Below the Surface
What is not said speaks loud and clearly.
Oct 8, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 04 • By EDWARD SHORT
Cheating at Canasta
No one now writing has put together a more consistently brilliant body of work than William Trevor. Wit, inventiveness, artful economy, and an old campaigner's familiarity with human failure distinguish alike his novels and his short stories.
If, in Cheating at Canasta, his 12th collection of stories, he falls short of earlier collections--and any collection should have to be very good indeed to top The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967), Angels at the Ritz (1975), Lovers of Their Time (1979), After Rain (1996), or A Bit on the Side (2004)--it is only because he has set himself a new and more exacting standard. Where once he might have been content to anatomize his Irish characters ("A Choice of Butchers," "Teresa's Wedding," "The Piano Tuner's Wives") or his English characters ("Broken Homes," "Matilda's England," "Torridge") with brisk definitiveness, as if to prove what whole lives' stories can reveal, in this latest collection he looks at those things about his characters that baffle the storyteller's art, and finds that it is the stories about them that cannot be told--or will not be told--that are most worth telling.
In "At Olivehill," about an Irish Catholic family that sells off the family land to a golf-course developer, Trevor shows how conspiracies of silence undermine families. After the sons of the family broach the sale, their mother Mollie swears them to silence: Their father James must not know that they intend to part with lands that have been in the family since penal times. Mollie herself finds her sons' insistence on the sale mystifying: "It was foolish. . . . Yet her sons weren't fools. It was graceless, even a vulgarity . . . yet they were not vulgar." Still, she refuses to protest. Then James dies and the consequences of her silence become plain. What her sons have done, and what she has helped them to do, will destroy Olivehill. Her silence has been accessory.
"Are we at one?" was a favorite phrase of Mollie's husband's and an emblem of the family's presumed accord. Now it comes back to upbraid her: "He loved to use that old expression. He loved to be reassured." All the more reason "he would hate what she had protected him from . . . [How] chilling and loathsome it would seem to him, how disappointing."
The living may refuse to speak to one another, but they cannot stop the dead from speaking. Mollie has a dream in which James tells her that to put a request into the county council for such a sale will expose the family to ridicule; but still she says nothing, preferring collusion to confrontation. When one of the servants comes and tells her that the family oaks have been felled, she withdraws for good into the "artificial dark" of her drawing room.
Silence is a character in its own right in this and all the stories gathered here. In "A Perfect Relationship," about a December/May affair between compatible misfits, "The reticence they shared was natural to them, but they knew--each as certainly as the other--what was not put into words." In "An Afternoon," Trevor remarks of the adolescent girl who does not realize that the man with whom she is infatuated is a sex offender: "She didn't break the silence when they walked on, knowing that it was special, and better than all the words there might have been." In "Cheating at Canasta," the narrator speculates about a couple doing their all to keep up appearances in Harry's Bar: "It was their stylishness, their deportment, the young wife's beauty, her silence going on, that suggested Scott Fitzgerald, a surface held in spite of an unhappiness."
Trevor has never neglected the surface--much of his comedy springs from what Henry James once called "the anguish of exasperated taste"--but it is the unhappiness below that interests him most, the unspeakable grievances that thrive in silence.
V.S. Pritchett, Trevor's only peer in the art of the short story until he died in 1997, once wrote that "unselfing oneself, speaking for others, justifying those who cannot speak, giving importance to the fact that they live, is especially the privilege of the storyteller."
This describes what Trevor accomplishes in his fiction, though to say he justifies his characters would be saying too much. Like Joyce, Trevor is fascinated by the psychology of baseness. In "Men of Ireland," a story about an Irish exile who returns to his native land to shake down a priest who tried to reform him when he was a boy, he describes a rogue's progress which even the most forbearing storyteller would have difficulty justifying.