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Thin Ice

Other People’s Worlds

by William Trevor
The Viking Press, 243 pp., $10.95

The State of Ireland: Seventeen Stories and a Novella

by Benedict Kiely
David R. Godine, 389 pp., $14.95

Since The Old Boys appeared in 1964, William Trevor has written seven novels and four collections of short stories. His first novel displayed a kind of mannered sedateness reminiscent of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s; since then, his natural precision and astringency have been tempered by a strain of informality, which often appears in the garrulous speech of underlings, home helpers, shopgirls, and the like. This is not without its dangers. In catching the authentic tones of the drab and vacuous, he has sometimes produced a drab and vacuous effect. At his weakest, in the novel Elizabeth Alone (1973), for example, he assembles a cast of dull people in dismal predicaments and imposes no firm outline on the events of their lives.

It may be, indeed, that the short story, with its compression, its concentration on a single mood or incident, and its necessary simplification of character, is the perfect medium for his special gifts. One early story, the excellent “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch,” sets out in the clearest way the elements of Trevor’s later plots, including the moment of climax when the complacent individual is exposed to the worst horrors of social embarrassment and emotional shock. In this case the theme is treated comically, because Raymond Bamber, a bore with a nanny complex that he inflicts on Mrs. Fitch, is a figure suited to the comic mode; but Trevor has since used a variety of tones to make a basic point about the precariousness of the illusions which sustain most people’s lives. The crucial character in his novels and stories is the person who blurts out a piece of distressing information.

William Trevor’s destructive truth-tellers are always self-absorbed, in the grip of an obsession, drunk, demented, or just trying out a bit of blackmail, like Timothy Gedge, the terrible child in The Children of Dynmouth (1976), who lacks the brightness, the verve and precosity of an enfant terrible. They are often in a distraught condition resulting from the discovery of an emotional wrong that has been done to them. Sometimes they become confused and deluded; but their slanderous assertions are never entirely without foundation.

In the new novel, Other People’s Worlds, it is Doris Smith, a saleslady employed in the shoe department of a general store in a run-down part of London, who imposes herself, her vagaries, all the miserable, unedifying details of her sorry life, on those whom her confidences can only dismay. She is not to blame. The downfall of Doris, her drunkenness and eventual lunacy, occur as a consequence of her fateful association with Francis Tyte, a bit-part actor, scrounger, opportunist, and inventor of pleasing life-histories for himself. As well as Doris, a couple of elderly sisters by the name of Massmith, a doctor’s wife, the rich Kilvert-Dunnes, a sixty-year-old Jewish dressmaker, and, most importantly, an officer’s widow named Julia Ferndale have suffered from Francis’s calculating attentions. Men were deceivers ever, and never more dangerous than when they are also self-deceivers. Francis believes that retribution is owed to him.

When the novel opens, Julia Ferndale is living, in Gloucestershire, the kind of insulated life imagined by Louis Mac-Neice in the “Autumn Journal” he wrote in 1938: “Macrocarpa and cyprus/ And roses on a rustic trellis and mulberry trees/ And bacon and eggs in a silver dish for breakfast….” Decorous, convent-educated Julia, at forty-seven, is engaged to be married to the much younger Francis Tyte, whom she and her mother have met in a Cheltenham hotel. It is an odd alliance that fills everyone, Julia’s daughters, friends, and acquaintances, with the oddest delight. Only her mother, old Mrs. Anstey, recollecting Julia’s tendency to minister to the maladjusted, experiences a qualm of misgiving. She remembers that it is Francis’s business to act a part. Might he not, in fact, be difficult or delinquent like others whom Julia has befriended in the past? And indeed Julia, charitably taking Francis into her life, finds that it is she who has been taken in. He has married her for five pieces of jewelry—a dragon brooch, a seed pearl necklace, and three small sapphires. It is nothing to Francis that the marriage, an act of bigamy, is invalid. “A farce,” Julia calls it. She has been betrayed without even the consoling drama of a previous seduction. Treachery, not lechery, forms the plan of Francis’s existence.

Francis, the bogus husband, bogus lover, is a disruptive force in other people’s lives. His ways are devious to the point of madness. He means no harm to his victims, and feels aggrieved when they turn on him. Did he not, to please Julia, manufacture a whole new religious background for himself? Since she wanted him to be a Catholic, a Catholic he would be. But it was not enough. Only Doris Smith, the saleswoman of shoes, goes on clinging to an obtuse belief in the good faith of Francis. Nothing, Doris imagines, stands between her and happiness but Francis’s wife, a bad-tempered old dressmaker in Folkestone who would be better off dead. Doris is the mother of Francis’s illegitimate child, miscalled, misbegotten Joy.

Joy, conceived on a whim of Francis’s, is illiterate at twelve, addicted to junk food, and knowledgeable about the sexual goings-on in the school toilets. Doris’s inane constancy has kept Joy without a substitute father. When she learns, through reading a newspaper report, of Francis’s attempted marriage to Julia, Doris falls into a state of hectic bewilderment aggravated by drink. Julia and her mother, at the Swan House in Gloucestershire, receive a series of pestering telephone calls and then a visit from distraught Doris accompanied by Joy. “I wouldn’t bother you only there’s ends left dangling, Julia,” Doris wails.

