Showing posts with label William Trevor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William Trevor. Show all posts

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Peanut Island, Trevor, and Politics

Tuesday’s weather was one of those travelogue-featured Florida days, relatively low humidity, light winds out of the east, temperature reaching the mid-80’s, just a perfect day for boating, especially as the weekdays features light “boat traffic.”  It’s gotten to the point where I will not even go out on a weekend when the “crazies” seize the waterways, their uneducated or inconsiderate boat handling making for dangerous, uncomfortable going at times.  Being responsible for one’s wake is unheeded by many.

But I’ve digressed.  So Tuesday dawned a beautiful day, a day to be on the water, to escape the constant political drumbeat, and to enjoy what led us to Florida in the first place.  Ann was busy, so that meant going out on my own.  In this area, there are a few choices for a solitary journey.  First, go up or down the Intracoastal or go out into the ocean and do the same.  In other words, take a ride, but that doesn’t appeal to me anymore unless I’m taking someone who would like to see the sights.  Another option is to drop a hook at an anchorage, probably in northern Lake Worth, sit in the shade of the tee top, and read.  I can go swimming off the boat, but prefer someone with me to do that although I normally have no difficulty getting off or on the boat.  The third, more preferable option is to go to a beach, only reachable by boat, in that case either Munyon Island or Peanut Island.  The latter is further and the boat needed a run anyhow, so off to Peanut I went.

It was the right decision as the island was mostly deserted……just what I sought, some peace and quiet.  Brought a sandwich and some Perrier, tied the boat up at the floating docks in the Peanut Island Boat basin, and then walked the quarter mile or so to “my” beach, with a beach chair and reading material. This consisted first of the Wall Street Journal which to me nowadays is “light” reading except for a few articles and the second collection of short stories by William Trevor who I haven’t returned to ever since the election and getting sucked into the abyss of political news.  Time to turn to an old friend to accompany me on my island and forget about everything else.

His second short story anthology Selected Stories consists of ones he wrote later in life, many when he was my age, so I particularly relate to them. As an “Anglo-Irish” writer his shift seems to be more towards where he grew up, Ireland, and not where he lived most of his adult life, England.   He is indeed an Irish story teller.

After a swim (or more like floating) in the clear Bahamian-like waters of Peanut Island, passing by the “Waterway Grille” at a mooring (want pizza at the beach? - just tie your boat up to this houseboat), I had my lunch and dispensed with the WSJ and then settled down with my companion, William Trevor.  

I read and pretty much reread his story Widows, classic Trevor, a story about a slice of life of persons of no particular interest, attribute, or fame, everyman in his naked self.  The story starts off with such a memorable line, immediately bringing you into the story: Waking on a warm, bright morning in early October, Catherine found herself a widow.” Her husband, Mathew, died in his sleep right next to her.  Then in one sentence you get a good idea of both of them:  Quiet, gently spoken, given to thought before offering an opinion, her husband had been regarded by Catherine as cleverer and wiser than she was herself, and more charitable in his view of other people. 

He was well thought of, organized and professional as a seller of agricultural equipment.  He even anticipated the inevitable day when they would be separated by death: Matthew had said more than once, attempting to anticipate the melancholy of their separation: they had known that it was soon to be.  He would have held the memories to him if he’d been the one remaining. ‘Whichever is left,’ he reminded Catherine as they grew old, ‘it’s only for the time being.’…Matthew had never minded talking about their separation, and had taught her not to mind either.

It is not until the funeral that we are introduced to another key character, the other widow (after all the title of the short story is Widows) and that person is Catherine’s sister, Alicia.  She had been living in the house with Catherine and Matthew since her own philandering husband had died nine years earlier.  So there is now the contrast of a happy marriage and Alicia’s unhappy on.  The sisters are now alone in the house.  Alicia is the older, and their relationship seems to be reverting into one before their marriages, the older helping, guiding the younger.

