In each generation, over the course of time and through the production of volumes of fiction of almost unwavering quality, a small pantheon of Unassailables forms. These writers’ names are spoken in tones of hushed reverence; their work is, in some absolute sense, beyond criticism. Elevation to this summit is a mixed blessing for a writer: surely there is triumph in the ascent, but mere mortals are more zealously absorbed, even embroiled, in the muddy hurly-burly down below. Which is to say that awed respect and admiration can come to resemble indifference.
Since well before V.S. Pritchett wrote of William Trevor in these pages, almost twenty years ago, that “he is one of the finest short story writers at present writing in the Anglo-Irish modes” (1979), nobody has questioned Trevor’s eminence. In these pages alone, he has been praised by no less distinguished a series than Patricia Craig (1981), Mary Gordon (1983), Robert Towers (1986, 1990), John Banville (1991, 1997), Hilary Mantel (1995), Anita Desai (1998), Denis Donoghue (2001), and Fintan O’Toole (2005).
August though he may be, Philip Roth remains to this day the subject of lively, even impassioned, debate. But when did William Trevor—or, for that matter, his fellow contemporary master of the short story form, Alice Munro, the pair of them sharing the laurels of Chekhov (“s/he is our Chekhov!” their critics have announced)—last spark a controversy, let alone incite a dispute?
Insofar as this awed reverence mutes a broader discussion of his work, this is a shame. William Trevor is not a monument, nor are his stories monoliths. They are complex, fragile, breathing creations, each distinct and yet related to one another as are, say, Bach inventions. All are stronger and more memorable than most other writers’ short stories; but some are more haunting, “bigger” than others. All are constructed, with the patience and delicacy of papier-mâché, around humanity’s small and grainy truths; but some, in their final outlines, more clearly resemble those truths.
With a range almost unparalleled in contemporary fiction, Trevor remains capable of irony, as well as of his lauded melancholy tenderness, or his apparently brutal restraint. But he is capable, also, of contrivance, and of a tendency toward melodrama that, couched as it is in that famed restraint, is often overlooked. (Think, for example, of his acclaimed novella “Reading Turgenev,” which is at once a miniaturist study and a high-gothic melodrama of operatic proportions. It even includes the cracking line “And in that moment Robert died.”) As a reader, you might think yourself capable of typifying the “Trevor story,” but every formulation you propose will prove inadequate.
The stories in Trevor’s latest collection, Cheating at Canasta, set in Ireland, England, Italy, and France, with characters ranging from a young mechanic to an aging bourgeois, from a con man to a pedophile to a priest, exemplify, in some small measure, this diversity. Told in the third person, these pieces allow for multiple perspectives, and, often, the passage of years; but they remain firmly lyric in their enterprise: rather than embarking upon broad, apparently undirected swathes of life, Trevor, in his short fiction, seeks to convey a line of emotion or the arc of a relationship, a moment or strand of human existence.
Almost always, these stories resolve, like music, into a chord—major or minor, depending on the piece—that seeks to distill the significance of what has come before. In this sense, his are unabashedly moral fictions: for all that Trevor is subtle, even at times deliberately oblique, he ensures that his story’s meaning is clear. His clarifying closing paragraphs can take the form of a nod to the future, as in “The Dressmaker’s Child.” In this story, which opens the collection, a young mechanic is responsible for a child’s death (she ran out in front of his car), although nobody knows it but the girl’s mother. Eventually, he realizes that he will inevitably succumb to this woman’s desire for him:
When he went by the dressmaker’s blue cottage she was there in the front garden, weeding her flowerbeds. Even though she didn’t look up, he wanted to go to her and knew that one day he would.
Equally, clarification can involve an illumination of the self, or of the world, or of the past. Or of all of these, as in “Faith,” a story in which a Protestant minister attends the death of his cantankerous spinster sister:
When he drew down the sheet the moment of calm was still caught in her features. He stayed with her, the mercy of her tranquillity seeming to be a miracle that was real, as it had been in the instant of death. Heaven enough, and more than angels.