These are the worlds that converge so inauspiciously: mellow, equitable, suburban Gloucestershire; a seedy London flat filled with gimcrack accouterments; the factitious surroundings of Francis, who thrives on make-believe. Each of the three main characters is propelled, in Trevor’s relentless narrative, toward a form of ultimate degradation. Julia, prepared for an Italian honeymoon, is abandoned to misery and mortification in the streets of Pisa. Doris, in pursuit of alcohol in the middle of the night, descends to a piece of waste ground beneath an archway where London’s down-and-outs are assembled. Her companions are a couple of tramps. “All around them, like bundles of rags, a mass of people huddled on the ground. A cracked, old woman’s voice sang dismally in the shadows.” Francis’s penance is to act out a series of sordid homosexual escapades in Soho. A fourth world, a measure for the others, is centered on Constance Kent, the sixteen-year-old girl convicted of murdering her infant half-brother in 1861, and the subject of a television drama in which Francis plays an insignificant part. (It seems worth recording that another famous murder case, that of George Joseph Smith and the Brides in the Bath, was featured as a motif in Trevor’s last novel, The Children of Dynmouth.)

Actually, it is not only in the allusions to Constance Kent that the novel points back to the 1860s. In that decade of the last century, the genre known as sensation fiction was at its height, with murder, bigamy, duplicity, infidelity, and illegitimacy among its commonest ingredients. These are heady and distorting properties which easily procure an effect of immoderation; and when they all get into a single present-day novel (which happens with Other People’s Worlds), it’s difficult not to be reminded of works like Wilkie Collins’s No Name and M.E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. In fact, William Trevor simply removes their traditional lurid coloring and the overwrought responses they generate and places them without difficulty in his own plain narratives.

He has been criticized for drawing his characters (particularly his lower-class characters) from a rather threadbare stock and allowing them no more than the slightest, most insignificant divergences from type. It is not that they lack verisimilitude, the complaint goes, simply that the characteristics noted by the author are fairly superficial, and for this reason only superficially fair. There is something in this, but it doesn’t seriously weaken those novels and stories whose purpose is not to analyze character, but rather to communicate a sense of moral unease in the most entertaining way. A bleak vision allied to a comic manner is what gives Trevor’s writing its distinctive edge.

Other People’s Worlds, in fact, is a long way in spirit from the hilarious trouble-making of an early work like The Boarding-House (1965); its humor is on a more baleful plane. Indeed, the comic manner is actually inappropriate at one point, when it produces a single detail that jars on the reader: a murder carried out with a teapot. But Trevor deserves credit, as always, for narrative assurance and deftness of touch. We can only admire an author who is bold enough, or playful enough, to indicate so clearly his awareness of the etymological link between fiction and feign: “As a schoolboy, Francis’s greatest pleasure had been to sit alone through an afternoon in the cinema, watching the stories of other people who did not exist….” (The significant word here is of course “other.”)

William Trevor, born in Cork and educated in Dublin, is an Anglo-Irish writer whose clean, dispassionate style has served well to record the sins and passions which bedevil Irish life. (A number of his recent stories are concerned with reverberations set off by the Northern troubles in the small towns of the south.) But what of the native, settled, learned, tradition-conscious Irish, for whom a fastidious detachment, charged with irony, is not the most readily available narrative mode? They need to exercise caution if they’re not to be thrown back on sentimentality, unconscious parody, or simple chauvinism. A distinctive method helps, too. Benedict Kiely, for instance, is an author who raises high spirits, stylish deeds, and exuberance to a mock-epic level. His wordy, rumbustious stories add a new body of myths to the myths they’re sometimes grounded on. “The Heroes in the Dark House” is a good example, with the old collector of Gaelic folk tales, Mr. Broderick, finding it “hard to separate the people in the tales from the people who told them.”

The legendary heroes are fused, as well, in the old man’s imagination, with the heroes of the US Army (briefly garrisoned during the last war at Knocknashee in County Tyrone) and the heroes of the Irish uprising of 1798, when pikes were forged and sedition fostered in the stone-floored kitchens of country houses. Mr. Broderick himself has the traditional storyteller’s instinct for hyperbole: “There was never a departure like it since the world was made,” he declares, after the troops have left the district. “They were gone,’ he said, ‘like snow off a ditch.”’ This is the way the local legend begins to crystallize.

Patrick Kavanagh noted the process, half sardonically, when he wrote: “I have lived in important places, times/ When great events were decided, who owned/ That half a rood of rock…”—a poem which ends with the laconic statement: “Gods make their own importance.” And John Montague, remembering the celebrated figures of his particular region of County Tyrone, opens one poem with the line: “Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people.” Kiely understands both these views. “Townlands like Corraheskin, Drumlish, Cornavara, Dooish, The Minnieburns and Claramore, and small towns like Drumquin and Dromore were all within a ten-mile radius of our town and something of moment or something amusing had happened in every one of them,” the narrator claims in “A Journey to the Seven Streams.”

