The William Trevor Reader: “Death in Jerusalem”

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Chekhov once said that he wanted the endings of his stories to “[shift] the center of gravity in order to produce maximum thought.” This aspiration, in my view, doesn’t just describe what good endings do, but what good stories do. Endings are not, after all, simply tacked on to the last bit of a narrative. They are its culmination, the place the story was always secretly going; if a good ending lets the cat out of the bag, the cat had to be in the bag to begin with. Put another way, as my teacher and friend J. Robert Lennon puts it, “A good ending is both surprising and inevitable.”

“Death in Jerusalem” has such an ending, a devastating turn that reaches back and reframes what you’ve read, what you didn’t even understand you were reading. Francis and Paul are brothers from County Tipperary. Francis is quiet, meek, a bit frail, and 37—a bachelor (of course) who lives at home and works in his elderly mother’s shop. Paul, 50, is rumbustious (in the story’s memorable phrasing), extroverted, and keen on liquor; he’s also a successful priest in a large San Francisco diocese who runs charitable organizations all over the world. Paul talks Francis into accompanying him to Jerusalem—a lifelong dream for devout Francis—and on their first night there, Paul receives the news that their mother has died. He decides to keep it from Francis, knowing it will spoil the trip for his brother, and selfishly not wanting to hurry back himself. The funeral is delayed, but after a disappointing trip to Gesthemane and Christ’s manger, Francis finds out the truth. He is understandably upset, and Paul obligingly reschedules the flight for the next day. We leave Paul stumbling drunk out of the hotel bar, covered with cigarette ash and the judgmental stares of the other guests.

The diametric opposition of these two men renders Chekhov’s shifting center of gravity completely clear. In the beginning, Francis is pitiable; in the end, Paul is. What seems in the beginning like weakness in Francis—his diffidence and caution, his blind maternal devotion—comes to seem like strength by the end, as he possesses the moral clarity to identify Jerusalem as a tourist trap and to immediately go home when he learns of his mother’s death. What seems in the beginning like strength in Paul—his boisterous freedom and worldliness—comes to seem like weakness in the end, as he nurses an alcoholic hatred of his mother. The real trick of the story is to implicate the reader for her initial assumptions about Francis and Paul. Naturally, a shy virginal man who works and lives with mother is to be pitied. Naturally, extroverted freedom is to be desired. Naturally, a religious layperson is less spiritual than a priest. Naturally. 

This is the “maximal thought” the story produces. Do we make these kinds of assumptions in our own lives, and about others? Of course we do. And we are often wrong, as we are when—with little proddings by the story—we admire Francis and pity Paul. This is, it might be said, an especially neat and apposite narrative trick for a story about two Christian men visiting the birthplace of Christ. It stops short of a moral lesson, as good stories always should, but it is nonetheless instructive in its way. 

It’s worth noting, as a sidebar, how well Trevor writes about non-Irish places, especially the Mediterranean and near-east. Like John Cheever in Italy, he seems imaginatively refreshed by getting away from home, and he writes with an alert tourist’s intent, vivid appreciation of these (to him) exotic destinations:

Tourists heavy with cameras thronged the Via Dolorosa. Brown, barefoot children asked for alms. Stall-keepers pressed their different wares: cotton dresses, metal-ware, mementoes, sacred goods. ‘Get out of the way,’ Father Paul kept saying to them, genially laughing to show he wasn’t being abrupt. Francis wanted to stand still and close his eyes, to visualize for a moment the carrying of the Cross. But the ceremony of the Stations, familiar to him for as long as he could remember, was unreal. Try as he would, Christ’s journey refused to enter his imagination, and his own plain church seemed closer to the heart of the matter than the noisy lane he was now being jostled on. ‘God damn it, of course it’s genuine,’ an angry American voice proclaimed, in reply to a shriller voice which insisted that cheating had taken place. The voices argued about a piece of wood, neat beneath plastic in a little box, a sample or not of the Cross that had been carried.

