The William Trevor Reader: “Mr. McNamara”

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In “Mr. McNamara,” a nameless male narrator examines his dead father’s friendship with a Mr. McNamara, a friend the father used to have drinks with while on business trips to Dublin at an old bar called the Fleming Hotel. The father would come home from these trips and relay Mr. McNamara’s opinions about de Valera and Churchill and whether Ireland should enter World War II, as well as anecdotes about Mr. McNamara’s bachelor life living with an alcoholic sister. For the narrator’s thirteenth birthday, Mr. McNamara sends him a beautiful little bejeweled dragon figurine that the narrator still treasures.

When the father is killed by an errant German bomb, the narrator is sent away to boarding school, and, one day, decides to make a bicycle trek to nearby Dublin, to lay eyes on the Fleming Hotel, a place that has lived in his imagination for years thanks to his father’s stories. At the Fleming, he drinks an illicit beer and becomes aware of a woman at the bar. When she leaves, the barman identifies the woman as Nora McNamara. Thereby does the narrator, at the end of the story, realize his father’s duplicity and infidelity, and come to despise him for it.

“Mr. McNamara” is a nice story, well-told and smartly paced. There’s a compelling turnaround about a third of the way in, after the description of the father’s travels to Dublin and the narrator’s birthday party: we realize that what we’ve been reading is a kind of sylvan prehistory that ends abruptly with the news that, the next day, the father died and everything changed. The twist at the end likewise works well enough, but it did put me in mind of a craft lesson I absorbed years ago and have never forgotten since, namely: if you want to have write a twist, it’s often better to put it at the midway point rather than the end.

The twist in “Mr. McNamara” is that the titular Mr. is, in fact, a Mrs., with whom the father was carrying on an affair. As written, we find this out in the second to last paragraph—on Christmas Day in the story—which sets up this conclusion:

I left the breakfast table and went to my bedroom. I wept there, and then washed my face in cold water from the jug on my wash-stand. I hated the memory of him and how he would have been that Christmas morning; I hated him for destroying everything. It was no consolation to me then that he had tried to share with us a person he loved in a way that was different from the way he loved us. I could neither forgive nor understand. I felt only bitterness that I, who had taken his place, must now continue his deception, and keep the secret of his lies and his hypocrisy.

Again, this is all stylish and well-written, but it’s worth imagining a version of the story in which the narrator finds out closer to the midpoint. In this version, perhaps, we would see the narrator forced to lie to his mother and siblings in order to protect their memory of the father. How might he respond? What pressure would it put him under? We would be allowed the fuller dramatic arc that this version of the story can only gesture at, having structurally allowed itself the briefest of denouements. This is actually a different way of articulating my point—when a twist doubles as dramatic climax, it provides very little room for the writer to reckon with the reconfiguration it presents; alternately, when a twist serves as a large plot point earlier in the narrative, the story can organically grow and change based on this new information. 

Like most craft advice, this is not by any means a hard and fast rule. Trevor’s version here is actually pretty effective, especially his clever use of narrative concealment leading up to the revelation of Mr. McNamara’s identity. The narrator’s journey to the Fleming Hotel takes place just two pages before the story’s end—the remainder of the story describes his night back at the boarding school afterward, and then his journey back home for Christmas. During this portion of narration, we are allowed a sense that something happened that night, but we are not told the full truth until the narrator stands in his bathroom. In this way, the narrator conceals his father’s crime from the reader, just as he conceals it from his family, and the burden of his secret knowledge is implied before it is expressed.

I’ll be back in late-July after a summer hiatus. Next up—in a few weeks— “Afternoon Dancing.”’

The William Trevor Reader: “Office Romances”

For this week’s installment, I want to talk about alcohol—its role in Trevor’s fiction and fiction in general. Without bothering to thumb back through The Collected to check, I would estimate that alcohol appears in 80 to 90 percent of the stories and features dramatically in maybe a third of them, possibly more. By “features dramatically,” I mean that alcohol somehow causes characters to behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, that it drives character action. Offhand, “Kinkies,” “The Mark-2 Wife,” “The Ballroom of Romance,” “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp,” “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake,” “The Penthouse Apartment,” “The General’s Day,” “Memories of Youghal,” and “Access to the Children” all in one way or another turn on a character behaving erratically under the influence. And, forgive the national stereotyping, most of these stories, fittingly, take place in Ireland.