Until the other major character emerges, a painter, Mr. Leary, who brought no special skill to his work and was often accused of poor workmanship, which in turn led to disputes about payment.  Weeks after the funeral he comes by the house to discuss an outstanding bill, an embarrassment because of the death.  He explains that work he had done for Matthew on the house, for cash, £226 to be exact, had not been paid.  Catherine clearly remembers withdrawing the money in that exact amount for Matthew to give to him, and even has the bank records to that effect, but Mr. Leary asks whether she had a receipt.  Mrs. Leary always issued a receipt and there was none in her receipt book.  Are you sure the money was delivered to Mrs. Leary?  The reader is left with the insinuation that perhaps Matthew used the money for something tawdry or at least careless.  Catherine and her sister think that this is just a clever scheme by the Leary’s to be double paid.  She ignores it for awhile but still ponders the possible reasons and then a statement is delivered by mail that the amount is past due.  And that’s part of the genius and wonderment of the story: we never really know whether it was paid or not and if not why (although one is left with the feeling it was).

Catherine is tortured by this knowing a statement will come month after month and finally declares to her sister her intention to pay the bill (probably again).  Catherine was paying money in case, somehow, the memory of her husband should be accidentally tarnished.  And knowing her sister well, Alicia knew that this resolve would become more stubborn as more time passed.  It would mark and influence her sister; it would breed new eccentricities in her.  If Leary had not come that day there would have been something else.

So, in a sharp turn in the story, the spotlight now shines on the relationship between the sisters. This is another Trevor technique of shifting the story suddenly to the real one: an old power struggle to a degree, Alicia being the older and when they were younger considered the more beautiful.  Why shouldn’t things return to the way they were? The disagreement between the sisters, to pay or not, reaches a climax one night.  They did not speak again, not even to say goodnight.  Alicia closed her bedroom door, telling herself crossly that her expectation had not been a greedy one.  She had been unhappy in her foolish marriage, and after it she had been beholden in this house.  Although it ran against her nature to do so, she had borne her lot without complaint; why should she not fairly have hoped that in widowhood they would again be sisters first of all?....By chance, 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.” Talk about great writing.  That last sentence is a gem.  And that is what Trevor’s writing is all about, the commonplace, but those profound moments in each “everyman’s” life.

So, my day at Peanut passed with natural beauty and my renewed “friendship” with William Trevor, to be revisited as time permits.  I packed up, walked back to the boat, the late afternoon sun now beating heavily, boarded the boat and went north on Lake Worth back to my dock to clean up the boat and get ready for dinner with friends.  It was a day away from Twitter and current news so it was not until I got into the car with our friends that I learned that FBI Director James Comey was abruptly fired by Trump, the details of which as we get deeper and deeper into it are as bizarre as any fiction I’ve read.

It seems to me that the next few days are decisive as to whether we will (as we have up to now) accept this as the "new normal" or some courageous Republican Senators draw the line at this and insist on a special prosecutor.    If you switch back and forth between Fox and MSNBC you would think we are living on two different planets.  The assistant White House press secretary was waxing eloquently that the decision was oh so, so, swift and decisive.  Just her kind of man!

The disingenuous letter from Trump cited the “recommendations” of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.  The latter said Comey should be fired because of the way he handled Hillary Clinton emails!  But the most bewildering part of Trump’s firing letter is the following sentence:  “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”  In other words, I’m firing you because of how you helped me get elected, not because you are leading the investigation into my ties to Russia, and I need to get a partisan FBI director who will do my bidding.

Here's hoping our Republic survives instead of stealthily slipping into an obedient dictatorship.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

William Trevor, a Writer for the Ages

William Trevor has died at the age of 88. I came to William Trevor’s masterful short stories late in life as American fiction has been my literary bailiwick.  Trevor was an Irishman who lived mostly in England as an adult.  My loss not having followed him all that time, but I made up for it reading his two massive collections of short stories. I was astounded by his genius.  In his passing, I feel as if a close friend has died, intimately knowing him by his love of, and his sadness for, his characters.  Nonetheless, he was but an observer… By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You're sort of a predator, an invader of people.

The Guardian obituary says it all about his life and fiction, justifiably declaring he was “one of the greatest short story writers of the last century.”  He also wrote 20 novels, an incredible output for a writer who mostly flew under the literary world’s radar screen, which suited him just fine. As a writer one doesn’t belong anywhere. Fiction writers, I think, are even more outside the pale, necessarily on the edge of society. Because society and people are our meat, one really doesn’t belong in the midst of society. The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local, the parochial. And to do that, one needs distance.