The William Trevor Reader: “Torridge”

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A couple weeks back, in a write-up on “Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts,” your regular guide through greater Trevoraria noticed the emergence of certain micro-genres: Travel, Irish Gothic, “Person Losing Their Shit at a Party.” To these phyla I’d like to add School Stories, a category that contains this week’s entry, “Torridge,” alongside previously-discussed gems like “The Grass Widows” and “Mrs. Silly.”

Like most of Trevor’s school stories, “Torridge” takes place at a boarding school. Trevor attended (or, per his 1991 memoir-in-sketches, Excursions in the Real World, endured) a handful of boarding schools as a child and later taught at one, and this authorial double exposure informs the story: unlike “Mrs. Silly,” where the narrative hews close to the adolescent protagonist’s POV, “Torridge” is a story about childhood—a particularly upsetting and cruel childhood—seen from the vantage of adults.

The first third of “Torridge” follows the titular character, the lonely son of a button-manufacturer and the frequent target of a trio of bullies named Wiltshire, Mace-Hamilton, and Arrowsmith. At their school there is a codified system of gay romances between older boys and their junior counterparts, called protectors and bijoux, respectively, to which Wiltshire, et al. already belong. Torridge receives a note from an older boy named Fisher, asking him to be his bijou, only to learn later that this note was meant for Arrowsmith. In the wake of this mix-up, Fisher tries again to connect with Arrowsmith, but is roundly mocked and leaves the school suddenly, prompting an assembly where the headmaster vaguely denounces the protector-bijoux arrangement. This does little besides confuse the students, and the system remains firmly in place, with Arrowsmith, Mace-Hamilton, and Wiltshire eventually taking on bijoux of their own. Torridge, notably, never partakes, remaining aloof and alone throughout his remaining years there. The note mistakenly left for him passes into school legend.

After a section break, we move decades into the future, to a dinner reunion of our three bullies. Wiltshire, Mace-Hamilton, and Arrowsmith are all married now, two of them with families. Roughly once a year, they all reconvene for dinner, where the talk turns inevitably to Torridge, who, as he did at school, has become something of a comic legend—a figure of fun even for children he’s never met. Arrowsmith, unbeknownst to the others, has invited Torridge to this dinner. Torridge arrives and soon tells the assembled that he himself is gay, and then goes into detail about protectors and their bijoux, explaining frankly that the fathers and husbands at the table were enthusiastic participants in this system. In a final, brutal reveal, he tells them all that Fisher, the boy who mistakenly courted him, did not return to school because he had hung himself, leaving a note for Arrowsmith at his feet.

What is initially striking about this story is, of course, the protector-bijoux system. That boys would groom even younger boys is disturbing, though Trevor seems to reserve judgment about the relationships themselves, focusing instead on the opportunities for cruelty that those relationships create. For example, Arrowsmith, pursued by Fisher after the initial mix-up with Torridge, reads the older boy’s pleading letters aloud for fun, a detail that gathers heartbreaking weight once Torridge reveals Fisher’s suicide. It’s easy to think of the lonely older woman as Trevor’s go-to archetype, but he is just as proficient writing the breathtakingly vicious adolescent. (See also: “Broken Homes,” and “Bravado,” which appeared in the New Yorker).

