"In dreams begin responsibilities." The line, an epigraph from W.B. Yeats' 1914 book "Responsibilities," came to mind as I read the stories in "Blank Pages." Bernard MacLaverty, the celebrated author of five earlier story collections and five novels, is 78 years old, and "Blank Pages" is an older man's book, the prose simpler than in previous work, and somehow both more urgent and more elegiac.
The stories are largely preoccupied with loss, past or impending: of parents and children, of memories and home, of possibilities, inspiration and illusions. But with the prospect of every loss comes the imperative to bear witness, create a record, or, at the very least, to see, truly see. "Accuracy was what he was after," the artist Egon Schiele thinks, as he draws the death of his pregnant wife in "The End of Days, Vienna 1918." "Accuracy and an intensity of awareness. Paying attention with his eyes."
And MacLaverty accepts the charge, rendering with heart-piercing precision the moment when Egon presses his ear to his wife's belly and, "what he was hearing dawned on him. It was not his wife's heartbeat, but that of his child. Now becoming faster and fainter with distress. His nameless child. He listened until it faltered and stopped. Stillness."
When Egon, himself succumbing to the Spanish flu, burns those drawings, there is a moment reminiscent of, almost an inversion of, the snow that ends James Joyce's iconic story "The Dead":
"He imagined the fragments, light as black feathers, lifting into the chimney, into the night air, before settling over the whole city of Vienna. Black snow falling on the Danube. Soot becoming clogged in the golden foliage of the Secession Building. Darkening the Opera house. The cafes and hotels. The back streets and brothels."
In the other stories the nature of loss and the response it conjures or commands come in many forms. In Belfast, 1940, a mother grieving for her son, lost at sea, seeks a glimpse of him in a newsreel at the cinema. A man loses his grandchildren in a maze of greenhouses (or, here, "glasshouses"): "Did a phrase like 'last seen them' mean the same as 'seen them for the last time?'"
A sculptor, laid up with a bad leg, sends a helper to mold a death mask for a widowed client. A blocked writer mourning his wife papers his floor with blank pages, only to discover fleas. "The story's beginning to unfold."
In County Derry, 1942, a doctor is treating a father of four whose scratch has turned deadly septic. An American doctor, a major stationed with a detachment of "our coloured boys" on a nearby estate, supplies a miraculous "antibacterial juice" (from Pfizer!) — as well as opportunities to explore the racial and religious bigotries of the time and place.
But it is the poor Catholic father, gathering blackthorn sticks when he gets his scratch, who provides perspective, and perhaps a key to MacLaverty's "Blank Pages": "As the light faded, everything became very sharp against the sky."
Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Wisconsin. ellenakins.com
Blank Pages and Other Stories
By: Bernard MacLaverty.
Publisher: W.W. Norton 272 pages, $26.95.