This is a weird one. “The Table” tells the story of Mr. Jeffs, a Jewish antique dealer who buys an antique Louis XVI table from a Mrs. Hammonds for a very low price. Mrs. Hammonds’s husband subsequently contacts Mr. Jeffs to buy the table back, this time for a woman, Miss Galbally, whom Mr. Jeffs imagines to be Mr. Hammonds’s mistress. He has the table delivered to her apartment and then two days later, is contacted by Mrs. Hammonds wanting to buy the table back from him. Acting as her agent, he again visits Ms. Galbally, who will not sell the table; contacting Mr. Hammonds fails to sway Ms. Galbally, and Mr. Jeffs has to break the news to Mrs. Hammonds. She tells him the back story—that it was a gift from her grandmother—and during the telling Mr. Jeffs becomes increasingly agitated, feeling he’s being lied to, eventually exploding at Mrs. Hammonds, telling her Mr. Hammonds is having an affair, and invoking his own lowly status as a Jewish merchant. We leave him back at his residence, a lonely warehouse for furniture, a place of commerce and not life.
It’s difficult to read this story as not anti-Semitic; or, to put it another way, the story is anti-Semitic. The first half of the story seems uncomplicatedly so, as we follow Mr. Jeffs on his business. Living alone in an unfurnished Victorian house, mechanically eating kippers from a tin, pacing around to increase his circulation, Mr. Jeffs seems to have no interior life or concerns other than extracting the greatest possible value from his furniture pieces. Additionally, in an awful ongoing comedy, he schemes out little surcharges to tack onto his visits to the Hammonds and Ms. Galbally.
As the action proceeds, however, Mr. Jeffs begins fantasizing more and more about what lies behind the intrigue about the table. In the final scene, having been asked what was the matter with his mouth by the Hammonds’ young child, and having grown inexplicably irritated by what he perceives to be Mrs. Hammond’s dissembling, he explodes:
‘Your grandmother is dead and buried,’ he said to his amazement. ‘It is Mrs. Galbally who is alive. She takes her clothes off, Mrs. Hammond, and in comes your husband and takes off his. And the table sees you. The table you have always known. Your childhood table sees it all, and you cannot bear it. Why not be honest, Mrs. Hammond? Why not say straight out to me, “Jew man, bargain with this Mrs. Galbally, and let me have my childhood table back.” I understand you Mrs. Hammond. I understand all that. I will trade anything on God’s earth, Mrs. Hammond, but I understand that.’
I’m not sure I understand this, or this story, really. Here’s my best shot. What seems to be happening is a kind of thought-experiment, in which a Dickensian caricature of scheming Jewish greed is complicated or subverted by asking “What if this caricature had an interior life?” In one sense, it could be seen as positive to subvert a racist trope: the anti-Semitic Jewish stereotype is turned on its head by imagining the stereotypical character in three dimensions. The problem is that the subversion of the trope itself reinforces the feeling of anti-Semitism. Mr. Jeffs is posited as being so outside of non-Jewish society that his experience of human emotion should provide a startling narrative effect. It is unclear why the proximity to romance and possible mild emotional intrigue should exert such a profound effect on a grown man, a grown man who apparently, due to his repulsive physiognomy and psyche, can only comfortably exist in the airless vacuum of pure commerce. He is reminiscent of a fairy tale troll who becomes curious about humanity and returns in the end to his safe, dark place under the bridge.
While I don’t think the story is intended to be anti-Semitic, it certainly reads that way. I should add that I have no reason to think William Trevor harbored anti-Semitic feeling or beliefs. I see “The Table” as the relatively early, earnest product of an artist (awkwardly and unsuccessfully) playing with identities and tropes he doesn’t quite understand and for which he doesn’t possess the much-needed context. Ironically, I also detect in this story a strong debt to Malamud. The almost mystical presence of the totemic table, the mounting confusion between atomized parties, the solitary man hemmed in by inexpressible emotion: it feels Malamudian in spirit to me if not in effect.
Next week, we’ll be back with less problematic fare, as well as the first first-person piece in the Collected: “A School Story.” See you then!