When I was an undergrad, a writing teacher of mine once delivered a polemic against using alcohol in stories. This rant was likely incited by a short story workshop of mine, as I was very into whiskey-soaked southern male authors at the time: namely, the quintessential trio of Larry, Barry, and Harry (Brown, Hannah, and Crews, respectively). My teacher said, essentially, that it is lazy, and false, to use alcohol as motivation. Motivation must come from the character themselves. Alcohol might be an amplifier or inhibitor, but it cannot be motivation.

In Trevor’s stories, alcohol is mostly used as either delusion-fuel or delusion-solvent. “Access to the Children” provides a powerful example of the former as, over the course of the story, Malcolmson drinks himself into a state of sufficient dimness to be able to accept his fantasies as real. An example of the latter might be “The Mark-2 Wife,” in which Anna speed-drinks her way into a kind of horrible communicative lucidity about her husband’s infidelity. In both cases, the delusions exist prior to the drink, ready to be alternately enlarged or expunged. This, I think, is crucial—his characters don’t develop or dissolve their fantasies because of alcohol, but alcohol is the catalyst for these moments to occur.

This week’s story, “Office Romances,” contains both versions of the role of alcohol, in the forms of Angela Hosford and Pam Ivygale. Angela, the story’s main character, has just been hired as a secretary at the firm C.S. & E., and is taken out to the office’s pub by Gordon Spelle, one of the owners. There, she meets the middle-aged Miss Ivygale, her immediate superior, and Miss Ivygale’s longtime lover, Alec Hemp, another C.S. & E. higher-up. Over the course of the night, everyone gets extremely drunk, the married Mr. Spelle hits on Angela, and Mr. Hemp goes home with Miss Ivygale. The next day, at work, Mr. Spelle professes his love to Angela, who has sex with him in Miss Ivygale’s office. We leave Angela at the pub that evening, sitting beside Miss Ivygale—Mr. Spelle and Hemp having gone home to their wives—and find the two women in respective moods of delusional joy and undeluded misery.

With his usual aplomb, Trevor slips us into the consciousness of Pam Ivygale who is given the honor of delivering the Trevorian coup-de-grace:

And in the end, when Angela asked Miss Ivygale why it was that Gordon Spelle had picked her out, Miss Ivygale replied that it was because Gordon Spelle loved her. What else could she say? Miss Ivygale asked herself. How could she say that everyone knew Gordon Spelle chose girls who were unattractive because he believed such girls, deprived of sex for long periods at a time, were an easier bet?

Angela drunkenly exclaims “Oh, it’s beautiful!” and the narration continues: 

Miss Ivygale did not say anything in reply. She was fifty and Angela was twenty-six: that made a difference where knowing what was beautiful was concerned. The thing about Gordon Spelle was that with the worst possible motives he performed an act of charity for the girls who were his victims. He gave them self-esteem and memories to fall back on… in a way, it was [beautiful] compared with what she had herself. She’d been aware for twenty-three years of being used by the man she loved: self-esteem and memories were better than knowing that, no matter how falsely they came.

We end with Miss Ivygale ordering another round for them, cementing their respective realities. As is usual in Trevor, delusion is posited as superior to realism. Miss Ivygale’s point-of-view is, I think, the authorial point-of-view. In Trevor’s stories, characters are never better off for seeing things clearly. After all, Angela Hosford cannot much change her circumstances materially: she is unattractive, uneducated, and timid. The months at C.S. &E. during which she will be allowed the fantasy of the elegant Gordon Spelle very well might be the most romantic months of her life, a memory she can take with her as her life proceeds in whatever dismal manner it will. In the absence of options and agency, what we have is fantasy, and drinks.

Up next: “Mr. McNamara!” 

The William Trevor Reader: “Teresa’s Wedding”

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It occurred to me, beginning to read this story, that a William Trevor tale called “Teresa’s Wedding” might as well not have any further text: if you are acquainted with Trevor’s bleak M.O., the title alone presages the minor-key tragedy to come. And I was not wrong—”Teresa’s Wedding” follows the expected plot and tonal contours. Teresa and Artie Cornish have just gotten shotgun-married due to her nascent pregnancy, and we float around the joyless wedding reception, learning that long ago she slept with one of Artie’s friends, seeing the groom drunkenly interrogate his bride on the matter, and understanding in the end—as we may have intuited in the beginning—that this will not be the happiest of unions.

The story is enjoyable—as enjoyable as the observation of abject human misery can be, which is to say, pretty enjoyable. But I’m most interested in Trevor’s narrative technique, in particular, the unusual way he jumps between multiple characters in a story.

