Manners and Mystery
William Trevor is the exemplary minor figure in literature, yet also, quite simply, exemplary, a writer who for many years has benefited from a contract with The New Yorker, a literary magazine that gives the writer a very healthy stipend in return for first refusal on their work. When he says in a Guardian interview that he isn't interested in himself, he adds, "other people interest me far more. Other people fascinate me." Indeed so fascinating does he find them that he will often write pages on events that will not make it into the final story or novel. "I write incidents and scenes over and over again", he says in a Paris Review interview. "For a reader it would be boring to know these details, so the details in the end just wither away." When asked of his definition of the short story in the same magazine, he says "it is the art of the glimpse". The exemplary nature of Trevor's work resides in the self-effacement of the writer and the acknowledgement of invisible craft.
Thus there are two things that we want to look at in relation to Trevor's short fiction, the degree to which other people interest Trevor more than he is interested in himself, and the idea of writing that gets edited down to the essential, that creates a clear and categorical sub-text from the writer's point of view. "The bits that aren't there are as important", he says, "as the bits that are there, because they are deliberately left out." It is these characteristics, perhaps, of personality and of craft, which makes Trevor an intriguing but hardly a monumental literary figure, and yet there is a strange mystery to his work. Now this minor role in the history of fiction has nothing to do with Trevor being known more as a short story writer than a novelist; after all he has written numerous longer works of fiction. Chekhov, Borges and Carver are all major writers even though none of them wrote a work of great length. No, it resides in Trevor's essential modesty as a writer, in his short fiction being the art of the glimpse more than of revelation, of the modest proposal over the searching probe. His is not so much reckless brevity as compact brevity, a need to allow only the essential to manifest itself in the final form. But what is the essential, and is a writer in the late twentieth century who believes that they know what this is, somehow writing too conventionally? "Writers of Fiction are collectors of useless information", Trevor insists in the Paris Review, echoing Henry James' famous claim that a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.
Yet though Trevor is a writer whose comments about the things that aren't there being as important as the things that are, while at the same time acknowledging the significance of the information that isn't of importance from the reader's point of view, how does this differ from writers whose comments echo Trevor's, and yet whose work is more challenging, no matter of course that mystery surrounds Trevor's work and shouldn't be underestimated? James Kelman says in an in essay in Some Recent Attacks, "Here is a tip on technique generally: when you work your way through every absence you can think of you'll be left with a particular, something concrete; and this is usually where you discover the finest art, or at least the most satisfactory. But that is only an opinion, my own." Elsewhere in the same essay Kelman gives an example of what he means: "who is this woman? She isn't my wife. She isn't my fiance. And she isn't my girlfriend. Nor my sister. She isn't my grannie nor yet my mother", and so on. We also might know nothing about the person's hair colour and height, nothing about her educational background, nor her employment status. Kelman talks of this in relation to what could be called the 'subjunctive mood', and adds that "central to its use is something extremely political, something extremely subversive: by the very application of this literary technique, or artistic method, entire value systems can no longer be taken for granted, they become problematic."
If we look at the opening couple of sentences of several of Trevor's short stories, we might note that the 'subjunctive mood' is replaced by observational particularities. 'Last Wishes' opens: "In the neighbourhood Mrs Abercrombie was a talking point. Strangers who asked at Miss Dobbs' Post Office and Village Stores or at the Royal Oak were told that the wide entrance gates on the Castle Cary road were the gates to Rews Manor, where Mrs Abercrombie lived in the past, with servants." Here is the beginning to 'Access to the Children'. "Malcolmson, a fair, tallish man in a grey tweed suit that required pressing, banged the driver's door of his ten year old Volvo and walked quickly away from the car, jangling the keys. He entered the block of flats that was titled - gold engraved letters on a granite slab - The Quadrant." 'In at the Birth' begins: "Once upon a time there lived in a remote London suburb an elderly lady called Miss Efoss. Miss Efoss was a spry person, and for as long as she could control the issue she was determined to remain so. She attended the cinema and the theatre with regularity; she read at length; and she preferred the company of men and women forty years her junior." Trevor is a writer who likes to ground the character and situation; he familiarizes rather than defamiliarizes, taking into account the definition offered by Vitkor Shklovsky, the Russian formalist who talked of ostranenie, 'making strange'. One might say Trevor is a writer who makes the normal, and yet not at all in a way that indicates either the conservative or the clichd, and his achievement as a writer resides in offering a certain predictability of expectation without arriving at the predictable. By the manner in which Trevor sets up his stories he creates a homely atmosphere, an avuncular tone and a clear narrative sense that here is a writer in whose hands we are safe. Now this is partly why Trevor is not a major figure - he doesn't create a new literary space, doesn't force upon us any questions of form, doesn't demand from us a radical hypothesis to try and make sense of the story we have read. But neither does he expect the reader to feel comforted by the work. Trevor may not achieve the subjunctive mood, but perhaps a lesser form of it - the mysterious mood - is not without its significance. He might not work with the sort of absences Kelman mentions and that can eliminate too easy socio-political assumption as the writer refuses to sum up a character by specifically locating them in class, gender and work, but he possesses mysteries of his own within these groundings.
