The William Trevor Reader: “Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts”

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I’ve mentioned before that one of the pleasures of a project like this is the way certain types of story begin to recur and constitute subgenres of the author’s output, categories of which the author may or may not have even been aware. As we approach the midway point of the Collected, several Trevorian modes begin to repeat, some rather insistently. For instance, and very generally, there are a large clutch of stories inspired by travel that take place on the continent. There have also been more than a handful of “Person Losing Their Shit at a Party” stories, about which I’ve written fairly extensively.

“Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts” represents another strain of Trevor story, namely a kind of Irish Gothic, also represented by the likes of “Miss Smith,” “The Hotel of the Idle Moon,” and “In at the Birth.” These stories, and a few others like them in the collection, more surely soon to come, have much in common with their compatriots in the Collected, but with aspects that nod toward the tradition of gothic horror. In the case of “Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts” the gothic element is to be found in the mode of storytelling itself. The bulk of the story is a letter written by a Mrs. Acland, a woman institutionalized by her husband for seeing ghosts, to a Mr. Mockler, a 63-year-old tailor who has apparently been chosen randomly as a recipient. The framed epistolary form is, of course, familiar from novels like DraculaFrankenstein, and, particularly, The Turn of the Screw, which frames the governess’s eerie tale several layers deep. There is something inherently unsettling about this form of narrative—I don’t just mean a character receiving a strange letter, which, of course, nests one person’s story into someone else’s. There is a way that the story at hand, and its significance, feels somehow attenuated by the reader-character/narrator’s presence just outside the frame. The story makes this diminishment explicit at the end, seeing as Mr. Mockler muses about the sadness of Mrs. Acland’s ghosts—her imagination, in other words—not being honored.

It occurs to me, writing this, that even in the non-gothic/horror stories, there is often a related atmosphere to be found in the Collected. Needless to say, few stories in the Trevor canon (and, really, few in the canon of great short stories) are cheerful or sunny. The general weather and mood of these piece is one of oppression: darkness, clouds, rain, damp; the average Trevor protagonist or narrator is likewise oppressed by the immutable facts of their life. There is also, as noted previously, a taste for the macabre or grotesque character that evokes O’Connor and early Ian McEwan. Beyond these specific genre markers, however, I think there’s a specific quality of irrevocability in the gothic that speaks to Trevor’s worldview.

“Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts” offers an extreme example of this aspect. As the sinisterly named Dr. Friendman informs Mr. Mockler “All her childhood, Mr. Mockler, her parents did not speak to one another… In the house there was nothing, Mr. Mockler, for all her childhood years: nothing except silence.”  That summary description of the isolation and silence Mrs. Acland endured in her childhood is not a human span—it is a span of Stokerian, Poeian terror. And the terror exists not only in the duration of that traumatizing silence, during which she dreamed up the ghosts that keep her company, but in the almost mythic quality of its absoluteness. Trevor’s characters so often, in some fundamental way, are born into and live most comfortably in darkness. The pure depth of isolation and misery depicted in many of these stories feels similar to the fairy tale and myth from which the gothic derives much of its energy.

The William Trevor Reader: “Last Wishes”