As a story about queerness, “Torridge” certainly has its flaws, especially when viewed through a contemporary lens. Torridge feels a bit stock as a fastidious gay man with a  “step as nimble as a tap-dancer’s.” Furthermore, I found his revelation of both his sexuality and Fisher’s grim fate a bit salacious, though I’d argue that’s more to do with structure and mechanics than content. “Torridge” is an oddly shaped story. In the first third, we proceed by Trevor’s steady expositional churn, doling out a bit of POV here, but mostly zeroing in on Torridge, though never entering his perspective. The first sentence of the story is indicative of that narrative distance:
Perhaps nobody ever did wonder what Torridge would be like as a man—or what Wiltshire or Mace-Hamilton or Arrowsmith would be like, come to that.
There is an effortlessness to this opening section, which appears even smoother when contrasted against the blitz of the dinner party, in which Trevor enters the interiority of 10 characters, by my count: Torridge’s three middle-aged tormentors, each of their wives, three of their children, and even, very briefly, the waitress serving them. This cascade of multiple points of view is consistent with other stories written during the same period, like “Teresa’s Wedding.” But where that story uses a bushel of POVs to sketch a portrait of small-town despair, the roving narrative camera in “Torridge” exists mostly to capture the reactions to the bomb Torridge has set off. This is where that icky feeling of salaciousness comes in. While it is satisfying to see a complete shitheel like Arrowsmith exposed (something that rarely happens in Trevor’s fiction; usually the victims bear their lot in dignified silence), this exposure relies too heavily, in this reader’s opinion, on the spectacle of his dubious, and Torridge’s stated, sexuality.

“Spectacle” is not a word one often associates with Trevor, but that’s what makes this story so interesting. “Torridge,” especially in its final section, feels like the ungainly hybrid of a story and a play, down to its theatrical premise: a stranger with a secret comes to dinner. Trevor wrote several plays, for stage and for radio, and while I do not question his dramaturgical chops, I found myself drawn more to the deft, empathic summary of the first section, which feels more consistent with the very best of his stories.

And the story is still a technical masterwork. Take a look again at that first sentence and notice how it both begs the question the story will answer and slyly disguises it through its conversational construction. The broad uncertainty of that first sentence also quietly prepares us for the whirligig POV in the final section, following the writing class axiom that a story should start wide before it narrows. Note, too, how Trevor strategically withholds Torridge’s point of view, only letting us see him from a distance—at first a figure of fun and later the only person to emerge with their dignity intact.

Up next, “Death in Jerusalem.”

The William Trevor Reader: “Matilda’s England”

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while. Located roughly halfway through the Collected’s table of contents, “Matilda’s England” stands out as a three-parter, a triptych of stories narrated by a woman named, unsurprisingly, Matilda, describing her childhood on a farm during the Second World War, the loss of her brother and father in the war, and her unhappy marriage to a man named Mr. Gregary. These sub-stories are named, respectively, “The Tennis Court”,” “The Drawing House,” “and “The Summer Room.”

“The Tennis Court” introduces the character of old Mrs. Ashburton, the 81-year-old widow of the former estate owner that Matilda’s family lives on as tenant farmers of the former home garden. Mrs. Ashburton’s husband returned from World War I with shell shock and drank himself to death, letting the farm go to “rack and ruin,” a phrase Trevor echoes throughout the three pieces. Matilda and her siblings become friends with Mrs. Ashburton, Matilda especially, and they help the old woman renovate the tennis courts and throw a party there, the way she used to in the old, happy days.

The old happy days—and Matilda’s inability to recapture them—is the main thematic thrust of the remaining two stories. When her brother and father are killed in World War II, Matilda grows religious, then embittered, and by the third installment, in which she terrorizes the gentle, rich husband who has bought the property and married her into the manor, she has descended into cruelty and even madness. She is so haunted by the perfection of the past that she cannot live in the present, and by the end she has become a kind of reincarnated version of Mrs. Ashburton. 

I consider this piece (or these pieces, depending on how you look at it) to be a minor masterpiece. While this degree of strangleheld structural and thematic material might not be to everyone’s taste, the exquisite control must be admired. A small town of characters is drawn with the usual brisk efficiency, and an entire life is limned in the space of 50 pages. The precision with which Trevor parcels out Matilda’s story, from happy childhood, to culmination at the tennis party, to sustained tragedy and prayer, to the aftermath of a life, is impressive, as is the way he slowly reveals her unreliability and monstrousness by the end. The effect is like the sun moving behind a house, watching the yard become engulfed by shadow inch by inch. 

