The William Trevor Reader: “Mr. Tennyson”

This is a slight one, though nice, I think. The plot summary can be delivered in the space of two sentences: Mr. Tennyson, an English teacher, is notorious for an affair he once had with one of his students, Sarah Spence, and is rumored to have had others. Jenny, the main character, wants to be Mr. Tennyson’s next affair, but she is rebuffed, just as she rebuffs the love of a boy who loves her. The story creates little parallel lines of rejections, and of people made ridiculous by their love: just as Sarah Spence makes Mr. Tennyson ridiculous, he makes Jenny ridiculous; just as Mr. Tennyson makes Jenny ridiculous, she makes her paramour Chinny Martin ridiculous, and so on. The point of the story—i.e. that everyone is someone’s fool, and that Jenny does not yet understand this—is extremely simple, but the brevity of the piece works to its advantage; its seven pages has the aesthetic effect of a good watercolor, a few deftly executed lines conveying scene and (downcast) mood.  With relatively little to interpret, I want to examine a small move Trevor makes, and what its purpose in “Mr. Tennyson” might be. In the course of describing Jenny’s home life, Trevor introduces us to her parents. They discuss Jenny’s moodiness and the narrative gives us this paragraph: He sighed. He was a painter and decorator, with his own business, Jenny was their only child. There’d been four miscarriages, all of which might have been boys, which naturally were what he wanted, with the business. He’d have to sell it one day, but it didn’t matter all that much when you thought about it. Having miscarriages was worse than selling a business, more depressing really. A woman’s lot was harder than a man’s, he’d decided long ago. This paragraph is noteworthy, in the first place, for the move into the POV of Jenny's father. As I have discussed in previous installments, Trevor is virtually sui generis in his ability and willingness to travel in and out of various characters’ minds in third person, flitting here and there like a butterfly in a strong breeze. This move is particularly interesting when the narrative takes place almost entirely in one character’s mind, but not quite, as is the case with “Mr. Tennyson.” That we are otherwise limited to Jenny’s POV makes the brief view through he father’s eyes mildly jarring in a way it is not in a story with more catholicity of perspective. Why does Trevor do this? One interpretation would be that Jenny’s father’s surprising empathy obliquely, or perhaps not so obliquely, comments on the relative lack of empathy in the story, especially on the part of Mr. Tennyson. Mr. Tennyson, as he tells Jenny, is still in love with Sarah Spence, who had an abortion and is now away at university. We are given to know that he tacitly encourages crushes among his girl students, so he can talk to them, and to feel better about himself; in a similar fashion, Chinny Martin’s protestations of anguished and unwanted love make Jenny feel better, as well. But Jenny is 16 and Mr. Tennyson is 40. He has been made immature by his affair—“silly with his silly love,” as Jenny thinks of Chinny’s advances. Our little sojourn in Jenny’s father’s head gives us the perspective of an adult human, who has, in contrast, been given something like wisdom by the experience of loving another person. [millions_email]

The William Trevor Reader: “Being Stolen From”

I think, of all the William Trevor stories I’ve read over the last 16 months, “Being Stolen From” is in its way the most Trevor-y. More than any other story, this one distills the main Trevorian operating principles into one piece—maybe more than that, it most clearly articulates what feels like his guiding philosophy of both life and narrative. Put another way, while I don’t necessarily feel this is his best work, or my personal favorite, it might be the one I would recommend to someone asking for a representative story to see if they like Trevor. If “Being Stolen From” isn’t your cuppa, WT might just not be for you. “Being Stolen From” concerns Bridget Lacey, a middle-aged single mother of a toddler, Betty, whom she and her husband Liam—in their forties and unable to have children—adopted from a struggling teen named Norma. In the interim, Liam has left Bridget, taken up with the woman who bought the newsagent he manages, and Bridget looks after the girl with a little help from her lodger, the near-elderly Miss Custle. We begin with Bridget visited by Norma and her new husband, and Norma pleading for the return of her daughter. They leave, but the husband, a social worker, continues pestering Bridget, and we see her defenses slowly erode over the course of the story. She remembers her childhood in Cork, her sense of always being stolen from by others and never complaining, and her surprise at being chosen by Liam. She feels silently judged by her priest and solicitor and lodger, and we leave Bridget in tears, having quietly decided to give the child up. She mainly does so on the basis of an inarticulable (for her) feeling that this is the right order of things, that she deserves in a cosmic sense to be alone and childless. This feeling, which amounts to an articulation of Trevor’s worldview, is introduced in Bridget’s memory of her girlhood in Cork: It was then, while she was still a round-faced girl, that Bridget had first become aware of fate. It was what you had to accept, what you couldn’t kick against: God’s will, the Reverend Mother or Father Keogh would have said, but for Bridget it began with the kind of person you were. Out of that, the circumstances of your life emerged: Bridget’s shyness and her tendency to blush, her prettiness and her modesty, were the fate which had been waiting for her before she was born… Fate is one of Trevor’s great subjects, undergirding all the sexual deviancy and bad marriages and loneliness and suffering and general stuckness. As I have written about in previous installments, Trevor’s characters lack agency to an almost singular degree—short of Malamud and O’Connor, one is hard-pressed to think of an author that allows his characters fewer options, in both thought and deed. The degree of constrainment in Trevor’s work is nearly penal, but it is the constrainment, finally and as described in “Being Stolen From,” of self. Material facts of birth—place, time, class, adjacency to The Troubles, and so on—all play a role, but nothing determines the contours of one’s life more than one’s personality.  And even “personality” doesn’t quite get it—as described in the paragraph above, Bridget has a sense of her fate, her herness, being sealed before she was even born. It might be argued that this is a Catholic view of inherent, original sin, but in my view it is even more strongly a Calvinistic view of humanity—it consigns characters like Bridget to their unhappy lives while providing bleak philosophical comfort in the sense that their life could never have been otherwise. Very often in Trevor stories, certainly in “Being Stolen From,” there’s an almost libidinal pleasure derived from surrendering to one’s destiny. Norma’s husband is fate’s emissary, cajoling and wheedling and guilting Bridget into doing the thing that she has always subconsciously felt she should do: give up a child she never really deserved by dint of her ineffable and quietly doomed herness. We sense the grim pleasure Bridget feels in this surrender in the story’s final lines, a kind of exhausted and grateful acceptance: In the countryside of long ago her failure in marriage and motherhood might be easier to bear, but she would be a stranger there now. She belonged among her accumulated odds and ends, as Betty belonged with her mother, and Liam with the woman he loved. She would look after Miss Custle when Miss Custle retired from the Underground, as fate dictated.

