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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:

The remnants of the Big House families, those who had chosen not to run away, opened their once-gracious doors—now shabby with flaking paint—to shopkeepers and clerks and poor relations. My memory is of grass growing on avenues, and gardens gone wild, and faded drawing-rooms where cards or bagatelle were played. A Mrs Orpen came from such a house to hear the rugby internationals on our new Philips wireless, and stood when “God Save the King” was played, rigid as a ramrod, to my parents’ bewildered amusement and the giggling of children. Keeping faith with the irretrievable past—no matter how comic a form it took—was often the hallmark of the dispossessed.

This sense of belonging to another time, of making little sense in the contemporary world, seeps into Trevor’s fiction. “We are,” says a Protestant rector’s father in “Of the Cloth,” “a remnant,” left behind when “the great Church of Rome inherited all Ireland.” In Trevor’s story “Mr McNamara,” the narrator is a Protestant boy born in the late 1920s, as Trevor himself was. He places himself in a social context:

As a family we belonged to the past. We were Protestants in what had become Catholic Ireland. We’d once been part of an ascendancy, but now it was not so…. We wielded no power. “Proddy-woddy green-guts,” the Catholic children cried at us in Curransbridge. “Catty, Catty, going to Mass,” we whispered back, “riding on the devil’s ass.” They were as good as we were.

Decline and decrepitude are the stuff of Trevor’s fiction, shaped by a sense of Irish history as a long, inevitable but tragic fall. Trevor studied history at Trinity College Dublin and has remarked of Irish history that it “reads like a good novel.” Historical events hover around some of Trevor’s narratives: the bloody uprising of 1798 in “Autumn Sunshine,” the Great Famine of the mid-1840s in “The News from Ireland,” the 1916 Rising in “Low Sunday, 1950,” the most recent Northern Ireland conflict in many stories. But what really matters in the fiction is not any specific event but the feeling, quite particular to the southern Irish Protestantism of Trevor’s youth, that life after the separation of Ireland from Britain is the mere aftermath of a tragedy. Its saving grace, for Trevor, is that it makes a good story. A character in “Autumn Sunshine” claims that Irish history interests him because “it had a good story to it, its tragedy uncomplicated.”

Trevor’s people do not live the tragedy, but live in its unheroic aftermath. The violence of 1922 has been replaced by something even more corrosive—an amused tolerance. They no longer matter enough to inspire hatred. In Trevor’s story “The Distant Past,” the old Big House Protestants have been so thoroughly defeated that even the violence they experienced has become a shared adventure, of no real consequence. Fat Cranley, a local butcher who once joined an armed raid on the home of a Protestant brother and sister, the Middletons, now jokes with them about the event:

Will you ever forget it, Mr Middleton? I’d ha’ run like a rabbit if you’d lifted a finger at me.” Fat Cranley would laugh then, rocking back on his heels with a glass of stout in his hand or banging their meat on to his weighing-scales. Mr Middleton would smile. “There was alarm in your eyes, Mr Cranley,” Miss Middleton would murmur, smiling also at the memory of the distant occasion.

The Middletons are now harmless eccentrics, their ostentatious loyalty to Britain and the Queen tolerated by their Catholic neighbors as a merely personal idiosyncrasy. Things change, however, when the Troubles begin again in Northern Ireland, political attitudes harden, and the Middletons are quietly ostracized. The story ends with their realization that “because of the distant past they would die friendless. It was worse than being murdered in their beds.”

Mostly, though, Trevor’s people take a certain quiet pride in their survival after traumatic events. What defines Trevor as a writer is that he never regrets the historic defeat that formed him. Nostalgia is kept at bay by the realization that the past tragedy is what has made his characters who they are and given them their singular relationship to the present. In “Of the Cloth,” the Protestant rector “did not in any way resent the fact that, while his own small churches fell into disrepair, the wayside Church of the Holy Assumption, with its Virgin’s grotto and its slope of new graves, was alive and bustling.” In “Low Sunday, 1950,” a brother and sister whose father was killed in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 take a sanguine view of the upheaval that took such a toll:

They did not regret, either of them, the fruits of the revolution that by chance had changed their lives in making them its casualties. They rejoiced in all that had come about and even took pride in their accidental closeness to the revolution as it had happened. They had been in at a nation’s birth, had later experienced its childhood years, unprosperous and ordinary and undramatic. That a terrible beauty had transformed the land they had not noticed.

In “The Time of Year,” a young woman whose lover has drowned is haunted by his death but does not really mourn: “She was as she wished to be…. She did not quite add that the tragedy had made her what she was, that without it she would not possess her reflective introspection….”

In Trevor’s world, resignation is the great virtue and disillusionment is the nearest thing to freedom. In “Teresa’s Wedding,” a woman reflects at the end of her awful wedding day that she and her new husband, whom she does not love, “might make some kind of marriage together because there was nothing that could be destroyed, no magic or anything else.”