I would also consider this to be the first truly effective first-person piece in the Collected, although “Mr. McNamara” makes some good use of narrative unsteadiness as well. In my reading, Matilda is the first of these narrators to function as much more than a simple camera watching the other characters. She has a fully imagined depth of consciousness, and the effect is receiving the story through an emotional prism, as it should be. Trevor remains helplessly incapable of writing with any voice besides his own, but regardless, the story works well in first and could not work otherwise. A third-person rendering of this piece wold largely be about the breadth and sweep of the events that occur; in this first person, it is about how a particular childhood and its misperceptions have conspired to create Matilda and her warped narrative lens. 

Another thing I admire about this story is its length and structure. It is a 57-pager in the Collected and 96 pages in its 1995 paperback issue, probably around 18,000 words—at the lower end of what we consider a novella, and beyond what we typically consider a short story. Reading it, I wondered why writers don’t write more stories of this length. But I know the answer: because you cannot publish stories of this length. The upper bounds of publishable short-story length is 10k words, around 30 double-spaced pages in Word, and the lower bound for a novel is probably around 50,000 words. In between is that murky dreaded darkland known as the novella, or else “novels” by authors Jenny Offill that are formatted and fonted so as to be stretched to an acceptable page length. A small handful of narratives this length are published every year. 

I have heard various explanations for this, among them, having to do with publishers needing spine space on shelves. Whatever the market-related reasons for this phenomenon, it’s unfortunate. One to two hundred pages can be an ideal length for a story—take, for example, Muriel Spark’s perfect The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which clocks in around a brisk 140. Finishing “Matilda’s England,” I had the novelistic sense of having spent time with a life, but in a form that took me a single afternoon to read. I would like more of this experience. 

The William Trevor Reader: “Another Christmas”

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Something that occurs to me at times, reading Trevor’s stories, is the value of boredom in fiction. Trevor’s narrative style is often described—including by me in this column—as calm, stately, quiet. This sometimes feels euphemistic: his stories can be slow and boring, though never dull.

“Another Christmas” is, for about half its duration, a pretty slow ride. Middle-aged Irish couple Norah and Dermot—unusually, their last name is elided—sit around one December evening in their London home, waiting for three of their children to return from the movies, while discussing the eminent return of the eldest two for the Christmas holidays. They ominously refer to their landlord, Mr. Joyce, though we have to wait until later to get the story about him. Norah and Dermot are kind and solicitous to each other in the courtly and slightly senescent style that marks the rapport of well-married people in Trevor’s fiction (the other style is hatefulness, and there’s no in-between). Norah and Dermot are pretty boring people with boring jobs. He, a tee-totalling meter-reader; she, a homemaker. The first three or four pages of this story are almost aggressively uneventful, as the reader struggles to remember the names of all the children and their spouses, and why we are supposed to care.

This is, of course, tactical. It transpires that beneath the thin veneer of companionable matrimony lurks deep anger, on the part of the wife. Earlier in the year, Mr. Joyce, who for years visited once a week to watch the news with the couple, and always came for Christmas dinner, had condemned the most recent IRA bombings. Dermot agreed that it was horrible, but gently added that it doesn’t do to forget the treatment of the Northern Irish over the years. Mr. Joyce took quiet exception, and they have not heard from him since. Norah grows increasingly furious at her husband’s quiet, placid insistence that Mr. Joyce will show up for dinner, and the story ends on an almost hysterical note, as she imagines the sorrow of the Christmas to come: “Whenever she looked at him she would remember the Christmases of the past. She would feel ashamed of him, and of herself.” The IRA, she thinks, would be happy if they had knowledge of this victory they had scored, not via the destruction of a building or bus, but the destruction of a bond between Irish and English, Catholic and Protestant.

