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.
Ladner came around the house and confronted them. It was Bea’s impression that he had a fierce dog with him. But this was not the case. Ladner did not own a dog. He was his own fierce dog.
The next section of the story recounts the visit to Bea’s empty house by Liza and her husband, both of whom are Christian fundamentalists. Despite their religious beliefs, however, the couple casually vandalize the house, Liza leading the destruction. Then we are shifted back in time again, to an account of how as a young girl Liza, along with her young er brother, Kenny, was taken up by Ladner and Bea. From this point the story opens out before us like a hole opening into a trackless forest.
…When you cross into Ladner’s territory, it’s like coming into a world of different and distinct countries. There is the marsh country, which is deep and jungly, full of botflies and jewelweed and skunk cabbage. A sense there of tropical threats and complications. Then the pine plantation, solemn as a church, with its high boughs and needled carpet, inducing whispering. And the dark rooms under the down-swept branches of the cedars—entirely shaded and secret rooms with a bare earth floor. In different places the snow falls differently and in some places not at all. In some places the air is thick and private, and in other places you feel an energetic breeze. Smells are harsh and enticing. Certain walks impose decorum and certain stones are set a jump apart so that they call out for craziness. Here are the scenes of serious instruction where Ladner taught them how to tell a hickory tree from a butternut and a star from a planet, and places also where they have run and hollered and hung from branches and performed all sorts of rash stunts. And places where Liza thinks there is a bruise on the ground, a tickling and shame in the grass….
When Ladner grabbed Liza and squashed himself against her, she had a sense of danger deep inside him, a mechanical sputtering, as if he would exhaust himself in one jab of light, and nothing would be left of him but black smoke and burnt smells and frazzled wires. Instead, he collapsed heavily, like the pelt of an animal flung loose from its flesh and bones. He lay so heavy and useless that Liza and even Kenny felt for a moment that it was a transgression to look to him. He had to pull his voice out of his groaning innards, to tell them they were bad.
He clucked his tongue faintly and his eyes shone out of ambush, hard and round as the animals’ glass eyes.
Both writers are masters of this kind of dark, revelatory moment, though Trevor communicates his horrors in more muted tones. In “Widows,” for instance, which is ostensibly little more than an anecdote about a wily house painter trying to cheat the elderly Catherine, a new-made widow, out of a couple of hundred pounds, the narrative twists at the end to reveal deep and painful truths. Catherine’s older sister Alicia, a beauty in her youth and now also a widow, who has lived in the house since the death of her own, unloved, husband, is shown to be jealous of Catherine’s grief, as, when their husbands were living, she might have been jealous of her happiness.
[Catherine] watched the darkness lighten, heard the first cars of the day pass on the road outside the house. By chance, a petty dishonesty had made death a potency for her sister, as it had not been when she was widowed herself. Alicia had cheated it of its due; it took from her now, as it had not then.
Catherine knew this intuition was no trick of her tired mind. While they were widows in her house Alicia’s jealousy would be the truth they shared, tonight’s few moments of its presence lingering insistently. Widows were widows first. Catherine would mourn, and feel in solitude the warmth of love. For Alicia there was the memory of her beauty.
In contrast, in Munro’s story along similar lines, “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You,” the drama is more overt, involving high passions and slow poisons—in the case of the latter, poisons both metaphorical and real. In the passage quoted above, Char in her youth has been jilted by Blaikie Noble; now, when they are growing old, sisters Et and Char are living together, along with Char’s sickly husband, Arthur. Blaikie Noble re-enters the scene, and Et, jealous of the still-beautiful Char, invents a story (“She never knew where she got the inspiration to say what she said, where it came from”) that Blaikie has once again gone off and got secretly married, at which news Char, in whom old emotions had been stirred by Blaikie’s return, drinks poison, the real thing this time, and puts an end to herself.
Sometimes Et had it on the tip of her tongue to say to Arthur, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” She didn’t believe she was going to let him die without knowing. He shouldn’t be allowed. He kept a picture of Char on his bureau. It was the one taken in her costume for that play, where she played the statue-girl. But Et let it go, day to day. She and Arthur still played rummy and kept up a bit of garden, along with raspberry canes. If they had married, people would have said they were very happy.
It is a wonderfully understated ending, yet it has an unpleasing, Maupassant-like tricksiness to it; one seems to hear a small, triumphant snap, as when the cardsharp slaps down the ace of spades.
However, elsewhere in this (perhaps too bulky) collection, Munro uses sleight of hand to thrilling effect. “Friend of My Youth,” for example, is at once a moving tale of familial love and loss and a sly deconstruction of storytelling itself. Once again, this is a “framed” story, in which the narrator begins by speaking of the dreams she used to have of her dead mother, then seems to stray aside to imagine possible lives for a young woman whom her mother knew in her youth, only to close the artistic trap on us in the end with, this time, a highly satisfying deftness.