While in my entries on Trevor I mentioned a few of his short stories, to describe them in detail is to retell his tales, so I tried to simply sum them up as follows:

“Here are widows and widowers, miscreants and innocents, the travails of the elderly juxtaposed to the innocence of youth, the dilemmas of the middle aged and the divorced, so often lonely people trying to connect with someone who is inappropriate, and people from all economic stations of life. His characters are victims of their own actions, sometimes ‘imagining’ (the number of times Trevor says, ‘he [or] she imagined’ is countless) different outcomes and different realities.  There is a Pinteresque quality to many of the stories, showing humanity, some humor, and a hint of the absurd.

We identify with his characters, perhaps their taking the wrong fork in the road as we might be prone to do, and the consequences of their actions.  He spotlights that inherent loneliness we sometimes feel at social gatherings, or in our everyday relationships.  The mistakes of our lives add up but so do our little victories, our justifications of our actions making things seem alright.” 

With the passing of Trevor, along with Updike and Cheever, our best short story writers have been silenced, but their literature lives.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Trevor Revisited

My first entry on William Trevor was last December when I began to savor his huge The Collected Stories (1992), but that was a thousand pages ago.I’m still reading the book!  His stories require close reading, even a second reading, as there is the story itself and then the meaning along with all the underlying emotions.  There are also the settings and cultural references, typically UK and Irish or along the Amalfi coast or Tuscany, that often requires some additional research by me.  The further he strays from London and its environs which I’m familiar with to a degree, the more demanding the task becomes.  What did we do before Google?

However in the end, it’s almost unnecessary to understand all those references as Trevor primarily deals with universal truths mostly borne by the experiences of everyday people.  As John Updike noted in his 1981 review of one of Trevor’s collections, “Mr. Trevor knows, and dramatizes, two principal truths about low life: it never utterly lies down, but persists in asserting claims and values of its own derivation; and it cannot be fenced off and disowned by the fortunate.” 

Trevor’s1989 interview in The Paris Review is very revealing (one of his rare interviews).  I was particularly struck by Trevor’s answer to the following question by the Interviewer, Mira Stout, as it reveals the mind of the writer:


I read somewhere that you describe yourself as a melancholic; how does this manifest itself? Is it a state, a temperament through which you write?


I don’t ever recall referring to myself as a melancholic—I would rephrase that, with the chicken farming too. A melancholic chicken farmer suggests suicide to me. I don’t think you can write fiction unless you know something about happiness, melancholy—almost everything that human nature touches. I doubt that an overwhelmingly jolly, optimistic person has ever been an artist of any sort. You are made melancholy, more than anything, by the struggle you have with words—the struggle you have with trying to express what sometimes resists expression. It can be a melancholy business. As a fiction writer, every time you go out into the day you’ve also got to experience the bleakness of night. If I were purely a melancholic I don’t think I’d write at all. I don’t think writers can allow themselves the luxury of being depressives for long. Writers are far less interesting than everyone would have them. They have typewriters and will travel. They sit at desks in a clerklike way. What may or may not be interesting is what we write. The same applies to any artist; we are the tools and instruments of our talent. We are outsiders; we have no place in society because society is what we’re watching, and dealing with. Other people make their way in the world. They climb up ladders and get to the top. They know ambition, they seek power. I certainly don’t have any ambitions, nor am I in the least interested in power. I don’t think fiction writers tend to be. Certainly not as a civil servant may be, or an engineer. Fiction writers don’t want in the same way; their needs are different. Personally, I like not being noticed. I like to hang about the shadows of the world both as a writer and as a person; I dislike limelight, and the center of things is a place to watch rather than become involved in. I dwell upon it rather than in it; I wonder about what occurs there and record what I see because that seems to be my role. I get matters down onto paper and impose a pattern, and all of that is a fairly ordinary activity, or so it seems to be. If I could analyze all this, if I could really talk about it, I don’t think I’d be writing at all. It’s invading the gray-haired woman, the child, the elderly man, that keeps me going and delights me; but I don’t know how I do it. And I believe that mystery is essential. Again, if you now ask me why, I won’t be able to tell you.

