The William Trevor Reader: “Nice Day at School”

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This is a good one that inverts the usual Trevor elements—the main character, Eleanor, is an adolescent girl rather than elderly spinster, and rather than backgrounding the proceedings with pervy energy, the perviness is the main event: all the girls in Eleanor’s grade are losing their virginity, and as Eleanor holds out, she worries about becoming an old maid like her teacher Miss Whitehead. It isn’t just the schoolgirls having sex, either. Everyone in Eleanor’s life, including, or perhaps especially her parents, are doing it constantly. Her father, a nightclub bouncer, works all night and expects to come home to an artery-blocking fry up and shag—on both counts, Eleanor’s mother grimly obliges. In their lower-class world, sex is the main (free) vice and compensation, and rather than the freedom it’s meant to represent, Eleanor intuits what it really means, especially for women: pregnancy, debt, dependency, dismal marriage, violence, and squalor. At the end of the story, looking at her parents, she thinks fondly of Miss Whitehead, who is “complete and alone, having discarded what she wished to discard,” and that Miss Whitehead’s enviable fate is unavailable to her parents, and by extension herself: “… for them it was too late to escape to a room in which everything was clean.”

Sex, in the usual Trevor story, is a kind of background noise that occasionally becomes audible. Its function, typically, is ironic—as the characters uselessly strain against their limitations and the straitening power of time and age, the erotic hum reminds them and the reader of what they stand to lose: simple pleasure, humanness, joy. In “Nice Day at School,” sex is the encroaching agent, the inescapable force of constriction and diminution, and time is backgrounded as the ironic element. Time, Eleanor has in excess, and yet it’s an ironically fruitless bounty considering what seem to be her available options: Miss Whitehead and her frigid, lonely abstention or her parents (and Mrs. Rourke, Mr. Crumm, Liz Jones, et al.) and their filthy hopelessness.

A side note about Eleanor’s father: depressing though he is, he’s also a figure of fairly tasteless comedy. A former professional wrestler with a bad back, the former “Prince of Hackney,” so-called, now works as a bouncer in a posh nightclub and makes up stories about meeting Princess Margaret and Mia Farrow. When he finishes his outrageous breakfast and disappears into the bedroom with Eleanor’s mother, he’s described as making “the same kind of noise as he’d made in the wrestling ring.” Eleanor’s father is a reminder that the popular view of Trevor as a paragon of quiet taste—one that I find myself reflexively holding—is not quite accurate. Trevor’s style and narrative choices are quiet and impeccable, but he is also fond of the grotesque, even outright caricature.

As with the odd moments of horniness and perversity, the grotesque in Trevor’s fiction serves as a kind of countervailing force against the central theme of loss and the stately tone of sadness. One of the things about Trevor’s fiction that works so well is that, in presenting one of literature’s most serious and depressing views of human existence, it still manages not to take itself too seriously. The peeks up the skirt, Liz Jones getting laid standing up in the schoolyard, and the wrestling grunts from the bedroom serve the dual function of leavening the proceedings while deepening them. These are, after all, not just naughty bits of fun—they are the (re)actions of human beings who, feeling the walls closing in, cast around for any grim pleasure that might provide a sense of agency and take their mind off their life.

In the words of Jarvis Cocker in Pulp’s great “Common People”:
You’ll never fail like common people, you’ll never watch your life slide out of view

And you dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do.
Trevor is not a class warrior. To my mind, for an Irish/English writer, he is only moderately concerned with class. It appears often in his stories, but usually as a secondary element that goes to character or else ratchets up other, more important tensions. But when he does write explicitly about the poor, as he is here, the sense of frustrated helplessness that pervades his work is amplified and sharpened.

See you next week, when I’ll be discussing “The Original Sins of Edward Tripp.”

