I’m not sure how much I have to say about this one. Another first-person story, the second of this anthology, and the title piece of William Trevor’s first collection, published in 1969. We follow the narrator Mike as he goes around London getting drunk with his itinerant friend Swann, and Swann’s two women friends, Jo and Margo. Along the way, he calls Lucy, a woman he’s in love with, no fewer than 10 times, until she understandably tells him to stop. At the end of the story, he reflects that although he’s in love with Lucy, time will eventually take away the pain of his love, and if he remembers the day at all it will be for the boozy cake they all ate at lunch. It’s a pleasant enough story, though somewhat shaggy dog and less memorable than others so far.
Okay, I guess I have two things to say. This story again argues for Trevor’s talents as a third-person writer. As with “A School Story,” the narrator leaves (again, for me) too faint an impression. First-person (for me) works best when it’s suggestive of things the narrator can’t admit to themselves; when it’s unreliable, essentially. More precisely—I don’t require or even want Humbert Humbert in most first-person stories, but I do think good first person is aware of the possibility of unreliability and at least feints now and then in that direction. The strength of Trevor’s style in third—the lightness of touch and almost impersonal narrative intelligence—can be a liability in first, as a reader craves a bit more of the authorial thumb on the scale.
One way to think about this is that, to my mind, the same first-person Trevorian narrator narrates the more successful third-person stories, but he or it stays invisible, simply relaying the activities and thoughts of the other characters with immaculate style. In the first-person stories, this narrator strides forward and occupies a starring role in the proceedings, but with the same tasteful reticence as when he/it/she remains offstage. The generally smart impulse to not get in the way of the story becomes a demerit when the narrator is the story, and in first-person stories, the narrator cannot help but be the locus of narrative interest. Where readers want to know what happened, as well as how and why, in third-person, they centrally want to know why the story is being told in first. A useful thought experiment I sometimes employ with my students is to imagine written stories as spoken ones. A person sits down next to you at a party and begins talking—if they’re telling a story of sufficient interest about other people, their specific person recedes into the background, and you listen to the tale. If, on the other hand, they begin talking about themselves, their presence cannot fully recede, as you listen with one ear trained on the story’s significance to them. Obeying their master’s storytelling instincts, Trevor’s first-person narrators instinctively want to disappear, fade away into the party’s background.
The other thing about this story is it feels like a bit of a period piece, a story very much of the ‘60s. Some of these early ones do, a bit, this one does more than most. There’s an effortful hint of louche grooviness, with the ne’er-do-well hippie friend and his lady friends, with the confusion of the day drinking, and the object of desire with her own shaggy, spectral man-friends. Trevor’s universe—as I recall, perhaps faultily, from reading these stories the first time around—generally has an intensely late-‘70s British atmosphere. My composite mental image of his storytelling world has the look of a Monty Python set, with the bad haircuts and over-wide lapels; there’s a kind of damp fug about everything, dirty teakettles everywhere, and the overwhelming vibe of austerity. This ambience pairs with Trevor’s thematic sensibilities far better than the late-summer-of-love mood that emerges in some of the earlier pieces.
I’ll be back after taking a December hiatus to make way for the site’s annual Year in Reading entries. Next up—in a few weeks— “Miss Smith.”’