“Last Wishes” is a long—and, in my estimation, very good—story, that tells the tale of Mrs. Abercrombie, a rich widow who, upon her husband’s death, sequesters herself within his ancestral estate, Rews Manor, for three decades, where she is attended by a faithful staff of five. Rews Manor has, during this time, become infamous and somewhat beloved in the nearby town. As we’re told: “In the 1960s and 1970s, when life often had a grey look, the story of Rews Manor cheered people up, both those who told it and those who listened. It created images in minds and it affected imaginations.” Visitors are allowed to tour the manicured grounds, with proceeds benefiting a local charity, but the only townspeople to lay eyes on Mrs. Abercrombie for years have been a window-washer and the town doctor, Dr. Ripley. When Mrs. Abercrombie dies suddenly, the house is thrown into understandable grief and confusion, especially given the fact that Mrs. Abercrombie failed to sign a new draft of her will, which would have legally allowed her beloved employees to live on in the house for 20 more years. The butler, Plunkett, devises a plan to blackmail the elderly Doctor Ripley, by accusing him of malpractice, into withholding Mrs. Abercrombie’s death certificate, so that Plunkett can bury the great lady in the backyard beside her husband, and everything can go on as it had—an immoral plan lent appeal by the fact that it would, in fact, be largely honoring her actual last wishes. But the doctor will not be bullied, and when he tells the assembled hangdog staff that a judge would likely have honored Mrs. Abercrombie’s wishes regardless, he knows the staff will not now stay at Rews Manor, “because of their exposure one to another.”

I admire many things about this story. I admire its slow, patient pace, the two introductory pages it devotes to building the backstory of Rews Manor and Mrs. Abercrombie, and the other three pages it spends introducing the backstories of the servants: Plunkett; the housemaid, Tindall who occasionally sleeps with Plunkett; the cook, Mrs. Pope; and the two gardeners, Miss Bell and Mr. Apse—all of the servants misfits of one form or another who have come to love working at Rews Manor. I admire the general ambition in creating this cloistered little world—the story has the world-building reach of a small novel. And I admire the deftness with which Trevor handles this large ensemble. As usual, Trevor’s narration glides effortlessly from consciousness to consciousness, beginning with a distanced, village narration, moving to Mrs. Abercrombie before her death, then Plunkett and the others, before its ultimate destination in the doctor’s mind, as he dashes the servants’ hopes. 

One element of “Last Wishes” that works so well is the humble motivations of the characters. While the scheme they concoct and almost enact is grand, the desires it protects are anything but. The servants have found a place in the world where they feel comfortable and needed, where their small talents have been given room to breathe and thrive. Considering Plunkett’s plan, we are given this summary paragraph of massed character motivation:

Mr. Apse remembered a lifetime’s association with the gardens at Rews Manor, and Mrs. Pope recalled the cheerless kitchens of the YWCA, and Miss Bell saw herself kneeling in a flower bed on an autumn evening, taking begonia tubers from the earth. There could be no other garden for Mr. Apse, and for Miss Bell no other garden either, and no other kitchen for Mrs. Pope. Plunkett might propose to her, Tindall said to herself, just in order to go on sharing beds with her, but the marriage would not be happy because it was not what they wanted.

It is characteristic of Trevor’s fiction that these people want so little, have no higher aspirations than to simply be left alone in their peaceable routines, and thereby be allowed to preserve a little bit of dignity. Dignity—the difficulty of achieving or maintaining it—is, I think, the great unspoken theme of Trevor’s fiction, and the unspoken emotional motivation of the majority of his characters. And it is immensely powerful in this role. Dignity is, after all, a nearly invisible thing if you have it, but all-important and all-consuming if you don’t have. The stakes in Trevor stories are, at once, miniature and vast as life itself.

The William Trevor Reader: “Afternoon Dancing”

“Afternoon Dancing” tells the story of two lifelong friends, Alice and Poppy. Alice, the main character, is matronly and diffident and unconfident. Poppy is petite and loud and fun. Both women are married to agreeable dull men; both women have children. At 54 years of age, and at Poppy’s behest, the women take up dancing in the afternoons at a dancehall in Tottenham Court, which is where they meet a younger Jamaican man named Grantly Palmer. The three become friends—Poppy kids Alice that Grantly is sweet on her—and they maintain a routine of meeting to dance every Tuesday for quite some time, until Poppy dies. After her friend’s death, Alice stops dancing, but eventually begins thinking of Grantly, and so returns secretly to the dancehall (these excursions were always a secret between the women) and informs Grantly of Poppy’s death. Grantly makes a pass at Alice and professes his desire for her, and when he is rebuffed, he angrily tells her he is a pervert who only wants to sleep with larger, older (“over sixty, if it’s possible”) white women. The story concludes with Alice, in a moment of weird grace, considering what it would be like to submit to Grantly’s advances and thinking about how he shouldn’t feel ashamed of himself—how no one should be ashamed of themselves—before leaving the club in shame. 

