The News from Ireland and Other Stories
The Anglo-Irishman William Trevor writes in a tradition of storytelling that is seldom encountered in America today. He takes for granted the importance of the historical and social setting in which he places his characters and takes pains to render it plausibly. He knows that class distinctions matter, even when they are not emphasized. He imagines a past for his characters that is more than merely personal or familial, a past that bears down continuously on their present behavior. As a result, his short stories, like those of V.S. Pritchett, often have the weight and density of miniature novels. William Faulkner once wrote such stories in this country; Peter Taylor—another southerner—continues almost alone to do so today.
The most novellike of the stories in Trevor’s impressive new collection is the title story itself, which is actually set in the past. “The News from Ireland” takes place in 1847 and 1848, when for two consecutive years the Irish potato crop has rotted in the ground. An English gentleman, Mr. Pulvertaft, has inherited the decayed estate of a distant relative in Ireland and is now busy “improving” it in the best tradition of his class. Along with the estate, the Pulvertafts have also inherited a butler, Fogarty, and a cook, Miss Fogarty, who regard their new employers with a skeptical—and, in the case of the butler, a disapproving—eye. Fogarty would like to see the estate sink back into the clay from which it came. The Pulvertafts have also hired an English estate manager—a brusque, one-armed ex-military man named Erskine—and they have imported an English governess, Miss Heddoe (“a young woman of principle and sensibility”) to take charge of the youngest of their four children. Fogarty watches Miss Heddoe’s response to Ireland with an obsessive curiosity.
Inside the estate, the conventions and entertainments of a well-conducted Victorian household are genially maintained. Outside, the famine is devouring its tens of thousands. The Pulvertafts, who are well-intentioned people, do what they can: soup is dispensed at the gatehouse to the starving women and children, and Mr. Pulvertaft has ordered a road to be built on the estate—a road leading nowhere—to give employment to men weakened by hunger.
Such is the situation when the sinister Fogarty tells Miss Heddoe (whose diaries and letters he has been secretly reading) that a newborn baby in the neighborhood has the marks of the stigmata. Reactions to this report vary greatly: the local peasantry regard the event as a miracle sent from heaven in a time of distress; the impressionable Miss Heddoe is moved; the Pulvertafts and Mr. Erskine see it as one more instance of benighted Catholic superstition; and Fogarty, when the baby soon dies, maintains that the marks were inflicted by the parents, who had already lost their other children to the famine. Time passes and complications ensue, among them a possible match between the governess and Mr. Erskine.
Trevor deftly constructs his complex story from the diaries of Miss Heddoe, from conversations between Fogarty and his sister, and from passages of direct narration, infusing them with the atmosphere of the period. Here is a section of Miss Heddoe’s diary that reminds me of scenes from Charlotte Brontë or the early Trollope; she is reporting the Pulvertafts’ discussion of the new road:
“Now, what could be nicer,” he [Mr. Pulvertaft] resumed, “than a picnic of lunch by the lake, then a drive through the silver birches, another pause by the abbey,…and home by Bright Purple Hill? This road, Miss Heddoe, has become my pride.”
I smiled and nodded, acknowledging this attention in silence. I knew that there was more to the road than that: its construction was an act of charity, a way of employing the men for miles around…. In years to come the road would stand as a memorial to this awful time, and Mr. Pulvertaft’s magnanimity would be recalled with gratitude.
“Might copper beech trees mark the route?” suggested Adelaide, her dumpling countenance freshened by the excitement this thought induced….
“Beech trees indeed! Quite splendid!” enthused Mr. Pulvertaft. “And in future Pulvertaft generations they shall arch a roof, shading our road when need be. Yes, indeed there must be copper beech trees.”
The maids had left the drawing-room and returned now with lamps. They fastened the shutters and drew the curtains over. The velvets and silks changed colour in the lamplight, the faces of the portraits became as they truly were, the faces of ghosts.
Yet while “The News from Ireland” is the longest piece in the collection, it is still a short story, less than forty pages. The impression of Victorian amplitude is essentially trompe l’oeil, created by a master of foreshortening.