The William Trevor Reader: “The Time of Year”

Is this the first happy ending in The Collected William Trevor? Looking back through the table of contents, I think it is. Arguably, “Lovers of Their Time” has a happy ending of sorts, with Norman secure in his sense that he’d had one great love affair in his life, though its unclear how seriously we’re meant to take this considering the affair was conducted in a hotel bathroom. It's somewhat incredible to realize that “The Time of Year” is the first story out of the 57 I’ve so far read and written about in the Collected that offers an unvarnished and unironic (though muted and dark—this is still Trevor, after all) happy ending. Valerie Upcott is a student at Trinity College in Dublin. The story takes place over the course of an evening at her history teacher’s house, where Professor Skully and his wife ritually hold a bleak end-of-term pre-Christmas party that no one wants to attend. Valerie least of all, as the Christmas season—“the time of year”—finds her depressed and withdrawn, unavoidably reminded of what happened when she was 14, six years earlier: she talked a boy she loved into going swimming on Christmas Day, and he drowned in the frigid Irish surf.  Reluctantly, Valerie attends the party, where we see the other attendees through her eyes: insecure Kilroy drinking on the sly; unremarkable Yvonne being talked to by the insufferable but remarkably named Bewley Joal; the pretty O’Neill twins being followed by their cadre of admirers; the maritorious Honor Hitchcock sitting with her luxurious fiancee, the Reverend; Ruth Cusper still in her motorcycle gear; the boring A-students Woodward, Whipp, and Woolmer-Mills hanging on the boring Professor’s every word; et cetera. Valerie lavishes particularly acute attention on the Professor and his wife, Mrs. Skully and she wonders: How could that mouth open and close, issuing invitations without knowing they were the subject of derision? How could this woman, in her late middle age, officiate at student parties in magenta and jade, or bake inedible cakes without knowing it? How could she daily permit herself to be taken for granted by a man who cared only for students with academic success behind them? How could she have married his pomposity in the first place? There was something wrong with Mrs. Skully, there was something missing, as if some part of her had never come to life. Valerie has a similar sense of the other students, a comfortable obliviousness about their own lives and characters that will propel them into mostly unexceptional, and in some cases terrible, future lives. In this Muriel Spark-esque section, she imagines most of their lives, from childhood to senescence, the way they are all unthinkingly trapped in themselves. And as she returns to her residence hall, she finds herself thus comforted: “She had been wrong to imagine she envied other people their normality and good fortune. She was as she wished to be.” She understands that her adolescent tragedy has made her more sensitive and self-aware than others, and in this she finds “what appeared to be a hint of comfort.” As happy endings go, this is not wildly happy, but Valerie is ultimately offered comfort that is in surpassingly short supply in the Trevor universe. Indeed, Trevor’s modus operandi might be said to be a withholding of comfort—his characters are typically stripped of whatever paltry comfort they’ve been able to rig up in their unfortunate lives, and we usually leave them shivering in the naked wind of narrative truth. Here we have the opposite: a character who has suffered tragedy, who for years has found no bulwark against its seasonal encroachment on her spirit, and who at last finds relief in how this tragedy may ultimately shape her life. This is real succor, too—measured and clear-eyed—not the delusional relief Trevor’s characters typically find in nostalgia and fantasy and alcohol. While it’s funny and slightly alarming to note that the first happy ending appears on page 800 of the Collected, it isn’t entirely surprising either. The short story, as I have said before in this column, as I say to my classes, is typically a sadistic art form. Constrained by space, the short story writer must locate problems, conflict, sadness, as a Lagotto Romagnolo roots out truffles. My students sometimes ask why most of the stories we read are depressing and tragic, and my unsatisfying, tautological answer is that it’s an art form that rewards tragedy. And I think this is an incomplete and perhaps slightly dishonest answer. The truth is, it can be easy to adopt a punitive mode of storytelling, one in which our characters are constantly subjects, constantly flailing around in the darkness, a darkness that holds partial appeal for the writer because it may feel the most life-like, the most like life. But this impulse can become a reflex, a grim tic. We should hold out the possibility of redemption and renewal, because these are things that happen in life, too. 