It’s become conventional wisdom that third-person short stories should generally contain only one point of view. Possibly, this is a product of the hegemony of first-person narratives—we are accustomed to only hearing from one person per story space. It may also be some musty cant originating in 1950s Iowa. Certainly, one professor of mine (who, now that I think of it, did go to Iowa) warned me against writing third-person stories with multiple perspectives. Whatever its provenance, it’s pretty good advice, advice that I often give my students. One of the main challenges of the short story form is creating an absorbing and convincing psychological landscape in the matter of a few pages—this is hard enough when the perspective is focalized through one character, let alone two, let alone multiple. My only personal success with multiple third-person points of view has been to bifurcate the narrative, giving half to one character and half to another.

In “Teresa’s Wedding,” we get nearly a dozen perspectives: Artie Cornish and Teresa née Atty; Mr. Atty and Cornish, who get silently drunk together at the bar; Teresa’s friends Philomena, who hopes to marry, and Kitty Roche, who does not; Teresa’s sisters Agnes, who has married and escaped her small town, and Loretta, who was spooked by sex with her own momentary husband who now plans to join a nunnery. Add to this the non-interior narrative proximity to Artie’s groomsmen Screw Doyle and Eddie Boland, Agnes’ teetotaling husband George waiting outside the pub in the car with their children, and Father Hogan, who oversees the “festivities,” and the story bursts at the seams with points of view. How could this possibly work?

It works thanks to the organizing force of Trevor’s calm consciousness overseeing the proceedings. For me, it’s helpful to think of the story, and those in the collection like it, as being told by an invisible first-person narrator. Of course, if you exchange the term “narrator” with “author”—as most readers seem to do reflexively these days—this formulation is literally true. The narrator/author is the ghost sitting at the bar overhearing everyone’s thoughts and conversations. The interstitial tissue holding the piece together is the narrator’s deep knowledge of this town, these people, and their problems. The individual minds plumbed by the narrator amount to a chorus of despair, a fugue of voice after voice that describes how people get by in this sad place. The answer is: alcohol, sex, dirty jokes, anger, religion, foolish optimism, and utter surrender to circumstance, as expressed in the story’s last lines:

For a moment as Teresa stood there, the last moment before she left the lounge-bar, she felt that she and Artie might make some kind of marriage together because there was nothing that could be destroyed, no magic or anything else. He could ask her the question he had asked, while she stood there in her wedding-dress: he could ask her and she could truthfully reply, because there was nothing special about the occasion, or the lounge-bar, all covered in confetti.

Something I have come to believe is true about great short story writers is that they tend to have an overwhelmingly strong view of life that organizes their material. Novelists, in contrast, may be more diffuse, more circumspect; uncertainty may, in many cases, profit a novelist. Novels are long, and in their writing they afford the writer a chance to think things through, to turn situations and characters around and around, seeing everything from different angles like a careful painter. But short stories do not offer their author this ruminative space, and the greatest short story writers come equipped with a readymade philosophical viewpoint, whether it’s O’Connor’s retributive Catholicism, Yates’ fatalistic misery, Cheever’s and Malamud’s moralistic fabulism, or even Saunders’ gently humane dystopianism. A story like this could only be successfully organized by Trevor’s quietly assured and brutal view of small town hopelessness.

The William Trevor Reader: “A Complicated Nature”

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Perhaps any story following a masterpiece like “Mrs. Silly” would feel like a letdown, but “A Complicated Nature” strikes me as an especially low-energy effort, the Trevor story engine puttering along in first gear or perhaps rolling in neutral down a long drive. All of the usual elements are here: a perverse and/or sexually inexperienced protagonist; an unpleasant encounter with a stranger that reveals home truths to the protagonist and reader alike; a quietly brutal ending that leaves the protagonist exposed and bereft—and all with a dash of antisemitism thrown in. Unlike “The Table,” the antisemitism pertains to a particular character, rather than the story as whole. In this case, the antisemite is the titularly-complicated protagonist Mr. Attridge, whose hostility to Jews allegedly derives from the fact that his ex-wife was Jewish. The bigotry is nonetheless unpleasant and feels somewhat recklessly tossed in.