The William Trevor Reader: “The Hotel of the Idle Moon”

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It feels safe to say that no other writer of great stature wrote more often than William Trevor about old people. Only Alice Munro comes close—perhaps V. S. Pritchett. Here’s an incredibly stupid admission: when I first encountered Trevor, it made perfect sense to me that he would write so much about old people, since he so perfectly embodied the platonic ideal of an old person. Those twinkly, wise eyes! That signature Irish walking hat! I was in my 30, in the late aughts, when I first read Trevor, and he was in his late-70s. It did not occur to me that he had not always been in his late-70s, that many of the multitude of stories were written when he was my age at the time.

But enough about my stupidity, which I would prefer to reveal slowly over the course of this project, rather than all at once in an information dump. I mentioned Trevor’s interest in the elderly in a previous entry, the way aging is simpatico with his central theme, i.e. coming to terms with one’s life. But it’s more than that. Advanced age and accompanying senescence are, if not an obsession, a fixation. Sometimes, with writers, you viscerally sense the person, place, thing, idea, or general theme that quickens their pulse—you can hear the fingers tap that much faster on the typewriter. With Charles Portis, it’s cars, or more broadly, mechanical objects; with Ottessa Moshfegh it’s any bodily-related function: peeing, pooping, barfing. I sense, in Trevor’s stories, that quickening when it comes to senility, sundowning, the general incapacity of age.

In several of these stories we’ve covered already, an old person’s vulnerability provides a key plot point: Miss Winton’s fuddled inability to wrest control of the situation in “The Penthouse Apartment;” Miss Efoss becoming overwhelmed and subsumed by the Dutt’s desire for a child in “In at the Birth;” General Suffolk’s progressive drunkenness and weakness in “The General’s Day.” Even the titular Miss Smith, a relatively young person, undergoes a sort of premature dotage. This week’s story, “The Hotel of the Idle Moon,” provides the most explicit version of this yet, as a pair of married con artists, the Dankers, invade the country home of the ancient Marstons and their equally ancient servant Cronin. They likely poison Lord Marston, and proceed to consign the Lady and Cronin to a small wing of the house while they convert the rest into a hotel. Cronin dreams of cutting their throats with a razor strop, but in the end, he understands it to be absurd that he “imagined himself a match for the world and its conquerors.”

One feels Trevor taking a kind of perverse pleasure in the plight of the Marstons and Cronin, bulldozed as they are by this purposeful, evil people. I found myself speculating about Trevor’s Irishness, wondering if there was a connection to the history of Ireland, regularly occupied by an outside force since the Romans. Further along in The Collected Stories, Trevor explicitly addresses The Troubles, but I wondered if there’s something more general in the Irish psyche that responds to the drama of encroachment—Joyce’s fiction is, as well, shot through with narratives of helplessness and submission: for example, Gabriel Conroy’s and Leopold Bloom’s effulgent, ecstatic paralyses; Ulysses, stripped of its extravagant language, is the story of a man wandering in circles as his wife cuckolds him. Joyce’s language itself can be read as a defense mechanism, a coded linguistic bulwark devised by a genius with a siege mentality.

What encroaches more assiduously than time? What enemy is more relentless than age? Trevor is especially, unusually responsive to the problem of dementia (“Cheating at Canasta,” one of his most famous later stories, regards a man on vacation at the behest of his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife). In “The House of the Idle Moon,” the senescence of the house’s nonagenarians is like an accomplice working in concert with the Dankers. As the Dankers slowly take over, landscaping the apple orchard and beginning to rent the rooms to guests, age subsumes Lady Marston and Cronin. And in that subsumption, I detect a delicious release, a giving over to chaos, meaninglessness, and loss. When it’s far too late to stop the Dankers, we get this exchange between Cronin and Lady Marston:
‘It has no meaning: The Hotel of the Idle Moon. Yet I fear, m’lady, it may in time mean much to us.’

Lady Marston laughed quite gaily. ‘Few things have meaning, Cronin. It is rather too much to expect a meaning for everything.’
Next time around, “A School Story.”

