Explosions of Conscience

Lovers of Their Time and Other Stories

by William Trevor
Viking, 279 pp., $10.95

The excellent short story depends so much on alerting immediate doubts and acute expectations; we are alerted by a distinctive style and self; yet there are one or two writers who cunningly insinuate an abeyance of the self, a quiet in the inquiry that, for the moment, calms the nerves. To this class William Trevor belongs. He is one of the finest short story writers at present writing in the Anglo-Irish modes. His people are those who, in the course of their lives, are so humdrum in their ordinariness, so removed from the power of expressing themselves that he has to efface himself in order to speak for them. They appear to be confused by experience and in moral judgment, but they live by an obscure dignity and pride which they are either too shy or too unskilled to reveal at once: his art is to show they have their part in an exceptional destiny and even in a history beyond the private. Impartially he will justify them.

In one of his Irish stories, a bustling tippling priest speaks half pityingly, half in exasperation, of his brother, the timid manager of a provincial hardware store: the man is fatally married to the memory of his domineering mother—a banal and common Irish dilemma—yet the timid, inarticulate man is in the midst of a momentous, devastating religious crisis. The two brothers have made the ritual visit to Jerusalem and the timid one experiences a violent shock not only to his faith but to his understanding and conscience. For him the early Christian legend and especially the sight of the Stations of the Cross in the Via Dolorosa are unimaginable, meaningless outside the Irish Christianity of Co. Tipperary. He has become a victim of the indignity of History.

The mother of the two men dies while the brothers are away. The timid one will not recover his faith unless he gets back home at once to the proprieties of his mother’s funeral. A petty, pathetic dilemma? No, for him an earthquake. And there is more to it than that: for it was he, he now knows, who was by nature a priest; it was the bustling priest, the organizer of Catholic pilgrimages, who has the devious habits of the shopkeeper. This is a story of frustration, and on such a level it may seem dim even in its pathos; but notice—the timid brother will become the master; his conscience is reborn. He forces his priestly brother to give up the tour and return: Galilee and Bethlehem are travesties.

In nearly all Trevor’s stories we are led on at first by plain unpretending words about things done to prosaic people; then comes this explosion of conscience, the assertion of will which in some cases may lead to hallucination and madness. In that disordered state the victim has his or her victory; these people are not oddities but figures crucified by the continuity of evil and cruelty in human history, particularly the violent history…

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