We join Mr. Attridge on a winter afternoon, when his neighbor, Mrs. Matara, phones him to ask for his help. He says no, but she descends to his apartment regardless, informing him that a man is dead in her bedroom. She has carried on an affair with this man for years, and she implores the stoney Mr. Attridge to come upstairs and help her clothe and stage the body so that her infidelity remains secret. He refuses again, but finally assents under the influence of brandy they are drinking and the burgeoning awareness that his participation would supply him with a riveting story to tell friends. But the real allure, to which the reader is alerted, is deeper than this, having to do with his failed marriage to a Jewish woman, reminiscent of Mrs. Matara, which he was unable to successfully consummate. She accused him of not liking women, and some part of him vaguely sees the opportunity for redemption in helping a woman caught in the kind of tawdry sexual peccadillo that his repressed sexuality saved him from. As it turns out, however, the man in question is not dead, and he and Mrs. Matara have a laugh about the whole mess as Mr. Attridge skulks off wishing the man had, in fact, died.

While “A Complicated Nature” is not my favorite Trevor story, I admire its extended exposition, introducing Mr. Attridge and the various aspects of his complicated nature. Trevor tarries pleasurably with these preliminaries, showing us Mr. Attridge’s unpleasantness—what he thinks of as his “sharpness”—from a the point of a view of a female partygoer we never hear from again. In a few careful paragraphs we are provided nearly everything we need to know about this man.

This kind of character precis is a bit of a lost art. “Show don’t tell” long ago attained the dubious status of universal writing maxim—many of my Intro to Fiction students come into class equipped with very little in the way of writing (or reading) experience, yet confident that whatever else may be true, they should show things and not tell them. But modern fiction could probably do with a good bit more telling. In her excellent New Yorker essay “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” Parul Seghal discusses the way traumatic character biography is used as a kind of simplistic shorthand for explicating personality and behavior. A further problem with this mode of storytelling—and with a huge portion of contemporary fiction, traumatic or not—is the way it reflexively withholds history and backstory, doling them out as little revelations along the narrative way. This storytelling technique is at least partly influenced by the wrong belief that all extant characterization must be doled out in dribs and drabs through ongoing action. In fact, very often the simplest and most elegant approach to a story is to do as Trevor—and O’Connor, Cheever, Yates, Malamud, and all the greats of mid-century short story craft—do, which is give the reader the vital information right at the beginning. 

In doing so, the story is free to take shape and not merely exist as a vessel for the revelation of personal history. “A Complicated Nature” continually gives us Mr. Attridge’s history, circling back to it in sharper and sharper detail, but the basic terms are set after page one, and the story can go about its business. That business may, in my reading, be a bit disappointing by Trevor’s standards, but the craft instincts throughout are impeccable and worth stealing from nonetheless. 

The William Trevor Reader: “Mrs. Silly”

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“Mrs. Silly” is top-shelf, archetypal Trevor, the kind of Trevor story you’d show someone who wants to know what all the fuss is about. (Laughing here, imagining there ever being any fuss about William Trevor.) The titular Mrs. Silly is the mother of the story’s protagonist, Michael, who is sent to Elton Grange boarding school at age twelve. Michael’s mother and father are long since divorced, and his father has remarried the posh (or posh-adjacent) Gillian, with whom he lives in a smart country house outside London. Michael’s mother is decidedly unposh, lives in a cramped and messy apartment in Hammersmith, and constantly upbraids herself for crying and talking too much: the nickname Mrs. Silly is self-applied.

Michael loves his mother but is ashamed of her when she visits him at boarding school: her fluffy hair that she wears under scarves, her cheap clothing, and her nervous talkativeness all mortify Michael in front of new friends and faculty. An initial embarrassing visit sets the stage for a second visit upon Michael’s graduation, when his mother makes a spectacle, first in a talkative fugue, then falling over and spilling tea all over herself. The story ends with Michael asking his father not stop at his mother’s cheap hostel to say goodbye; later, when his friends laugh about the woman that fell over, Michael pretends the strange, embarrassing woman was a distant aunt.

“Mrs. Silly” hits all the dominant Trevorian notes—pathos, shame, stuckness, the inexorable march of time—delivered with his characteristic effortless-seeming prose and close third-person narration. But I want to talk about is small choice by Trevor that does an awful lot of work in the story. When Mrs. Silly first visits her son, she prattles on about her life back in London and repeatedly references a woman named Peggy Urch, who recently moved into the flat above her. Over the course of her visit to Elton Grange, she tells people Peggy’s name over and again, so much so that it becomes a punchline, as well as a metaphor for Mrs. Silly’s lonely cluelessness: what is more boring than telling an acquaintance about a person they don’t know?

