The William Trevor Reader: “A Meeting in Middle Age”

September 28, 2021 | 13 3 min read

They tritely say that all journeys begin with a single step, and so we begin this journey through William Trevor’s The Collected Stories with “A Meeting in Middle Age.” Summary: as the title would suggest, a middle-aged man, Mr. Mileson, and a middle-aged woman, Mrs. da Tanka, meet. It becomes clear as the story progresses, that Mr. Mileson has been hired by her solicitor to pretend to be Mrs. da Tanka’s lover, so as to expedite an embarrassment-free divorce from her wealthy and influential husband. They travel by train, get a hotel, get drunk and eat dinner, are rude to their waiter, have a long and horrible and insulting fight, and part ways after the return train.

I had a strong suspicion, reading “A Meeting in Middle Age,” that in the past, I’d never made it all the way through the story, perhaps jumping ship after the first page or two. Trevor, in many ways, seems to have appeared on the literary scene fully formed, but this feels like an early effort, clunky for a writer known signally for his lack of clunk. The narrative flits back and forth between Mr. Mileson’s and Mrs. da Tankas’s consciousnesses—a technique Trevor often employs, but in this story, with a nervy unsettled quality like a butterfly refusing to land. The proceedings are additionally clouded by Mr. Mileson’s somewhat dislocated thoughts about his family home, the lease of which he recently let expire as a bachelor with no children. Given the agitated hostility between the principals, the disorientation of the story is arguably intentional, a case of form following function, but the reading experience still suffers. For a fairly short story, it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on.

There are probably also two minor extrinsic reasons for this: one, the mid-century British divorce laws being negotiated in this story are alien and arcane, difficult to intuit. Two, the name Mrs. da Tanka is so odd as to prove—for me—slightly distracting, an additional bit of weirdness compounding the general disorientation.

While “A Meeting in Middle Age” is arguably not the most accomplished story in the Collected, you still get many of the Trevor signatures here: bachelorhood and spinsterhood, folies a deux, the ceaseless encroaching of age, pervading loneliness, and a certain pervading horniness underscoring the pervading loneliness. My impression of Trevor’s reputation in 2021, to the extent that he has one, is of a staid Irishness/Britishness, elegant and understated and perhaps a little boring. The actual is something else—Trevor is very underestimated in the perviness department, and I mean this as a compliment. The specter of sexual frustration, and its expression in the odd momentary leer or ogling, is a productive counterpoint to an otherwise almost impossibly stateliness.

“In 1931,” we are told, somewhat out of the blue, “Mr. Mileson had committed fornication with the maid in his parents’ house. It was the only occasion, and he was glad that adultery was not expected of him with Mrs. da Tanka. In it, she would be be more experienced than he, and he did not relish the implication. The grill-room was lush and vulgar.”

The ending, too, is the archetypal Trevor ending: Mileson returns to his tiny new apartment, and the narrative camera lands on a five-bob note sitting beside the sink, the sum he was paid for his trouble. Trevor’s fiction is very often about diminishment and the acceptance of diminishment—these five pounds represent Mr. Mileson’s reduced future, and the story’s muted sigh as he does his washing up is perhaps the signature Trevorian tone.

I have tended to think of Trevor’s body of work as a monolith, but reading this first story, I’m reminded that, of course, he changed over his decades of work. One of the things I’m looking forward to now, in the course of this project, is reckoning with and tracking the growth of an artist who seems to have sprung full-grown from some obscure literary God’s head.

Next week, I’ll be discussing “Access to the Children”—one of Trevor’s best, and one of my all-time favorites stories by any writer. See you then!

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

13 comments:

  1. I love this idea of rereading all these stories. I first read Trevor several decades ago, and have dipped into the stories from time to time since then, in addition to reading several of his novels and later story collections. The story is vintage Trevor, with him developing characters with deft strokes here and there as the story progresses, so that in a mere dozen pages, we can recognize these people. There’s also a bit of Sartre or Camus here, with the absurdity of people in a world that makes little sense.

    One thing to bear in mind, which those unfamiliar with the UK or Ireland may not really, and which I’ve only started to understand after living in the UK for eight years. Everything in this country is about class.

    ‘Well,’ said Mrs da Tanka, ‘you have shot your bolt. You have taken the only miserable action you could. You have put the frightful woman in her place. Have we a right,’ she added, ‘to expect anything better of the English lower classes?’