“Faith,” at once simple and affecting, is the story of these siblings: Bartholomew, the dutiful, gentle bachelor minister, and his pushy older sister Hester, who once thwarted her brother’s marriage: “Fifteen years ago, when Sally Carbery had decided against marriage at the last minute it was because she feared Hester.” We are told that
since their childhood he had resented, without saying it, her [Hester’s] interference, her indignation on his behalf, her possessiveness. He had forgiven what she couldn’t help, doing so as natural in him as scorn and prickliness were in her. She had never noticed, had never been aware of how he felt.
The lives that are described, with Trevor’s distinctive subtlety and deftness, are at once familiar and unique: Hester, faced with the loss of her Dublin home, manipulates her brother into accepting a forlorn rural parish at Oscarey, where she cares for the church as if it were her own. Bartholomew, dutiful but mildly resentful, complies, without complaint, with Hester’s wishes. Eventually Hester takes ill and dies.
This is the story’s simple outline. Its internal arc is rather different. Once settled at Oscarey, having left behind the ministry to the urban troubled youth to which he was passionately committed, Bartholomew suffers a revelation. The incident is described, but remains unexplained—an all-changing but ineffable moment, like Forster’s Malabar Caves:
Then—as it happened, on a Sunday night—Bartholomew, with cruel suddenness, was aware of a realization that made him feel as if he had been struck a blow so powerful it left him, though not in pain, without the normality of his faculties. This happened in his bedroom before he had begun to undress. The bedside light was on; he had closed the door, pulled down the two blinds, and was standing beside his bed, having just untied the laces of his shoes. For a moment he thought he had fallen down, but he had not. He thought he could not see, but he could see. A shoe was in one hand, which brought something of reality back, and sitting down on the edge of the bed did too. The clatter of the shoe on the linoleum when it slipped from his grasp brought more. Sensations of confusion lingered while he sat there, then were gone.
We are not told that Bartholomew has experienced a crisis of faith. We surmise that this is so because of the story’s title, and above all because Bartholomew is a man of God undergoing an inexpressible revelation. Quite literally, the shoe drops. By what other life-shattering revelation would such a man be visited? Or rather, what other life-shattering revelation, in this setting, would require no further elucidation on the part of the author? We know what Bartholomew suffers not because we are made to understand it, or are told it, but because Trevor hints at what must, in this human configuration, perforce occur: it is the situation at Oscarey, and our past knowledge of the common crises of the priesthood, that provide us with the necessary information. Or, put another way, Trevor relies upon the typical, from which neither Bartholomew nor Hester strays, and assumes that his reader will do the same.
The story’s darkness, as well as its risk of stereotype, are tempered, even transformed, by Bartholomew’s understanding of Hester’s death:
Bartholomew knew that pain was taken from her and that she shed, in this first moment of her eternity, her too-long, gnawing discontent; that peace, elusive for a lifetime, had come at last.
This realization does not merely mitigate his crisis of faith, but replaces it: “Heaven enough, and more than angels.” Bartholomew is sustained—and the implication is that he will continue to be sustained—by the knowledge that his sister’s faith, at least, has brought her peace in death. The concomitant understanding is that even if he were to remain in doubt, his life, nevertheless, has had a purpose, because he has assisted in his sister’s redemption and has seen her at peace. This is a tidy epiphany indeed, by which to justify the sacrifice of Bartholomew’s entire life.
Trevor is remarkable in his ability to indulge in and transcend melodrama (a gift shared with Henry James). But it is a transcendence not always fully achieved. Moreover, there are instances where this reader, at least, cannot help but question the human accuracy of Trevor’s choices. Can Bartholomew, in fact, be sustained by the “miracle” that is the “mercy of her tranquillity,” after the literal shoe has dropped? If he is himself in doubt, would he not worry that his sister’s tranquillity is the result of false beliefs, and would that not trouble his moment of “Heaven”? Could this moment really be “Heaven enough”? Or is it rather a gentling, faintly sentimental gesture toward redemption without which “Faith” would be a story of Beckettian bleakness?