But after Michael’s mother’s visit, Michael goes home to stay with her for the holidays, where, and lo and behold, “Peggy Urch, the woman in the flat upstairs, often came down for a chat.” Peggy Urch has suddenly gone from a risible aspect of Mrs. Silly’s inept conversational style, to an actual person that Michael meets, who lives in the apartment overhead and visits frequently. This has two main effects: specific to this story, it shifts our perspective and sympathy to Michael’s mother. Peggy Urch moves from mere narrative joke at Mrs. Silly’s expense to a flesh and blood character; Michael’s mother may speak too much in her lonely anxiety, but she is, after all, speaking about her real life.

The second effect is one that I have written about before on Twitter, what I like to think of as the principle of narrative conservation. In short, very few things in fictional narrative more powerfully create a sense of realism than the reappearance of certain objects and people. The usual case is an object that appears early on in a story and reappears later—for example, a ball-point pen pocketed on page three and pulled out on page ten to sign a document. This pen is, in its small way, a metonym for the ostensive reality of the entire fictional universe it occupies. Unimportant in itself, the fact of its persistence suggests a kind of object permanence, an aura that it confers to the larger things around it.

Peggy Urch in “Mrs. Silly” is another such persistent element, and there’s a small but deep satisfaction in seeing her materialize, however insignificantly. In drawing a real character from the ether of Mrs. Silly’s talk, Trevor likewise draws something that seems factual from the ether of narrative fabulation. 

Next up: “A Complicated Nature.”

The William Trevor Reader: “The Death of Peggy Meehan”

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This is not a bad story, though somewhat second gear for William Trevor, which means it’s still very readable and elegantly written. It’s a first-person piece, my feelings about which I have already discussed ad nauseam. The (nameless) narrator details his gray and lonely childhood, the unexpected only child of older parents, intensely religious people who vacation at a relative’s boarding house where priests live. One day, the narrator goes to town with a priest, who takes him to lunch and then to an “adult” Hollywood movie. The experience excites the narrator’s imagination, and he fantasizes about a schoolgirl whom he likes dying the same romantic death as the actress in the film he’s just seen—the narrator, we are given to know, is a bit of a fantasist, with an outré imagined life of vice and danger, in understandable rebellion against his home life. When, back in school, he learns that the real Peggy Meehan has died of diphtheria, his life is forever altered: he becomes haunted by her memory/ghost, and the sense that he is under Satan’s power; at 46, he is unmarried and forever alone save for the occasional visitation by Peggy Meehan.

As I read this sad, agreeable tale, I had that less agreeable feeling you sometimes helplessly encounter while reading: namely, that I was reading something essentially false. And more than that, that this falsity is of a category I’d encountered before in Trevor’s work. I don’t think this is unusual—most writers have little moves, little conveniences of storytelling and character-building that ring false at times, that perhaps do not match the overall greatness of the writer’s work or power. Take, for instance, the almost absurdist way that Iris Murdoch’s characters magically appear at each others’ doors. Or, for another more aesthetic example, take Denis Johnson’s proclivity—a poet’s proclivity—to detour from conflict, the concrete, into lyrical flights.

The falseness I’m naming here is Trevor’s tendency to imagine characters who remain more or less absolutely static throughout their lives, arrested in a position of shame or incapacity—sometimes by what we would now describe as childhood trauma; sometimes by innate nature. I’m thinking here of John Joe Dempsey and his village idiot compadre; I’m thinking of Quillan in “Memories of Youghal.” Also: Mr. Jeffs in “The Table,” Edward Tripp in “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp,” Raymond Bamber in “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch,” the Middleton siblings in “The Distant Past.” It’s not just that these characters are flat, in E.M. Forster’s formulation, though they are. It’s that they are conceived as being immutably flat for a lifetime, structurally flat for the purpose of the story.

What is this purpose? Mostly, I think it’s two-fold. First and most obviously, it alleviates the need to do a ton of character work. The character’s old, fatal flaw is established in a simple way the reader immediately gets: they can’t love, they can’t have sex, they can’t forgive themselves, etc. More importantly, this type of character allows Trevor to gloss decades without needing to do much back-story work, as we are given to understand that the 60-year-old version of this person is not any different from the 20-year-old. These rigid, adamantine characters are like tentpoles holding up the canopy of time, allowing the author/narrator to elegantly move forward and back without much impediment.

