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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The William Trevor Reader: “In at the Birth”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The William Trevor Reader: “The Penthouse Apartment”

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

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

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

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

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

The William Trevor Reader: “A School Story”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The William Trevor Reader: “The Table”


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

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

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

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

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

The William Trevor Reader: “Memories of Youghal”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The William Trevor Reader: “Access to the Children”

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

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

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

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


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

“I love—”

“I feel sorry for you.”

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

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

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

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

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