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The Saving Remnant

1.

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 made no difference.

In this “Two More Gallants” is not at all untypical of Trevor’s work. People in his stories watch Dallas (“Being Stolen From”) and French Connection 2 (“Three People”). They listen to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” (“A Friend in the Trade”). But they often seem curiously sealed off from the world in which these images and sounds arise. One of the most justly celebrated of Trevor’s stories, “The Ballroom of Romance,” the title story of a collection published in 1972, is set in the mid-1960s, when rock-and-roll had reached even the remotest dance halls in the west of Ireland. Yet the Romantic Jazz Band who provide the soundtrack to the story don’t even play jazz. They stick to old standards like “The Destiny Waltz” and “Just One of Those Things”: “Jiving, rock and roll, twisting and other such variations had all been resisted by Mr Dwyer, who believed that a ballroom should be, as much as possible, a dignified place.”

In the same collection, one character, Eleanor, appears in different stories, “Nice Day at School” and “Kinkies.” In the first, she is an adolescent girl, in the second she is twenty-seven. But the passage of time has had no apparent effect. She has the same innocence, the same naive vulnerability. Thirteen years after she has had a rude introduction to sex in the first story, she still, in the second, accepts an invitation to visit her boss’s apartment in the evening without the slightest suspicion that he might have more than work on his mind. Her knowledge of the world is that of an ingénue from a nineteenth-century novel.

There is, in Trevor’s most recent collection, A Bit on the Side, a similarly unsettling sense of anachronism. The characters themselves notice it. In “Solitude,” the narrator tells us: “My hair’s well tended, the style old-fashioned. ‘You’re an old-fashioned lady,’ my father used to say, not chiding me for that, his tone as light as ever. She liked my old-fashionedness, my mother said when I was very young.” In “Sacred Statues,” Corry, a young man who carves images of Catholic saints, is told quite directly that he belongs to another era: “‘You were meant for other times, Corry,’ a priest had remarked to him once, but not unkindly or dismissively….” Even when the characters are unaware of their status as relics of another time, the reader must be, for Trevor seems to set up traps purposely to remind us.

Time and again in reading the stories we sink into the narrative, thinking that the action must be set no later than the 1950s, and then are jolted quite suddenly into the twenty-first century. In the opening story, “Sitting with the Dead,” two middle-aged Catholic ladies call on a bitter woman whose husband’s dead body lies upstairs. The entire atmosphere is redolent of an Ireland that has been gone for half a century. Only a tiny, apparently casual detail tells us otherwise: the doctor who has cared for the dead man is a woman. The story must be set in the much more recent past.

Likewise in “Traditions,” set in an English boarding school, the action seems to be enclosed in the 1940s or 1950s until a small bomb explodes. There is an item on the news: “the conviction of a medical doctor who had murdered a number of his female patients.” The reference is obviously to Harold Shipman, who was convicted on fifteen counts of murder in January 2000. In “Justina’s Priest,” we learn with a similarly jarring effect that the action is taking place on Bob Dylan’s sixtieth birthday—and thus in May 2001. In “An Evening Out,” we learn that Evelyn, a middle-aged lady on a blind date, looked after her mother until she died a few years ago in 1997.

In “Sacred Statues,” where almost every detail seems to suggest rural Ireland sometime between the 1930s and the 1960s, the Catholic Church is collapsing under “the tide of secular attack,” a tide that did not come in until the 1990s. In “Big Bucks,” a young West of Ireland fisherman emigrates to the US, leaving his girlfriend behind. The images of America that fill the couple’s heads are so archaic—“College days, Thanksgiving, Robert E. Lee”—that it seems impossible that they live in an era of multichannel TV. Only when it becomes clear that the fisherman is an undocumented alien in the US, and can’t come home for fear of not being let back in again, does it strike the reader that the story is meant to be about a contemporary event.

These discordant notes are not the result of sloppiness, which is one vice of which Trevor could never be plausibly accused. The pattern is so consistent, and the precise datings so otherwise unnecessary to the narratives, that the effect has to be deliberate. It raises, moreover, the really interesting questions about Trevor. It is easy to dismiss him as a purveyor of literary nostalgia who uses an old-fashioned prose to tell old-fashioned stories. Conservatism is indeed part of his appeal, and there are certainly times, as in “Kinkies,” when his characters seem impossibly naive. But the sheer quality of Trevor’s work will not allow such a dismissal. For the sake of critical convenience, Trevor’s use of nineteenth-century instruments to dissect a late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century world ought to make him a bad writer, the literary equivalent of a skilled twenty-first-century artist trying to paint impressionist landscapes. It doesn’t do so because, in Trevor, anachronism is not a failure. It is a view of the world, with paradoxically deep roots in time and place.

2.

Six years before William Trevor Cox was born in 1928 to a lower-middle-class Protestant family in County Cork, there was a series of attacks on Protestants in the county. In spite of a truce between the nationalist Irish Republican Army and the British government, an armed gang shot a dozen Protestants, several of them well known as pro-British loyalists, in their homes. In one especially gruesome incident in the small town of Clonakilty, a prominent loyalist and his son were made to dig their own graves and then shot. His nephew, a former officer in the British army who had fired on the raiders, was hanged. The incident provoked a panic in which around a hundred Cork Protestants fled to England, many of them without pausing to pack a bag or take a coat. Even when the fear subsided, and the country settled down after the civil war of 1923, many Protestants decided that there was no place for them in a new, independent, and Catholic-dominated state. By 1926, the Protestant population of southern Ireland had declined by a third from what it had been at the previous census of 1911. The decline, moreover, was long-term. Protestants, who had made up 10 percent of the population in 1911, comprised just 3.5 percent in 1981.1

As part of this gradually declining remnant, William Trevor is an anachronism, and one who has always known it. He was, as he put it himself, “born into a minority that all my life has seemed in danger of withering away.”2 It was, moreover, an unheroic minority, not the grand Big House Protestants mythologized by W.B. Yeats as “no petty people,” but what Trevor has called “smalltime Protestant stock, far removed from the well-to-do Ascendancy of the recent past yet without much of a place in de Valera’s new Catholic Ireland.” His father’s family farmed some poor land in County Roscommon and teetered eventually into bankruptcy. His mother’s came from a similar small-farming background in Ulster. Yet in the early 1930s, when he was growing up in the seaside town of Youghal in County Cork, the old class barriers within the Protestant community were somewhat superseded by the solidarity of the besieged. Surrounded, as they saw it, by the triumphant Catholicism of the new state, the Protestants clung together for comfort:

  1. 1

    For a poignant discussion of the fate of Protestants in the Irish Republic, see R.B. McDowell, Crisis and Decline: The Fate of the Southern Unionists (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1997), pp. 127–128 and pp. 163–164.

  2. 2

    This and subsequent biographical quotes are from Trevor’s collection of autobiographical pieces, Excursions in the Real World (Knopf, 1994), especially the introduction, pp. xi–xv.

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