The problem is, as I said, this type of character often rings untrue. My objection isn’t that people aren’t like this in real life. It is not the dull business or responsibility of fiction—thank God—to “be like real life,” whatever that means. Further, some people in real life really are like this. But there is something on an artistic level that is too easy, too neat. And more problematically yet, this knight’s jump often results in formally sound yet unsatisfying stories. In “The Death of Peggy Meehan,” we are given to know that this one day has forever altered our narrator’s life, despite the fact that he knows on a logical level that he did not kill his classmate. The story posits a man capable of articulate self-knowledge who is still bound to waste his life on a fantasy of supernatural guilt. The last paragraph in the story, to me, gives the game away:
In the town I am a solitary, peculiar man. I have been rendered so, people probably say, by my cloistered upbringing, and probably add that such an upbringing would naturally cultivate a morbid imagination. That may be so, and it doesn’t really matter how things have come about. All I know is that she is more real for me than anything else is in this seaside town or beyond it. I live for her, living hopelessly, for I know I can never possess her as I wish to. I have a carnal desire for a shadow, which in turn is His mockery of me: His fitting punishment for my wickedest thought of all.
This is, to put it bluntly, nonsense on stilts, although elegant ones. The part that rings most untrue, though, is the innocuous little bit in the middle: it doesn’t really matter how things have come about. Actually—and, of course, Trevor knows this—it matters entirely how things have come about. It is the central job of fiction to tell how things come about, especially unlikely things like an otherwise sane man becoming sexually obsessed with the memory of a dead schoolgirl. There is a tremendously interesting story here, but the interesting part—how this morbid psychological drama occurred—is elided. Like Indiana Jones substituting a bag of sand for the idol, we are given a child’s day at a movie theater and subsequent passing fantasy in exchange for a lifetime of complex misery and self-denial.

This type of story, it strikes me, is almost more the précis of a story, the dramatic outline of a narrative, rather than an actual story. Or perhaps it’s a story that wants to be a novel. At any rate, it is not enough—it does not convince. And to convince is another central job of fiction, no matter how outlandish or “unreal” the story.

Next time around: the great “Mrs. Silly”!

The William Trevor Reader: “Angels at the Ritz”

This story is the apotheosis of the “People at a Party” story that we’ve encountered several times already, in pieces like “The Penthouse Apartment,” “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake,” and “The Mark-2 Wife.” “Angels at the Ritz” concerns Polly and Gavin Dillard, a young middle-aged married couple in the London outer suburbs, attending a party thrown by their old friends, Malcolm and Sue Ryder. The Ryders, as has become the custom among this class and age of early-’70s suburbanite, intend to end the party with a game of wife-swapping: car keys thrown on the carpet and scarves tied around the wives’ eyes. We follow the Dillards to the party, where they are duly hit on by their old friends. Polly avoids the advances of the rather disgusting Malcolm, but Gavin ultimately succumbs to Sue’s wiles, telling Polly he has been rude to Sue and needs to return to the party after bringing Polly home. Polly accepts this—a kind of passive, Trevorian acceptance is her strength and flaw—and lies in bed thinking about how she has fallen.

Fallenness is the subject of this story—”Angels at the Ritz” refers to a song played at the party that reminds all of them of an evening they spent at the Ritz for Polly’s 22nd birthday. In the interim, they have all been corrupted: Malcolm and Gavin by age and philandering; Sue by bored, suburban malaise; Polly, in the end, by acceptance of Gavin’s discrete and respectful faithlessness (as opposed to Malcolm’s reckless cheating) as an unavoidable aspect of the life she’s chosen. Again and again, we are returned to the evening in question, going for martinis they couldn’t afford, their futures ahead of them.

The portrait William Trevor paints of suburban adult life here is extraordinarily bleak—not just among the four principals, but all of the sodden and seedy bit players as well—and one strives unsuccessfully to imagine a version of married adult life in this place that is not curdled by gin and sexual boredom. Trevor’s outer suburbs are similar, in many ways, to John Cheever’s Shady Lawn, but Cheever was crucially a fantasist and fabulist—his suburbs are a place of drunken misery and infidelity, yes, but also a locus of myth and extraordinary, numinous vision. Cheever, in his way, loved the suburbs and the rhythms and rituals of married life they imply and abet. Cheever’s heroes and heroines are also fallen, but they sense a sumptuary wholesomeness—a truly good life—that is attainable in little ecstatic moments if not in toto. As I discuss in this essay, many of Cheever’s most famous stories—for instance “The Country Husband” or “The Chimera”—describe a dramatic arc in which placid suburban happiness is disturbed by erotic energy, but returned to tenuous serenity at the end.