The William Trevor Reader: “Miss Smith”

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

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

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

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

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

The William Trevor Reader: “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake”

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I’m not sure how much I have to say about this one. Another first-person story, the second of this anthology, and the title piece of William Trevor’s first collection, published in 1969. We follow the narrator Mike as he goes around London getting drunk with his itinerant friend Swann, and Swann’s two women friends, Jo and Margo. Along the way, he calls Lucy, a woman he’s in love with, no fewer than 10 times, until she understandably tells him to stop. At the end of the story, he reflects that although he’s in love with Lucy, time will eventually take away the pain of his love, and if he remembers the day at all it will be for the boozy cake they all ate at lunch. It’s a pleasant enough story, though somewhat shaggy dog and less memorable than others so far.

Okay, I guess I have two things to say. This story again argues for Trevor’s talents as a third-person writer. As with “A School Story,” the narrator leaves (again, for me) too faint an impression. First-person (for me) works best when it’s suggestive of things the narrator can’t admit to themselves; when it’s unreliable, essentially. More precisely—I don’t require or even want Humbert Humbert in most first-person stories, but I do think good first person is aware of the possibility of unreliability and at least feints now and then in that direction. The strength of Trevor’s style in third—the lightness of touch and almost impersonal narrative intelligence—can be a liability in first, as a reader craves a bit more of the authorial thumb on the scale.

One way to think about this is that, to my mind, the same first-person Trevorian narrator narrates the more successful third-person stories, but he or it stays invisible, simply relaying the activities and thoughts of the other characters with immaculate style. In the first-person stories, this narrator strides forward and occupies a starring role in the proceedings, but with the same tasteful reticence as when he/it/she remains offstage. The generally smart impulse to not get in the way of the story becomes a demerit when the narrator is the story, and in first-person stories, the narrator cannot help but be the locus of narrative interest. Where readers want to know what happened, as well as how and why, in third-person, they centrally want to know why the story is being told in first. A useful thought experiment I sometimes employ with my students is to imagine written stories as spoken ones. A person sits down next to you at a party and begins talking—if they’re telling a story of sufficient interest about other people, their specific person recedes into the background, and you listen to the tale. If, on the other hand, they begin talking about themselves, their presence cannot fully recede, as you listen with one ear trained on the story’s significance to them. Obeying their master’s storytelling instincts, Trevor’s first-person narrators instinctively want to disappear, fade away into the party’s background.

The other thing about this story is it feels like a bit of a period piece, a story very much of the ‘60s. Some of these early ones do, a bit, this one does more than most. There’s an effortful hint of louche grooviness, with the ne’er-do-well hippie friend and his lady friends, with the confusion of the day drinking, and the object of desire with her own shaggy, spectral man-friends. Trevor’s universe—as I recall, perhaps faultily, from reading these stories the first time around—generally has an intensely late-‘70s British atmosphere. My composite mental image of his storytelling world has the look of a Monty Python set, with the bad haircuts and over-wide lapels; there’s a kind of damp fug about everything, dirty teakettles everywhere, and the overwhelming vibe of austerity. This ambience pairs with Trevor’s thematic sensibilities far better than the late-summer-of-love mood that emerges in some of the earlier pieces.

I’ll be back after taking a December hiatus to make way for the site’s annual Year in Reading entries. Next up—in a few weeks— “Miss Smith.”’

The William Trevor Reader: “The Introspections of JP Powers”

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William Trevor’s “The Introspections of JP Powers” is what is often derisively called a “slice-of-life” story in writing workshops. We accompany Powers, a driving instructor, as he distractedly tutors an old lady, Miss Hobish, while ruminating about, variously: his insulting former boss, Roche; the difficulty of keeping his sweaty body clean; his hairy armpits and hairless chest; the secretary in Mr. Roche’s office whose breasts he admired; his friend or “friend” Mr. Ransome—a former underling in the RAF with Mr. Powers—who wants Powers to join Mr. Ransome’s infant supply company as a door-to-door salesman; taking a bath; his drinking routine on Sundays; his wife and children; and a former driving student he sexually harassed. In the course of story, Miss Hobish crashes his car, and he finally submits to Mr. Ransome, taking the strange sales job. We are not left with the sense that much will change, or improve, in Mr. Powers’s depressing existence.

