The World Seen and Half-Seen

Death in Summer (1998)

by William Trevor
Penguin, 214 pp., $12.95 (paper)

After Rain (1996)

by William Trevor
Penguin, 224 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Excursions in the Real World (1994)

by William Trevor
Penguin, 200 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Felicia's Journey (1994)

by William Trevor
Penguin, 212 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Collected Stories (1993)

by William Trevor
Penguin, 1,261 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Two Lives (1991)

by William Trevor
Penguin, 375 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Nights at the Alexandra (1987)

by William Trevor
Harper, 80 pp. (out of print)

Fools of Fortune (1983)

by William Trevor
Penguin, 238 pp., $11.95 (paper)
William Trevor
William Trevor; drawing by David Levine

William Trevor is an Irish writer by birth, and I take it he considers himself an Irish writer still, although he left Ireland in 1954 and has settled in Devon. He was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, on May 24, 1928 (but I have seen another birthday ascribed to him), to a family Protestant andmiddle-class. His father was a bank official with enough money to send his son to school at Sandford Park, Dublin, and later to St. Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, a school “with a reputation for aloofness, and skill on the hockey field.” At Trinity College, Dublin, he read history but not with particular zeal. He left with an undistinguished degree and eventually found a reliable job in an advertising agency in London. In Excursions in the Real World (1994) Trevor writes with equanimity of his early years:

I was born into a minority that all my life has seemed in danger of withering away. This was smalltime Protestant stock, far removed from the well-to-do Ascendancy of the recent past yet without much of a place in de Valera’s new Catholic Ireland. The insult and repression that for centuries had been the response to Irish aspirations, the murders perpetrated by the Black and Tans, the heartbreak of the Civil War, were all to be expunged in de Valera’s dream of a land “bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of old age.”

Trevor has never objected to de Valera’s dream of Ireland: he approves of it, apparently, and regrets only that it could not be fulfilled. He seems to have had no objection to de Valera’s determination to keep Ireland out of World War II. These sentiments may help to explain why his fiction exhibits none of the ressentiment of a diminished Anglo-Irish gentry or the lurid fantasy of Catholic power resorted to by other Protestant writers of similar background, such as Charles Maturin, Bram Stoker, and Sheridan LeFanu. The rise of Catholics to high place in Ireland does not seem to arouse in Trevor any special bitterness: he assumes that it was historically inevitable and therefore appropriate. He has seen the Protestant landed class in Ireland lapsing into a social existence mostly picturesque and decorative, but he has accepted this change with good grace and as patiently as other changes.

In the novel Fools of Fortune (1983) Trevor presents with appropriate dismay the burning of the fictitious Kilneagh House, described as a great house near Fermoy, County Cork, but he does not rail at the men who have burned it, a squad of Black and Tans led by Sergeant Rudkin. A few of his stories, including “The Hotel of the Idle Moon,” “The Distant Past,” and “Mr. McNamara,” can be read as allegories of the rise of Catholic Ireland and the fall of the Ascendancy, but no venom sours the narrative. Trevor has referred to “the melancholy nothingness that is the twentieth century’s ugliest trade mark,” but he has in mind mainly “the fashion in insurance-company architecture” in Dublin. You don’t need to be of the withering Anglo-Irish Protestant class to hold that opinion.

 

The Hill Bachelors is a collection of twelve stories, seven of them set in Ireland or among Irish emigrants in England, four of them set among the English in England, and one in France. The best of them is the title story, a story set in rural, remote Ireland, about a family and particularly about the constraints on a son who, out of a conviction of duty, stays on to look after his mother and gives up his chance of breaking away. The pervading genre of the stories is realism. Trevor has studied the art of Dickens, Flaubert, Turgenev, Joyce, and other masters of realism. His nearest companions in modern Irish fiction are Sean O’Faolain in urban stories and, in stories of Irish rural life, Mary Lavin and Frank O’Connor. Like these writers, Trevor seems to come to his stories by imagining a person or two or three people entangled in family or professional ties. The claims of plot and environment come later. His stories practice a distinction between “the real” and “the romantic” like the one proposed by Henry James in the preface to The American:

The real represents to my perception the things we cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way or another…. The romantic stands, on the other hand, for the things that, with all the facilities in the world, all the wealth and all the courage and all the wit and all the adventure, we never can directly know; the things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire.