Trevor’s bleak suburbs are in keeping with a larger bleak vision of married life in The Collected. It is difficult to think of a happy marriage in Trevor’s oeuvre. Happiness, to the extent it exists, is usually only attainable by eccentric individualism, and only attained by dignified monastic celibates like Mrs. Whitehead in “Nice Day at School,” or else fantasist loners like John Joe Dempsey. Anyone who wades into the murk of adult matrimony and its attendant material concerns gets what’s coming to them: infidelity, brutality, misery—disillusionment, at the very least. Disillusionment, as represented in this story by the memory of that perfect young evening evoked by “Angels at the Ritz,” is posited as something unavoidable, a natural milestone of marriage. As the story puts it early on:
In the outer suburbs [wife-swapping] was most popular when the early struggles of marriage were over, when there were signs of marital wilting that gin and tonic did not cure.
Up next: “The Death of Peggy Meehan”

The William Trevor Reader: “In Isfahan”

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I count this story as the fourth stone-cold masterpiece we’ve encountered so far, a list that in my estimation includes “Access to the Children,” “The Grass Widows” and “The Ballroom of Romance.” It may be that, at this third-of-the-way point in The Collected, with some of the earlier and arguably more minor stories behind us, we will encounter these stories at a more frequent clip. I may be forced to recalibrate my standards for greatness, but regardless, this is a great story.

“In Isfahan” concerns a chaste romance between two principals, Mr. Normanton and Miss Iris Smith, who first meet on a guided bus tour of Isfahan, Iran. Mr. Normanton is older and upper class, and he immediately identifies Miss Smith as lower class by her dress and half-concealed cockney accent. “Nothing about her,” he peremptorily judges, “was smart.” Nonetheless, Miss Smith is attractive, possessed of eastern features, and Mr. Normanton meets her later at a shopping bazaar, after which they get dinner and drink too much. Miss Smith finds Mr. Normanton a figure of great elegance and presumes him a rich architect; she wants to stay with him, sleep with him, but Mr. Normanton demures, walking her back to her cheap hotel. That night he cannot sleep, and we finally learn the occluded truth about Mr. Normanton, why he is in Isfahan by himself, and why he won’t sleep with Miss Smith: he has been twice cuckolded and feels cursed. The story ends by imposing the same kind of harsh summary judgment on Mr. Normanton that at the story’s outset Mr. Normanton inflicts on Miss Smith:
He stood by the window, watching nothing happening in the street, knowing if he stood there forever he wouldn’t find the courage. She had met a sympathetic man, more marvelous to her than all the marvels of Isfahan… knowing nothing about a pettiness which brought out cruelty in people. And he would remember a woman who possessed, deep beneath her unprepossessing surface, the distinction that her eyes mysteriously claimed for her. In difference circumstances, with a less unfortunate story to tell, it would have emerged. But in the early morning, there was another truth, too. He was the stuff of fantasy. She had quality, he had none.
One of the things I find almost cleansing about reading William Trevor, is how unafraid his stories are of taking a clear position on their characters and their lives. The modern short story is almost reflexively ambiguous, and this is not necessarily a bad thing—I love a productively ambiguous ending—but the impulse itself becomes tiresome, and it’s invigorating to read an author who writes conclusive conclusions. “In Isfahan” features a particular type of Trevorian end, one that, as in the brutal summation of Bridie that closes “The Ballroom of Romance,” seems to slam a book shut on the character’s entire life. I think of this as a “Way It Is” ending: you read 20 pages about a character’s life, and the story closes by telling you in no uncertain terms what you read, the way it is. Mr. Normanton is a reflexive snob and coward, a cuckold almost in character, and though Miss Smith is vulgar and common, she possesses the strength and solidity to share her true self with him. He cannot and is a shadow. That’s the way it is.

The blunt simplicity of this type of ending would not work so well for Trevor, if it weren’t for his elegant mastery of free-indirect discourse. For those unfamiliar with the term, FID is, simply put, the blending of authorial and character POV in third-person. Trevor’s unassuming narrative voice slides into and out of close third-person sometimes melding with and vanishing entirely into character, sometimes standing slightly apart. The gut punch ending of “In Isfahan” and “The Ballroom of Romance” are shaded with complexity by free-indirect discourse, as the reader is forced to ask: who is saying this? Author or character? Both presumably, but a shadow is cast over the statement. To what extent does Mr. Normanton realize this? Is it mostly the story’s opinion? Alternately, is this character sense more purely self-hatred, a feeling that emanates from Mr. Normanton himself? It is unclear. “There was another truth” seems carefully calibrated to maintain this narrative gray space, like the gray dawn Mr. Normanton peers into, and the reader is left to wonder what kind of and how much knowledge Mr. Normanton will return with to England.