Slice-of-life stories, which typically concern an arbitrary moment in a character’s life, are usually derided for lack of dramatic punch or point. Inasmuch as this story has a point, or “point,” I read it as something of an oblique commentary on the way average people live their lives and get by. We’re encouraged in this reading by the extraordinary final paragraph, the entirety of which I’ll quote here:
The sun was hot on his face as he sat in the Austin. His skin relaxed, that part of him happy in the heat. He closed his eyes and gave himself up to the tiny moment. The sun touched his hands on the steering wheel and warmed them, too. Beer in his stomach, sun on his skin: he had felt such cosseting before. He had lain in bed, stretched and at peace, warmly covered. The warmth of his wife had welcomed him and given him another version of simple sensuality. Blearily, an awareness stirred in J. P. Powers. He did not think in so many words that the excuse for his life lay in moments like these: only in what he received, since he contributed nothing. He did not think it because it was absurd when it was put like that, clarified and clinical. The feeling hammered at his brain, but no tendril stretched out to fashion it into thought. A cloud obscured the shaft of sunlight and the feeling evaporated, giving way to an afternoon depression. He switched on the ignition and drove the Austin for the last time, past Cave Crescent and Mortimer Road, out on Putney Hill and into the stream of traffic.
This paragraph elevates the story from a simple slice-of-life character study into something larger and more pointed. “Excuse for his life” is a remarkable phrase, and I read the sentence containing it several times. What it seems to be saying is that Mr. Powers cannot allow himself to understand that he is a useless person and, as such, that his life really only has intrinsic value during small, sensual moments like this. It’s an unusually brutal summary judgment of a character, almost O’Connorian, although O’Connor would at least grant Mr. Powers the dignity of a horrible epiphanic moment when he fully apprehends his life’s worthlessness. Trevor’s version is even more bleak, in its way—despite the title, J. P. Powers is not even allowed the story’s central introspection, although this is arguably a mercy. Trevor’s elegant narration separates itself from Mr. Powers’s consciousness like paper peeling off a wall in order to give the reader what Mr. Powers cannot give himself.

As a craft point, I’m reminded, a little, of Tobias Wolff’s famous “He did not remember” section in the last pages of “Bullet in the Brain.” It’s one of my favorite narrative moves, and one of the reasons I generally prefer third person, this snaky ability to render shadow consciousness, the things a character knows but doesn’t understand, intuits but cannot bring themselves to examine in the light. Most human consciousness, after all, exists on this level, in a gray dimness grading to total black, only occasionally lit up by the cold flame of tragedy or effortful moral examination.

The last clause of the story, “into the stream of traffic,” I read as Trevor perhaps slyly suggesting that Mr. Powers’s particular case is the general one. If this is Trevor’s intent, I find the judgment both persuasive and off-putting. Yes, it seems likely true that many, if not most, people live unhappy lives during which they do their level best to avoid contact with that unhappiness. At the same, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” always feels insufficient to me. The transcendentalists provide a better motto for short story writers in the form of Emerson’s exhortation from The Preacher:
‘For all our penny-wisdom, for all out soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted that all men have sublime thoughts.’
I’ll be back next week to discuss the title story of Trevor’s first collection, “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake.”

The William Trevor Reader: “In at the Birth”

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Another weird one, but this time in a good way. “In at the Birth” tells the story of elderly Miss Efoss, who begins babysitting for a neighborhood couple named the Dutts. Their baby, Mickey, is “nervous” and kept upstairs, away from Miss Efoss, who is instructed to call Mrs. Dutts at whatever dinner or party they’re attending if Mickey ever begins crying. Miss Efoss never meets Mickey, things become weird and suspect, and one night she climbs the stairs to find—terrifyingly—a very old man in the child’s room. Understandably, Miss Efoss stops babysitting for the Dutts, but when she encounters them a year later, they tell her their “baby” has died, as their babies always eventually do. Miss Efoss, having become truly old in the interim, begins selling her possessions off and at the end moves into the upstairs room at the Dutts’ house, to serve as their newest child.

