The short story is the only literary form to have remained largely untouched by modernism. Its big brother, the novel, suffered a crisis of identity during and after the great age of fictional experiment that began, say, with the late work of Henry James and came babbling to a stop with Finnegans Wake. In the half-century that has passed since the appearance of Joyce’s calamitous masterpiece, the novel has become increasingly self-conscious and uneasy (not always to ill effect, it should be said). Meanwhile, the short story has continued an unbroken narrative, speaking in its quiet way its unemphatic verities. Even Borges, if we accept as short stories the brief fictions of magic realities and strange science on which his fame rests, was more a medieval savant and necromancer than one of Pound’s makers of the new. Reflective in manner, unperturbed in tone, the short story is perhaps the last form in which humanism finds its true voice, that humanism which at the close of this savage century we are being forced, with many regrets and misgivings, to relinquish.
That the short story has survived at all testifies to the subtle strengths of the form and, even more so, to the tenacity of its practitioners. In its heyday, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it could provide a decent living for a professional writer. Henry James made very little money from his novels. At the height of his career he told the best-selling Edith Wharton that with the royalties from his previous novel he had managed to buy a wheelbarrow in which to transport his guests’ luggage from the railway station, and with the proceeds from his next he hoped to be able to have the vehicle repainted. He depended heavily on the handsome fees paid by magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly with their large and eager middle-class audiences.
After World War II, consumption, if not production, of the short story went into steep decline, owing perhaps to an unspoken conviction among readers, and many writers, that the vast upheavals of the times required the muscularities of the novel if they were to be dealt with at all adequately. High-paying popular magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post went out of business, while others began to concentrate on, and therefore encourage, the “new” journalism, which seemed, for a while, so much more authentic and expressive of the times than mere fiction. The small literary magazines, nurseries for budding writers, had tiny circulations when they did not fold. Book publishers became wary of bringing out books of short stories, acknowledging that readers would not buy them.
One magazine continued, and continues, to offer a wide audience—and a decent fee—to the short-story writer. Exactly half of the stories collected in William Trevor’s After Rain appeared first in The New Yorker, as did seventeen of the twenty-eight stories contained in Alice Munro’s selected stories—and of the last sixteen pieces in this chronologically arranged sequence, all but one of them were first published in The New Yorker. There have always been critics who felt that The New Yorker‘s influence was, not pernicious exactly, but somewhat smothering, in a benevolently paternalistic and patrician sort of way.* Certainly there was once an identifiable New Yorker style in fiction: the stories that appeared in its pages tended to display wry wisdom, muted humor, clarity of style allied to a subtlety of purpose, and frequently a downbeat, pensive, deceptively rambling tone. One imagined a stylized New Yorker reader, settling down with a post-coffee morning cigarette or a preprandial martini and easing gently into an Updike parable of New England adultery or one of SusanMinot’s blueprints of subdued domestic crisis.
Of course, parody here is easy, and the magazine has undergone many changes. Yet The New Yorker and the one or two other magazines that strive in its shadow are still to be treasured, whatever their shortcomings. Humane perspectives and civilized prose are increasingly rare in contemporary fiction. And any platform is precious that will accommodate work as subtle and rich, as heartening and heart-rending as that of Alice Munro and William Trevor.
After all the talk of a New Yorker style, one must at once, in contemplating these two writers, remark how distinct their voices are. Munro’s is expansive, warm, nostalgic, mostly unironical, expressive of the thickness of the material world; in each story she creates a detailed and palpable reality. Trevor’s, on the other hand, is laconic, mild, sly, seemingly familiar yet peculiarly inflected, touched with odd accents and unexpected emphases. His reality is more a matter of atmosphere than of material details, and his effects are achieved more by allusion than by description. Here is Munro, evoking an afternoon concert at the house of the genteel Miss Marsalles, a piano teacher, and her sister, to which dutiful but increasingly unwilling mothers come annually to hear their clumsy-fingered children play:
Here they found themselves year after year—a group of busy, youngish women who had eased their cars impatiently through the archaic streets of Rosedale, who had complained for a week previously about the time lost, the fuss over the children’s dresses, and, above all, the boredom, but who were drawn together by a rather implausible allegiance—not so much to Miss Marsalles as to the ceremonies of their childhood, to a more exacting pattern of life which had been breaking apart even then but which survived, and unaccountably still survived, in Miss Marsalles’ living room. The little girls in dresses with skirts as stiff as bells moved with a natural awareness of ceremony against the dark wall of books, and their mothers’ faces wore the dull, not unpleasant look of acquiescence, the touch of absurd and slightly artificial nostalgia which would carry them through any lengthy family ritual. They exchanged smiles which showed no lack of good manners, and yet expressed a familiar, humorous amazement at the sameness of things, even the selections played on the piano and the fillings of the sandwiches; so they acknowledged the incredible, the wholly unrealistic persistence of Miss Marsalles and her sister and their life.
