It feels safe to say that no other writer of great stature wrote more often than William Trevor about old people. Only Alice Munro comes close—perhaps V. S. Pritchett. Here’s an incredibly stupid admission: when I first encountered Trevor, it made perfect sense to me that he would write so much about old people, since he so perfectly embodied the platonic ideal of an old person. Those twinkly, wise eyes! That signature Irish walking hat! I was in my 30, in the late aughts, when I first read Trevor, and he was in his late-70s. It did not occur to me that he had not always been in his late-70s, that many of the multitude of stories were written when he was my age at the time.
But enough about my stupidity, which I would prefer to reveal slowly over the course of this project, rather than all at once in an information dump. I mentioned Trevor’s interest in the elderly in a previous entry, the way aging is simpatico with his central theme, i.e. coming to terms with one’s life. But it’s more than that. Advanced age and accompanying senescence are, if not an obsession, a fixation. Sometimes, with writers, you viscerally sense the person, place, thing, idea, or general theme that quickens their pulse—you can hear the fingers tap that much faster on the typewriter. With Charles Portis, it’s cars, or more broadly, mechanical objects; with Ottessa Moshfegh it’s any bodily-related function: peeing, pooping, barfing. I sense, in Trevor’s stories, that quickening when it comes to senility, sundowning, the general incapacity of age.
In several of these stories we’ve covered already, an old person’s vulnerability provides a key plot point: Miss Winton’s fuddled inability to wrest control of the situation in “The Penthouse Apartment;” Miss Efoss becoming overwhelmed and subsumed by the Dutt’s desire for a child in “In at the Birth;” General Suffolk’s progressive drunkenness and weakness in “The General’s Day.” Even the titular Miss Smith, a relatively young person, undergoes a sort of premature dotage. This week’s story, “The Hotel of the Idle Moon,” provides the most explicit version of this yet, as a pair of married con artists, the Dankers, invade the country home of the ancient Marstons and their equally ancient servant Cronin. They likely poison Lord Marston, and proceed to consign the Lady and Cronin to a small wing of the house while they convert the rest into a hotel. Cronin dreams of cutting their throats with a razor strop, but in the end, he understands it to be absurd that he “imagined himself a match for the world and its conquerors.”
One feels Trevor taking a kind of perverse pleasure in the plight of the Marstons and Cronin, bulldozed as they are by this purposeful, evil people. I found myself speculating about Trevor’s Irishness, wondering if there was a connection to the history of Ireland, regularly occupied by an outside force since the Romans. Further along in The Collected Stories, Trevor explicitly addresses The Troubles, but I wondered if there’s something more general in the Irish psyche that responds to the drama of encroachment—Joyce’s fiction is, as well, shot through with narratives of helplessness and submission: for example, Gabriel Conroy’s and Leopold Bloom’s effulgent, ecstatic paralyses; Ulysses, stripped of its extravagant language, is the story of a man wandering in circles as his wife cuckolds him. Joyce’s language itself can be read as a defense mechanism, a coded linguistic bulwark devised by a genius with a siege mentality.
What encroaches more assiduously than time? What enemy is more relentless than age? Trevor is especially, unusually responsive to the problem of dementia (“Cheating at Canasta,” one of his most famous later stories, regards a man on vacation at the behest of his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife). In “The House of the Idle Moon,” the senescence of the house’s nonagenarians is like an accomplice working in concert with the Dankers. As the Dankers slowly take over, landscaping the apple orchard and beginning to rent the rooms to guests, age subsumes Lady Marston and Cronin. And in that subsumption, I detect a delicious release, a giving over to chaos, meaninglessness, and loss. When it’s far too late to stop the Dankers, we get this exchange between Cronin and Lady Marston:
‘It has no meaning: The Hotel of the Idle Moon. Yet I fear, m’lady, it may in time mean much to us.’
Lady Marston laughed quite gaily. ‘Few things have meaning, Cronin. It is rather too much to expect a meaning for everything.’
Next time around, “A School Story.”