On the one hand, Trevor’s remarkable economy and restraint serve, in this instance, to impart to this story the quality, almost, of a Christian parable—an Augustinian confession, as it were, in the third person. But on the other, that self-same economy and restraint involve a manipulation of stereotype and sentiment.
Similarly, in the collection’s final story, “Folie à Deux,” the narrative is framed by the unexpected reunion, in Paris, of two boyhood friends, Wilby and Anthony. The trajectory of their friendship is laid out for us in order to explain their radically divergent lives: Wilby has ended up a prosperous amateur philatelist; Anthony, a waiter. Upon first glimpsing Anthony, Wilby is surprised, because “people have said that Anthony is dead.” What unfolds is the guilty secret shared by the two boys, a childhood prank gone horribly wrong:
Perfectly together, they shared an act that was too shameful to commit alone, taking a chance on a sunny morning in order to discover if an old dog’s cleverness would see to his survival.
Wilby and Anthony, that summer morning, put Anthony’s faithful dog Jericho on an inflated mattress and sent him out to sea, where they watched the poor dog, helpless, drown.
The account of the event itself is Trevor at his finest. The banality and insouciance of the boys’ action, the capricious state of semi-innocence in which they are at once aware and not aware of its consequences, the silence that attends the act—Trevor conveys all this so deftly, so truly, that any reader will recognize his youthful self in the boys’ dangerous flippancy.
What follows, however, feels curiously willed: to be sure, it is seen through Wilby’s eyes (although the story, like the others, is in the third person, Trevor is one of our truly great masters of free indirect style, and we are, as it were, osmotically imbued with Wilby’s consciousness through syntax and diction), and hence we may take the story’s conclusions as subjective if we choose. But its gist is simple: Wilby, the privileged amateur, has traveled through life essentially unmarked by the terrible act of that long-ago afternoon. Or rather, the mark it left upon him was the eventual end of his friendship with Anthony, about whom he has not thought in years. Anthony, meanwhile, forever and fundamentally changed by the day, has led a life of itinerant secrecy and isolation, friendless, cut off from his family. His outline has been shaped by the boys’ perfidy.
The story’s penultimate paragraph, in which Trevor articulates Wilby’s realization of Anthony’s lifelong penance, is exceptionally beautiful—rhythmical in its tone and in its sad import. The sentences reverberate like bars of a glorious, melancholy music:
For Anthony, the betrayal matters, the folly, the carelessness that would have been forgiven, the cruelty. It mattered in the silence—while they watched, while they clambered over the shingle and the rocks, while they passed through the gorse field. It matters now. The haunted sea is all the truth there is for Anthony, what he honours because it matters still.
But wait a minute: “The haunted sea is all the truth there is for Anthony, what he honours because it matters still.” This is a fine—even haunting—sentence, but how true can it be? Even if the “haunted sea” is responsible for the shape of Anthony’s life—which is a radical and questionable suggestion that the story itself reveals nothing to support—can it really be said that it is “all the truth there is for Anthony”? Over the course of decades, across countries, through different phases of life, can it actually be that no experience, no “truth,” has accrued for Anthony to overlay his formative childhood experience?
It isn’t, of course, clear that we, as readers, must believe the rather far-fetched assertion that Anthony’s entire existence was determined on that summer morning. We understand that this is what Wilby, on the occasion of their Paris encounter, comes to imagine. As the story’s final sentence confirms, on this occasion, Wilby “likes himself less than he likes his friend”; but we know that he is liking merely his construction of his friend. Nevertheless, the orchestral paragraph that precedes Wilby’s small self-awareness seems to insist that we, too, should believe in Anthony’s honorable truth, his life sacrificed to atonement.
Such cavils do not, for this reader, undermine the magnificence of Trevor’s achievement. In fact, they make him a more interesting writer, one who, in spite of his deserved reputation for an unsparing, accurate eye, is struggling, nevertheless, with a deeply human—and simultaneously God-like—impulse to ease the burdens of his characters, or to ennoble them, even if in so doing he blurs the outlines of what is, by allowing instead what might be. If he wants us to see clearly the flaws of his creations, he also wants to grant them a measure of grace.
