I count this story as the fourth stone-cold masterpiece we’ve encountered so far, a list that in my estimation includes “Access to the Children,” “The Grass Widows” and “The Ballroom of Romance.” It may be that, at this third-of-the-way point in The Collected, with some of the earlier and arguably more minor stories behind us, we will encounter these stories at a more frequent clip. I may be forced to recalibrate my standards for greatness, but regardless, this is a great story.
“In Isfahan” concerns a chaste romance between two principals, Mr. Normanton and Miss Iris Smith, who first meet on a guided bus tour of Isfahan, Iran. Mr. Normanton is older and upper class, and he immediately identifies Miss Smith as lower class by her dress and half-concealed cockney accent. “Nothing about her,” he peremptorily judges, “was smart.” Nonetheless, Miss Smith is attractive, possessed of eastern features, and Mr. Normanton meets her later at a shopping bazaar, after which they get dinner and drink too much. Miss Smith finds Mr. Normanton a figure of great elegance and presumes him a rich architect; she wants to stay with him, sleep with him, but Mr. Normanton demures, walking her back to her cheap hotel. That night he cannot sleep, and we finally learn the occluded truth about Mr. Normanton, why he is in Isfahan by himself, and why he won’t sleep with Miss Smith: he has been twice cuckolded and feels cursed. The story ends by imposing the same kind of harsh summary judgment on Mr. Normanton that at the story’s outset Mr. Normanton inflicts on Miss Smith:
He stood by the window, watching nothing happening in the street, knowing if he stood there forever he wouldn’t find the courage. She had met a sympathetic man, more marvelous to her than all the marvels of Isfahan… knowing nothing about a pettiness which brought out cruelty in people. And he would remember a woman who possessed, deep beneath her unprepossessing surface, the distinction that her eyes mysteriously claimed for her. In difference circumstances, with a less unfortunate story to tell, it would have emerged. But in the early morning, there was another truth, too. He was the stuff of fantasy. She had quality, he had none.
One of the things I find almost cleansing about reading William Trevor, is how unafraid his stories are of taking a clear position on their characters and their lives. The modern short story is almost reflexively ambiguous, and this is not necessarily a bad thing—I love a productively ambiguous ending—but the impulse itself becomes tiresome, and it’s invigorating to read an author who writes conclusive conclusions. “In Isfahan” features a particular type of Trevorian end, one that, as in the brutal summation of Bridie that closes “The Ballroom of Romance,” seems to slam a book shut on the character’s entire life. I think of this as a “Way It Is” ending: you read 20 pages about a character’s life, and the story closes by telling you in no uncertain terms what you read, the way it is. Mr. Normanton is a reflexive snob and coward, a cuckold almost in character, and though Miss Smith is vulgar and common, she possesses the strength and solidity to share her true self with him. He cannot and is a shadow. That’s the way it is.
The blunt simplicity of this type of ending would not work so well for Trevor, if it weren’t for his elegant mastery of free-indirect discourse. For those unfamiliar with the term, FID is, simply put, the blending of authorial and character POV in third-person. Trevor’s unassuming narrative voice slides into and out of close third-person sometimes melding with and vanishing entirely into character, sometimes standing slightly apart. The gut punch ending of “In Isfahan” and “The Ballroom of Romance” are shaded with complexity by free-indirect discourse, as the reader is forced to ask: who is saying this? Author or character? Both presumably, but a shadow is cast over the statement. To what extent does Mr. Normanton realize this? Is it mostly the story’s opinion? Alternately, is this character sense more purely self-hatred, a feeling that emanates from Mr. Normanton himself? It is unclear. “There was another truth” seems carefully calibrated to maintain this narrative gray space, like the gray dawn Mr. Normanton peers into, and the reader is left to wonder what kind of and how much knowledge Mr. Normanton will return with to England.
On the subject of close third person, here’s a small moment that struck me as emblematic of Trevor’s absolute mastery of the technique. The bus tour stops at a mosque, and Mr. Normanton wanders away into a marketplace, observing the locals:
Crouched on the dust, cobblers made shoes: on a wooden chair a man was shaved beneath a tree. Other men drank sherbet, arguing as vigorously as the heat allowed. Veiled women hurried, pausing to prod entrails at butchers’ stalls or to finger rice.
“You’re off the tourist track, Mr. Normanton.”
Her white high-heeled sandals were covered with dust. She looked tired.
“So are you,” he said.
A lesser writer—myself certainly included—would have described the figure of Miss Smith cutting through the throng. But since Mr. Normanton does not notice her, that would have drawn us out of his consciousness, into a more distanced narration, however momentary. We hear her voice first, as he does, and we see her feet before we see the rest of her—as he identifies her via her cheap footwear.
Next time around, “Angels at the Ritz.”