I found the political content in this to be poignant and measured. Dermot is not wrong in his position. To solely condemn the IRA bombings is to turn a blind eye to England’s occupation of Northern Ireland and its own atrocities. And it is certainly possible to read Norah’s position—her fear of being feared, her understanding of English enmity against the Irish—as a kind of cowed immigrant defensiveness. Nonetheless, her anger at Dermot for not putting their friendship with Mr. Joyce first feels human and true, not to mention relevant in our country, where annual opinion pieces about family Thanksgivings divided by the dreaded MAGA Uncle have become their own kind of tradition.

To return to the question of boredom in fiction, as I was reading “Another Christmas,” I found myself mildly bored and also admiring the degree to which Trevor takes his time with these unprepossessing characters. It occurred to me the extent to which modern fiction—even very well-regarded literary short fiction—is at pains to hook a reader, almost to stump for its own existence. The most dreaded note a writer can receive in any workshop is “I don’t understand why this was written/why I’m reading this.” Very few authors are granted the editorial or readerly latitude/clemency to be boring and uneventful for any significant stretch of narrative space, even if the thing being written about is ultimately the exact opposite. The Troubles and marital disillusionment are, of course, far from boring—they are horribly interesting, in fact.

Fiction’s charge, on a certain level, is to be interesting, to keep the reader reading. And yet when the dial of interest—of event and character and situation, yes, but also of pure prose intensity—begins at 11, there isn’t much further to take it. What I’m talking about here is a kind of sensitivity to dynamics. Trevor, and a few lucky geniuses like him, Alice Munro among them, enjoyed the sponsorship of literary institutions to a degree that he could afford to begin quietly, almost inaudible, to make an attentive reader cock their ear and wait for his gorgeous, discordant music to swell.

The William Trevor Reader: “Broken Homes”

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“Broken Homes” is another entry in the “old person befuddled by increasingly chaotic events” genre, a la “The Penthouse Apartment” and “The Hotel of the Idle Moon.” Mrs. Malby, 87, lives alone over the grocery store previously owned by her husband, who died five years ago. Her two sons died in World War II, and it is Mrs. Malby’s modest goal to live out the rest of her years in the apartment with her two budgies—more expressly, to avoid being labelled as senile and moved into an old-person’s home. 

We begin the story with Mrs. Malby enduring a visitation from an unnamed teacher from Tite Comprehensive School, a man who runs a program for students from “broken homes,” a phrase he repeats many times over the course of the story. He insists on the students coming by to paint Mrs. Malby’s flat, a service she rejects but is nonetheless subjected to. As one might expect, the painting goes badly: the students are rude, paint the kitchen despite the old woman’s objections and paint it badly, have sex in her bedroom and release the frantic budgies. Mrs. Malby escapes to the greengrocer’s below, run by a Jewish couple, the Kings (Trevor, like, Iris Murdoch, seems incapable of introducing Jewish characters, however sympathetic they are, and the Kings are sympathetic, without making a bit of a fuss about their Judaism). The Kings sort the problem out for Mrs. Malby as best they can, but her kitchen is still all wrong, a price she must accept to avoid a fuss that might land her in the dreaded Sunset Home in Richmond.

I have little more to say than I already have about Trevor’s focus on elderly characters and the problem of dementia. I don’t find “Broken Homes” especially remarkable in Trevor’s canon—it starts strong enough, but the situation is a bit overfamiliar and it doesn’t really go anywhere. The nameless teacher reiterates the need for people to help kids like the ones who destroyed her kitchen, “victims of broken homes.” Presumably this is meant to resonate with what we’ve learned about Mrs. Malby’s sons, but it isn’t clear how. Her home, of course, was broken decades ago by the war; the juvenile delinquents who destroyed her kitchen, are from homes broken by divorce. What the latter is meant to say about the former is impossible to tell, beyond the value judgment that some people have it worse than other people. In fact, the story’s point is most legible as a kind of anti-poor conservative screed, i.e. “Look at this bleeding-heart worried about hooligans from broken homes, when the real broken home is occupied by a woman whose sons gave the country their all, etc.” But I have no idea or real belief this was the intention.