One does not typically think “magical realism” when one thinks of William Trevor, but I found this story to be a remarkably solid representative of the form. Although magical realism may not quite capture it—the story rides a line between magical realism, fairy tale, allegory, and horror. The writing is of a better class, it reminds me of some of Roald Dahl’s best stories, the comingling of genres to produce a kind of unsettling light comic-horror.

It also reminds me of a certain genre of fiction, often short stories, popular in the 1990s and aughts, sometimes described as weird fiction, and exemplified by writers like Kelly Link and J. Robert Lennon. This is, of course, in a lineage of short story that plays with the stability of reality, and in the 20th century includes writers as disparate as postmodernists like Robert Coover, Garcia Marquez and the magical realists, and mid-century American masters like Bernard Malamud and John Cheever. Weird fiction, if you’ll accept my calling it that, was/is characterized by uncanny narratives marked by increasingly bizarre events and a narrator or protagonist slowly registering—or not registering—they are no longer in the “real” world. Often part of the truly unnerving quality of this type of story is the way the narrator or protagonist seems to ultimately accept her new reality, become absorbed into it.

“In at the Birth” employs this kind of weird fictional tactic. Upon finding the elderly man, she quits her “baby”-sitting job and leaves London for Devon. But upon reencountering the Dutts and learning of Mickey’s death, she seems inexorably drawn toward the second-floor nursery. There is a horror for the reader, as Miss Efoss seems to abandon her reason and free will, and submit to the designs of the Dutts—and the narrative itself.

Weird fiction often operates in this way. There is some magnetic force in the story drawing the character in, and the story itself—or rather, the ineluctability of the story and its logic—often becomes a kind of large-scale metaphor for the ineluctability of the main character’s deepest desire. The opening of “In at the Birth”—the story begins “Once upon a time…”—signals we are reading a fairy tale of sorts, as we are told that Miss Efoss once, long ago, had a child that died of pneumonia, a fact she seems to have made peace with. We are told, “In retrospect, Miss Efoss considered that she had run the gamut of human emotions. She settled down to the lively superficiality of the everyday existence she had mapped out for herself. She was quite content with it.” Of course, she is not, on some fundamental level, content with her childlessness—thus appear the Dutts, and thus does the story’s apparent realism begin to warp and deform. The Dutts are suffering, over and over in a hideous farce, the tragedy she has suffered once—the power of her loss is such that her ultimate fate is to leave the Dutts, and the world, the same way her baby disappeared decades before.

In this sort of weird fictional universe, there is no dependable reality, but emotional logic remains absolutely stable and coherent. Perhaps the ne plus ultra of this genre is Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” which follows Neddy Merrill on a quest to swim the Lucinda River, a series of nearly connected swimming pools in his Westchester neighborhood. During the journey, the seasons seem to change, and Neddy finds himself aged and shunned by his neighbors, arriving home to find it abandoned. It is impossible, but it feels real, or perhaps “true,” because it represents the truth of Neddy’s failing marriage. Actually, Cheever employed this tactic all the time, often to subtler effect, something I wrote about in this essay.

Thank you for reading, and please join me next Tuesday, when I’ll be discussing the significantly more ground-bound tale, “The Introspections of J.P. Powers.”