This sense that there is nothing left to be destroyed and that therefore there is little to fear is rooted in Trevor’s own Protestant Irish background, but he gives it a general application. In his vision, old houses are usually falling apart. Female beauty is typically faded, its glow the dying embers of a fire. Mrs. O’Neill in “Bodily Secrets” was “a beauty once.” Clione in “A Friend in the Trade” combines the remnants of youthful pulchritude with the knowledge that “cobweb wrinkles have an attraction of their own.” Vanessa Ormston in “Death of a Professor” has “retained her beauty to the same degree that the flowers she presses between the leaves of books have.” In “On the Streets” from A Bit on the Side, Cheryl “had been pretty once and still retained more than a vestige of those looks at fifty-one.” Of Evelyn in “An Evening Out” he writes that “the remains of beauty strikingly lit her features.”

The slow crumbling, the flaws in the structure, are what attract Trevor. His moral universe is not mapped by good and evil but by the various shades of weakness which he regards with a dispassionate sympathy. It is, a character in “Autumn Sunshine” reflects, “weakness in people…that made them what they were as much as strength.” His cool appraisal extends in particular to England. Trevor emigrated there in his mid-twenties, and in doing so perhaps ended the last possibility of nostalgia. The old Irish Protestant idealization of England as the Mother Country could not survive Trevor’s scrutiny of its middle-class life. Attuned as they were to the signals of inertia, his antennae picked up the sounds of post-imperial decline with unusual clarity. England is the parallel universe to Ireland in his work—in A Bit on the Side, the stories neatly alternate between one country and the other—and it is even more obviously entropic. While Irish decline may be granted in Trevor’s vision a certain underlying tragic grandeur, England’s waning can manage at best a comic stoicism.

The pervasive sense of decline may reveal a deeply conservative view of the world, but it also gives Trevor’s writing a deceptive angularity. In their own way, his characters inhabit a universe no less absurd than that of another son of the displaced Irish Protestant professional class, Samuel Beckett. The narrator of “Solitude” remarks that “that is how we live, our conversations incomplete, or never begun at all,” and within their apparently neat structures, Trevor’s narratives are riddled with voids and silences. Trevor tells stories in which stories are untold. People think about expressing what they feel, but then think better of it.

Even the written word is haunted by the possibility that it will be unread. If one of Trevor’s characters is working on a book, it will certainly go unpublished. In “Her Mother’s Daughter,” Helena’s parents have neglected her in order to work for many years on a seven-hundred-page book on lexicography. When they are dead, she takes her revenge:

The cardboard carton containing her father’s work, and her mother’s achievement in completing it, remained in a corner of an empty bedroom. When the house was sold and the particulars completed the estate agents would telephone her …to point out that this carton had been overlooked…she’d say it didn’t matter, and give the instruction that it should be thrown away.

In “An Evening Out” from A Bit on the Side, a man’s lifelong project of documenting the streets of London “would never be completed, much less published.” In “Solitude,” the narrator’s father is an Egyptologist: “His books did not remain unwritten, but he did not ever want to publish them.”

Often in Trevor’s stories, there is an explicit understanding that what has just happened will not happen again, that the story itself is, as it were, being told for the last time. The duped Professor Flacks in “Two More Gallants” realizes that “never again could he hold his head up among the Friends of James Joyce.” Bridie, in “The Ballroom of Romance,” decides that “not ever again would she dance in the Ballroom of Romance.” Eleanor, in “Kinkies,” will “never be able to return to the offices” where she has worked. The priest in “Death in Jerusalem” “wondered if he would ever again return in July to Co. Tipperary, and imagined he would not.”

This sense of conclusiveness returns in the stories in A Bit on the Side. In “Graillis’s Legacy” the protagonist realizes of a fondly remembered friendship that “there was no more, nor would there be.” The narrator of “Solitude” has a premonition that the golden days she spends with her beloved father will end: “There’ll never be the picture gallery again, our favourite picture the picnic on the beach. There’ll never be the café again, there’ll never be the dolls’ museum.” In “Justina’s Priest,” a Catholic clergyman realizes that Ireland has changed and that his influence has “fallen away to nothing.” In “Sacred Statues,” a woman is doomed to remain childless and the “buttercup-yellow room so lovingly prepared” for her children “would never now be occupied.”

Even when the sense of an ending is not so explicit, there is almost always the realization that something is coming to a close. Sometimes, his characters are at the end of a childhood that is killed off by the irruption of sex. In “Nice Day at School,” an innocent English girl almost succumbs to the insistence of her schoolmates that she lose her virginity, and the repellent experience makes her middle-aged before she has even become an adult. Sometimes, as in the “The Ballroom of Romance,” it is youth that comes to an end as the main character, who is in her mid-thirties, gives up all her hopes of fulfillment and settles for a life of frustration. Sometimes, life itself has come to an end, as when in the opening story of A Bit on the Side, “Sitting with the Dead,” the dead body of a horse trainer lies in the house where his widow rails at his memory. Sometimes, a whole family history is running into the sands. In one of Trevor’s first stories, “A Meeting in Middle Age,” the protagonist, Mr. Mileson, is a “bachelor, childless, the end of the line.”

It is this feeling of finality that gives Trevor’s work its depth and dignity. He, too, may be the end of a line, his work a last flowering of nineteenth-century fiction. It is untimely, anachronistic, a remnant of something that lingers on after its world has died. The knowledge that the struggle is over gives it the serenity and composure of utter resignation.3

  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.

  3. 3

    The paperback edition of William Trevor: The Collected Stories was published by Penguin in 1993.

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