“The Grass Widows” joins “The Ballroom of Romance” and “Access to the Children” in the group of William Trevor stories so far that I would call masterpieces. In its common usage, “masterpiece” is mostly a meaningless phrase that amorphously denotes a piece of art being somehow better or larger than other art by the same person. But I think it does or can mean something more specific—namely, a piece of art that could only have been made by one artist. The word “master” in this context refers to mastery of not only an art form in general, but a specific mastery of form that produces idiosyncratic art with its own personal syntax, a syntax of one.
What feels signally Trevorian in this story is the effortless motion of the camera, the focalized storytelling perspective shifting among the four principals, and the way that the whole enterprise feels immaculately tied together by a unitary storytelling consciousness. Very few short story writers attempt to use multiple POVs and even fewer still manage to pull it off, let alone with Trevor’s graceful nonchalance. The list almost begins and ends with James Salter—I don’t just mean switching perspectives, but the kind of omniscient third that floats around like a butterfly, settling here and there. Switching third-person perspectives is generally something that creative writing teachers counsel against—I know this because I am one, and reliably a few times a semester I suggest a student whittle down the story perspective to a main character. When it does work, it usually works as a kind of regimented, structural part of the storytelling. Alice Munro, for example, will switch perspectives in a story, but usually in one of her longer pieces where the POV shift feels more like a new chapter.
I think one of the reasons this storytelling style is so uncommon is that it requires an uncommon confluence of moral intelligence and style. It’s difficult enough to convincingly occupy one character consciousness, to speak for one person—to emulate the problem of limited consciousness in a world of competing desires and contingencies of event: that’s what most storytelling, in first or third, does. Omniscient storytelling depends on the ability to convincingly occupy multiple consciousnesses while arraying these consciousnesses by way of a larger objective judgment. Trevor’s sublimely empathetic, yet morally commanding presence, yoked to his calm, commanding style, enables him to animate his characters convincingly while moving them all toward the same place.
In the case of “The Grass Widows,” the characters are a pair of couples, the Angusthorpes and the Jacksons, lodging at the same Irish countryside hotel named the Slieve Gashal. Mr. Angusthorpe is an elderly public school headmaster, and Mr. Jackson (confusingly named Jackson Major in the story, which must be a very particular British style of address), is his favorite head boy ever. Jackson worships Mr. Angusthorpe and has so deeply internalized Mr. Angusthorpe’s stories about the pleasures of the Slieve Gashal and nearby fishing spots that he insists on honeymooning there with his new bride, Daphne. Daphne and Mrs. Angusthorpe are, well, the wives, the unfortunately wives of these humorless, selfish men.
Unfortunately for both the Jacksons and Angusthorpes, the Slieve Gashal’s longtime proprietor Mr. Doyle has died, and the hotel has been taken over by Mr. Doyle’s drunken son. In the intervening year since the elder Doyle’s death, the hotel has declined precipitously, and by chance the Angusthorpes and Jacksons find themselves on opposite sides of the same partition—Doyle the Younger has partitioned all the rooms to make more money—occupying the room the Angusthorpes have rented for decades. Mr. Angusthorpe and Jackson are dismayed, but they ultimately care more about the prospect of long days fishing in the pristine nearby streams than they do about their wives’ comfort or happiness. Mrs. Angusthorpe belatedly realizes the full horror of her marriage, what she has sacrificed for this horrible man, and she attempts to convince Daphne to leave Jackson while there’s still time. Predictably, Daphne goes into full denial mode, imagining Mrs. Angusthorpe to be unbalanced, and we leave the two women helplessly joining their husbands for another fantastically vile dinner in the Slieve Gashal’s dining room.
This set-up is, of course, systematic in extremis—as mentioned in previous installments of the Trevor Reader, readers hungry for the open destiny of life would be wise to look elsewhere. But again, Trevor’s placidly perceptive narrative voice helps smooth over some of the story’s inherent contrivances, as well as the jumps of consciousness among the four principals. Here’s an (abridged) early paragraph that details Jackson’s insistence on honeymooning at the Slieve Gashal, a representative, example of Trevor’s technique:
To Jackson Major the headmaster enthused during all the year that Jackson Major was head boy of the famous school, and Jackson Major did not ever forget the paradise that then had formed in his mind. ‘I know a place,’ he said to his fiancee long after he had left the school, ‘that’s perfect for our honeymoon.’ He told her about the heathery hills that the headmaster had recalled for him, and the lakes and rivers and the one-horse little village in which, near a bridge, stood the ivy-covered bulk of the Slieve Gashal Hotel. ‘Lovely, darling,’ murmured the bride-to-be of Jackson Major, thinking at the time of a clock in the shape of a human hand that someone had given them and which would naturally have to be changed for something else. She’d been hoping that he would suggest Majorca for their honeymoon, but if he wished to go this other place, she didn’t intend to make a fuss. ‘Idyllic for a honeymoon,’ the headmaster had once remarked to Jackson Major, and Jackson Major had not forgotten. Steady but unimaginative were words that had been written of him on a school report.
This is a small marvel of narration. Notice how we begin with a reported telling over time that immediately condenses and firms into a kind of amorphous scene with dialogue, then a less amorphous scene as we see the tacky wedding present distracting Daphne. The paragraph’s perspective drifts from omniscient to lightly occupying Jackson Major, as we learn of the paradise forming in his mind, a description that concretizes as scene in Daphne’s distracted POV, and her present moment dismissal of concern about their honeymoon destination. We momentarily return to Jackson Major’s consciousness before leaving on the same omniscient note in which we entered, by way of a summary judgment about Jackson’s dullness that he could not possibly—and would not want to—know.
In this way does the narration elegantly proceed through the story. My inclination as a writer, and teacher of writing, and general nerd about narration, is to write more about the attendant technique here; unfortunately—or possibly fortunately, depending on how interesting you find this line of inquiry—I don’t really know what to say about it. It feels both highly technical and completely instinctive to me. I’m not sure writing this way is something that can be taught or learned—it is a high-wire routine, and every sentence, every little feint and movement in narrative position could prove false and cause the whole piece to tumble down. To avoid doing so is a matter of savant-ish authorial intuition about how much control is too much, how much information the audience can be given freely (Jackson Major’s dullardly nature), and how much knowledge must be earned in the course of events (Daphne Jackson’s degree of self-deception).
I find my inarticulacy about Trevor’s technique here, and in similar stories, both frustrating and pleasurable. Contrary to one strain of conventional wisdom, a great deal of writing craft can be taught, or at least learned. But at a certain granular level, the mechanisms of story and storytelling remain opaque and mysterious, as they should.
Next week: “The Mark-2 Wife”