The William Trevor Reader: “The Teddy-Bears’ Picnic”

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I must admit to feeling dispirited by the title of this story before reading it, but “The Teddy-Bears’ Picnic” is actually a pretty fun one—I ought to have known that with a title like that, Trevor would deliver something appropriately vicious. The story concerns a young married couple, Deborah and Edwin, whom we meet in the midst of a row about her desire to attend a teddy-bears’ picnic in the summer. This is a tradition she has held into her twenties with a group of people she grew up with in a London exurb, and it’s what it sounds like: they have a picnic with their teddy-bears in the beautiful garden of an elderly couple called the Ainley-Foxletons. (Trevor is, incidentally, something of a wry master at toff British names.) Edwin is—somewhat understandably, to my mind—aghast at this little tradition, but he takes his incredulity too far and cannot let go of his anger at being dragged to this ridiculous party, months later. At the lunch and subsequent picnic, Edwin gets far too drunk and reminisces about another social event he hadn’t wanted to be at—as a boy, he’d sneaked into the house of the garden party his mother had dragged him to, gone up to the roof, and balanced on the parapet, causing the crowd to gasp and his mother and siblings to cry, taking over the party as his own. This presages his encounter with old Mr. Ainley-Foxleton, when, pointing out something in the garden, he nudges—maliciously or not, it’s difficult to tell—the old man, causing him to fall and hit his head on a sundial, killing him. The story ends with the picnic being interrupted by Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton’s shrieks, and Edwin making the event his own just as he had as a boy: “He declared that Mr. Ainley-Foxleton was dead, and then took charge of the proceedings.” The boorish, insensitive husband is a dominant figure in Trevor’s stories, as is the figure of the unfortunate woman trapped in a marriage with this sort of man. Bad Marriages is broad category of Trevorania, most notably and thoroughly rendered in “The Grass Widows,” but also in stories like “Nice Day at School,” “A Choice of Butchers,” “Angels at the Ritz,” “Teresa’s Wedding,” and “The Ballroom of Romance,” in which the specter of an inevitable Bad Marriage haunts the story’s conclusion. Bad marriages in Trevor stories almost always take the form of the lousy shithead husband who pays no attention to his wife, her life, her needs, or feelings. This set-up is, in fact, so deeply ingrained in this world that even in stories that don’t concern marriage itself, a bad marriage is often lurking in the background, as much a part of the ambient story environment as the ever-drizzling rain. Edwin is an especially Bad Husband, an ambitious and narrowly competitive little monster who cannot abide anything in life being about a subject other than himself. The story is about Deborah’s, the reader’s, and to a slight extent Edwin’s dawning realization that this is the case. Typically of Trevor, this revelation is casually parceled out via a series of pieces of third person narration of varying nearness to the character. Trevor makes this kind of thing look so easy, but it is not. Earlier in the story, after their quarrel, we get this:  During the quarrel Edwin had felt bewildered, never quite knowing how to proceed, and he hoped that on some future occasion he would be better able to cope. It made him angry when he wasn’t able to cope, and the anger still hung about him. On the other hand, six months wasn’t long in a marriage which he hoped would go on forever: the marriage hadn’t had a chance to settle into the shape that suited it… it was only to be expected there should be problems and uncertainty. This feels fairly objective, but it is, in fact, inflected especially at the end by Edgar’s opinion of the marriage. And the unspoken part of this reflection is that “the shape that suited it” really means “the shape that suits Edgar,” which further means “Deborah having no agency or friends.” A bit later in the story, we are told that “Deborah did not recognize these telltale signs”—the telltale signs being Edgar’s utter lack of interest in her office work, or in anything that does not have to do with him. In a couple of pages, a judgment is slyly rendered about Edgar, that begins with Edgar’s obliviousness about what marriage requires and ends with Deborah’s obliviousness about her new husband’s awfulness. But the story itself is not oblivious: the long-awaited teddy-bears’ picnic is really an occasion to see Edgar’s true self manifest itself to devastating results. A man dies because Edgar is decentered and bored, and we are left understanding just how Bad this Marriage will be when he successful isolates Deborah from her friends and former life, when the marriage settles inexorably into shape. Happy new year, by the way! The William Trevor Reader continues in 2023, with about a third of the book and accompanying essays remaining. Thanks to all who have read along from the start, and to those who have recently joined, as well! Next time around, “The Time of Year.” [millions_email]