Lacking much I want to focus on thematically or story-wise, I’d like to focus on the writing itself. “Broken Homes” starts strong, with an introduction of the teacher, and by extension an introduction of Mrs. Malby, focalized closely from her perspective: “‘I really think you’re marvellous,’ the man said.” I am not often a fan of beginning a story with dialogue, but I like it here, the way it immediately puts us so closely, helplessly in Mrs. Malby’s POV, while conveying the airless sense she has of being at this nameless man’s mercy:

He was small and plum, with a plump face that had a greyness about it where he shaved; his hair was grey also, falling into a fringe on his forehead. He was untidily dressed, a turtlenecked red jersey sticking out of the breast pocket. When he stood up his black corduroy trousers developed concertina creases. Nowadays you saw a lot of men like this, Mrs. Malby said to herself.

This paragraph continues what the first line of dialogue started, withholding the identity of the ostensibly marvelous “you” in question until the end of the last sentence. We are forced to continue looking at this sloppy, unpleasant man from an unknown POV, and we know the contours of Mrs. Malby’s judgment before we know her name. (As a side-note, I find that “concertina” both funny and effective descriptively, evoking as it does a clownish accordion, but also somewhat jarring in retrospect—Mrs. Malby is not someone who would probably draw this comparison, and it’s a rare example of Trevor showing off.)

“We’re trying to help them,” he said, “and of course we’re trying to help you. The policy is to foster a deeper understanding.” He smiled, displaying small, evenly arranged teeth. “Between the generations,” he added.”Well, of course it’s very kind,” Mrs. Malby said.He shook his head. He sipped the instant coffee she’d made for him and nibbled the edge of a pink wafer biscuit. As if driven by a compulsion, he dipped the biscuit into the coffee. He said:”What age actually are you, Mrs. Malby?””I’m eighty-seven.””You really are splendid for eighty-seven.”

This dialogue is relatively standard and unremarkable, but I would note two things. First, the strange description of the teacher’s dipping of the biscuit in coffee as “driven by compulsion” prefigures the teacher’s seemingly compulsive effort to get Mrs. Malby’s house painted by his troubled students. Second, the placement of that “actually.” This is a small thing that, to my ear, somehow captures the falseness of the man. A person would normally say, “What age are you, actually?” or simply “What age are you?” The stilted positioning of that “actually” conveys the stilted nature of the teacher’s visit—he knows she doesn’t really need or want the service he is foisting on her.

He went on talking. He said he hoped he’d be as good himself at eighty-seven. He hoped he’d even be in the land of the living. “Which I doubt,” he said with a laugh. “Knowing me.”Mrs. Malby didn’t know what he meant by that. She was sure she’d heard him quite correctly, but she could recall nothing he’d previously stated which indicated ill-health. She thought carefully while he continued to sip at his coffee and attend to the mush of biscuit. What he had said suggested that a knowledge of him would cause to you to doubt that he’d live to old age. Had he already supplied further knowledge of himself which, due to her slight deafness, she had not heard? If he hadn’t, why had he left everything hanging in the air like that? It was difficult to know how best to react, whether to smile or to display concern.

This paragraph manages, in pretty funny fashion—and I do believe Trevor’s wry humor is generally underestimated—to convey both Mrs. Malby’s doubt regarding her faculties and her distaste for the teacher and his inane conversational gambits. Perhaps the underappreciated comedy of Trevor will provide the content for a future entry…

The above page is not a tour-de-force, by any stretch. It is, in fact, pretty unexceptional, and for that reason, I think, worth pausing on. This is the grade-B journeyman stuff of the Trevor canon, the workaday perspective moves and dialogue adornments and character apperceptions that constitute the ordinary—which is to say extraordinary—fabric of his storytelling. 

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!”