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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 of, say, the wars and cruelties of the last sixty years of this century. Theirs is a private moral revolt. The point is important, for Trevor has sometimes been thought of as the quiet recorder of “out of date” lives living tamely on memories of memories, as times change.

Tragically (comically too) he is aware of the seismic shock that history, even the ignorance of it, has prepared for the dumb or the successful. The obvious ironies are not laughed off; he goes deeper and more ruthlessly than that. The Irish in him—one would guess—faces the horrors, the English the plain dismays of having to accept circumstance by putting on the best face available. He moves easily in the idiom of the appalling children in “Broken Homes,” who, in the interest of Community Spirit, wreck the house of an eighty-seven-year-old woman and daub her kitchen with paint and fuck in her bedroom; or in the jocose mixture of “refined” and vulgar accents in the boozy office party; in the hearty, classy voices of middle-aged friends, remembering their schooldays—the time bomb here is the exposure of their homosexual goings on at school and of a hushed-up suicide—or in the dialect of the Carnaby Street Sixties and the Beatles; he notes the illiterate English of a young lesbian’s touching proposal:

Well Im a les and I thought you was as well. I’m sorry Sarah I didnt’ mean to ofend you I didnt’ no a thing about you.

The voices of 1914, 1940, 1970 define lives, a matter of importance to a writer whose people live through and among one another for years on end. (It is not common to find this diffusion in the short story, in which a writer is tempted to economize on everything except his drama). Trevor quietly settles into giving complete life histories, not for documentary reasons, but to show people changing and unaware of the shock they are preparing for themselves. When we begin on the novella in three parts, Matilda’s England, we sleepily enjoy the happiness of the farm children who are taken up by the grand Mrs. Ashburton at the Manor whose husband—how sad it is—let the place go after being shell-shocked in the First World War. She has kindly lured the kids into cutting the grass on her tennis court which has been overgrown and lets them play there.

So far an idyll. But now we are alerted when the children are grown up and another father and a brother are killed in the next war. The Manor house is empty. Matilda, the narrator, and a vulgar friend discover that lovers are using the summer house. History now strikes a third blow: Matilda’s own mother, widowed by the Second War, has a lover, a mean little draper from the town; she is defiling the summer house.

Now the childish pastoral is done for. Matilda becomes odd. Odder still when she marries—politely but without love—the fastidious young businessman who has too perfectly renovated the Manor, sacred to poor dead Mrs. Ashburton and her confidences about the horrors her husband went through in his war. Surely the transfiguration of the Manor will appease Matilda’s morbid imaginings? Not at all: human cruelty is continuous, Mrs. Ashburton had taught her: the cruelty of two wars has, so to say, moved into Matilda’s own heart. She wrecks her husband’s life, utters her hatred with all the clarity of the obsessed as she sits embroidering a peacock on a drawing room cushion, and he leaves her for good. She is Mrs. Ashburton reborn. Mad? No. Iced is the word. At the end of Matilda’s story, Matilda is older and alone. Her erring mother and stepfather are dead, her husband Ralphie will never return; but Matilda is able to say:

But if Ralphie walked in now I would take his hand and say I was sorry for the cruelty that possessed me and would not go away, the cruelty she used to talk about, a natural thing in wartime. It lingered and I’m sorry it did.

This will not avail her.

The most powerful story in this collection is “Attracta”; it is set in today’s Northern Ireland and after the usual quiet beginning, assaults us with the tale of two terrible political murders, the decapitating of an English officer and the rape and murder of his English wife who has joined the Women’s Peace Movement there. A newspaper report affects an elderly Protestant woman schoolteacher who, in her childhood, had gradually become aware that her own parents were killed “by mistake” in an ambush. She discovers one of the perpetrators is now a harmless old man. Quietly she stands in her schoolroom and insists on telling the children about the soldier’s murder and how the killers sent his head to his wife.

Can you see that girl?” [she asks.] “Can you imagine men putting a human head in a tin box and sending it through the post? Can you imagine her receiving it? The severed head of the man she loved?”

Sure, isn’t there stuff like that in the papers the whole time?” one of the children suggested.

The purpose of the teacher’s grim questioning is to awaken imagination and conscience, and teach that God doesn’t forever withhold His mercy. Those men who exacted a vengeance may one day for all we know keep bees, budgerigars, serve in shops, be kind to the blind and deaf, till their gardens in the evenings, and be good fathers. It is not impossible.

The sickened children are Protestants—they are stupefied by her attempt to stir a moral reflection. The outraged parents demand that the old teacher shall be retired. What is more remarkable even than the tale is that it conveys what is going on in the backs of the minds of all the people in the town, of whatever faction: of how all, except one or two bigots, are helplessly trying to evade or forget the evils that entangle them. As his master Chekhov did, William Trevor simply, patiently, truthfully allows life to present itself, without preaching; he is the master of the small movements of conscience that worry away at the human imagination and our passions.

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