If we propose the subjunctive mood creates the sort of room for both radical unfamiliarity and/or subjunctive speculation, what does the mysterious mood generate? To help, let us leave behind temporarily Trevor's stories, and turn to his novel Felicia's Journey, and specifically the character of Mr Hilditch. Here is a middle-aged bachelor in Birmingham, a Daily Telegraph reader who lives in a comfortable home and manages to read the text and sub-text in a given situation without at all engaging in the emotional implications of it: indeed uses his abilities to read social situations appropriately to murder the young women with whom he comes into contact. In one passage Hilditch is visited by a young lady who has come over from Ireland looking for the boyfriend who impregnated her. Hilditch has helped her before, and knows that when she is destitute she will call on his help again. In a series of observations seen from Hilditch's viewpoint, Trevor shows how Hilditch interprets situations accurately: "There are tears, then, as he suspected." "When the doorbell sounds he doesn't move. He knows she won't go away, she'll ring again." Hilditch is the sort of man who knows the social conventions but not only happens to be devoid of feelings, but incapable of partaking in the benefits of social convention. He is the intelligent man who knows how to act, but knows that he will not be emotionallyremunerated for these actions because he is a character, for all his good manners and apparent empathy, people do not care to be around. Whether this is because he has no deep feelings, finally, or whether it is because he has become so alienated from them due to people's indifference towards him and his unattractive personality and looks, is another issue, but what interest us is the mysteriousness Trevor creates around manners, around Hilditch's ability to read the psychology and behaviour of other people on the basis of social norms that he waits for characters to fall into.
Now Flannery O'Connor once wrote a famous article called 'Mystery and Manners', differentiating between writers like Jane Austen who worked with social convention, and other writers who created a more personal sense of mystery, but in Felicia's Journey, and also in Trevor's stories, it is often the manners that lead to the mystery. Trevor understands like Hilditch that the familiar can lull us into a false sense of security, and once that security is removed, the mysteriousness becomes all the more uncanny. In a number of Trevor stories there is a strong sense of resignation and alienation, a sense of the norms being in place but the abnormal lurking behind them, and Trevor exemplifies the well-known Thoreau comment "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." In Trevor's stories they do so indeed, but the mystery often resides within the manners, where the writer surprises us with the perversity or sadness of the lives shown. This is especially so in 'In at the Birth', but also worth looking at in 'Access to the Children', 'Broken Home', 'Attracta' and 'Mr Tennyson'. 'In at the Birth' focuses on a woman who babysits for a couple, but she is asked never to go into the child's room, and when she eventually does so she finds lying in the bed a very old man. Miss Efoss decides to take a peek after someone who knew the couple insisted that they didn't have children, and later after doing so stops babysitting. A year later though she meets the couple again in a local park and they tell her that their child has died, and not the first to have done so. "We are childless again, it is almost unbearable to be childless again. We are so fond of them and here we are, not knowing what to do on a Sunday afternoon because we are a childless couple." Three times the husband announces their childless status, as if emphasizing with a tell-tale heart that it wasn't a child at all, and of course we are aware that Miss Efoss knows that it was an old man lying in the bed when she looked into the room. After this meeting Miss Efoss "began to feel older. She walked with a stick; she found the cinema tired her eyes; she read less and discovered that she was bored with the effort of sustaining long conversation." When she bumps into Mr Dutt again, he tells her that his wife is expecting a child. When Mr Dutt announces that "the longing for a child is a strange force", Miss Efoss, who herself lost her baby many years earlier to a bout of pneumonia, says "the older I become, Mr Dutt, the more I realize that one understands very little. I believe one is meant not to understand. The best things are complex and mysterious. And must remain so." After this meeting, Miss Efoss starts to sell all her belongings and eventually terminates the lease on her flat. One day she turns up at the Dutts' door with a small suitcase and goes directly up the very room that she had found the old man in; becoming the couple's latest child.
