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.
The heroine of "The Room" is another hard case. After finding out that her husband has been linked to the death of a young prostitute, Katherine begins a nine-year affair with another married man. Rather than leave her husband, she vouches for him, even though she knows his alibi is false. When police incompetence results in his acquittal, she continues to live with him, only sharing "the room" of her adulterous lover for certain set assignations. How?
For all nine years there'd been restraint. There'd been no asking to be told, no asking for promises that the truth was what she heard. There'd been no asking about the girl, how she'd dressed, her voice, her face, and if she only sat there talking . . . There'd been no asking if there had really been the usual misery on the Northern line, the waiting for a taxi in the rain. For all nine years . . . there had been silence in their ordinary exchanges, in conversation, in making love, in weekend walks and summer trips abroad. For all nine years love had been there, and more than just a comforter, too intense for that . . .
Here again we encounter silence. The travesty of love that Katherine cobbles together out of her moral bewilderment is, indeed, ineffable.
"The Children" shows marriage in a less sordid light. When Connie, a young girl, loses her mother, her father Robert notices that her opposition to his remarriage is stronger than he had expected. It brings him and his fiancée up short to see such fierce, undiminishing love. It forces Teresa, the fiancée, to recognize not only her step-daughter's sensitivities but her own insensitivities: "Teresa confessed that nothing was as tidy as she'd imagined. There were no rights that cancelled other rights, less comfort than she'd thought for the rejected and the widowed, no fairness either." It also forces Robert to undergo a crash course in empathy: "Time would gather up the ends, and see to it that his daughter's honouring of a memory was love that mattered also, and even mattered more."
"Faith" provides another look at family relations. Bartholomew, a Church of Ireland clergyman, is marched about by Hester, his domineering sister, who puts asunder what she considers his "silly" engagement, secures for him the living of a well-endowed (if sparsely attended) church, where "they're managing with a recorded service," and takes charge of his new residence. About this singular hero, Trevor remarks, "Often he didn't want to talk about what had to be talked about, hoping that whatever it was would go away of its own accord." Bartholomew can hardly be blamed for not wanting his story told.
But then Hester falls mortally ill and he begins to face what he has spent a lifetime dodging. He acknowledges that Hester scared off his fiancée deliberately for her own selfish purposes; he admits that he is losing his faith. He admits how unfamiliar he finds the sister who has held such sway over his life: "He didn't know her; that thought came, which never had before. Her severity, the outspokenness that was natural to her, told too little."
Yet the imminence of death changes that. His own faith might be rattled, but he recognizes that "the intensity of her faith, the sureness of her trust, was unaffected by the pain she suffered." In his sister's acceptance of death, the brother comes to admire "the mercy of her tranquility," which he finds "a miracle that was real . . . Heaven enough, and more than angels." Here is a droll twist on the deathbed conversion.
The last story in the collection, "Folie à Deux," is about two estranged friends, bound by an act of youthful ignominy, who accidentally meet up again in Paris. Wilby tries to mitigate what Anthony recognizes is immitigable:
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.
Some regard guilt as chimerical; Trevor recognizes that without it there would be neither penance nor redemption. In "Old Flame," a story about the often-thankless demands of loyalty, Trevor remarks about his beleaguered hero: "No one told him that keeping faith could be as cruel as confessing faithlessness."
By endeavoring to tell stories that his characters wish untold, or tell falsely, or cannot tell, Trevor keeps faith with the art of storytelling. He also lays bare the treachery of the human heart.
Edward Short is completing a book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.