The other stories have contemporary settings—Ireland, England, or Italy—and the present situation is always conditioned by the characters’ past, a past made explicit by dramatized scenes or extended flashbacks. In “Virgins,” two middleaged, married women have trouble recognizing each other when they meet in the “wasp-striped” cathedral in Siena. One, Laura, is English; the other, Margaretta, is Irish. Decades before, they had become the closest of schoolgirl friends when Laura was sent to Ireland for safety and nourishment during the war. The scenes from the past are wonderfully done as Trevor evokes the delight the girls take in each other and their excitement in visiting Ralph de Courcy, the invalid son of local gentry, with whom they both fall secretly and rapturously in love. Cut off from active life by a rheumatic heart, Ralph de Courcy shamelessly indulges himself by toying with the affections of both girls, writing love letters to each of them before dying, as predicted, at an early age. Their jealous love for Ralph leads to a break between the two girls. Now, meeting in Italy years later, the two women realize that their lives might have been significantly different if their friendship had continued, a friendship which “in its time went deeper than the marriages they have mentioned.” But they are strangers now. At the very end Trevor allows himself a summation unthinkable to contemporary practitioners of the open-ended story, one that links his story, without strain or falseness, to that ancient theme: the vanity of human wishes.
Regret passes without words between them; they smile a shrugging smile. If vain Ralph de Courcy had chosen their girlish passion as a memorial to himself he might have chosen as well this rendezvous for their middle age, a waspish cathedral to reflect a waspish triumph. Yet his triumph seems hollow now, robbed by time of its drama and the heady confusions of an accidental cruelty. Death’s hostage he had been, a ghost who’d offered them a sleight of hand because he hadn’t the strength for love. They only smile again before they part.
Trevor enjoys the boldness of a non-autobiographical imagination. He is free to enter the mind and inhabit the body of a well-to-do Irish widow of fifty-nine in “Bodily Secrets.” Mrs. O’Neill’s body—once her delight—is now repellent to her: “Flesh hung loosely, marked with pink imprints of straps or elastic. If she slimmed herself to the bone there would be scrawny, empty skin, loops and pockets, hollows as ugly as the bulges.” Lonely but unwilling to expose such a body, she defies her grown children by knowingly marrying a closet homosexual (and a Protestant to boot!) who, unlike her other suitors, can be counted on not to enter her bedroom and “stake his claim there.”
Trevor slips with similar ease into the false cheeriness of an English widower, and into the bitterness of his disillusioned daughter in “On the Zattere,” and in “Lunch in Winter” into the boozy consciousness of a much-married ex-chorus girl with an eye for young Italian waiters. While the use of a single point of view—whether in the first or the third person—has become almost a fixed canon in the contemporary short story, Trevor does not hesitate to “get behind,” in Henry James’s phrase, a number of disparate characters in the same piece. Yet this freedom of movement does not create diffuseness, as it can so easily do in unskilled hands; rather, it adds to our impression of a novelistic breadth and variety. Even when confined to three or four characters, Trevor’s stories seem thickly populated.
Not all the pieces that make up The News from Ireland are first-rate. “Two More Gallants” is little more than an anecdotal byproduct of one of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners. Another, “Music,” reads like a compendium of dull and familiar details of Irish provincial life. But admirers of Trevor’s novels—particularly The Old Boys—and his earlier collections of stories will find four or five pieces here that stand with the very best work that this splendid writer has produced.
I have no intention of using the achievement of a master like Trevor to belittle that of two much younger writers, Susan Minot and Deborah Eisenberg, whose first books have just come out. To quote James again, “the House of Fiction has many windows”—and I would add that the windows come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, ranging from panoramic picture windows to mere slits or peepholes. Though these two gifted Americans share certain contemporary assumptions about the short story that differ widely from Trevor’s, they also differ markedly from each other in their sensibilities and the kinds of milieus they portray. While neither can be called a minimalist in the mode of, say, Ann Beattie, their stories are nearly as notable for their large omissions as for their deftly arranged inclusions.
Though labeled a novel, Monkeys is a loose assemblage of nine episodes (most of which were published separately as short stories) in the life of a Massachusetts family between 1966 and 1979. The Vincents live in a large house overlooking the sea north of Boston and spend their summers on an island off the coast of Maine. The family consists of Augustus Paine Vincent (“Gus” or “Dad”), who comes from an upper-class Bostonian background, his Irish Catholic wife Rosie (“Mum”), and their six—later seven—children: four girls (Caitlin, Sophie, Delilah, Minnie) and three boys (Gus, Sherman, and Chicky). It is Sophie, the second child, through whom we watch and listen to the Vincents as the years pass, carrying Sophie from her tenth year into her young adulthood. Whatever the facts of the family situation, the feel of the book is distinctly autobiographical.
Dad emerges as an enigmatic figure, laconic and introverted, remote from his children; he is also a borderline alcoholic who periodically crosses the frontier into embarrassing drunkeness. Mum is a charming woman, gregarious, affectionate, full of life; she is the one who—until her sudden death (which we learn about in the seventh episode)—holds things together, makes things all right. The children, whom Mum addresses as “monkeys,” are lively, reckless, and appealing in their naturalness; after Mum’s death, they become distracted, accidentprone. Potentially, then, the family situation is novelistically complex, a situation in which the social and psychological ramifications might seem to demand exploration.