The heart of the interview, where he refers to fiction writers as “outsiders,” ones who have no place in society because society is what we’re watching” and that he “hang[s] about the shadows of the world, that he “likes to dwell upon it rather than in it,” can be seen in each and every one of his short stories. 

Here are widows and widowers, miscreants and innocents, the travails of the elderly juxtaposed to the innocence of youth, the dilemmas of the middle aged and the divorced, so often lonely people trying to connect with someone who is inappropriate, and people from all economic stations of life. His characters are victims of their own actions, sometimes “imagining” (the number of times Trevor says, “he [or] she imagined” is countless) different outcomes and different realities.  There is a Pinteresque quality to many of the stories, showing humanity, some humor, and a hint of the absurd.

We identify with his characters, perhaps their taking the wrong fork in the road as we might be prone to do, and the consequences of their actions.  He spotlights that inherent loneliness we sometimes feel at social gatherings, or in our everyday relationships.  The mistakes of our lives add up but so do our little victories, our justifications of our actions making things seem alright. 

Sometimes I sense the shadow of Thomas Hardy reading Trevor, Hardy’s sense of realism, even suffering. And a few stories slightly reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe, not that Trevor delves into horror, but there is a mysterious quality to many of his stories and tension. I also suspect he is a “fan” of A.J. Cronin, a popular English storyteller of the 1930’s and 40’s, who wrote in a similar style.  He mentions A.J. Cronin in a couple of stories and even one of his characters is named “Cronin.” I read Cronin’s The Citadel in high school, a book I read for pleasure, and remarkably it held my attention (at the time I read mostly science fiction for my pleasure reading).  Perhaps Cronin merits a revisit.  

Trevor’s stories take place in boarding schools, social gatherings, the office, small towns, dance ballrooms, and hotels and pensiones making them central scenes for these mostly melancholy, moving tales to play out.  Here he can observe his characters while he moves them about like pieces on a chessboard, his detailed descriptions always precise.  Humiliation seems to run through his stories as a leitmotif.

Interestingly he seems to find women, not the men, the most interesting subjects simply because, as he’s said, "I write out of curiosity more than anything else. That's why I write about women, because I'm not a woman and I don't know what it's like. The excitement of it is to know more about something that I'm not and can't be."

In spite of the foibles of his characters, Trevor mostly manages to demand our empathy for them.  We’ve all known people such as Trevor describes or recognize ourselves, sharing similar emotions. On the other hand, there are also hints of misanthropy, a sense that to be human is to be imperfect, even a species to be deplored.  Always, his stories are memorable and haunting, people who are as real as your best friend.  They are unforgettable.

I’m tempted to write about some of the specific stories in this collection, as I began to do in my last entry on Trevor, but to do so, without revealing key turns in character and plot is next to impossible.  A short story is not like a novel; it’s about (as Trevor said), a “glimpse” and to describe the glimpse is to, well, ruin another reader’s enjoyment of the story.  Perhaps I’ll visit some specific stories (trying to avoid spoilers) in this blog when I reread my so called favorite ones (there are many)

Suffice it to say, here is a writer you can read again and again. His stories provoke introspection and reflection.  He is certainly in the class (or the head of it) of the other great contemporary short story writers, Cheever, Updike, Carver, and Munro (and perhaps T.C. Boyle in that mix, the next contemporary short story writer on my list).  I’ve written a lot about writing in this blog, and my enjoyment of many great contemporary novelists and short story writers, but I can say that never have I been so profoundly moved and amazed by one short story collection, The Collected Works, by William Trevor (Penguin Books, 1992