This journey, recounted in retrospect, takes on a symbolic character that overlays the remembered family excursion in a ramshackle motorcar (a car, indeed, that fixes in its final and most extreme form the condition of being ramshackle); and the story ends on a somber note, with a funeral cortege retracing the route of the glorious outing. A framework of anecdote and allusion enables Kiely to formalize nostalgia, thereby diminishing its sentimental content. “In memory glorified,” as Yeats said, but not prettified.

Among the old people of Kiely’s fabulous childhood are John and Thady O’Neill, who live, in. “Homes on the Mountain,” in the kind of monumental disorder envisaged by the minor Tyrone versifier W.F. Marshall when he wrote:

The deil a man in this townlan’
Wos claner raired nor me,
But I’m livin’ in Drumlister
In clabber to the knee.

Clabber (mud or muck) to the knee describes precisely the state of these incompetent but hearty old brothers in their sagging farmhouse, a dwelling in pointed contrast to a new home erected on the mountain, on the whim of a returned American (“There wasn’t a building job like it since the building of the Tower of Babel”) intent on recreating his barefoot boyhood. Nothing, indeed, but the pressure of some fearful, bemusing nostalgia could have brought him to exchange the comfort of Philadelphia for the bleak wet side of Dooish mountain: so the narrator’s sensible mother thinks.

The story is an examination of different kinds of shoddiness (the inappropriate new home), dilapidation and infertility (the old bachelor brother who courted a girl for sixty years and let her die a virgin)—all common and deplorable Irish states, though they’re represented here without the least tinge of sourness. The only comment (and it’s unspoken) is in the words of certain facile Irish songs which beguiled the narrator at the age of twelve: “When I lived in sweet Ballinacrazy, dear, the girls were all bright as a daisy, dear.” To offer any kind of gloss would be to make the ironic comparison too blatant.

It was Elizabeth Bowen who remarked on the sexlessness of Irish writing (as long ago as 1946, it’s true); and I don’t think anything in Kiely’s stories, for all their vigor and outspokenness, would cause her to change that opinion. For Kiely the sexual act is always a feat, like weight-lifting or horse-breaking: “There was the day…when Martin Murphy and myself looked over a whin hedge at yourself and Molly Quigley from Crooked Bridge making love in a field. Between you, you ruined a half-acre of turnips.” Even Madame Butterfly, the Dublin prostitute who’s as artlessly carnal and hedonistic as Molly Bloom, carries no erotic charge whatever. Neither does Pascal Stakelum, “the notorious rural rake” of “A Great God’s Angel Standing,” who because of his friendship with Father Paul is himself mistaken for a priest and forced to hear the confession of a lunatic in an asylum.

To appreciate the full irony of this you have to bear in mind the dramatic stanzas of a well-known Irish ballad, “The Croppy Boy,” in which a yeoman captain fiendishly dons the soutane of a murdered priest in order to deceive and trap an unwary rebel. Kiely is always adept at registering oblique connections and at drawing what he needs from other people’s experience and other bodies of work to add richness and density to his own. It’s a kind of productive rifling which is the opposite of plagiarism.

This collection ends with “Proxopera,” a recent novella dedicated to the memory of the innocent dead, and designed to accommodate a rare access of anger. Kiely’s stories are mostly set in the country west of Lough Neagh, around the town of Omagh or further west across the borders of the Irish republic. They show, on the whole, how sectarian feeling, at times of political inactivity, is easily subjugated to neighborliness and expediency. In “The Night We Rode with Sarsfield” a small Catholic boy stands up in all innocence to deliver a rampant rebel poem and evokes nothing but hilarity from his Presbyterian audience. In “Bluebell Meadow,” more ominously, six bullets make an appearance, as a rather thoughtless gift from a young B-Special policeman to the Catholic girl he’s befriended. With “Proxopera,” however, the narrative mood has deepened to virulence and ferocity. For his title Kiely coins a word to signify a new political strategy—the terrorist operation carried out by proxy. “Proxopera for gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering the neighbors.”

At the center of the action is a retired schoolmaster named Mr. Binchey who sits at the wheel of a car “bearing death and ruin to the town he loves.” The car is loaded with a bomb in a creamery can, and Binchey is driving it because his son, daughter-in-law, and grand-children are in the hands of gunmen. But even before this Binchey has been ruminating on the fact that everything around him seems perverted and polluted. A familiar lake has yielded up a decomposed Catholic body; an assassination squad with different political affiliations has been at work here. “The water never knew what was happening,” his son assures him; but Binchey doesn’t believe it. The old man can remember a time when a creamery can was a harmless, even a lovely, object; and this is somehow the most morose and bitterest thought of all.

Indeed, we need only glance back at Kiely’s earlier stories to understand the quality he feels has gone out of life. You could say it’s a way to dramatize the usual regret for the past experienced by the elderly; but it is more than that. What Kiely does in “Proxopera,” in fact, is to illustrate a significant change, not widely remarked, that the IRA campaign of violence has brought about. In place of the nationalist outrage which used to characterize Irish fiction, we now find a new outrage directed against terrorist coercion.

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