But Susan Minot favors a leaner approach. The delicately attuned consciousness of Sophie is kept within narrowly defined limits. She is permitted almost no speculation and only the smallest amount of commentary. We learn nothing, for instance, of the feelings of the Vincent family’s response to the marriage of Gus Vincent to Rose Marie O’ Dare. We know that Mum is periodically made wretched by Dad’s drinking but we do not know how long it has been going on or whether it is a source of anguish for her. We do not know whether, in the fifth episode, the Vincent parents are ignorant of—or indifferent to—the wild parties that their daughters throw in their absence—parties involving much pot smoking, boozing, and sleeping around. Other complications are hinted at, such as Mum’s special friendship with a grandee who collects antique carriages and has a bomb shelter in his house in Maine.
What Susan Minot does provide is a rush of sensory impressions that puts us almost physically into a setting. She has a wonderfully selective and accurate ear for the way children talk among themselves and for the way adults talk in the presence of children, whether they are addressing the children or not. She is adept at focusing a scene so that a few lines of almost inconsequential dialogue can set off a small explosion of dramatic implication. When, in the second episode, the entire Vincent clan has assembled at the grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner, the grandfather (“Pa”) creates a minor but painful senile disturbance at the table and is afterward taken upstairs for his nap:
In the living room, the grown-ups were serving coffee. On the tray were miniature blue enamel cups, a silver bowl holding light-brown-sugar rocks, and chocolate mints in tissue-paper envelopes.
Ma [the grandmother] and Aunt Fran came down from upstairs where they had taken Pa.
“Everything all right?” bellowed Uncle Thomas. His wife scowled at him.
Ma took her place on the sofa. “Fine,” she said. “Fine.”
Rosie handed her a cup with a tiny gold spoon placed on the saucer. Delilah, her arm draped across her mother’s knee, felt brave. “Was Pa mad at us?” she asked. Caitlin glared at her.
…Sophie’s father said, “He didn’t know what he was saying, Delou.” He was over by the window.
Ma sipped at the rim of her cup. Gus Vincent touched the curtain with one finger and gazed out. Rosie busily poured more coffee.
Looking at Delilah, Ma said, “He was not mad at you, dear.”
…Uncle Thomas said, “Super meal, super.” He jiggled the change in his pocket, waiting for something to happen.
“You can thank Livia [the cook] for that.” Ma set down her saucer. Sherman was in the rocking chair at her feet, lurching to and fro.
“Yes,” said Rosie Vincent, “but you arranged it so beautifully.”
Ma folded her hands. Her expression was matter-of-fact. “Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever arranged anything beautifully in my whole life.”
The grown-ups exchanged looks and for a moment there was no sound except for Sherman creaking in the rocking chair at Ma’s feet. He got up, all at once aware of himself, and scurried to his mother. The chair went on rocking. Ma stared at it. Rocking empty, it meant something to her.
So she reached out one lavender shoe to still it, and did just that.
A similarly taut moment can occur with no dialogue at all. During a picnic in Maine, the fact that Dad has no intention of keeping his promise to the children to stop drinking is announced by a sound that they all hear and recognize: the crack of a beer can being opened.
Many of the chief events take place offstage: Mum’s death (her car is struck by a train), Dad’s remarriage. It is the repercussions of these events that mainly concern Susan Minot—the way the children band together in their dismay or grief, the sense of lostness, of falling, of wild, heedless, or self-destructive fun. Much of the understated emotion is conveyed through that direct appeal to the senses that I noted earlier. It could be argued that it is the very absence of a full novelistic treatment that makes a passage like the following so evocative in its imagery; it occurs when the whole family has fallen asleep after lunch on the first Christmas following Mum’s death:
For hours the house was quiet except for the sound of breathing. The rain kept up. It rained in long lashes, coming down and drumming on the lawn, moving over the roof and then out to sea, where it appeared in windy bruises over the surface. The islands out there had names like Desolation or Cold Point. Another island was Stillman’s.
When they awoke the fires had all gone out and they’d lost all sense of time. It was beginning to get dark. The trees seemed to move together and huddle in nets of mist. Everyone ended up in the kitchen, switching on the lights and starting water for tea.
Monkeys is not a weighty book, but it is graceful in its very slimness. Its spare offerings are (like the grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner) beautifully arranged. One finishes it touched by the plight of this damaged family—and haunted by its faintly Fitzgerald-like glamour.
