Fools of Fortune
by William Trevor
Viking, 239 pp., $13.95
The Stories of William Trevor
Penguin, 799 pp., $8.95 (paper)
Few colonizers have attached to the romance of the country they have conquered as the Anglo-Irish have. It may be that no other colonizers have been quite so literary; it may be that the racial closeness of conqueror and conquered has called forth a marriage like that of intense, doomed cousins: irresistible to the romantic imagination, damaging for generations. In creating a myth for themselves and for the Celtic Irish, the Anglo-Irish have seen themselves as victims frozen in a frame of grand heroic isolation. In their great houses, with their famous horses and heraldic dogs, they saw themselves suffering: misunderstanding, loneliness. They brooded over the half-beloved natives who could not, in any way that could be trusted, love them back. Blood, poetry, and magic—the coin of the Irish Irish drew them in and yet repelled them. Still they were, deep in their hearts, not English. They belonged nowhere except, passionately, where they were.
As the economics of Ireland turns the great estates into hotels, the old romance cannot survive. Yet it may be impossible to write about Ireland without romance of some sort. The strength of the impulse would seem to be borne out by William Trevor, that highly realistic chronicler of the slow rot of English life, whose reports of England abound in painful details of the corruption and lives shaped by reruns of Kojak and Benny Hill, by Wimpy Bars and office affairs and the artifacts of local sex shops.
He has invented his own romance about Ireland, a different one, to be sure, from the one that pervades the literary imagination: it is not lit by the Celtic twilight. Trevor, although Irish Protestant, is middle class, the son of a bank manager. He focuses on the ordinary Irish, caught up in the necessities of Irish history. Trevor is fascinated, in his stories about Ireland, by a pervasive evil that must intrude upon the innocent. His romance, which is a moral one, suggests that the Irish, or some of them—the victims—combine viciousness and innocence in ways inaccessible to the English.
For the Irish, the present constantly butts up against the past in the form of a political reality that is at once utterly present and archaic. Attempts at ordinary decency collide with a tradition of brutality and hatred; myth, despite the will of the living mortal, or beckoned by him, eventually must intrude.
In his story “The Distant Past,” an elderly, eccentric Anglo-Irish brother and sister have made peace with their neighbors in the southern Irish town they’ve lived in all their lives. The “trouble” in the Twenties—when the butcher held a gun on them, and the shopkeepers imprisoned them in their great house—has been forgotten, has become, for them all, a town joke. But when, in the Seventies, another time of the “trouble,” their town is ruined economically by the resulting decline in the tourist trade, its citizens turn ugly. Friendships of fifty years erode and the two old people …