The William Trevor Reader: “The Penthouse Apartment”

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“The Penthouse Apartment” is a very long story by William Trevor’s standards, and I’m not entirely sure it earns its page count. The main character, Mrs. Winton—an elderly spinster, you’ll perhaps be unsurprised to learn—is drawn into a chaotic scene in the apartment the Runcas, a rich couple who live in the penthouse of her building. Out of boredom, Bianca, the Runca’s maid, offers to show Mrs. Winton (and Mrs. Winton’s little dog) the apartment, where they meet Mr. Morgan, the building handyman, ostensibly doing work on the plumbing and getting drunk on whiskey at noon. Mr. Morgan, increasingly unhinged by drink, upends a vase of flowers, destroys a carpet, and assaults some furniture, ruining the pristinely decorated apartment in advance of a photo shoot the Runcas have scheduled with a fashion magazine for that afternoon. Mrs. Winton tries to control the crazed handyman, becomes complicit in the destruction, and in the end her dog is blamed for it. Having experienced some kind of epiphany during the chaos, Mrs. Winton wants to make the Runcas understand Mr. Morgan’s anger—wants in a more general sense to draw all the parties together—but she cannot, and in the end simply looks like an old fool, on the hook to pay the damages.
Miss Winton wanted to let Mr. Morgan see that he was wrong about these people. She wanted to have it proved here and now that the Runcas were human and would understand an accident, that they, like anyone else, were capable of respecting a touchy caretaker. She wished to speak the truth, to lead the truth into the open and let it act for itself between Mr. Morgan and the Runcas.

‘We’ll make a note of everything,’ Mrs. Runca said to her, ‘and let you have the list of the damage and the cost of it.’
The mounting destruction of the apartment has some comic energy, as Mr. Morgan destroys the vase, lies about it, burns the carpet they’re trying to dry, lies about that, and gets drunker and more belligerent, finally threatening to kill the Runcas. It achieves a kind of Fawlty Towers-esque British slapstick, and I laughed in a couple of places. But the seeming main purpose of this rather interminable piece is the laborious dramatizing of various class issues. My hunch is that this story might be more enjoyable and/or decipherable for a British reader, for whom the subject of class might be more inherently interesting than it is for an American reader, and who might appreciate various niceties and references I may have missed.

Still, the basic gist seems fairly clear. The story is set in an apartment building that becomes nicer on the higher floors, and the characters are all metonyms for the class strata they occupy. The Runcas are rich, Mrs. Winton is comfortable, Mr. Morgan is lower class and survives on tips, and Bianca is even lower than Mr. Morgan on the class spectrum: a vulnerable young immigrant girl. The story dramatizes the impossibility of speaking across class divides: the lower classes will always resent the upper classes, and the middle class, protecting its own interests and fearing demotion, cannot bridge the gap. Further, Mrs. Winton, the focal character, represents the tenuous position of the middle to upper-middle class. Not only can she not meaningfully or usefully bring the working class and the rich together, she is reviled by both. Mr. Morgan hates her because he sees her, somewhat accurately, as a de facto agent of his economic control; the Runcas hate her because she is indistinguishable from the working class, just one more aggravating pleb to be dealt with. Mrs. Winton, paralyzed by fear of reprisal, mealy-mouthed good intentions, a vague sense of the injustice of it all, and a general desire to not rock the boat, in the end does nothing, and in this sense, she reminds me not a little of the Democratic party and modern liberalism in 2021.

Having written this out, I find myself liking the story quite a bit more than I first thought! Still, in the end, despite whatever political value it may contain, it’s dramatically inert and overlong. That said, in my estimation, it’s the first semi-dud in seven early stories, before Trevor even began to hit his masterly stride, so not bad!

Join me next week, when I’ll discuss the excellent, unnerving “In at the Birth.”