The William Trevor Reader: “The Blue Dress”

This might receive my vote for the worst story in the collection so far. A number of other candidates spring to mind, many of them of the “People Losing Their Shit at a Party” variety, perhaps just because of the preponderance of that type. “The Blue Dress” should probably be awarded points for at least trying something new, but its execution might be the weakest. We begin in narrative confusion with the narrator—we come to learn his name is Terris—imprisoned in some kind of room. He briefly talks about women, about political intrigue, Pope Boniface VIII, then goes on to tell the story of his romance with a young woman named Dorothea. Terris, it transpires, was a journalist, and he meets Dorothea while in Bath, where he has come for the funeral of the mother of his ex-wife—his ex-wife, Felicity, who hates him, who cheated on him and mocked his presumably journalistic compulsion to find out secrets. Terris courts Dorothea and meets her parents, the Lysarths, and her protective younger brothers. He intuits something odd about the family, a staginess explained later by Dorothea’s revelation of the story of Agnes Kemp, a girl who died at the family’s house when Dorothea was a child, falling from a forbidden beech tree. Terris gets taken away with Dorothea’s offhanded comment about having hated Agnes Kemp, imagining a vivid scenario in which Dorothea pushes her from the tree, A Separate Peace-style, while the brothers watch, a crime afterward abetted by Dr. Lysarth and covered up until now. The story ends abruptly, soon after this imagining, and the reader is left to assume what must have happened, some version of Terris becoming increasingly obsessed with his betrothed’s past, getting married to her in spite of it, and eventually having the breakdown that finds him declared unfit by her or her protective family, leaving him in a dismal psychiatric dungeon to write down these tales that no one will read, let alone believe. I found the elision of this inevitable second half both peculiar and relieving—given the progression of several other similar stories in the Collected, I could see it coming and did not relish the imagined denouement. It strikes me that Trevor did not relish writing it, either, and that he got out at the very first opportunity, probably a good move. This may sound harsh—it may just be the unpleasant refractory mood I’m in after reading this story—but it sometimes strikes me that for a writer justly celebrated for his fine-tuned sense of human psychology, William Trevor was actually pretty bad at writing about mental illness. More than a handful of stories in the Collected depend on versions of insanity that feel pulled from some Victorian monograph about hysteria or melancholia. He is especially prone to positing characters who suffer ruination on account of some decades-long idée fixe. Likewise, he is fond of the asylum, prisons physical or imagined, oubliettes where these unfortunates are stuck for the remainder of their lives. Many of these are stories written and set in the nineteen-eighties and later, making these gothic flourishes even more anachronistic. This is not to say that mentally ill people were (or are) treated humanely in the modern era, just that the Arkham Asylum routine simply does not feel historically accurate, let alone convincing. None of it, for me, convinces. I do not believe in these mad lifelong delusions. They strike me as, more than anything, a convenient narrative conceit, and a grandiose magnification of Trevor’s preoccupation with the smaller delusions that allow people to survive their difficult lives. The latter is the thematic mainstay of his best fiction, really most of his fiction, and so I suppose what I’m complaining about here are the places where this theme gets away from him, or perhaps when he overindulges the impulse. In the case of “The Blue Dress,” I simply cannot see where an otherwise seemingly sane and well-employed middle-aged journalist would, by virtue of a single story and image, become a kind of Fortunato immured in the walls of his memory. I cannot see it, and judging by this story’s lack of follow-through, I think Trevor could not, either. This will be the last installment of the William Trevor Reader for 2022. I am taking December off to make room for a month’s worth of delightful Year in Readings. Thanks to everyone who has been following this project—we’ll start up again in 2023 with “The Teddy-bears’ Picnic.” [millions_email]

The William Trevor Reader: “Beyond the Pale”