Monday, December 1, 2014

Trevor’s Little People

I’ve just begun to plow through William Trevor’s massive The Collected Stories, a treasure house of some eighty five short stories, all 1,250 pages of them.  One can appreciate why he has been called one of the greatest UK short story writers. They are masterful stories and although my preference for American literature had – until now -- overridden my desire to read Trevor, I knew Updike had a high regard for his work (and Trevor reciprocated his admiration for Updike’s).  It took the mention of a Trevor short story in an Ian McEwen novel, Sweet Tooth, to remind me that there is a world of literature out there I haven’t yet uncovered and as I’m trying to write some of my own short stories, I picked up this gem from one of Amazon’s partners for less than a buck plus shipping.  An incredible bargain, if you have the strength to hold book, especially when reading in bed, a habit I’ve developed in the quiet of the night.  But this 2 plus lb book requires support on a pillow on my stomach as I read in bed!  Sometimes, as much as I enjoy reading at that particular time, I find myself falling asleep with my glasses on, still holding the book on the pillow, my wife finally turning off the light, removing the book from my sleeping hands, marking the page, and removing my glasses. 

It’ll be some time before I’m “finished” with these stories (other than for reasons of occasionally falling asleep!).  First, they are to be savored and thought about.  It’s not a fast read, particularly for someone who is trying to better understand the short story craft and is taking notes here and there.  Some stories are best appreciated when reread as well. Furthermore, I have other things to read so I’ll put this down from time to time to get to those other works, novels generally.  And of course, there is life to attend to.  Reading is what is left over to do after a busy day.  Therefore, these early comments on what I’ve read thus far.

How do I possibly categorize these stories?  As Updike had his characters -- such as The Maples --- mostly modeled after friends and family, highly educated, upper middle class folk with an excessive libido, Trevor has his “little people,” people eking out a life in the UK after WW II, some of whom have allowed their fantasy lives to take over, living with illusions frequently to the very end of the story, ones of which they may not even be aware.  It leaves the reader with a sense of wonder, about human nature, about the miracle of day to day existence in general.  How do we all get by, burdened by the past or by expectations?  Trevor once defined the short story as ''an art of the glimpse,'' whose ''strength lies in what it leaves out.”  It’s the reader’s job to fill in the latter.

Many of the characters begin at one level of a story, exemplary folk in the reader’s mind, only to have life take them down a peg or two, then three, to the end of the story.   One such story, “The General’s Day,” concerns a retired General, well known in his town, who leaves his housekeeper during the day to explore the town, usually with fantasies of meeting a younger woman, or seeing friends (who assiduously avoid him), meanwhile suspecting his housekeeper of stealing from him or secretly imbibing his liquor.  And yet he goes off, and not everything goes as he’s imagined.  But there is the past to cling to, as do many of Trevor’s characters, along with their hopes.  Here’s just a piece of Trevor’s prose which makes this point:

The General walked on, his thoughts rambling.  He thought of the past; of specific days, of moments of shame or pride in his life.  The past was his hunting ground; from it came his pleasure and a good deal of everything else.  Yet he was not proof against the moment he lived in. The present could snarl at him; could drown his memories so completely that when they surfaced again they were like the burnt tips of matches floating on a puddle, finished and done with.  He walked through the summery day, puzzled that all this should be so.

Not wanting to give away spoilers, it’s hard to go on with this story gem.  Suffice it to say, the General’s day ends not as he hoped, but apparently as it always has, and the reader observes human nature stripped threadbare.  In fact, if anything characterizes Trevor’s stories, it is his unrelenting dissection of lives, bit by bit, getting to core truths, ones not evident at the beginning. 

Thus far my favorite story is “In at the Birth” but to try to analyze it or say anything about it is just to spoil another reader's enjoyment of the story.  But I will say it is constructed with such care that the outcome, surreal in many respects, is still in keeping with Trevor’s love of his “little people.”   Meanwhile, I still have scores of his stories to read and perhaps I’ll revisit Trevor in these “pages” sometime again in the future.  Must confess, the sheer bulk of the collection starts to make sense reading on a Kindle, something I have resisted, not because I am a Luddite, but I’ve been a book person all my life (personally and professionally).  

I remember commuting to my first publishing job in 1964 from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the BMT.  As any veteran “strap-holder” will know, it took a certain skill to hold on with one hand, and read a paperback book with the other, turning the pages with that one hand.  It’s a skill that is not applicable to this book!  Nonetheless, The Collected Stories of William Trevor is highly recommended if you like the genre.  

PS  Trevor is "revisited" in this entry