With few exceptions in his fiction, Trevor goes in for the real. He sees or imagines a character, and asks himself what he—or more often she—would do with the problem-filled gift of life and the conditions at hand. As in “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” from the collection After Rain (1996): suppose you were a blind piano tuner and you married Violet and some years later she died and after a decent interval you married Belle, a woman you had rejected in favor of Violet. How would you deal with Belle’s conviction that the dead Violet was still deep in your life, leading you through houses and landscapes? How would Belle herself deal with that conviction? Pettie in Death in Summer (1998), Joseph Ambrose Hilditch in Felicia’s Journey (1994), and Frau Messinger in Nights at the Alexandra (1987) seem to have begun as figures in Trevor’s mind, waiting for whatever destiny he would give them, subject to the privilege of the real, or verisimilitude.

Of these realist short stories, “Her Mother’s Daughter” is particularly strong. It is a story of a dreadful mother, living only to bring to publication the papers of her dead husband, a lexicographer, as well as to punish her daughter Helena for the crime, it appears, of being alive. It is, in the end, a revenge play, and the daughter alone survives to tell the tale. Trevor has imagined the domestic scene so fully that every gesture gratifies our sense of the real:

Before [her father’s] death conversations at mealtimes usually had to do with words. “Fluxion?” she remembered her father saying, and when she shrugged her mother tightened her lips, her glance lingering on the shrug long after its motion had ceased.

We cannot possibly not know those lips and that long glance. Trevor’s irony in this story is masterfully precise, especially when he enters Helena’s mind and gives her, for the time being, the last word:

When she closed her eyes after lights-out Helena saw her mother in the dark study, listing words and derivations, finding new words or words no longer used, all in loving memory.

Helena, who now works in the kitchens of a business firm, learns of her mother’s death by a telephone call from the genially daft next-door-neighbor Mrs. Archingford. The account of the funeral is telling and persuasively low-key:

It was Mrs. Archingford who had noticed the curtains not drawn back in the sitting-room of her mother’s house, who had worried and had finally spoken to a policeman on the beat. Starvation was given as the cause of death on the death certificate: still struggling with the work in the study, Helena’s mother had not bothered to eat. Not having visited her for more than three years, Helena had tried not to think about her while that time passed.

“You’ll forgive me, dear, if I fail to attend the funeral,” Mrs. Archingford requested. “She didn’t care for the look of me and no bones about it. Would be a trifle hypocritical, should we say?”

Helena was the only person who did attend the funeral. While a clergyman who had never known her mother spoke his conventional farewell she kept thinking of the busy kitchens of Veitch and Company—all that mound of food, while her mother had absentmindedly starved.

In The Hill Bachelors Trevor is again preoccupied with character rather than with plot or incident. Nothing much happens in these stories, in any external sense. Start, in “A Friend in the Trade,” with Clione and James, a happy marriage. He deals in first editions and manuscripts, and together they run Asterisk Press, “publishing the verse of poets who are in fashion, novellas, short stories, from time to time a dozen or so pages of reminiscence by a writer whose standing guarantees the interest of collectors.” Add a third party, a friend who deals in “nineteenth-century jottings,” scraps of letters, abortive chapters of a novel by Dickens. Of course the third party is in love with Clione, but he has no designs on the marriage. He wants only to be in her vicinity.

Trevor is more interested in these people as individuals while he contemplates them than in any catastrophe that may befall them. There is no catastrophe: no vendetta, no murder, no suicide. Trevor is not in a hurry to see the lives of his people disturbed. Meanwhile he lavishes intelligence on the presentation of the third party, Michingthorpe:

But nothing that is outside himself, or part of other people, ever influences Michingthorpe. His surface runs deep, for greater knowledge of him offers nothing more than what initially it presents. Roaming the Internet is his hobby, he sometimes says.