“Beyond the Pale” is a weird one, and in writing about it I hope to figure out what exactly it’s doing. The story concerns a quartet of English tourists who biannually ferry from their home in Surrey to visit a hotel in County Antrim, Northern Ireland called the Glencorn Lodge. The Glencorn Lodge is a private inn run by a couple called the Malseeds, who prefer not to advertise, wanting to know their guests and to have their bookings come via word-of-mouth. The tourist quartet is comprised of two men and two women: the narrator Milly, the mousy Cynthia and her husband Strafe, and Strafe’s old school-friend Dekko. We learn early on that Milly has been conducting a long-time affair with Strafe, a situation nebulously concealed from Cynthia. After taking a walk to town one day, Milly and Strafe and Dekko return to the hotel to find Cynthia in hysterics, having witnessed the drowning death of a strange young man the quartet noted sitting by himself the evening before. The young man, it transpires, told Cynthia a terrible story about visiting the area with his young love before the Glencorn Lodge was restored, about the two of them parting ways, he remaining in Ireland, she to London where she became radicalized and started making and planting bombs for the IRA. When the young man found his old love, he bought a gun, intending to kill her, then returned to the site of their previous joy in an attempt to understand what had happened to her. Failing to, he’d finally elected to drown himself in front of poor Cynthia. This story, and after that, Cynthia’s knowledge of her husband’s affair with Milly, is related in a long section toward the end of the story, when Cynthia descends accusingly on the trio at tea-time after being given sleeping tablets to rest. Her harangue ultimately draws the attention and ire of the Malseeds, and Cynthia is dragged away, although victorious in ruining the false Eden the quartet has built here over the years, in the false Eden of the Glencorn Lodge. Cynthia’s morally lucid go-to-pieces is dramatically effective, yet false in tone to me—stagey. Indeed, as is sometimes the case with a Trevor story, it can feel more like a play in search of actors and a stage and a proscenium arch. Trevor loves nothing more than to wind a character up with repressed anger, fear, disappointment, and grief—usually an admixture of all four—and let them go to work in a public setting for maximum spectacle. It occurs to me that this probably scratches a peculiarly British itch, and a largely bygone one, that famous personal and social repression, the reticence that powered so many of the great British novels and stories from 1800 to around The Remains of the Day. The parallels between the personal and political feel a little ham-handedly stagey as well. The placid romantic deceptions of our quartet mirror the placid political deceptions of this vacation spot located only fifty miles from the turmoil in Belfast; the young man’s inability to face his lover’s betrayal speaks directly to Cynthia’s surrender to Strafe’s infidelity. It all works, but somehow too well. I’m reminded of a Martin Amis description of the “fat wet handshake and grinning dentures of bad art,” although that goes too far: “Beyond the Pale” is not that bad, just overlong and a little obvious. It is partly redeemed, in my view (and to be clear, I’m well aware nothing William Trevor did in his long successful career requires approval from the likes of me) by the voice of Milly. Here we have a female narrator who sounds like her own person, not merely a Trevor stand-in. She has a voice, and it is the voice of the person she is, a not especially nice woman content to betray her best friend, a woman who produces summary judgments of other characters in the inn with complacent ease and pleasure. The things she notices—clothes, jewelry, perfume—seem right for a person happy to keep their attention on the surface of the world.

The William Trevor Reader: “Mulivhill’s Memorial”

“Mulivhill’s Memorial” continues the trend to which Willie Fitzgerald alluded in his great piece about “Torridge” from a few weeks ago, wherein Trevor pushes the envelope of how many character POVs can be employed in a story. Really, the technique he uses in "Mulivhill's Memorial" is a kind of corporate mass consciousness, in which more than a dozen individual perspectives are trained on a single issue, for which the story is named. Mulvihill, a mild-mannered ad designer at the tony firm Ygnis and Ygnis, is stricken down by a heart attack at the beginning of the story. His office mate, the Hungarian Wilkinski, discovers Mulvihill’s secret: in his off-hours, the man filmed and edited homemade pornography. Wilkinski turns Mulvihill's films over to one of the firm’s bosses, the excellently named Ox-Banham, and Ox-Banham, in turn, begins discreetly screening them for the also excellently named Bloody Smithson, the boss of a client firm and the father of Ox-Banham’s former secretary Rowena, with whom Ox-Banham carried on an affair, and for whom he has secured a copyediting position. It duly transpires that Ox-Banham accidently screens an unlabeled film for Bloody Smithson that features Ox-Banham and Rowena screwing on his office floor, an act covertly filmed by Mulvihill. Enraged, Bloody Smithson pulls his company’s account, and Ygnis and Ygnis briefly teeters but survives. Trevor’s mode of storytelling here is a relentless flitting from character to character, often in several successive paragraphs, sometimes in adjacent sentences. Witness here the marvelously profligate inclusion of virtually every possible perspective, including the momentary POV of the sleeping wife: "‘It isn’t very nice,’ Wilkinski said again quietly, in the middle of one night. No one heard him, for though he addressed his wife she was dreaming at the time of something else.” Again, this vast perspectival profligacy seems unified by the sense of office gossip and chatter, as it swirls around the question of Mulvihill’s death and legacy—the Mulvihill-shaped hole in the middle of the story. In a sense, this story is a mystery, an unraveling of an unremarkable man’s sordid private life. The narrative consciousness is a kind of singular detective-consciousness that probes into all of the characters that encircled Mulvihill during his life, and the effect produced is the chalk outline of a strange man only slightly better defined at the story’s end than outset. While this is perhaps not my favorite Trevor story in terms of character or the emotional effect produced, I hugely admire the technical chops on display here, as well as the ambition required to even attempt such a difficult mode of storytelling. At first I was not convinced by the story's ending, which I felt leaned too heavily on the tangential fun of Ox-Banham’s humiliation. But on a reread, I think I understand. For a moment, it seems that the Mulvihill will get his posthumous revenge on the firm and its higher-ups—that the office joke on Mulvihill’s memory will become Mulvihill’s joke on the firm. But the ship, as the story tells us, is righted, and Ygnis and Ygnis’s sheen of strenuous glamor glitters unabated. The story is, in a large sense, about an individual’s insignificance in the face of a business, in the face of Work. We can only know Mulvihill as his coworkers did, passingly and mainly through his workaday habits: the Friday night drink at the bar, the advertising posters blown up on his office walls. Even the disruption Mulvihill inadvertently creates is ultimately digested and reabsorbed into the ravenous gut of the Company.  [millions_email]