I have two strong feelings about this story, in different directions. The first is that “Afternoon Dancing” does something I wish more stories did these days, which is to patiently tell the reader about a character’s life. Or more precisely, I wish more authors felt at liberty to write this way. I think the writing dictat to “show, don’t tell” has been absorbed by writing culture to an unhealthy and unuseful degree. The advice to show rather than tell has some basis in truth—readers generally want and/or need to see character dramatized in scene, and further, it’s generally true that if an author can find a way to show that something is the case rather than simply telling the reader, the reader will tend to almost perforce find that more engaging since it requires them to interact more with the text. 

But what was originally intended as, perhaps, an aesthetic guideline, has been taken as something close to an iron-clad rule by many writers, even by writers who have never thought much about it. As I mentioned in my essay on “A Complicated Nature,” students don’t usually enter my undergraduate classes forearmed with much fiction knowledge, but by God, they know “Show don’t tell” (as well as its first cousin: “Begin in medias res”). This is something they have absorbed from other, published writers, via novels and television shows, and from the cultural ether itself—the average student story, just like the average prestige TV show, begins with something happening, a headlong rush of activity that introduces the main character, and that may or may not pause at some point to catch its breath and provide some biographical background. Much to my chagrin, about every other student story begins with dialogue.

It’s therefore somewhat unusual, these days, to encounter what Trevor does in stories like “A Complicated Nature” and “Afternoon Dancing,” the calm limning of a life—two lives really—for two sustained pages, followed by further exposition carefully describing the women’s friendship with Grantly Palmer. It isn’t until Poppy’s death and Alice’s return to the Tottenham dancehall, that we finally enter present moment dramatic scene. The majority of the piece, in fact, is delivered via carefully modulated exposition, leavened with enough snatches of dialogue and carefully described moments and temporal movement to keep the reader engaged and create a fulsome sense of dramatic energy without any real dramatic scene. The inclination and, indeed, the ability to slow down and shade in a character’s entire life is a bit of a lost art, especially doing so from the beginning of a story. As a writing teacher, I understand (and often speak about) the value of starting with action and problem, yet I do admire this storytelling form, the stately laying out of a character’s life, and the trust that a reader will stick with such a story without yet knowing why they should care. In the case of an author like Trevor, they will care (he knows) because of the prose and melancholic brilliance of the world and lives being carefully rendered.

My other reaction to this story is less admiring: simply put, the racial stuff at the end is disconcerting and offputting. In 2022 parlance, Grantly Palmer is kinkshamed, by himself and society and the story itself, for being attracted to older, matronly white women. Why should this be so repulsive? Needless to say, societal values have shifted since this story’s publication in the early seventies, and yet even by the standards of that day there is an unsavory unsavoriness, something bordering on horror, about Grantly’s desire. As with “The Table,” non-white, non-Christian, characters are so unusual in these pages that the narrative regard, when they appear, often feels awkward at best and, at worst, outright racist or antisemitic.

“Afternoon Dancing” falls somewhere in the middle—it isn’t clear what we’re meant to think about Alice’s reaction to Grantly. In her confusion after he pronounces his attraction to her, she thinks about what would really be wrong with letting him admire her, and her emotional magnanimity draws in a consideration of all of the story’s character’s foibles and weaknesses. And yet, one feels, the story doesn’t quite disagree strongly enough with Grantly’s self-judgment: “I’m a nasty sort of black man.” And it draws too much narrative power from the fact of his attraction to Alice, the way it definitively closes the door on the Tottenham dancehall and their innocent afternoon dancing.

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”