The William Trevor Reader: “Memories of Youghal”

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In “Memories of Youghal,” we again see William Trevor’s unusual facility with occupying multiple consciousnesses in a story. In this case, the focalized point of view moves from a Miss Ticher, on vacation in France and listening to a drunken man talk about his tragic childhood in County Cork, to her friend Miss Grimshaw, with whom she goes on these holidays once a year. Miss Grimshaw returns to their hotel from a walk on the beach to find her friend half-drunk and upset by Mr. Quilian’s stories—of his parents’ death and his subsequent neglect at the hands of his aunt and uncle. Mr. Quilian’s memories of Youghal—in concert with the noon-time aperitifs he is buying—bring long-suppressed emotions to the surface in Miss Ticher, and Miss Grimshaw has to work hard to avoid “the thoughts that were attempting to invade [her mind],” namely: what she and Miss Ticher have never experienced in their small, loveless lives.
The two women can be read as representing two aspects of the same consciousness, or perhaps, the two types of available responses to Mr. Quilian and the dangerous nostalgia he represents. (Signally, Mr. Quilian tells Miss Ticher he is a detective, at the hotel investigating a couple; the claim is ludicrous, but not strictly false—he is a kind of detective, trying to solve his own past.) Miss Ticher still has contact with her emotions, in particular regret. The stern and severe Miss Grimshaw simply wants the disheveled Mr. Quilian gone, out of the deck chair meant for her, a space he occupies in figurative and literal terms. The two women have established a delicate mode of mutual existence, and it cannot bear the presence of this interloper, who, in his wake, leaves Miss Ticher saying “how very cruel the world is”—and, of course, she really means how cruel the world has been to her and Miss Grimshaw.
Misses Ticher and Grimshaw are a Trevor type: loveless and childless old maids. They are employed by a girl’s school and plan to retire to the same cottage together. In a more modern story, one would probably infer some sort of lesbian undertone, but if it’s there, I found it undetectable. Still, they are life partners of a sort, brought together by their employment and the daunting problem of having become elderly without having become married.
Trevor is virtually unique, to my mind, in his interest in elderly characters; I cannot think of another writer who devotes more story space to the lives of the old—Alice Munro perhaps comes closest. Old characters are often overlooked in fictional narrative, narrative that usually profits from a surfeit of potential choices and actions. The lives of the old, in fiction as in life, are often if not always characterized by a lack of options. In Trevor’s fiction, this is an advantage—old characters most potently express his dominant theme of diminishment: diminishment in body and mind, diminishment in importance, diminishment in possibility. Young people, impoverished in whatever sense, are still wealthy in time, and can delude themselves as to some future happiness. The old cannot, and this acceptance—in the case of Miss Grimshaw, an acceptance of the truth accompanied by a blind resistance to her feelings about it—is at the heart of Trevor’s fiction.
Thanks for stopping by—next week, I’ll be discussing “The Table!”

The William Trevor Reader: “The General’s Day”

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The titular general in “The General’s Day” is General Suffolk, an elderly bachelor and hero of the Great War. We follow him on his also titular day: contentiously greeting his housekeeper Mrs. Hinch; walking to the village cafe and talking to his friend Basil; trying to recruit another elderly friend from his house for day-drinking; day-drinking by himself and then with a woman he meets; sexually harassing her and driving her away; drinking more at night; getting into a screaming fight with his elderly friend upon a second visit to said friend’s house; stopping at Mrs. Hinch’s house blind-drunk and being helped home by the lady (who steals money from his wallet in a little bathetic grace note). The title itself is also wryly bathetic in Trevor’s preferred naming style, which is to say, naming the story for the exact thing it’s about.