  2. If this is sub-par Trevor, then I’m psyched for what’s to come: I enjoyed the story. It’s dated and confused, sure, but on a sentence by sentence level, it’s pretty immaculate. From the first page: “He supposed he was excited but it was more difficult than it seemed to track down the emotions.” So good.

  3. If this is sub-par Trevor, then I’m psyched for what’s ahead: I enjoyed the story. It’s confused and dated, sure, but on a sentence by sentence level it’s pretty immaculate. From the first page: “He supposed he was excited but it was more difficult than it seemed to track down the emotions.” So good.

    The only other Trevor I’ve read is ‘Felicia’s Journey’, which was rather too pervy for my taste. This one gets the balance just right, I think. Terrific piece, Adam!

  4. Hey Kirk,

    Yeah, he’s really interesting about class—it’s variously his main subject, and at other times just an unexceptional fact of the world—the water unnoticed by the fish swimming in it (which I suppose is most people’s experience of class). It is usually there, though, in one form or another. Thanks for reading!

  5. Hi George,

    Thank you for reading and commenting. And yeah, I mean, I’m judging him by the impossibly high standards his won fictions sets. It’s a good story!

  6. Thanks for starting this project – I’ve only read one William Trevor piece before, but I have the book and I’m planning to read along, and I’m excited for the journey!

    The story is called “A Meeting in Middle Age” but there is hardly any meeting, any connection at all, in this story.

    “The narrative flits back and forth between Mr. Mileson’s and Mrs. da Tankas’s consciousnesses […] with a nervy unsettled quality like a butterfly refusing to land.”

    Because, of course, Mileson’s and da Tanka’s consciousnesses are racing off in orthogonal directions. It seems there is never a moment in that story where Mileson and da Tanka are seeing the same world in the same way – they are thinking different thoughts on the train, they have different experiences with the wait staff, they have different expectations for the experience, they have a dramatically different understanding of what was meant in the night when Mileson reached out to touch da Tanka….

  7. Tim—”thoughts racing off in orthogonal directions” is well said. Thanks for reading along!

  8. I’ve read Trevor stories over the years, but his “Collected Stories” hardcover that I got in 1992 has sat on my shelf with its imposing heft. Thank you so much for this project because I have now started it and I look forward to my weekly Trevor story and your insights.
    What a great exchange in this story: “Where is your self-respect?” “Elsewhere in my character.”

  9. Adam,

    Thanks for starting this project — it’s just what I’ve been looking for in my reading life, and I’ll be following along.

    Like you, I fell in love with Trevor’s work in my 20s, although, for me, it was the novels that influenced me most. The perversion and horniness and violence you note in this piece is so prevalent in many of his longer efforts, including Felicia’s Journey, Death in Summer, The Children of Dynmouth, among others, that his reputation as stately and boring has always seemed bizarre to me. The same applies to his style; he breaks all the rules we’ve been taught, especially with POV, and it’s fun to see him doing it with impunity in this early story. He should get more credit for all the chances he takes on the page.

    I’m excited to work my way through these stories with everyone. I’m especially looking forward to noting the subtle differences between his English and Irish stories, which I remember from my first read (though that might’ve been from the purple and yellow Selected Stories hardcover).

    Thanks!

  10. Hi Adam,
    I’ve never heard of Trevor before – not until I saw your article on him and decided to follow along with you reread of this collection. I have a busy schedule but this initiative gives me something to look forward to in the weekends.
    I didn’t particularly enjoy this story – it was confusing and the POV shifts left me reeling many a time but I enjoyed the core idea, and the interaction between two strangers serving as a catalyst to self realisation which never materialises. There was a depth of sadness to the cow parsley questions, a moment of missed connection that was filled with pathos and the image of Mrs. Da Tanka sitting in front of a red door in her youth at the countryside is in stark contrast to the sordid affair we have just read about.
    Enjoyed reading your analysis and I look forward to joining you in discussing the next story.

  11. Adam, thanks for this fantastic project. Trevor has for decades been a favorite. Your effort will give me much joy. “Meeting” has been one I’ve appreciated, in part because of that clunky back-and-forth in POV. It allows for comic juxtaposition, such as Mr. Mileson thinking about gardening boots while drunk Mrs. da Tanka insists on her need for sympathy. The comedy comes out of their separate self-absorptions and belies the sadness in their lives, and the pathetic nature of their rendezvous. But I also agree: stories to come are even more masterful. Thanks for this.

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