The William Trevor Reader: “Downstairs at Fitzgerald’s”

“Downstairs at Fitzgerald’s” concerns a protagonist named Cecilia, a teenage girl who for years has been meeting her divorced bookie father in the basement bar of a restaurant (a savvy reader can now probably guess the name of the establishment). Cecilia lives at home with her siblings, her mother, and her stepfather, Ronan. The split between her parents was amicable, as are Cecilia’s feelings toward Ronan. Everyone in the piece is doing their best and being surprisingly lovely to one another, not least Cecilia’s father, who has forgiven being cuckolded and who pays Cecilia’s school fees. Once a week, they meet at Fitzgerald’s; he eats oysters and drinks whiskey, then takes her to a movie or a park or the dog track. The arrangement works. Until, that is, the appearance of a boy named Abrahamson, the smartest boy in Cecilia’s class, and a bit of a creep. Cecilia notices Abrahamson staring at her, and when she confronts him about it, after a fair amount of pestering, Abrahamson tells her in so many words that he’s noticed she looks like Ronan. She continues spending time with Abrahamson, dwelling on his observation, questioning him about it, an obsessive worry about the question of her paternity that eventually bleeds into the time she spends with her father. As this is William Trevor, Cecilia does not confront him about it; her silence rather, per Paul Simon, like a cancer grows, and we are given to know that this lovely thing between father and daughter has been spoiled forever. Abrahamson is a good character, and a great exemplar of the value of antagonism in fiction and the variation of modes in which it can appear. Abrahamson is not a villain; one of the great things about this story, in fact, is the way that none of the characters are villainous or even bad—they’re all pretty lovely, normal people doing their best. Unlike the diabolical Williams in “A School Story,” Abrahamson is no monster. Just a smart, lonely, strange boy who says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Abrahamson’s motives are opaque, but his observation is not sinister in intent—he’s simply curious about Cecilia and her unusual family story and not sufficiently interested in her emotional well-being to shield her from the truth. Writing advice tends to describe an antagonist as “a character who wants the same thing as the protagonist.” This is sometimes true, but it’s more generally true to say that whatever their motivation, they are the person who creates or exacerbates the protagonist’s problems. Stories are, to be reductive, problems. The formulation I use in my fiction classes—currently fresh in my mind, as I have spent the last three months boring my students about it—is that a story: 1) puts a character 2) in a situation that 3) exerts pressure on them and 4) causes them to change. Antagonists are a catalyzing element of numbers 2) and 3), and ideally, they almost arise naturally from the problem the main character is dealing with. Not all stories, of course, require antagonists. But it is good practice for a fiction writer to ask themselves if the material might be improved by the presence of an antagonizing force. Antagonists externalize the main character’s deepest conflicts. Abrahamson is almost a natural, organic component of Cecilia’s burgeoning adult consciousness: her family has been living in a strenuously maintained Eden for many years that in some ways depends on not looking too closely at the particulars. Abrahamson’s relentless gaze is legible as a function of Cecilia’s implicit need to understand what happened with her family, how her father came to be demoted to the dog track and the basement of Fitzgerald’s. Next week: “Mulvihill’s Memorial.