The story is also representative of the Trevor oeuvre in its subject, which is to say—as I touched on in my write-up of “A Meeting in Middle Age”—diminishment. It is actually a bit unusual in the sense that General Suffolk has actually achieved some stature in his lifetime, a height from which to fall; the average Trevor protagonist has been too hamstrung, by class or disposition or religion or general circumstances, to achieve very much. Further, the General—unlike many Trevor principals—is not unaware of the ways time has reduced him. This, from his morning walk into town:
‘I walked entranced,’ intoned the General, ‘through a land of morn. The sun in wondrous excess of light…’ He was seventy-eight: his memory faltered over the quotation. His stick, weapon of his irritation, thrashed through the campions, covering the road with broken blooms. Grasshoppers clicked; bees darted, paused, humming in the light, silent in labour. The road was brown with dust, dry and hot in the sunlight. It was a day, thought the General, to be successfully in love; and he mourned that the ecstasy of love on a hot summer’s day was so far behind him. Not that he had gone without it; which gave him his yardstick and saddened him the more.
The hinge on which the story swings is not, as in “Access to the Children,” a character’s obliviousness to their condition; it is, instead, a tonal shift. The General essentially travels from tragic to comic character in the course of his day, in our eyes, if not in his drunken ones. He understands his diminishment, his fall from commander of men and great lover of women to solitary bachelor whose main source of companionship is his cleaning woman. But this fall at least is tinged with the grandness of tragedy. And so, even as he mildly deludes himself as to the possibility of friendship or carnal bliss, he can at least experience his old age as a kind of noble coda to a life full of the genuine articles. The events of the day shift our view of the General’s life from tragedy to comedy and finally to farce, the farce of drunkenness and old age summed up by the devastating last line: “… and leaning on the arm of this stout woman, the hero of Rouex and Monchy-le-Preux stumbled the last few yards to his cottage.” The tragic fall becomes a slip on the banana peel.

One minor, but noteworthy craft aspect of this story is the way, toward the end, Trevor very lightly occupies the mind of Mrs. Hinch, in order to reveal her delight at the General’s drunkenness, the way episodes like this will keep him in her debt, and her in his employ. Trevor is the master of this move—I had read “Access to the Children” many times without registering the way, for a few devastating beats, he switches to the wife’s perspective. Flitting between character consciousnesses is generally inadvisable, something I tend to warn students against, as it is difficult enough in short story writing to create a unitary narrative consciousness and tone without roping in other characters. But Mrs. Hinch’s point of view is important: the narrative tables have turned, and we now understand that the lowly cleaning lady looks down on her great employer as a risible old fool to be manipulated. Furthermore, the narrative move makes a kind of perspectival sense as General Suffolk has drunk himself into oblivion, clearing a space for another consciousness as the focal point.

More on point-of-view shifts next week, as we look at “Memories of Youghal.” Thanks for reading!

The William Trevor Reader: “Access to the Children”

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In a way, I owe the genesis of The William Trevor Reader to this one story. “Access to the Children” might not have been the first Trevor piece I read, but it was the first I fell in love with. I didn’t really need to reread it for this entry—I’ve read it so many times over the years that I can practically recite the story, beat for beat. It was one of a handful of pieces of short fiction that, as a young writer, rewired my brain. It demonstrated a narrative technique about which I was perhaps dimly aware, but that I had no words for. What I now think of as Unreliable Third Person.

“Access to the Children” concerns Malcolmson, a man recently separated from his wife, who is allowed to spend Sundays with his two daughters. He picks them up, they go to the park, watch TV back at his flat, and he returns them. Along the way, we learn of the infidelity that destroyed his marriage, and Malcolmson learns of a man who has been visiting his wife. All the while, throughout the day, he steadily and surreptitiously drinks. Back at his old apartment, he has a truly spectacular go-to-pieces in front of his wife and her soon-to-be new husband. She expresses worry for him, and via her shocked concern, we finally see him as he is: a pathetic alcoholic wreck. We leave Malcolmson in the pub, where goes after visiting with the children every Sunday night, weeping to the barmaid, as always.

Trevor is commonly known as a master of free-indirect style, a type of close third-person that blends narrative POV with the main character’s POV, creating a productive ambiguity as to where the story’s “thoughts” are coming from. “Access to the Children” goes a step farther than usual free indirect style, focalizing the narration so closely through Malcolmson’s perspective that we lose any sense of objectivity. We are getting the world through his eyes just as much as we get the world in first-person through Humbert Humbert’s, and with the same degree of distortion.

Malcolmson becomes, effectively, the unreliable narrator of his third person narrative. His denial is so fulsome and complete that we spend most of the story regarding him as he regards himself: a normal estranged father. He deeply regrets his affair and believes his wife will, must take him back; it takes her vocally disabusing him of this notion to disabuse the reader. The story offers small clues along the way, for instance, Malcolmson’s dismissal from his job and the fact that he spends his days in the Red Lion playing dominoes—but since he seems to regard these things as normal and unworrying, so do we. The strongest clue provided is when, walking through Hyde Park with his girls, a vagrant approaches and offers him a drink of wine, seeing Malcolmson—we understand later—as one of his own. The scene when Elizabeth, Malcolmson’s ex-wife, finally sets things straight is one of the most brutal in short fiction:
“You’ve gone to seed,” she said, hating herself for saying that [note, by the way how the narration admits another viewpoint here, introducing objectivity as it brings down the axe], unable to prevent herself. “You’ve gone to seed because you’ve lost your self-respect. I’ve watched you, week by week. The woman you met on a train took her toll of you and now in your seediness you want to creep back. Don’t you know you’re not the man I married?”