Readers of Trevor’s fiction have remarked that he has mellowed in recent years. He seems willing to think that any crime or offense can be forgiven, provided there is some residue of love among the people involved. Sometimes he is content to look at someone and imagine what form her life will take before some necessity settles down on her. But I don’t think he has disavowed the acerbity of his earlier stories. In Excursions in the Real World he describes going to a party given by the well-known Irish historian T.W. Moody and his wife at their home in Rathgar. A dispiriting occasion, apparently. The only praise Trevor can bring himself to utter is that “Dr. Moody and his wife meant well, and harmed no one.” But in a story, “The Time of Year,” Trevor reverts to the same party, and uses the occasion to excoriate Moody (Professor Skully as he is called, but the man is unmistakable) and his wife, “as if they lived together in the dead wood of a relationship, together in this house because it was convenient.” There is more detail in that vein:

Valerie continued to regard Mrs. Skully’s face and suddenly she found herself shivering. How could that mouth open and close, issuing invitations without knowing they were the subject of derision? How could this woman, in her late middle age, officiate at student parties in magenta and jade, or bake inedible cakes without knowing it? How could she daily permit herself to be taken for granted by a man who cared only for students with academic success behind them? How could she have married his pomposity in the first place? There was something wrong with Mrs. Skully, there was something missing, as if some part of her had never come to life.

The Skullys “would go on aging and he might never turn to his wife and say he was sorry.” Sorry for what? I barely knew Moody, I met him in Dublin two or three times, not often enough to form an opinion. A friend of mine who knew him better than I did tells me that he was pompous and boring, a man of managerial rather than creative talent. But I find Trevor’s raw cruelty in this story disturbing.

In Trevor’s version of realism, we understand life mainly through the continuity of appearances and resemblances. For the most part, we are to believe that whatever happens could plausibly have happened. Repetition is believing, and Trevor takes pains to make us believe his stories. It is not enough that we suspend our disbelief while the story lasts. He is not a historical novelist, but he gains credence for his stories by projecting them among historical events. “Of the Cloth,” a story in The Hill Bachelors, has the Protestant minister Rev. Grattan Fitzmaurice sharing his love of Ireland with the Catholic priest Father Leahy:

For Grattan there was history’s tale, regrets and sorrows and distress, the voices of unconquered men, the spirit of women as proud as empresses. For Grattan there were the rivers he knew, the mountains he had never climbed, wild fuchsia by a seashore and the swallows that came back, turf smoke on the air of little towns, the quiet in long glens. The sound, the look, the shape of Ireland, and Ireland’s rain and Ireland’s sunshine, and Ireland’s living and Ireland’s dead: all that.

But this remarkably high style of sentiment is provoked by dismal circumstances: empty pews in Grattan’s local churches, and a Catholic church in Ireland shamed by scandal. When Father Leahy visits Grattan, a copy of The Irish Times on the table shows “the grinning countenance of Father Brendan Smyth being taken into custody by a grim-faced detective: Paedophile Priest is Extradited, the headline ran.”

Trevor sets other stories in a context that everybody is expected to know: films, advertising, brand names, popular songs. In “A Friend in the Trade,”

They fell in love when A Whiter Shade of Pale played all summer. They married when Tony Orlando sang Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree. These tunes are faded memories now, hardly there at all, and they’ve forgotten Procol Harum and Suzi Quatro and Brotherhood of Man, having long ago turned to Brahms.

In “Lovers of Their Time” Norman Britt has “a David Niven moustache” and Hilda listens to “the Jimmy Young programme.” These are economical devices to imply types, times, and social classes, but they show up the limitations of realism just as clearly as its values.

For example, if you ask readers to believe a story, you do well not to strain their credence. The narrator of “The Raising of Elvira Tremblett” says:

My father was bulky in his grey overalls, always with marks of grease or dirt on him, his fingernails rimmed with black, like fingers in mourning, I used to think. … Above the mantelpiece Christ on his cross had already given up the ghost.

