the point of destruction. What these stories unveil is the mysterious, deadly antagonism in the world towards creatures of light and air, like Lally Conroy in 'The Will'."

Lolly Conroy has returned home for her mother's funeral. Lolly has made her home in Dublin to the shock and disappointment of her family, though you don't catch on to this at first. What is readily apparent is that her mother has left Lolly out of her will. Her sisters and brother try to convince her to accept a portion of their money from their mother's will, unhappy and surprised that she has been so noticeably forgotten. Slowly, through the sibling's dialogue it is revealed why Lolly has been left out of the will.

"I had two little blue feathers in my hat the morning I went into her room to tell her I was getting married. I had nothing new to wear but my old green silk costume, and my old green hat, but I bought two little pale blue feathers and pinned them on the front of the hat. I think the feathers upset her more than going against her wishes. She kept staring at them all the time I was in the room, and even when she ordered me to get out of her sight it was at the feathers in my hat she was staring and not at me."

It becomes obvious that Lolly has chosen to marry down in the world and has led a life of near poverty in the city. You get the impression that perhaps her husband is dead, or worse in jail. What starts out as a sad but amiable family gathering soon spirals into accusation throwing and truth telling. Lolly runs a boarding house and can barely scrape by, which is a great embarrassment to the family. As a matter of fact, it turns out that her even being there is an embarrassment. She's shabby in appearance, and even the parish priest didn't know who she was. Lolly doesn't seem to mind or see her situation as any kind of humiliation. Offers of money or suggestions to turn her boarding house into a reputable hotel are declined. Lavin does a remarkable job of telling Lolly's story through one small family scene, through the eyes of her family as well as her own. Ultimately it will be obvious who has the true christian spirit of forgiveness in the Conroy family and maybe even who has the richer character. Lavin is an excellent storyteller.

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.


Elissa Miller-Crispe said...

I've only just started getting into Lavin's stories - she truly is a wonderful storyteller. I don't think her style of storytelling is too much like a novelist's as some critics have suggested. I particularly like 'A Wet Day' - possibly because it's the latest one I've read. Have you read it? I've written a brief post about it and Edna O'Brien's 'The Creature' - both are very interesting, and if you haven't read them already I suggest you try them out. If you'd like to read my post on them first it's here:

Hope you're still enjoying Lavin all these years later. :)

Elissa Miller-Crispe said...

Sorry, I sent you the wrong link - the link to my post on Mary Lavin and Edna Obrien is here:

Sorry about that! :)