“Elizabeth—”

“You didn’t have cigarette burns all over your clothes. You didn’t smell of toothpaste when you should have smelt of drink. You stand there, pathetically, Sunday after Sunday, trying to keep a conversation going. D’you know what I feel?”

“I love—”

“I feel sorry for you.”

He shook his head. There was no need to feel sorry for him, he said, remembering suddenly the elderly assistant in Frith’s Patisserie and remembering also, for some reason, the woman in Hyde Park who peculiarly had said that he wasn’t shaved. He looked down at his clothes and saw the burn marks she had mentioned.
Trevor, like Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever, is a master of this kind of narrative indirection. When a character’s wrong belief about themselves is strong enough, the world, as seen through their eyes, deforms to accommodate that belief.  Trevor’s characters, in the stereotyped Irish tradition, often are wrong because of drunkenness, just as O’Connor’s are often wrong because of pride and Cheever’s because of lust (something I wrote about here). This is an artificial move (as everything is) in fiction, but it models something true about the world, about the way that we get things absolutely wrong when it suits us. We live in one world with nine billion people, but there are nine billion versions of that world to go around.

This is to say that third person can be as subjective as first person. Maybe more so, because to appearances we are getting an objective view. When we read first person, we are habitually and constantly aware of the narrator’s bias, of their little lies, to us and themselves. When we read third, we enter, to some extent, a zone of ostensible neutrality that can be exploited by the author. “Access to the Children” offers a brutal master class in this form of pleasurable manipulation.

Next week: “The General’s Day.” See you then!

The William Trevor Reader: “A Meeting in Middle Age”

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They tritely say that all journeys begin with a single step, and so we begin this journey through William Trevor’s The Collected Stories with “A Meeting in Middle Age.” Summary: as the title would suggest, a middle-aged man, Mr. Mileson, and a middle-aged woman, Mrs. da Tanka, meet. It becomes clear as the story progresses, that Mr. Mileson has been hired by her solicitor to pretend to be Mrs. da Tanka’s lover, so as to expedite an embarrassment-free divorce from her wealthy and influential husband. They travel by train, get a hotel, get drunk and eat dinner, are rude to their waiter, have a long and horrible and insulting fight, and part ways after the return train.
I had a strong suspicion, reading “A Meeting in Middle Age,” that in the past, I’d never made it all the way through the story, perhaps jumping ship after the first page or two. Trevor, in many ways, seems to have appeared on the literary scene fully formed, but this feels like an early effort, clunky for a writer known signally for his lack of clunk. The narrative flits back and forth between Mr. Mileson’s and Mrs. da Tankas’s consciousnesses—a technique Trevor often employs, but in this story, with a nervy unsettled quality like a butterfly refusing to land. The proceedings are additionally clouded by Mr. Mileson’s somewhat dislocated thoughts about his family home, the lease of which he recently let expire as a bachelor with no children. Given the agitated hostility between the principals, the disorientation of the story is arguably intentional, a case of form following function, but the reading experience still suffers. For a fairly short story, it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on.
There are probably also two minor extrinsic reasons for this: one, the mid-century British divorce laws being negotiated in this story are alien and arcane, difficult to intuit. Two, the name Mrs. da Tanka is so odd as to prove—for me—slightly distracting, an additional bit of weirdness compounding the general disorientation.
While “A Meeting in Middle Age” is arguably not the most accomplished story in the Collected, you still get many of the Trevor signatures here: bachelorhood and spinsterhood, folies a deux, the ceaseless encroaching of age, pervading loneliness, and a certain pervading horniness underscoring the pervading loneliness. My impression of Trevor’s reputation in 2021, to the extent that he has one, is of a staid Irishness/Britishness, elegant and understated and perhaps a little boring. The actual is something else—Trevor is very underestimated in the perviness department, and I mean this as a compliment. The specter of sexual frustration, and its expression in the odd momentary leer or ogling, is a productive counterpoint to an otherwise almost impossibly stateliness.
“In 1931,” we are told, somewhat out of the blue, “Mr. Mileson had committed fornication with the maid in his parents’ house. It was the only occasion, and he was glad that adultery was not expected of him with Mrs. da Tanka. In it, she would be be more experienced than he, and he did not relish the implication. The grill-room was lush and vulgar.”
The ending, too, is the archetypal Trevor ending: Mileson returns to his tiny new apartment, and the narrative camera lands on a five-bob note sitting beside the sink, the sum he was paid for his trouble. Trevor’s fiction is very often about diminishment and the acceptance of diminishment—these five pounds represent Mr. Mileson’s reduced future, and the story’s muted sigh as he does his washing up is perhaps the signature Trevorian tone.
I have tended to think of Trevor’s body of work as a monolith, but reading this first story, I’m reminded that, of course, he changed over his decades of work. One of the things I’m looking forward to now, in the course of this project, is reckoning with and tracking the growth of an artist who seems to have sprung full-grown from some obscure literary God’s head.
Next week, I’ll be discussing “Access to the Children”—one of Trevor’s best, and one of my all-time favorites stories by any writer. See you then!

