Aspects of the Novel

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The William Trevor Reader: “The Forty-Seventh Saturday”

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If I have a general critique of William Trevor, it’s one that this story elicited with greater force than any I’ve read yet: namely, the surface quality of his characters’ psychologies. In “The Forty-Seventh Saturday,” an unpleasant middle-aged man, Mr. McCarthy, visits Mavie, a young woman half his age, for the 47th installment of their tryst. Characteristically of Trevor characters, they operate on a schedule: between noon and 4 p.m. on Saturdays, when Mavie’s roommate is at work. Trevor, and his creations, are big on routine, on the habitual and habituated—you would be hard pressed to find a Trevor story that does not include a phrase like “every year,” “once a week,” “twice a month,” etc. This stands, somewhat, in opposition to standard operating procedure for short stories, which are mostly about the exception and the remarkable.

Every Saturday, Mr. McCarthy buys a jug of rose wine and brings it over to Mavie’s apartment. Every Saturday, Mavie cooks Mr. McCarthy something fishy and unappetizing—in this case, the fantastically repellent mackerel in garlic custard. Every Saturday, Mr. McCarthy pleads stomach issues; every Saturday, Mavie worries he doesn’t love her, and Mr. McCarthy reassures her falsely that he does; every Saturday, they go to bed. And every Saturday, afterward, Mavie cleans up and weeps, while Mr. McCarthy goes to a movie.

This is all rendered in the usual excellent prose, and the emotional effect is astoundingly brutal, but I was left feeling unsatisfied, as I occasionally am after reading one of his stories. The character of Mavie is so flat, and the story is so uninterested in what would seem to be the only true point of interest, namely why she is in love with Mr. McCarthy, why she puts herself through this weekly station of the cross. The narrative answers this question from Mavie’s point of view: “She did not think it odd, as Mr. McCarthy had often thought, that she, so pretty and still young, should love so passionately a man of fifty-two.” But this is unsatisfying, because it is odd, and it is not enough—for me—for the story to simply tell us that she doesn’t think it so.

If, in fact, Mavie does not find it unusual that she is magnetically drawn to an unpleasant older man who treats her badly, this should become at least part of the story’s psychological interest. Instead, as is often the case in Trevor-World, it is simply treated as an unassailable fact of life. This is usually a strength in his writing, not only because it’s unusual, but because it captures something true about life, that regardless of how or why things became the way they are, once they are that way they so often remain that way absent a heroic force of will. Trevor’s fiction is refreshingly anti-therapeutic, not to say anti-psychological. He’s interested in his characters’ minds, their self-apprehensions. He just doesn’t have any belief in their power to leverage that understanding into action or change.

But in the case of Mavie—and sometimes other characters—there isn’t much interest in the psychology, either. Or put another way: if more attention were paid to her psychology, it might undermine the story itself. It would either render the story implausible, or it would shift too much of the story’s attention to why Mavie is stuck with Mr. McCarthy. Either one of these outcomes would divert the story from its main concern, i.e. the sheer pathos of Mavie’s situation. This, I think, is a reframing or restatement of my issue with the psychological thinness of some Trevor stories. This 2D quality is often, perhaps usually, a function of the story’s overdetermination. I mean this word in two senses (one incorrect, usage-wise): overdetermination of plot and an accompanying authorial overdetermination to produce a certain emotional effect.

Granting Mavie the psychological depth to consider her situation and whether she wants to be with McCarthy, even if she ultimately decides to continue with the affair, would lessen the overwhelming and intractable sadness of the piece. It would, in Grace Paley’s famous phrase, grant her the open destiny of life, if just the smallest bit. Trevor’s impulse to withhold agency from characters occasionally means, in its extreme form and as exemplified by “The Forty-Seventh Saturday,” withholding psychological depth, even psychological realism, and this is one of the rare places where his artistic impulses falter.

Considering this point, I’m reminded of E.M. Forster’s section on plot in Aspects of the Novel, which remains one of the most entertaining—if wildly subjective and frequently silly—craft books ever written. Forster’s description of the relationship between plot and character, which I think is true, is that past a certain point, plot tends to deform character. The demands of story create little implausibilities of action that, as they accrue, can render a character less human and believable. Typically, this occurs on the basis of overplotting—Marvel movies, for instance, sacrifice depth of character for action. Things need to happen, and if this need stretches character on the rack, so be it. Trevor offers a rare example of how a kind of underplotting can also deform—or, maybe, un-form—character. The demands of this story, and some like it in the collection, are so austere that they require an inhuman stoicism and general flatness of character to achieve the seemingly desired effect.

Up next: “The Ballroom of Romance.”

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