On the subject of close third person, here’s a small moment that struck me as emblematic of Trevor’s absolute mastery of the technique. The bus tour stops at a mosque, and Mr. Normanton wanders away into a marketplace, observing the locals:
Crouched on the dust, cobblers made shoes: on a wooden chair a man was shaved beneath a tree. Other men drank sherbet, arguing as vigorously as the heat allowed. Veiled women hurried, pausing to prod entrails at butchers’ stalls or to finger rice.

“You’re off the tourist track, Mr. Normanton.”

Her white high-heeled sandals were covered with dust. She looked tired.

“So are you,” he said.
A lesser writer—myself certainly included—would have described the figure of Miss Smith cutting through the throng. But since Mr. Normanton does not notice her, that would have drawn us out of his consciousness, into a more distanced narration, however momentary. We hear her voice first, as he does, and we see her feet before we see the rest of her—as he identifies her via her cheap footwear.

Next time around, “Angels at the Ritz.”

The William Trevor Reader: “The Distant Past”

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“The Distant Past” is the first story in The Collected to directly address the conflict in Northern Ireland, aka The Troubles. The Middletons are an elderly brother-sister pair who live in an unnamed Irish town some 60 miles south of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. They live in the ruins of a formerly grand estate named Carraveagh and are well-known in the town as loyalist Protestants, but they are more generally and fondly known in town as eccentrics. They have little money and survive by selling eggs from their farm and receiving little lagniappes like free mince for their old dog from Fat Cranly, the butcher. Despite impolitic choices like driving about town with the Union Jack in the back of their car for Elizabeth II’s coronation, they are tolerated and indulged, almost loved. Tourists to the town marvel at the Middletons: “It was a pleasant wonder, more than one of them remarked, that old wounds could heal so completely, that the Middletons continued in their loyalty to the past and that, in spite of it, they were respected in the town.”

But 1968 arrives, and the bombings, and that respect quickly fades. What had seemed like harmless eccentricity in peacetime is immediately recast as enemy allegiance in war-time. The owner of the large hotel in town no longer acknowledges them, the rich woman who throws parties at the hotel will not reply when they speak to her, and the butcher wishes he had never given them free meat for their dog. Denied the little gifts and graces that had previously floated them, they are forced to sell their farm animals, and, grimly anticipating the difficult road ahead, they understand that “because of the distant past, they would die friendless.”

I found “The Distant Past” to be an elegant introduction to The Troubles in Trevor’s work. It’s a simple idea, rendered with poignant acuity: the past seems distant, until it isn’t. The phrase is worked through the story several times, first in the sense of the Middletons’ allegiance to a pre-independent Ireland, an allegiance that they themselves feel 40 years on to be at least partially mere habit. When The Troubles begin, the phrase rings with an ironic tone—the past is, of course, never really distant. Faulkner’s famous formulation comes to mind: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Especially true in a new country with the wounds of civil war still alive in living memory, when the Middletons remember Fat Cranly along with two other local men, hiding from British soldiers in Carraveagh. The town’s progressive tolerance, in which its people take great collective pride, is shown to be flimsy and contingent: on continued peace and also on the town’s post-war prosperousness, an economic growth from which the Middletons have been usefully excluded, their poverty making them harmless and pitiable.

“The Distant Past” provides a good example of story form following function. The majority of this very short story, really until the last few paragraphs, is rendered in exposition broken only by brief snatches of dialogue. We have nothing in scene until the Middletons have been shunned by the town and discuss the hopeless precarity of their situation:
“It will never cease,” He spoke disconsolately one night, standing by the dresser where the wireless was.

She washed the dishes they’d easten from, and the cutlery. “Not in our time,” she said.

“It is worse than before.”

“Yes, it is worse than before.”
In this way, the first five pages of the story not only describe the past and the terms of the past in the present, but they feel like the past: peppered with remembered scenes, but largely impressionistic and summarized. So, while the Middletons and the town have underestimated the political importance of the distant past, they have also overestimated the durability of their former détente and resultant happiness. That happy moment is indeed distant, and likewise Trevor moves us at speed to The Troubles, and we leave the Middletons in dramatic scene—in their charmless and hopeless present.

Next time, “In Isfahan.”

The William Trevor Reader: “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch”

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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.”