The William Trevor Reader: An Introduction

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Welcome to the William Trevor Reader! Here’s the plan: once a week, every week, I will read one story from William Trevor’s The Collected Stories and write about it. There are 85 stories in this volume, comprising 1,261 total pages, so this will be no small undertaking. I will read and write about them in sequence, beginning with “A Meeting in Middle Age” and ending with “Kathleen’s Field.” This project—generously assuming completion—should take around a year and a half, with the final entry logged sometime in the spring or early summer of 2023.

“Why would someone do this?” you may be justifiably wondering. And perhaps more pressingly, “Why would I read it?” On the first count, my main impetus for the project is simply a recent desire to reread The Collected Stories. Trevor was a major influence on my development as a writer, especially of short stories, and I read most of these, some many times, over the last 15 or so years. But I’ve forgotten many of them and have a strong, inexplicable urge to encounter the body or work in one consecutive go. Writing this will force me to read and think about one Trevor story every few days

As a brief and possibly superfluous introduction: William Trevor—born 1928 in Michaelstown, Ireland; died 2016 in Somerset, England— is considered by many readers to be the unrivaled master of the short story in the 20th century. Published in 1992, his absolutely mammoth The Collected Stories, contains greatest hits from seven short story collections published between the years 1967 and 1990: The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories, The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories, Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories, Lovers of Their Time and Other Stories, Beyond the Pale and Other Stories, The News From Ireland and Other Stories, and Family Sins and Other Stories. Some 50 of his stories appeared in The New Yorker during his life.

The towering greatness of Trevor’s literary biography speaks for itself, and yet why him, why now?—questions I’ve asked myself throughout this project’s conception. I guess, for one thing, I’ve been trying to refocus on short story writing lately, after several years almost exclusively working on novels, and Trevor’s work—his impeccable craft, taste, and narrative instincts—feel potentially nourishing. Also, in middle age, I find myself wanting to look again at things that moved me when I was (relatively) young. Finally, during a time when cultural tastes and publishing trends shift almost daily, there is something reassuring about sitting with a writer who had the kind of career Trevor had: nothing flashy, just the steady accretion of work through the decades.

William Trevor, as both public figure and author, is almost wholly irrelevant to the present moment, and this feels to me like a selling point. Things are too relevant right now. The news is too relevant; the way we live our lives is about relevance, constant grinding timeliness, a rolling deadline never fully met. And the art we consume sometimes seems marketed purely on the basis of how directly and loudly it speaks to the moment. Trevor is not only not of this moment, he really wasn’t even of his own moment. His art is an art of loneliness, and it is timeless in both senses: being of no times and therefore of all times. He is not, in the dreaded parlance of publishing marketing copy, necessary, and that’s what I’m looking for—I have enough necessary things in my life already. And anyway, he is necessary, in the sense that great art is necessary for living a good life.

But again, why should you read this? Well, maybe you’re a Trevor fan and want to receive weekly thoughts about his craft—I’m often surprised by how little he’s currently discussed. And even if you’re not a Trevor reader, I’ll often be using his stories as an entry point to discuss larger areas of craft and aesthetics. Ideally, this series will be of interest to someone who has never read a single word of the Trevor canon. But the truth is, as I begin this journey, I don’t really know—and that feels right, much like the hesitant, hopeful feeling of beginning a story. Like all good stories do, this project will have to, in some ineffable way, justify its own existence.

And hey, if you have the time and a few extra bucks, I’d like to invite you to buy The Collected Stories and read along. We begin next Tuesday, in earnest, with “A Meeting in Middle Age.” See you then.