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!