It seems possibly axiomatic to say all great writers—and all great artists—have a kind of complacent default setting that they click into in the absence of bigger or better ideas. Think Scorsese’s “Gimme Shelter”-tracked montages; think, for that matter, of Jagger doing his Sylvester-the-Cat falsetto over a phased bluesy vamp. In the arena of short stories, think Carver’s dinner tables and bottles of gin and long, bleary conversations going into the night.
So it is with William Trevor and embarrassing party conversations. Depending on if you count “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp” in this genre, “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch” is the fourth or fifth such story in the first third of The Collected. As mentioned in a previous entry, the man had a great fondness for this set-up, a set-up that enables and activates some of his great themes: sexual frustration, class anxiety, pervading isolation even—or especially—in social spheres, and the danger of having one’s true self revealed to others (and oneself). This last point is perhaps the most important—Trevor’s characters often have very little of value in their difficult lives besides whatever brittle self-conception they have been able to rig up, and the fragile dignity of its preservation.
As is the case of the titular Raymond Bamber, who is invited every year to an autumn cocktail party at the Tamberley’s where we meet him, talking to the the titular Mrs. Fitch. Bamber is 40ish, virginal, a bachelor living a Bayswater bedsit who has lengthy vocal opinions about how to properly polish a sideboard. A grinding bore, in other words—the words of Mrs. Fitch, an unhappy alcoholic whose chronically philandering husband is cheating on her on the other side of the room. After taking down four quick martinis, she proceeds to nab the conversational baton from Bamber, accuse him of being a sexual pervert, inform him that he’s only invited to the party because the Tamberleys knew his father, and that everyone considers him a grinding bore. Mr. Fitch rescues Bamber from his wife, takes her away, and Bamber spends the remainder of the story in psychological self-defense, imagining that Mrs. Fitch is crazy and projecting, only to have this theory destroyed when Mr. Fitch returns to continue romancing the woman who is not his wife.
This latter part of the story—Bamber telling himself and other people that Mrs. Fitch is delusional and herself an unwanted bore—goes on far too long, in my estimation. It has the quality of the same joke told several times, of hearing a not-especially-funny punchline over and over. We get it: the poor guy is a dullard. We, in fact, know this on the second page of the story, when Bamber is telling Mrs. Fitch about his nanny and restoring furniture. The story is guilty of something a professor of mine once memorably warned the class about: don’t be smarter than your characters. You must know more than them; you must understand more than them. But the spectacle of an author being ostentatiously smarter than their dumb protagonist is unseemly and can feel bullying, as it does here.
To return to the question implied earlier, why does Trevor favor this situation so heavily? Many of the non-party stories still essentially feature two people caught in close proximity and forcibly revealing unpleasant truths: “Going Home,” for example, or “Memories of Youghal.” Trevor’s primary dramatic tool is denial—the leveraging of narrative stakes via a character’s inability or refusal to acknowledge their (often reduced) circumstances—and this sort of social interaction offers a platonically ideal means of probing that denial. Parties, in particular, seem to have a special appeal precisely because of their ostensible pleasure; they offer the sadistic spectacle of watching a character walking into the lion’s mouth.
I will say that, for my money, I prefer the stories in which there’s more dramatic action, more event and shape to the proceedings, more context surrounding the inevitable felling conversational stroke as in “The Grass Widows” or “The Ballroom of Romance.” I want, I suppose, to see the condemned person’s entire walk, from jail to gallows.
Up next, “The Distant Past.”