The William Trevor Reader: “The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs. Vansittart”

Whatever else may be true of this story, it has the best title of any story in the Collected—possibly the best story title ever. The lady with the bedroom eyes in question, Mrs. Vansittart, is an American expat living in Cap Ferrat, on the Cote d’Azur, in a grand Villa with her meek husband Harry. As small communities, even or especially fabulously rich ones, tend to do, the denizens of Cap Ferrat have concocted near-mythical rumors about Mrs. Vansittart’s, well, tartiness. At 54, she still cuts a striking figure on the beach and is said to have left a trail of men behind her. One specific story has her, during a visit to Sicily, spat upon by a local woman for “permitting a local man to have his way with her” in public. The present-moment action of the story details the creation of a new bit of lurid Vansittart mythos: while playing bridge with her rich friends—among them her closest friend, Jasper, a lightly-coded gay man and terrible gossip—the Vansittart’s Villa Teresa is approached by a small swarthy man, a local who waits tables in Cap Ferrat’s finest hotel. Jasper overhears him complaining that she was not there at their planned rendezvous that morning at the lighthouse, and he proceeds to start the rumor mill churning; further, he follows Mrs. Vansittart the next morning, watching her give the man 10,000 francs. We then move into a first-person section written by Mrs. Vansittart in her journal that reveals the truth of the matter. The money is to buy off the silence of the waiter, who years earlier was witness to to a scene at another hotel in Switzerland, where a young girl accused Harry of taking her to bed. Contra public perception, Mrs. Vansittart has been at Harry’s mercy since their first love as schoolchildren, her devotion to him weathering even the subsequent revelation that Harry is a pederast. They moved abroad and then around Europe, affecting British accents, escaping one near-miss after another as Harry wound up in bed with underaged girls. It turns out that the slatternly Mrs. Vansittart is actually a virgin; the meek and subservient Harry, who caters the bridge nights with his homemade patisseries is a manipulative monster. This is not the best story in the Collected. For one thing, the story’s turn is a bit predictable, easy to see coming. If an entire village is gossiping about the sexual deviancy of a woman and the saintliness of her poor husband, it's as narratively easy as it is obvious to have the truth be the exact opposite. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this one—in particular, I admire the sense I got of Trevor trying our some different approaches to storytelling. If I have a bit of an overarching critique or complaint about the Collected, it would be that the stories, en masse, start to seem a little samey. As I've mentioned, perhaps too often, subcategories emerge: the party story, the outcast story, the drunken shambles story, and so on (many stories fit all of these categories at once). It would probably be fair to say that part of my sense of sameness also derives from this project’s fairly unusual approach of reading all the stories, one after the next. It might be fair to say that, as a form, short stories are almost best encountered at odd intervals and via serendipity—a magazine lying on a friend’s coffee table; a link in someone’s tweet. Few of the greats of the form boast a corpus that would fully stand up to a relentless sequential examination. Nonetheless, "The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs. Vansittart" shows an author at the height of his powers, trying something he hasn't done before, and even if all of it doesn’t work, it's gratifying to see. One oddity of the story is the way that it alternates between the present and past tense. Present for the ongoingness of life on Cap Ferrat and the narrator’s presentation of moneyed existence on the Cote d’Azur. Past for the specific narration of Mrs. Vansittart’s bribery of the waiter, and the subsequent latest round of gossip and social demotion. The story’s structure, too, is intricate, the main sections as follows: The narration of Cap Ferrat’s attitude toward the Vansittarts, as well as a little bit of inside information about them (that they are Americans feigning British accents) Back in time a month, to a long scene of bridge at the Vansittarts that introduces several other characters; to a scene after he party that flits among the minds of those bridge-players as they return home Mrs. Vansittart thinking Harry thinking Jasper spying on her the next day Mrs. Vansittart’s first-person journal section, following her bribery of the waiter Jasper’s friend (lover) gossiping with one of the bridge-players Another omniscient third bridge scene Mrs. Vansittart thinking as she plays bridge This is a an almost absurdly complex structure for a somewhat middling 12-page story. It might be argued that the material—the reveal of the Vansittart’s “true” relationship and the characters under inspection—does not demand this degree of attention and technical effort. It’s a little like a fifteen-thousand dollar car being given the royal detail treatment: a candy coat of paint, twenty-two inch rims, a jet-intake stereo, etcetera. But then, isn’t there something beautiful about that? This is somewhat modest stuff, but I find the almost experimental degree of attention Trevor lavished on it to be thrilling.