Interesting perceptions, but nothing in the story persuades me that the narrator is capable of them. He was never “mentally deficient” as his parents feared he was. Living for the past thirty-four years in an insane asylum, he has been able to report the events of the day; but the brilliance of the image “fingers in mourning” is beyond his range. Trevor is doing his thinking for him.

Realism has several other problems. The camera in films and TV can do some realistic work better than narrative sentences can. I recall visual images and landscapes from Pat O’Connor’s film The Ballroom of Romance more vividly than the descriptions and dialogue in Trevor’s story, on which the film is based. Realism also fosters the assumption that the actual and the real are one and the same. They are not. A fact becomes real only when it comes into a culturally significant relation. The tree near the wall at the end of Joyce’s “The Dead” becomes real because it shows us the place where Gretta saw her lover Michael Furey getting his death in the rain. Like other realists, Trevor withholds himself in deference to the truth of the situation, but the conventions of realism urge him to proceed as if the truth were by definition social, worldly, and secular. Trevor’s best fiction arises when he decides to question this notion and to give some expression to the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire. Like the heroine of Trevor’s story “Reading Turgenev,” who fantasizes about the life she might have had with her lost lover, we are given a way out, even if it is a desperate subterfuge. Reality is more than the price of tomatoes, as García Márquez has remarked.

But the most limiting disability of realism is that it lacks what W.B. Yeats called, somewhat mysteriously, “emotion of multitude.” Yeats wondered why he found modern realistic plays unsatisfactory and he decided that it was because they lacked this emotion, the feeling that there are reverberations or symbolic meanings beyond the account of an immediate incident. Greek tragedy got it from the chorus, “which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes, to witness, as it were, some well-ordered fable, some action separated but for this from all but itself.” Shakespearean tragedy got it from the double plot, where a subplot copies the main plot

much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world.

Yeats conceded that certain modern dramatists got the emotion of multitude by other means:

Ibsen and Maeterlinck have… created a new form, for they get multitude from the wild duck in the attic, or from the crown at the bottom of the fountain, vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion.

There cannot be great art, Yeats claimed, “without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the bet-ter the simpler it is, and the rich, far-wandering, many-imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it.”

Most of Trevor’s stories are content with the little limited life of the fable, closed in upon itself. They are stories of domestic malice, sadness and distress, differences between husband and wife, the ending of a relation, dissatisfactions in an ostensibly placid setting, the tragicomedy of social life. Trevor is among the most skillful writers in maintaining the life of the fable. When he feels that the conflicts incurred in the story can be resolved, he lets the disputants resolve them without undue fuss. But often they can’t be resolved and then, like Ibsen and Maeterlinck according to Yeats, Trevor looks to a half-seen world beyond them. He brings forward another perspective, as Joyce does systematically in the Homeric emphasis of Ulysses and more nonchalantly in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the second chapter of the Portrait Joyce allows Stephen Dedalus to gain some relief from his feelings by finding them in Edmond Dantès, the “dark avenger” of The Count of Monte Cristo. When he passes a small whitewashed cottage outside Blackrock, Stephen imagines that a girl lives there, “another Mercedes,” and that he rejects her “with a sadly proud gesture of refusal, saying: ‘Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes.'”

Trevor is rarely as dashing as that, but he sometimes develops a story by opening it upon a half-seen world beyond the local one. His largest effort in this direction is “Reading Turgenev,” from his 1991 collection Two Lives. Mary Louise marries the local draper Elmer Quarry for security, not love. Gradually she realizes that she is in love with her cousin Robert, an invalid, and that he loves her. Robert reads to her from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. When he dies, Mary Louise maintains their love by identifying herself with Yelena Nikolayevna in On the Eve and by projecting her life with Robert as a Russian idyll:

On the day after Elmer first invited her to the Electric Cinema Robert arrived at the farmhouse. “No,” she said when Elmer asked her to accompany him again, and went instead in search of the heron with her cousin. When they married they travelled in Italy and France. They sat outside a café by the sea, watching the people strolling by, Robert in a pale suit and a hat that matched it. He leaned across the table to kiss her, as he had the first time in the graveyard. Light as a butterfly, his kisses danced up and down her arm, from the tips of her fingers to her shoulders. The café orchestra began. They drank white wine.