The William Trevor Reader: “A School Story”

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Six stories in, and “A School Story” is our first encounter with a first-person narrator; if memory serves, the remainder of the collection maintains something like this ratio, and we get about five third-persons for every one first-person. Most writers, I think it’s fair to say, are partial to either third or first person, and with short story writers, this proclivity becomes more obvious due to volume. Carver, Vaughn, Shepard, Barthelme, Berlin—to pick names wildly out of my brain hat—are mostly first-person specialists; Chekhov, Cheever, O’Connor, Malamud, and our man William Trevor are mostly third-person writers. Some writers like James Salter are almost homophilic in their POV devotion—as far as I know, Salter wrote one story in first, and it is his worst. Some freaks like Alice Munro—always enragingly brilliant and sui generis—are great at both. (A glance at the above lists, by the way, would suggest that third-person is an older tradition, less favored in contemporary writers, something I believe to be true and unfortunate and have written about in various places before, for instance here.)

I’ve always found it interesting that writers so often fall into the first or third camp, and I’ve always wondered why that tends to be the case. Given the modern tendency toward first-person writing, given the way we write in first all day on social media, it feels somewhat unsurprising that many/most people favor it. As someone who is better at and prefers third, I’m hard pressed to explain why. Perhaps formative books I read in childhood, like those of Roald Dahl? Maybe, but it feels like something more elemental about natural narrative position. The thing that feels natural to me in storytelling—that is, telling the story of what happened to other people—feels artificial to many writers; the storytelling position that seems to feel natural to most writers today—talking about what happened to them, or “them”—feels artificial to me. This seems, on some level, wonderfully inexplicable, like loving or hating cilantro.

Trevor’s most special writing gift lies in his ability to write from a character’s—sometimes multiple characters’—perspective in placid and seamless free-indirect style. Unlike Salter, his forays into first are not disastrous or embarrassing, just a bit less distinct, less Trevor-y, than his third-person stories. His calm, pellucid style—such an advantage in blending character and narrative perspective, and thereby obscuring or deferring moments of understanding from character and reader—is less advantageous in first, which often profits from a bit more: more voice, more noise and bluster. It’s a little like watching a professional athlete competing for charity in a different sport—yes, Steph Curry is a very good golfer by normal standards, but you’d still rather watch him shoot threes than hit chip shots from the rough.

That said, first person is, in fact, probably the right POV for telling “A School Story,” a story about storytelling and the dangers of telling stories. Our nameless narrator recounts his time at a boy’s school earlier in the century, and the boys’ habits at lights out of telling stories. The dorm’s perennial favorite storyteller, a boy named Markham, believes his father murdered his mother, and says that he, Markham, will murder his father and stepmother. Our narrator becomes friends with Markham and an unsavory boy named Williams, and in due time Markham’s father and stepmother are killed in Kenya. The narrator inadvertently leads Markham to falsely confess to the killing, at the behest of Williams, who exeunts in dark triumph with the remarkable catchphrase “I’m an unhealthy personage.”

This is one of those stories in which the narrator acts as a camera, a means of transmitting information to the reader about the other characters. It works as a comment on storytelling and also because third would give away too much information about the principle characters. Markham and Williams are both more or less opaque, all of their motivations and actions are offscreen. It is unsettling for this reason, for both reader and narrator, who tells this story many years later, still wondering about Williams and if he’d become “the man he said he would one day be.”

As a bit of pointless critique (imagine, if you will, William Trevor sitting stultified in my writing class as I provide my notes for this, his workshop submission): I find the narrator too muted here. We are provided no biographical material and really no character notes besides the fact that “I did not make friends easily.” The quietness of voice and absence of character context does a serviceable job of showcasing Markham’s self-destructive storytelling and Williams’s impenetrable villainy, but little else. It is not really clear, even in ambiguous terms, how this event has informed the narrator’s view of life, people, storytelling, himself. It therefore becomes something of a floating, adolescent mood piece, which feels like a missed opportunity given such intense material. A good effort, I write uselessly, at the bottom of William Trevor’s manuscript, looking forward to the revision.

Next time around: “The Penthouse Apartment.” Thanks for reading!