And here is Trevor, in a story called “Child’s Play,” a funny, grotesque, and dismayingly pathetic reworking of James’s What Maisie Knew, in which two children thrown together by their parents’ divorces and remarriages (“Gerard and Rebecca became brother and sister after a turmoil of distress”) try to cope with the baffling realities of the world of so-called grown-ups:
Gerard entered a room and found his mother nursing the side of her face. His father stood at the window, looking out. Behind his back one hand gripped the other as if in restraint. Gerard was frightened and went away, his brief presence unnoticed.
It is through offhand, seemingly unconsidered revelations (“his brief presence unnoticed”) that Trevor achieves his most profound effects: his touch is always feather-light, his tone mild to the point of jadedness, his glance oblique yet piercing.
Munro too works her most successful effects by way of carefully elaborated vaguenesses. She has a trick, for instance, which rarely fails her, of letting a major character slip into the background of a story only to bring him or her forward again at exactly the right moment, to round off the story and gather all its seeming disparities into sharp, satisfying focus. In the hands of a less skillful writer this device could become trite and formulaic, but Munro’s timing is marvelous, so that what enters onto the stage at these chaotic moments is no mere deus ex machina but a seeming visitation of the god himself.
Both Trevor and Munro are wonderful on the young. In “Child’s Play,” Gerard and Rebecca speculate upon the mysteries of life and death:
“She said she had three miscarriages,” Rebecca reported. “I never knew that.”
Gerard wasn’t certain what a miscarriage was, and Rebecca, who had been uncertain also, explained that the baby came out too soon, a lot of mush apparently.
“I wonder if I’m adopted,” Gerard mused.
The next weekend he asked his father, and was assured he wasn’t. His father said his mother hadn’t wanted more than a single child, but from his tone Gerard decided that she hadn’t wanted any children at all. “I’m a mistake,” he said when he and Rebecca were again alone.
Rebecca agreed that this was probably so. She supposed she should be glad she wasn’t just a lot of mush.
In Munro’s wonderful, chilling story “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You” (which, incidentally, car-ries striking echoes of the story “Widows” in the Trevor collection), young Char is jilted—as are so many of Munro’s women—and swallows laundry blueing in a half-hearted suicide attempt. Et, her younger sister, discovers her and helps her to vomit up the poison.
“I didn’t do this on account of Blaikie Noble,” she said between spasms. “Don’t you ever think that. I wouldn’t be such a fool. A pervert like him. I did it because I’m sick of living.”
“What are you sick of about living?” said Et sensibly when Char had wiped her face.
“I’m sick of this town and all the stupid people in it and Mother and her dropsy and keeping house and washing sheets every day. I don’t think I’m going to vomit anymore. I think I could drink some coffee. It says coffee.”
Et made a pot and Char got out two of the best cups. They began to giggle as they drank.
“I’m sick of Latin,” Et said. “I’m sick of Algebra. I think I’ll take blueing.”
“Life is a burden,” Char said. “O Life, where is thy sting?”
“O Death. O Death, where is thy sting?”
“Did I say Life? I meant Death. O Death, where is thy sting? Pardon me.”
The comedy of this exchange, delightfully grisly when first encountered, turns to deepest blackness at the end. Alice Munro is no purveyor of sunny platitudes. These are hard, clear, tough tales, evoking the sorrow and the homely cruelties of life in a harsh place. Her people seem both familiar and strange in ways that recall some of the characters of Carson McCullers and Richard Ford.
The finest story in her collection is “Vandals.” It begins, as so often with Munro’s work, at the end. In her old age Bea Doud, whom we have briefly met as a girl earlier in the collection, is writing a letter to Liza, also previously glimpsed, thanking her for checking on Bea’s snowbound house in the country outside Carstairs, Bea’s hometown and the scene of a number of Munro’s stories. Bea reports, almost offhandedly, the death of her husband (“Ladner had not the least premonition of death on the night before his operation”); from the letter we learn also that Liza had conveyed the bad news that Bea’s house has been vandalized. The story then meanders, or seems to meander, into an account of Bea’s first meeting with Ladner, an Englishman wounded in the war, who has settled in Canada, buying a tract of wild land and building a kind of nature reserve, where he makes a living as a taxidermist. Ladner is himself a species of wild animal.
In a letter to her friend Pearl Kazin, February 10, 1953, Elizabeth Bishop spoke of her frustrations with the New Yorker style of editing: "The places they pick on to criticize are usually the right places, only they suggest the wrong changes. But when they find fault over and over with the story's being"mysterious"—while giving a perfectly lucid synopsis of it, so somebody around there must have understood it all right— I feel a little put upon. The idea underneath it all seems to be that the New Yorker reader must never have to pause to think for a single second, but be informed and reinformed comfortingly all the time, like newspaper writing a little ." (One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995, p. 254).↩
In a letter to her friend Pearl Kazin, February 10, 1953, Elizabeth Bishop spoke of her frustrations with the New Yorker style of editing: “The places they pick on to criticize are usually the right places, only they suggest the wrong changes. But when they find fault over and over with the story’s being”mysterious”—while giving a perfectly lucid synopsis of it, so somebody around there must have understood it all right— I feel a little put upon. The idea underneath it all seems to be that the New Yorker reader must never have to pause to think for a single second, but be informed and reinformed comfortingly all the time, like newspaper writing a little .” (One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995, p. 254).↩