First Love, Last Rites: Stories

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The William Trevor Reader: “Miss Smith”

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“Miss Smith” is one of my favorites so far, a nasty little number that would feel right at home in Ian McEwan’s early story collection, First Love, Last Rites. James Machen is ritually humiliated by his teacher Miss Smith, whom he becomes obsessed with pleasing and then, when she cannot be pleased, hurting. He begins a shadow campaign of endangering her new baby—throwing glass in its pram, sneaking into Miss Smith’s house and turning the gas on in the baby’s room—and Miss Smith’s husband begins to think Miss Smith is trying to kill the baby. Finally, the baby disappears, and the story ends with James leading a broken Miss Smith to the body.
This story manages a kind of Irish Gothic, a curdled fairy tale atmosphere amid the Celtic wool and damp. Many of the Gothic elements are present: child abduction/murder, the isolation of a (usually) female lead, and a pervading sense of the unreal and uncanny. It is all conveyed with Trevor’s signature light touch, but as the story proceeds, the stable world of classrooms dissolves into an encroaching horror, the horror Miss Smith feels at the world—and possibly her own mind—turning against her.
The unpleasant-yet-compelling child murder aspect reminded me of McEwan, but I was reminded also of Flannery O’Connor. In her hands, the figure of Miss Smith would have been more exaggerated and foolish, and the story itself would have been funnier and meaner, but the treatment of the James character—by both Miss Smith and the narrative—feels pulled from one of her stories. Miss Smith’s loathing of the boy is inexplicable, unexplained by her or the narrator. Here she is, discussing James with her husband:

‘What a dreadful little boy that James Machen is,’ Miss Smith reported to her husband. ‘I feel so sorry for the parents.’
‘Do I know him? What does the child look like?’
‘Small, dear, like a weasel wearing glasses. He quite gives me the creeps.’

The narrative, in turn, treats James’s psychology as essentially opaque and monstrous. Yes, on a basic level, he is mistreated by a teacher and eventually mistreats her, in turn. But his magnetic attraction to her, his compulsion to please and similar compulsion to hurt and kill, feel less like the kind of revealed psychology we’re accustomed to in realist fiction, and more like fundamental, ordained facts of this strange world. Miss Smith doesn’t really know why she despises James; James doesn’t really know why he needs her to love him or why he needs to kill her child. This helpless folie-a-deux reminded me of O’Connor’s “The Lame Shall Enter First”: Sheppard magnetically drawn to Rufus Johnson and Rufus, with his misshapen foot a symbol of his deformed soul, saying, “Satan has me in his power.”
In a larger sense, there is an O’Connorian quality of narrative preordainment to the plot reminiscent of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and many of her stories. James is a kind of nemesis created by Miss Smith, and the story moves inexorably towards disaster. Neither character, at any moment, seems to have any free will, any ability to wrest away control of their dance. Trevor’s characters often lack a certain agency, or perhaps better put, his stories ultimately reveal the extent of a character’s lack of agency, their stuckness. But rarely are his characters manipulated toward mutual tragedy in quite such explicit terms, terms that, again, recall Hulga and the preacher, Sheppard and Johnson, the grandmother and the Misfit, Julian and his mother. In “Miss Smith,” the horror was always there, waiting, a fact the final sentence makes explicit:

‘As they walked together on this summer’s day the laughter would continue until they arrived at the horror, until the horror was complete.’

Next week: “The Hotel of the Idle Moon.”

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