The story ends: “For thirty-one years she passed as mad and was at peace.”

In the title story of After Rain Trevor gains “emotion of multitude” by another device. Harriet, at the end of an affair, goes on vacation to the Pensione Cesarina, a small hotel near Ponte Nicolo that she used to go to with her parents, who are now separated. One afternoon she wanders into the local church of Santa Fabiola and sees an Annunciation by an unknown artist, “perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi”:

The angel kneels, grey wings protruding, his lily half hidden by a pillar. The floor is marble, white and green and ochre. The Virgin looks alarmed, right hand arresting her visitor’s advance. Beyond—background to the encounter—there are gracious arches, a balustrade and then the sky and hills. There is a soundlessness about the picture, the silence of a mystery: no words are spoken in this captured moment, what’s said between the two has been said already.

Harriet leaves the church and walks back to the pensione. It has been raining. She is thinking about the painting:

While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.

The story ends with an act of divination:

She hears the swish of the cleaner’s mop in the church of Santa Fabiola, she hears the tourists’ whisper. The fingers of the praying woman flutter on her beads, the candles flare. The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death. Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also.

Here the “emotion of multitude” is achieved within a larger perspective, beyond Harriet’s common understanding. It is a perspective that the Annunciation helps her to achieve. What it entails is an intuition on her part of mythic and natural forces at large. The Annunciation and rain are recognized as suffusing personal life without humiliating it. Harriet’s sorrow is not removed, but it is given distance, it has become part of a more comprehensive sense of life. The episode is a minor instance of a motif to be found in Little Dorrit, Middlemarch, and The Portrait of a Lady. In each of these the heroine takes her sadness with her as she wanders among the ruins of ancient Rome. James writes of Isabel Archer:

She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places.

In Dickens, George Eliot, and James, the larger perspective is gained by an extended sense of history and culture. Trevor sometimes gains it by appealing to certain Italian Renaissance paintings, but just as often by pastoral recognitions, intimations of continuity and recurrence in the natural world, the rhythms of winter and spring. In Trevor’s “My House in Umbria” Emily Delahunty muses to herself at the end:

Perhaps I’ll become old, perhaps not. Perhaps something else will happen in my life, but I doubt it. When the season’s over I walk among the shrubs myself making the most of the colours while they last and the fountain while it flows.

There is no reason to think that the colors will not recur or that the fountain will run dry.

The title story of The Hill Bachelors keeps these intimations alive, though the pastoral allegory is grim. The little limited life of the fable could not be simpler. After the death of his father, Paulie has to stay at home to take care of his mother. Home is a small farm among remote hills in Ireland. No girl of the present generation would even consider marrying into such loneliness, as Paulie finds when he talks of marriage to Patsy Finucane. After a while his mother offers to go and live with her married daughter Mena, but Paulie won’t hear of it. “You’re good, Paulie,” his mother says.

Guilt was misplaced, goodness hardly came into it. Her widowing and the mood of a capricious time were not of consequence, no more than a flicker in a scheme of things that had always been there. Enduring, unchanging, the hills had waited for him, claiming one of their own.

These are not offered as Paulie’s thoughts; he would not be able to understand them or to articulate them. It is Trevor, not Paulie, who comprehends this possessive relation between nature and man, between the hills and Paulie. We feel the “emotion of multitude,” as we do subterranean forces come from afar. Paulie does not express anything about these forces, but we sense from what Trevor says about him that he is led by them. He feels the necessity under which he lives. Perhaps on some primitive level of apprehension he realizes it and accepts its claim upon him.