The William Trevor Reader: “Another Christmas”

August 30, 2022 | 3 min read

Something that occurs to me at times, reading Trevor’s stories, is the value of boredom in fiction. Trevor’s narrative style is often described—including by me in this column—as calm, stately, quiet. This sometimes feels euphemistic: his stories can be slow and boring, though never dull.

“Another Christmas” is, for about half its duration, a pretty slow ride. Middle-aged Irish couple Norah and Dermot—unusually, their last name is elided—sit around one December evening in their London home, waiting for three of their children to return from the movies, while discussing the eminent return of the eldest two for the Christmas holidays. They ominously refer to their landlord, Mr. Joyce, though we have to wait until later to get the story about him. Norah and Dermot are kind and solicitous to each other in the courtly and slightly senescent style that marks the rapport of well-married people in Trevor’s fiction (the other style is hatefulness, and there’s no in-between). Norah and Dermot are pretty boring people with boring jobs. He, a tee-totalling meter-reader; she, a homemaker. The first three or four pages of this story are almost aggressively uneventful, as the reader struggles to remember the names of all the children and their spouses, and why we are supposed to care.

This is, of course, tactical. It transpires that beneath the thin veneer of companionable matrimony lurks deep anger, on the part of the wife. Earlier in the year, Mr. Joyce, who for years visited once a week to watch the news with the couple, and always came for Christmas dinner, had condemned the most recent IRA bombings. Dermot agreed that it was horrible, but gently added that it doesn’t do to forget the treatment of the Northern Irish over the years. Mr. Joyce took quiet exception, and they have not heard from him since. Norah grows increasingly furious at her husband’s quiet, placid insistence that Mr. Joyce will show up for dinner, and the story ends on an almost hysterical note, as she imagines the sorrow of the Christmas to come: “Whenever she looked at him she would remember the Christmases of the past. She would feel ashamed of him, and of herself.” The IRA, she thinks, would be happy if they had knowledge of this victory they had scored, not via the destruction of a building or bus, but the destruction of a bond between Irish and English, Catholic and Protestant.

I found the political content in this to be poignant and measured. Dermot is not wrong in his position. To solely condemn the IRA bombings is to turn a blind eye to England’s occupation of Northern Ireland and its own atrocities. And it is certainly possible to read Norah’s position—her fear of being feared, her understanding of English enmity against the Irish—as a kind of cowed immigrant defensiveness. Nonetheless, her anger at Dermot for not putting their friendship with Mr. Joyce first feels human and true, not to mention relevant in our country, where annual opinion pieces about family Thanksgivings divided by the dreaded MAGA Uncle have become their own kind of tradition.

To return to the question of boredom in fiction, as I was reading “Another Christmas,” I found myself mildly bored and also admiring the degree to which Trevor takes his time with these unprepossessing characters. It occurred to me the extent to which modern fiction—even very well-regarded literary short fiction—is at pains to hook a reader, almost to stump for its own existence. The most dreaded note a writer can receive in any workshop is “I don’t understand why this was written/why I’m reading this.” Very few authors are granted the editorial or readerly latitude/clemency to be boring and uneventful for any significant stretch of narrative space, even if the thing being written about is ultimately the exact opposite. The Troubles and marital disillusionment are, of course, far from boring—they are horribly interesting, in fact.

Fiction’s charge, on a certain level, is to be interesting, to keep the reader reading. And yet when the dial of interest—of event and character and situation, yes, but also of pure prose intensity—begins at 11, there isn’t much further to take it. What I’m talking about here is a kind of sensitivity to dynamics. Trevor, and a few lucky geniuses like him, Alice Munro among them, enjoyed the sponsorship of literary institutions to a degree that he could afford to begin quietly, almost inaudible, to make an attentive reader cock their ear and wait for his gorgeous, discordant music to swell.

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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