The William Trevor Reader: “A School Story”

November 2, 2021 | 4 3 min read

Six stories in, and “A School Story” is our first encounter with a first-person narrator; if memory serves, the remainder of the collection maintains something like this ratio, and we get about five third-persons for every one first-person. Most writers, I think it’s fair to say, are partial to either third or first person, and with short story writers, this proclivity becomes more obvious due to volume. Carver, Vaughn, Shepard, Barthelme, Berlin—to pick names wildly out of my brain hat—are mostly first-person specialists; Chekhov, Cheever, O’Connor, Malamud, and our man William Trevor are mostly third-person writers. Some writers like James Salter are almost homophilic in their POV devotion—as far as I know, Salter wrote one story in first, and it is his worst. Some freaks like Alice Munro—always enragingly brilliant and sui generis—are great at both. (A glance at the above lists, by the way, would suggest that third-person is an older tradition, less favored in contemporary writers, something I believe to be true and unfortunate and have written about in various places before, for instance here.)

I’ve always found it interesting that writers so often fall into the first or third camp, and I’ve always wondered why that tends to be the case. Given the modern tendency toward first-person writing, given the way we write in first all day on social media, it feels somewhat unsurprising that many/most people favor it. As someone who is better at and prefers third, I’m hard pressed to explain why. Perhaps formative books I read in childhood, like those of Roald Dahl? Maybe, but it feels like something more elemental about natural narrative position. The thing that feels natural to me in storytelling—that is, telling the story of what happened to other people—feels artificial to many writers; the storytelling position that seems to feel natural to most writers today—talking about what happened to them, or “them”—feels artificial to me. This seems, on some level, wonderfully inexplicable, like loving or hating cilantro.

Trevor’s most special writing gift lies in his ability to write from a character’s—sometimes multiple characters’—perspective in placid and seamless free-indirect style. Unlike Salter, his forays into first are not disastrous or embarrassing, just a bit less distinct, less Trevor-y, than his third-person stories. His calm, pellucid style—such an advantage in blending character and narrative perspective, and thereby obscuring or deferring moments of understanding from character and reader—is less advantageous in first, which often profits from a bit more: more voice, more noise and bluster. It’s a little like watching a professional athlete competing for charity in a different sport—yes, Steph Curry is a very good golfer by normal standards, but you’d still rather watch him shoot threes than hit chip shots from the rough.

That said, first person is, in fact, probably the right POV for telling “A School Story,” a story about storytelling and the dangers of telling stories. Our nameless narrator recounts his time at a boy’s school earlier in the century, and the boys’ habits at lights out of telling stories. The dorm’s perennial favorite storyteller, a boy named Markham, believes his father murdered his mother, and says that he, Markham, will murder his father and stepmother. Our narrator becomes friends with Markham and an unsavory boy named Williams, and in due time Markham’s father and stepmother are killed in Kenya. The narrator inadvertently leads Markham to falsely confess to the killing, at the behest of Williams, who exeunts in dark triumph with the remarkable catchphrase “I’m an unhealthy personage.”

This is one of those stories in which the narrator acts as a camera, a means of transmitting information to the reader about the other characters. It works as a comment on storytelling and also because third would give away too much information about the principle characters. Markham and Williams are both more or less opaque, all of their motivations and actions are offscreen. It is unsettling for this reason, for both reader and narrator, who tells this story many years later, still wondering about Williams and if he’d become “the man he said he would one day be.”

As a bit of pointless critique (imagine, if you will, William Trevor sitting stultified in my writing class as I provide my notes for this, his workshop submission): I find the narrator too muted here. We are provided no biographical material and really no character notes besides the fact that “I did not make friends easily.” The quietness of voice and absence of character context does a serviceable job of showcasing Markham’s self-destructive storytelling and Williams’s impenetrable villainy, but little else. It is not really clear, even in ambiguous terms, how this event has informed the narrator’s view of life, people, storytelling, himself. It therefore becomes something of a floating, adolescent mood piece, which feels like a missed opportunity given such intense material. A good effort, I write uselessly, at the bottom of William Trevor’s manuscript, looking forward to the revision.

Next time around: “The Penthouse Apartment.” Thanks for reading!

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.

4 comments:

  1. You don’t think the muted narrator is intended as a reminder about the influence of an author on the story? This “A School Story” story about a story about a story surely suggests something meta- going on; the vague and flickering sense we have of the narrator and his motivations a reflection of the similarly indistinct understanding we would have of the author in a third-person telling. It seems to invite consideration on how the author shapes the story, even when the author is trying to remain entirely outside the story, a reminder that these third person stories have a “first person” author behind them and maybe a hint about the limits of what understanding the author can bring to the story.

    (And there is the fact that the schoolmasters completely misunderstand our narrator’s story to them, shaping it to their prejudices instead.)

  2. Great article, Adam. I’m glad to find a fellow third-person fan.

    A paragraph that really jarred for me in the story was on page 73: “But there was always Williams, devotedly determined, it seemed, to wrap Markham and his story closer and closer together. We formed, I suppose, an odd kind of triangle.” A first-person narrator would never say this, I feel. That’s the sort of zoomed-out observation a third-person narrator makes.

    Which makes me think that Trevor is trying to have his cake and eat it here; is hoping that the narrator’s distance from events (he’s looking back from middle age, right?) excuses him from having to write too voice-ily. It doesn’t. At least, not in it’s current form: as you say, if we knew more about our narrator, then maybe it could have worked. Stick to third, Will!

  3. This is an excellent take on Trevor’s preference for the third person, and how he utilizes it so well. This story probably did have to be in the first person, but Trevor wouldn’t or couldn’t raise the “voice” to pull it off. That said, the title story of his first short story collection is one of my favorites, and it’s in the first person. Maybe it works in that story because the stakes aren’t so high? (But that’s a future discussion.)

  4. Hey Tim,

    Though I don’t quite share it, I like this reading. The muted narration can certainly be read, in this piece, as a commentary about the danger of non-muted narration. I think perhaps I’m holistically influenced by what feels like a trend throughout the first-person stories in the book toward a more or less invisible narrator.

    Anyway, thanks for reading!

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