“A Dream of Butterflies”: The William Trevor Reader

“A Dream of Butterflies” is an interesting one. It feels a bit hodge-podgey to me, a combination of several dominant Trevor story types, among them “People Forced to Account,” “A Long Uncomfortable Conversation,” and “Introducing an English Village.” The story unfurls in an unusual way, introducing multiple characters as they wake up with a sense of relief. They are relieved, we find out, because their village has successfully fought off the efforts of a Dr. Golkorn from buying a place called Luffnell Lodge from an elderly couple, the Allenbys. Dr. Golkorn, we learn in time (the story is cagey on this point—slightly annoyingly, in my reading) wants to establish a mental hospital for troubled women in the old manor house. The village is unified in their opposition to this idea, save for Mrs. Emily Mansor. Emily and her husband Hugh are established as the story's two principal characters. Emily is a classics teacher, an unattractive woman with a strawberry birthmark, referred to in the story via her own self-assessment as “dumpy.” Hugh is her attractive mate, a bit dim, who works in a travel office. They are both in their early fifties, near-retirement, and Dr. Golkorn identifies them as the weak link in the town’s resistance to his plans. He finagles an evening meeting with them, and in the course of it shames them into talking again to the Allenbys, whom Hugh has previously advised about the sale. Golkorn’s pressure point is that he is offering far more than any buyer would for Luffnell Lodge, and that it is unethical to advise this old couple against selling. The Mansors cave, but tell Dr. Golkorn he must understand that they will have to leave the village if they advise the Allenbys to sell, such will be the perceived treason on their part. We leave the Mansors as they approach the Allenbys at Luffnell Hall, feeling surprised at their gratitude to Dr. Golkorn for making them do the right thing.  Despite appreciating many of the more unusual qualities of this story, I feel like it doesn’t fundamentally work. The reason for this has to do with what I describe in my creative writing classes as the gears of conflict. Most fiction features two different forms of conflict: internal and external. I find it useful to imagine them as large gears, although typically of different sizes—in literary fiction, the internal gear tends to be larger than the external one. In effective stories, the gear of a character’s internal conflict synchs up with the gear of their external conflict. The gears turn from scene to scene, and as they do, they amp up the overall conflict and the dramatic stakes of the piece. An internal problem causes a character to behave in a certain way; this behavior causes an external problem that again amplifies the internal one. And so on. This can occur in realist fiction, as with, to use a very obvious example, Carver’s “Cathedral.” The narrator is internally conflicted by feelings of inadequacy that manifest in hostility toward his wife’s visiting blind friend, Robert; these behaviors turn the gear of external conflict that result in interactions of surprising vulnerability with Robert that once more turn the gear of internal conflict, and we see the narrator change, if only to a small extent. This gears concept holds with non-realist stories. Cheever’s “The Swimmer” features a protagonist, Neddy Merrill, whose gear of internal conflict—also regarding his inadequacy and need to prove himself virile and capable—turns the gear of external conflict which sees him attempting to swim across his neighborhood’s pools, in doing so meeting increasing hostility from neighbors, which elevates his internal conflict and, ultimately, his self-perception. The problem with “A Dream of Butterflies” is that, in my reading, the gears of external and internal conflict do not really mesh. The central internal issue facing the Mansors is their mutually held understanding that their partnership is based on their individual frailties. When Dr. Golkorn visits, Hugh looks at his wife and thinks: Perhaps there was something in the fact that he had rescued her, he thought, wanting to think about her rather than their visitor. Even though she loved the subject, she had never been entirely happy as a teacher of Classics because she was shy. Until she came to know them she was nervous of the girls she taught: her glasses and her strawberry mark and her dumpiness, and the very fact that she was a teacher, seemed to put her into a certain category, at a disadvantage. And perhaps his rescuing of her, if you could so grandly call it that, had in turn given him something he’d lacked before. Perhaps their marriage was indeed built on debts to each other. He considers this in the opposite terms, as well: Could it be that Emily, so much cleverer than he, had found a level with him because her lack of beauty kept her in her place, as his inferiority complex kept him? She had said that as a girl she’d imagined she would not marry, assuming that a strawberry mark and dumpiness, and glasses too, would be too much for any man. He often thought about her as she must have been, cleverest in the class; while he was being slow on the uptake. Of course, many if not most marriages are built on this sort of mutual indebtedness and compensation of weaknesses. But in this story, it is the reader’s central understanding of this marriage, and it is posited as—if not exactly a conflict or a problem per se—something to be worked out or elucidated or otherwise engaged with by the story. But the story’s external conflict, Dr. Golkorn and his hospital full of mental patients and the shame that will befall the Mansors for abetting him, has little to do with this internal problem of the Mansors’ marriage. One would expect the negotiation of this external conflict to apply pressure to Hugh and Emilys’ mutually protected weakness, the implicit arrangement of their union. Or else, we might expect the village’s ire at their surrender to Dr. Golkorn to say something about the similar shared frailty to communities, marriages writ large. Instead, they decide at more or less the same time to assent to the Doctor, drive to meet the Allenbys, and feel as though they’ve made the right decision. All of the external action of the piece feels like it wants to turn an internal gear that doesn’t exist; namely, some moral shortcoming of the Mansors’, a shared need to do good at the expense of their friends in the village, a need for slightly extravagant ethical valor to replace something missing between them. But that internal problem does not exist in the story. And so you have the internal and external gears, unmeshed, prettily spinning on their own. Next time around: “The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs. Vansittart.” [millions_email]