A Bit on the Side
by William Trevor
Viking, 245 pp., $24.95
James Joyce’s short story “Two Gallants,” published in the collection Dubliners in 1914, is wonderfully redolent of early-twentieth-century Dublin. Though laconic and somewhat enigmatic, it could be studied with profit by any historian of the period. Its clipped, concentrated narrative of two wastrels in their early thirties exploiting the servant girl with whom one of them is having an affair reveals a vast amount about the time and place in which it unfolds. Assumptions about class and gender, and attitudes toward food, sex, and money, hover around every line. When, therefore, William Trevor wrote “Two More Gallants,” published in his collection The News from Ireland in 1986 and set largely in the mid-1950s, in which the same serving maid supposedly tells the story to another pair of Dublin flaneurs, a reader might expect that the purpose of the exercise would be to measure the distance between Joyce’s Ireland and Trevor’s.
The expectation might be all the sharper because Dubliners is the only part of Joyce’s work that could be said to have influenced Trevor’s own writing. His calm, lucid, beautifully controlled prose would be easily recognizable to the people who inhabit Dubliners, for he writes as if modernism had never happened, as if Joyce had not gone on to write Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Trevor’s characters may be mired in anxiety and confusion, but their creator brings them to life in a clean-cut, supremely confident language and underpins their hesitations and fretfulness with a solid, dignified syntax. Joyce matters in Trevor’s stories merely as another of the sorrows sent to afflict timid and narrow lives. In “Two More Gallants,” an aged Joyce scholar is duped and humiliated at an international conference of the Friends of James Joyce. In “Death of a Professor,” another academic known for “his disdain for the stream of consciousness in the literature of his time” is tormented by spiteful colleagues who send notices around the world claiming that he is writing a study of Joyce’s life and works and asking for contributions.
Yet the remarkable thing about “Two More Gallants” is that it seems to suggest that nothing has really changed at all. It refers to three periods—the early part of the century when the original story happens, the mid-1950s when two students recreate it, and the mid-1980s when the narrator hears about it from one of them. There is no sense, however, of a disjunction between these episodes. So little has changed that when one of the students narrates the action of Joyce’s story to the other, the latter assumes that it is a contemporary tale “about a couple of fellow-students whom he couldn’t place.” Just as Trevor’s own prose proceeds as if the great literary experiments of the 1920s and 1930s had never been conducted, the frame of the story suggests that the Edwardian era has gone on forever. The historical upheavals of revolution and war, if they happened at all, have …