|William Trevor by Martin Godwin|
Poster by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story part 39
Trevor's greatest skill is seamless characterisation: words that appear authorial are actually those of his protagonists
Unfamiliarity spurs Trevor's imagination; artists, for example, are almost entirely absent from his work. Consistency throughout his long career is often cited, but while his prose never strays far from a precise naturalism, distinct shifts are nevertheless discernible across his work. The Pinteresque cast to the dialogue in some of his earlier outings is absent from later stories. Since the mid-1970s, Irish settings have become more common – he explained in 1983 that he had been away long enough to develop the artistic distance he required – and over the subsequent decade, politics, particularly relating to the Troubles, gained prominence. The younger writer, despite displaying the compassion for his characters that has persisted throughout his career, was undoubtedly more willing to place the helpless in cruel situations where their timidity is ruthlessly exploited. Of these, the more oppressive examples include "The Penthouse Apartment" (1967), "Broken Homes" (1975), and "Being Stolen From" (1981), in which a woman is manipulated into returning an adopted child to its birth mother.
This suffocating story ends with the projection of a miserable, loveless future that's repeated in the title story of the collection in which it appears, The Ballroom of Romance (1972). One of Trevor's most brilliant stories, it describes the diminished prospects of Bridie, the 36-year-old daughter of a disabled mountain farmer. On Saturday nights she cycles to the Ballroom of Romance, a bleak, isolated hall where local men and women mingle with varying degrees of desperation. Bridie convinces herself that she loves Dano Ryan, an affable road mender. But when their desultory conversation reveals he will marry his widowed landlady she determines she will no longer visit the ballroom and, in the closing lines, reconciles herself to a union with middle-aged bachelor Bowser Egan, with whom she has sometimes dallied in the dark fields:
She rode through the night as on Saturday nights for years she had ridden and never would ride again because she'd reached a certain age. She would wait now and in time Bowser Egan would seek her out because his mother would have died. Her father would probably have died also by then. She would marry Bowser Egan because it would be lonesome being by herself in the farmhouse.
"The Ballroom of Romance" speaks of the same "paralysis" that Joyce identified in Dubliners; that is, a moral failure resulting in the inability to live meaningfully. The two writers share methods as well as themes: the critic Dean Flower notes that "both are masters of the subjective third-person and the ironic nuances of indirect discourse". Like Joyce (and to a lesser extent, Chekhov), Trevor contrives to bury his own voice within that of his characters, so that comments which first appear to be authorial are shown to emanate from them: "objective-sounding information," as Flower writes, "is really subjective … You never quite hear Trevor's voice." Read "The Ballroom of Romance" for the first time and you might think the final lines belong to an omniscient narrator. Read it again, and you realise the inflection is Bridie's: the words not a judgment passed down, but a realisation arrived at; an epiphany. The skill with which Trevor applies this technique is perhaps his greatest achievement as a writer; the irony is that he does it so well it's virtually invisible. "I think all writing is experimental," he told the Paris Review in 1989. "The very obvious sort of experimental writing is not really more experimental than that of a conventional writer like myself. I experiment all the time but the experiments are hidden."
Trevor's stories require careful reading for this reason, and because what is presented on the story's surface often conceals the truth. The tension between these positions is a key concern of Trevor's. Affairs, those most commonplace causes for deception, litter his work, and in the late 1970s and 1980s he became particularly interested in the subjectivity of history. "The News from Ireland" (1986), his story of the potato famine, is glutted with lies and deceptions, from a road to nowhere – an insulting labour project ill-suited to weak, hungry men – to the governess Miss Heddoe's self-deceiving assertion that "I do not know these things", denying unpalatable truths she had earlier begun to apprehend. Whereas other political works such as "Attracta" (1978) and "Beyond the Pale" (1981) show how the weight of history impinges on individual psychology, in "The News from Ireland" Trevor shows characters making personal choices that will reverberate throughout the following 150 years.
Trevor has said that "big house" stories appeal because their milieu is one of doom. Perhaps that's why, given the dying away of the Church of Ireland (Trevor is a Protestant) and the Catholic church's more recent loss of authority, priests have come to feature more heavily in his later work. A conversation between a Protestant and Catholic priest is the subject of his most recent great story, "Of the Cloth" (2000), which, although completely grounded in concrete reality, hovers at fable's borders in a way similar to John Cheever's "The Swimmer". It is a reminder that if Trevor's range of subjects has narrowed it has done so, as he described recently, in the manner of painters who "paint the same subject many times … in search of another angle, another viewpoint …" In 1989, he made another comparison with painting when he was asked to define the short story:
I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.
039 William Trevor
040 JD Salinger
040 JD Salinger