Of course it’s my mother I’m thinking of, my mother as she was in those dreams, saying, It’s nothing, just this little tremor; saying with such astonishing light-hearted forgiveness, Oh, I knew you’d come someday. My mother surprising me, and doing it almost indifferently. Her mask, her fate, and most of her affliction taken away. How relieved I was, and happy. But I now recall that I was disconcerted as well. I would have to say that I felt slightly cheated. Yes. Offended, tricked, cheated, by this welcome turnaround, this reprieve. My mother moving rather carelessly out of her old prison, showing options and powers I never dreamed she had. Changes more than herself. She changes the bitter lump of love I have carried all this time into a phantom—something useless and uncalled for, like a phantom pregnancy.
Knowledge of a similar kind comes to Harriet in the title story of William Trevor’s collection. “After Rain,” for all its deceptive narrowness of scale and quiet pensiveness, is one of this author’s finest achievements, a masterpiece as delicate, luminous, and moving as the Annunciation (“perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi”) which hangs at the center of what little action there is.
The angel kneels, grey wings protruding, his lily half hidden by a pillar. The floor is marble, white and green and ochre. The Virgin looks alarmed, right hand arresting her visitor’s advance. Beyond—background to the encounter—there are gracious arches, a balustrade and then the sky and hills. There is a soundlessness about the picture, the silence of a mystery: no words are spoken in this captured moment, what’s said between the two has been said already.
It is impossible to convey adequately the classical poise and beauty of this little tale. Harriet is on holiday in Italy, after the end of another love affair. In her solitude she wanders about the town, eats dinner at the Pensione Cesarina, is chatted to aimlessly by a fellow guest, visits the church of Santa Fabiola, and contemplates the Annunciation scene.
There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.
By this time, the angel has come to her, too:
The rain has stopped when Harriet leaves the church, the air is fresher. Too slick and glib, to use her love affairs to restore her faith in love: that thought is there mysteriously. She has cheated in her love affairs: that comes from nowhere too.
Trevor hardly ever makes an error of judgment, so that on the rare occasion when he does, one almost welcomes it, as one would welcome the homeliness of a wrong note in a dazzling cadenza by a great virtuoso. Thus, in “A Bit of Business,” a frighteningly jaunty account of a burglary with violence carried out by two young thugs during the Pope’s visit to Dublin in 1979, the Irish accent is not quite right (“‘He’ll squawk his bloody guts out,”‘ “hell take the consequences”), an indication perhaps of how long Trevor has been living outside his native Ireland. In the same story, “a girl with one whole side of her bikini open” makes one wonder if Mr. Trevor actually knows what a bikini is. These tiny flaws would not be worth remarking if they were not symptomatic of what seems a very faint slackening of energies detectable at certain moments throughout this collection. Trevor is always specific; at the outset of each story we are set down firmly in a time and a place (“On a warm Saturday morning the city was deserted”; “On November 20th 1989, a Monday, in an area of South London…”; “On the afternoon of September 14th 1989, a Thursday…”) yet here the specificities can seem at times mechanical, not so much economical as brusque. There are occasions too when he seems to be engaging in five-finger exercises, vamping through old tunes, his mind elsewhere. Both the first and last stories in the collection, “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and “Marrying Damian,” are not up to Trevor’s usual high standards, while “A Friendship” strikes me as uncharacteristically contrived.
For all that, Trevor remains one of the finest writers at work in the language. He can introduce us to a sectarian murderer with a matter-of-factness that is far more frightening than any lurid display of blood and slaughter. The story in which this character appears, “Lost Ground,” says practically everything there is to be said about the tribal savagery that has been going on in Northern Ireland for the past three centuries—and says it unflinchingly. In it, Milton Leeson, simple-minded son of a God-fearing and unbendingly bigoted Protestant farming family, is urged by an “apparition” of a Catholic saint to go about telling in public of the visitation. The family, horrified by this disgraceful apostasy, tries to prevent the boy from preaching his poor fantasies. He is confined to the farm, but repeatedly escapes. Eventually, a harsher remedy is called for, and Milton is quietly murdered by his brother Garfield, who “had a role among the Protestant paramilitaries” and is an old hand at “the disposal business.” At the end of the story, Milton’s sister Hazel, who has broken away from the family home and the stultifying tribalism which forms its foundations, recognizes at the funeral of the murdered young man the terrible realities of the life she has escaped from:
…Hazel did not attempt to soothe her mother’s distress because she knew she could not. Her mother would go to her own grave with the scalding agony of what had happened still alive within her; her father would be reminded of the day of the occurrence on all the July marches remaining to him. The family would not ever talk about the day, but through their pain they would tell themselves that Milton’s death was the way things were, the way things had to be: that was their single con-solation. Lost ground had been regained.
“Gilbert’s Mother,” in which a middle-aged woman tries to cope with the suspicion that her mentally disturbed son may be a murderer, is an almost unbearable portrait of pure, unassuageable pain. In “A Day,” poor, barren Mrs. Lethwes, sinking into a sea of gin, desperately daydreams that her husband’s lover will bear him a child and reject it, leaving herself to bring it up and bestow on it all the love she has not been able to use up in her sad life. These and others of the stories gathered here are among Trevor’s finest, and amply fill up whatever small cracks there may be elsewhere in the collection.
February 20, 1997
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). ↩