The William Trevor Reader: “The Table”

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This is a weird one. “The Table” tells the story of Mr. Jeffs, a Jewish antique dealer who buys an antique Louis XVI table from a Mrs. Hammonds for a very low price. Mrs. Hammonds’s husband subsequently contacts Mr. Jeffs to buy the table back, this time for a woman, Miss Galbally, whom Mr. Jeffs imagines to be Mr. Hammonds’s mistress. He has the table delivered to her apartment and then two days later, is contacted by Mrs. Hammonds wanting to buy the table back from him. Acting as her agent, he again visits Ms. Galbally, who will not sell the table; contacting Mr. Hammonds fails to sway Ms. Galbally, and Mr. Jeffs has to break the news to Mrs. Hammonds. She tells him the back story—that it was a gift from her grandmother—and during the telling Mr. Jeffs becomes increasingly agitated, feeling he’s being lied to, eventually exploding at Mrs. Hammonds, telling her Mr. Hammonds is having an affair, and invoking his own lowly status as a Jewish merchant. We leave him back at his residence, a lonely warehouse for furniture, a place of commerce and not life.

It’s difficult to read this story as not anti-Semitic; or, to put it another way, the story is anti-Semitic. The first half of the story seems uncomplicatedly so, as we follow Mr. Jeffs on his business. Living alone in an unfurnished Victorian house, mechanically eating kippers from a tin, pacing around to increase his circulation, Mr. Jeffs seems to have no interior life or concerns other than extracting the greatest possible value from his furniture pieces. Additionally, in an awful ongoing comedy, he schemes out little surcharges to tack onto his visits to the Hammonds and Ms. Galbally.

As the action proceeds, however, Mr. Jeffs begins fantasizing more and more about what lies behind the intrigue about the table. In the final scene, having been asked what was the matter with his mouth by the Hammonds’ young child, and having grown inexplicably irritated by what he perceives to be Mrs. Hammond’s dissembling, he explodes:
‘Your grandmother is dead and buried,’ he said to his amazement. ‘It is Mrs. Galbally who is alive. She takes her clothes off, Mrs. Hammond, and in comes your husband and takes off his. And the table sees you. The table you have always known. Your childhood table sees it all, and you cannot bear it. Why not be honest, Mrs. Hammond? Why not say straight out to me, “Jew man, bargain with this Mrs. Galbally, and let me have my childhood table back.” I understand you Mrs. Hammond. I understand all that. I will trade anything on God’s earth, Mrs. Hammond, but I understand that.’
I’m not sure I understand this, or this story, really. Here’s my best shot. What seems to be happening is a kind of thought-experiment, in which a Dickensian caricature of scheming Jewish greed is complicated or subverted by asking “What if this caricature had an interior life?” In one sense, it could be seen as positive to subvert a racist trope: the anti-Semitic Jewish stereotype is turned on its head by imagining the stereotypical character in three dimensions. The problem is that the subversion of the trope itself reinforces the feeling of anti-Semitism.  Mr. Jeffs is posited as being so outside of non-Jewish society that his experience of human emotion should provide a startling narrative effect. It is unclear why the proximity to romance and possible mild emotional intrigue should exert such a profound effect on a grown man, a grown man who apparently, due to his repulsive physiognomy and psyche, can only comfortably exist in the airless vacuum of pure commerce. He is reminiscent of a fairy tale troll who becomes curious about humanity and returns in the end to his safe, dark place under the bridge.

While I don’t think the story is intended to be anti-Semitic, it certainly reads that way. I should add that I have no reason to think William Trevor harbored anti-Semitic feeling or beliefs. I see “The Table” as the relatively early, earnest product of an artist (awkwardly and unsuccessfully) playing with identities and tropes he doesn’t quite understand and for which he doesn’t possess the much-needed context. Ironically, I also detect in this story a strong debt to Malamud. The almost mystical presence of the totemic table, the mounting confusion between atomized parties, the solitary man hemmed in by inexpressible emotion: it feels Malamudian in spirit to me if not in effect.

Next week, we’ll be back with less problematic fare, as well as the first first-person piece in the Collected: “A School Story.” See you then!

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!”