In his very finest stories (of which there are an impressive number: his early collection Angels at the Ritz is comprised almost entirely of small masterpieces), Trevor resists these impulses: as the Southern expression has it, he leaves ’em to lie where Jesus flang ’em. The crowning jewel of this new collection is its title story, “Cheating at Canasta,” a small, lyric piece of breathtaking poignancy, in which Mallory, a middle-aged Englishman, dines alone one evening at Harry’s Bar in Venice. He is there in honor of his many visits with his wife, Julia:
“You promise me you’ll go back for both of us,” Julia had pleaded when she knew she would not be returning to Venice herself, and he had promised; but more time than he’d intended had slipped by before he had done so.
Julia has fallen prey, while still relatively young, to Alzheimer’s, and although she lives, still, in a nursing home in England, Mallory must travel without her. She is, of course, always with him, as he hears her voice commenting upon the waiters and the other diners; but the memory of their shared travels is overlaid, through the story, by their present reality. Now they show their enduring love through the card games—canasta, say—that they can still play: in his willingness to cheat so that she may win, and in her delight at winning:
“No matter what,” Julia had said, aware then of what was coming, “let’s always play cards.” And they did; for even with her memory gone, a little more of it each day—her children taken, her house, her flowerbeds, belongings, clothes—their games in the communal drawing-room were a reality her affliction still allowed.
Mallory, while reflecting upon Julia’s diminished state, overhears a neighboring couple quarreling, and is dismayed by their failure to understand the complexities of marriage. He remembers his wife’s comment: “‘Love’s cruel angels at play,’ she called it when they upset one another.” As the couple gets up to go, Mallory gestures, in which moment they realize that he is English rather than Italian, and has heard their bickering. He introduces himself, explains his reason for being there. They commiserate politely, then depart, leaving him alone again, with Julia’s wisdom in his ear:
He watched the couple go, and smiled across the crowded restaurant when they reached the door. Shame isn’t bad, her voice from somewhere else insists. Nor the humility that is its gift.
These closing lines share, in their rhythm and strong significance, the cadence of the endings of the stories mentioned above; but the effect—the chord—is different. Less directing, in every way more minor, these lines reverberate back through the story, not closing down and specifying its import, but further opening it. Mallory is shamed, in his way; but so too are the Americans on whose argument he has eavesdropped. And so, too, of course, is poor Julia, her self stripped away little by little. Shame is an honorable state. Julia, even now, teaches Mallory what it means to love; and in so doing answers the question that he has asked himself earlier in the evening: “Would it have mattered much…if he had not at last made this journey, the first of the many she had wanted him to make?”
“Cheating at Canasta” is terribly sad; but it is also beautiful, a hymn to marital devotion and to human dignity. Trevor has no need here of guile or alteration, no need of moral instruction. In rendering Mallory’s small and perhaps futile gestures—his evening in Harry’s Bar, his cheating at canasta, his brief conversation with his neighbors—Trevor evokes a complex melancholy, and the transcendence of melancholy, that are the opposite of smallness and futility. Without willing grace upon his characters, he has granted it.
“Men of Ireland” and “Bravado” are, in their different ways, as frank and uncompromising as is “Cheating at Canasta,” but they reveal Trevor’s colder eye. In the former, a con man named Donal Prunty, on his uppers, returns to his native Ireland, and to his natal village, for the first time in twenty-three years, in order to blackmail his innocent childhood priest, Father Meade, for a sexual transgression that never occurred. Prunty, successful in the endeavor, suffers neither shame nor remorse, while Meade, having been innocent, sees his innocence shattered: he has paid Prunty off simply to avoid a scandal, even a groundless one:
There’d been no generous intent in the giving of the money, no honourable guilt had inspired the gesture, no charitable motive. He had paid for silence. Guiltless, he was guilty, his brave defiance as much of a subterfuge as any of his visitor’s.