Transactions in a Foreign Currency arrives accompanied by a salvo from The New Yorker’s biggest guns—an excess of blurb that might well make a prospective reader wary. Actually, these tales from the Age of Cocaine turn out to be quite entertaining. The sensibility that permeates the best of them is wry, posthip, essentially urban, and loquacious. They are narrated in the first person by a series of young or thirtyish women all of whom are in a state of some bewilderment. One of them, whose self-confidence has been damaged by an impossibly snotty boy-friend in Buffalo, finds herself bossed around in a different way by the erratic owner of an East Village dress shop into whose apartment she moves (“Flotsam”). Another voluble narrator, who is in the process of divorcing her rich, dull husband, goes to lots of bitchy parties and wonders why she has never had an affair with her closest male friend, a pleasant, beautifully groomed narcissist who comes to her for advice about the latest in his series of girlfriends (“Rafe’s Coat”). Still another gives up smoking and tries frantically to recover from her drastic withdrawal symptoms by exercising at the Y (“Days”). And then there is the one who is summoned to Montreal by a married lover and finds herself unexpectedly in bed with a crazy, coke-snorting friend of his who carries a switch-blade knife (“Transactions in a Foreign Currency”).
Like Susan Minot, Deborah Eisenberg omits all sorts of information about her characters. We get only the rarest glimpses of their pasts. In most of the stories the narrators might as well be orphans—their families simply aren’t mentioned. Everyone is on a first-name basis; of the few surnames given, a couple sound Jewish, but ethnic or religious identity has no relevance to what happens. Essentially, the characters are rootless, floaters in an amorphous present, eager to talk about their predicaments. What Deborah Eisenberg does furnish is plenty of droll dialogue and self-analysis, and a strong sense of the part that fashion—in clothes, in running shoes, in drugs, in food, in art—has in her characters’ unanchored lives. Here, from “Flotsam,” is the narrator’s account of her new roommate, Cinder, and her roommate’s platonic (?) friend:
The apartment was in the East Village, and although the neighborhood had long since lost its notoriety, it glittered to me. Cinder and Mitchell seemed so comfortable there. Mitchell moved with an underwater languor that was due to a happy combination of grace and drugs, and his black hair was marvelously glossed. But even though he and Cinder were so different in appearance, they both dressed in meticulously calculated assemblages that reached from past decades far into the future. Together their individual impact was increased exponentially, like that of twins, owing to a similarity I now understand to be stylistic, in addition, of course, to whatever similarity underlies all acute and self-conscious beauty.
Photography, of course, is the art form of choice. The lover of the girl summoned to Montreal is a photographer. And in “Rafe’s Coat” the beautiful Rafe, when talking about his latest girlfriend, is distracted by an Ansel Adams photograph on the narrator’s dining-room wall.
“Rafe’s Coat” is, I think, the cleverest of the stories—a small comedy of trendy consumerism. The characters are all rich enough to indulge their expensive tastes. The dialogue sounds at times like an updated, New York version of Noel Coward (Deborah Eisenberg has written a produced play).
“Marvelous new coat,” I said. “Alpaca, yes?”
“Yup,” Rafe said, dropping onto a chair with an uncharacteristic lack of attention. “England last week. Well, then!” He looked around brightly in the manner of someone who, having discharged some weighty task, is ready to start afresh.
Heavens, he was behaving oddly. I waited for him to say something enlightening, or to say anything at all….
“Incredibly strange out there” was his eventual contribution. “Dark and crowded.”
“England,” I said, mystified. “England has become dark and crowded.”
“Yes?” Rafe said. “Oh, actually, I’d been thinking of Sixty-seventh Street.”
Rafe, of course, is a consumer of girls. “Girl after girl,” muses the jealous narrator. “He was like some noble hound who daily fetched home the New York Post instead of the Times.” The girls themselves are all pretty—“like an assortment of chocolates whose ornamentations seem meaningless to nonaficionados.” The current girl, Heather, is an actress in a soap opera, This Brief Candle, to which the narrator soon finds herself becoming shamefacedly addicted. Consumerism reaches its ultimate absurdity when Rafe and the narrator discuss why they have never had an affair.
“Well,” he said, pausing at the door, “for one thing, you were a married lady.”
“I know,” I said. “But for another thing?”
“Oh, I just don’t think it would have worked, do you?” he said. “We’re too much alike, really, aren’t we? We’d climb into bed and I’d say, ‘Great sheets—where’d you get them?’ Or I’d take off my clothes and you’d say, ‘Oh, fabulous—underwear with bison.’ That sort of thing. We just wouldn’t really have been able to concentrate.”
“Underwear with bison?” I said. “Really?”