The William Trevor Reader: “The Distant Past”

April 19, 2022 | 3 min read

“The Distant Past” is the first story in The Collected to directly address the conflict in Northern Ireland, aka The Troubles. The Middletons are an elderly brother-sister pair who live in an unnamed Irish town some 60 miles south of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. They live in the ruins of a formerly grand estate named Carraveagh and are well-known in the town as loyalist Protestants, but they are more generally and fondly known in town as eccentrics. They have little money and survive by selling eggs from their farm and receiving little lagniappes like free mince for their old dog from Fat Cranly, the butcher. Despite impolitic choices like driving about town with the Union Jack in the back of their car for Elizabeth II’s coronation, they are tolerated and indulged, almost loved. Tourists to the town marvel at the Middletons: “It was a pleasant wonder, more than one of them remarked, that old wounds could heal so completely, that the Middletons continued in their loyalty to the past and that, in spite of it, they were respected in the town.”

But 1968 arrives, and the bombings, and that respect quickly fades. What had seemed like harmless eccentricity in peacetime is immediately recast as enemy allegiance in war-time. The owner of the large hotel in town no longer acknowledges them, the rich woman who throws parties at the hotel will not reply when they speak to her, and the butcher wishes he had never given them free meat for their dog. Denied the little gifts and graces that had previously floated them, they are forced to sell their farm animals, and, grimly anticipating the difficult road ahead, they understand that “because of the distant past, they would die friendless.”

I found “The Distant Past” to be an elegant introduction to The Troubles in Trevor’s work. It’s a simple idea, rendered with poignant acuity: the past seems distant, until it isn’t. The phrase is worked through the story several times, first in the sense of the Middletons’ allegiance to a pre-independent Ireland, an allegiance that they themselves feel 40 years on to be at least partially mere habit. When The Troubles begin, the phrase rings with an ironic tone—the past is, of course, never really distant. Faulkner’s famous formulation comes to mind: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Especially true in a new country with the wounds of civil war still alive in living memory, when the Middletons remember Fat Cranly along with two other local men, hiding from British soldiers in Carraveagh. The town’s progressive tolerance, in which its people take great collective pride, is shown to be flimsy and contingent: on continued peace and also on the town’s post-war prosperousness, an economic growth from which the Middletons have been usefully excluded, their poverty making them harmless and pitiable.

“The Distant Past” provides a good example of story form following function. The majority of this very short story, really until the last few paragraphs, is rendered in exposition broken only by brief snatches of dialogue. We have nothing in scene until the Middletons have been shunned by the town and discuss the hopeless precarity of their situation:

“It will never cease,” He spoke disconsolately one night, standing by the dresser where the wireless was.

She washed the dishes they’d easten from, and the cutlery. “Not in our time,” she said.

“It is worse than before.”

“Yes, it is worse than before.”

In this way, the first five pages of the story not only describe the past and the terms of the past in the present, but they feel like the past: peppered with remembered scenes, but largely impressionistic and summarized. So, while the Middletons and the town have underestimated the political importance of the distant past, they have also overestimated the durability of their former détente and resultant happiness. That happy moment is indeed distant, and likewise Trevor moves us at speed to The Troubles, and we leave the Middletons in dramatic scene—in their charmless and hopeless present.

Next time, “In Isfahan.”

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.

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