Again, the story is a lyric, rather than a narrative: it lives in a moment. Those elements of that story that extend beyond the men’s brief meeting serve the sole purpose of explicating that meeting. Trevor provides us with both of their points of view, the one corrupt and the other world-weary. Ironically it is in Father Meade’s that we find the ultimate cynicism, and the greater human failure.
“Bravado,” similarly, finds the guilt that hangs upon the apparently innocent in a criminal situation. Aisling, a convent girl, spends an evening on the town with her older, slightly louche boyfriend, Manning, and his mates. Of Manning, we are told that
an air of insouciance distinguished his manner, was there again in the lazy saunter of his walk, in his smile. Manning led when he was with Donovan and Kilroy, which he was most of the time, and was tonight.
In seeking to impress his girl, and in exerting his leader’s bravado, Manning hits and kicks a man, and unwittingly takes his life. Although Trevor could focus upon the potential high drama of the crime, his interest lies instead with Aisling, and her moral accounting to herself, and to the victim, of what has taken place.
The story sweeps, bird-like, through various points of view, before settling upon Aisling’s shoulder; and the narrative plays, too, with the passage of time—so that when we are told that “for Aisling, time passing was stranger than she had ever known days and nights to be before. Nothing was unaffected,” we, too, know what this is like. From an opening paragraph that describes a static scene—an instant—in prolonged and vivid detail, the story’s pace accelerates wildly. Months flash past between words: “When more time passed there was the trial, and then the verdict”; and then, years: “A letter came, long afterwards, flamboyant handwriting bringing back the excitement of surreptitious notes in the past.” The brief interruption of an evening that forever changes Aisling’s life is given, in this story if not in life, its due proportion of time. “Bravado” is a structurally and technically ambitious story, and a slightly strange one—it could be said that it is eponymous, itself an act of literary bravado. And again, impressively, it is a piece in which Trevor’s artifice, if artifice it can be called, is so artful that neither manipulation nor contrivance can be discerned.
Trevor has his themes, to be sure, that have recurred and evolved over a span, now, of almost half a century: Ireland’s aging, impoverished Protestants, stranded on their crumbling estates (here present in “At Olivehill”); the cuckolded men and women of marriage’s middle age, whose compromises and dependencies require rigorous repression, but allow small comforts (“Old Flame,” “The Room”); the familiar genteel Londoners in quiet emotional turmoil (“A Perfect Relationship”), or Ireland’s ordinary rural folk, their lives overlaid with history both emotional and political (“The Dressmaker’s Child,” “The Children”).
There is often, in Trevor’s stories, and here no less, a fable-like quality, a sense that events take place out of time, or in some unspecified time that is neither now nor very long ago. Here, as for several decades, Trevor’s characters breathe a timeless air, in which the mention of contemporary gadgets or cafés seems almost jarring. These twelve stories resemble many others in this regard. There is no radical departure, in this volume, from the many collections that have come before; nor is there any falling away in mastery.
Nevertheless, Trevor’s trajectory, in the longest term, reflects a distillation of his vision. From his early, blackly comic novels The Old Boys (1964) and The Boarding House (1965), reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark, through his exploration of sexual mores—as in Angels at the Ritz (1975), with its stories about wife-swapping in the London suburbs, a shotgun wedding in small-town Ireland, or the faintly sordid shenanigans of company secretaries and their married employers—to the bleak summum of Protestant Irish experience laid bare in “Reading Turgenev” (1991), and on, since, through novels and a series of fine collections, Trevor, knowing his characters’ worlds intimately, has come to know his writerly tendencies intimately also.
The result, in “Cheating at Canasta,” is as fine a story as Trevor has written—finer even, in my opinion, than the significantly more substantial “Reading Turgenev,” in which, for all its marvelous observations, the literary contrivance is rather persistently showing. And that elsewhere in this book Trevor will still push, sometimes awkwardly, for his characters’ redemption, or at the least for their moral worth, is, in a writer of such literary accomplishment and such rich wisdom, an exhilarating sign of struggle, of life itself—“Heaven enough, and more than angels.”
February 14, 2008