The story is mysterious, perhaps even dream-like, because Trevor offers a tale where feeling seems stronger than reason, where appropriateness of emotion is more important than the logic of the situation. When Dutt says that he is glad Miss Efoss's thoughts "confirm my thinking", she replies "on my part it is instinct rather than thinking", as if she were to think the situation through it would make no sense, but there are senses that are not always logical. In 'In at the Birth', Trevor does not start with the limits of reason; he arrives at it, and much of the uncanniness in the story resides in the smooth transitions through the normal to the perverse, from the manners to the mystery. This is not the uncanniness of Julio Cortazar, an 'unexemplary' writer whose work demands and often opens with the perversity foregrounded, but a strangeness coming from the emphasis on norms.
Now Cortazar would be in the tradition of a 'literature of exhaustion', as defined by the novelist John Barth in an essay of that name. Writing on especially Borges, but also Beckett and Kafka and Joyce, Barth insists, "a good many current novelists write turn of the century type novels, only in more or less mid-twentieth century language and about contemporary people and topics," and regards them as less interesting than "Joyce and Kafka in their time, and in ours, Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges". It is this 'conservative strain' in Trevor, this sense of Trevor writing turn of the century fiction in a mid-twentieth century language yet with contemporary characters and situations that makes him exemplary, but we also want to rescue him a little from that conservatism, and thus we note a certain mysteriousness within the manners, as if lying behind much of what Trevor writes is a madness of discipline containing the chaos of potential content. Exhaustion does not lie in the form, but it does at least often lie in the characters and the exhaustion of social demand. When one thinks of the madness of discipline one might also think of Trevor's own former routine, where he says in Paris Review "well, I used to get up at four o'clock and do most of my work - especially in the summer - between half past four and breakfast time. But I stopped doing that some time ago - it had become just straightforward punishment."
Routine and its expectation can be part of the madness in Trevor's oeuvre, from Felicia's Journey to Love and Summer, whether it is Mr Hilditch's routines, or a character in Love and Summer's sense of moral order as she judges an affair a farmer's wife is involved in. Madness in various manifestations hangs over conformity as readily as non-conformity, as if there is madness in many a method of convention. In 'Access to the Children', much of the madness comes from the central character Malcomson, a man who left his wife during an affair with a woman called Diane, and then wants to return to his spouse only to realize she is seeing another man. Over the course of the story Trevor moves back into the past and shows how the affair developed, and also how in recent months as a man no longer in an affair and still in love with his wife [Elizabeth], Malcomson looks forward to the Sundays with the children. Of course central to Malcomson's abject state, his heavy drinking, his shabby unshavenness, his shaking hands, is the emotional devastation of no longer living with his family, but that was what he was initially able to cope with when he was having an affair. It was only after living with Diane for months and shortly before the divorce was due that his family's meaning became so apparent to him. Diane leaves, and the importance of his family becomes ever more significant. Each weekend he would pick up the kids, and "Every week he longed more for Sunday to arrive. Occasionally he invented reasons for talking to her [Elizabeth] at the door of the flat, after the children had gone in." The slightest gesture from her gives him hope: "Three weeks ago she had smiled at him in a way like the old way. He'd been sure of it, positive, in the lift on the way down." More and more he wants the conventions of family life, and the more he wants the conventional, the more unconventional and pathetic his behaviour becomes. "Don't you know you're not the man I married" Elizabeth eventually says. "You didn't have cigarette burns all over your clothes. You didn't smell of toothpaste when you should have smelt of drink. You stand there pathetically, Sunday after Sunday, trying to keep a conversation going." This is indeed a life of quiet desperation, with the wish for the normal life so intense, but its absence so inevitable, that Malcolmson lurches into madness.
'Attracta' and 'Mr Tennyson' are a couple of stories about schoolteachers: the first about an aging protestant woman who at the beginning of the story wonders whether over the years she has told the children really what they ought to have been privy to, after years of conformist behaviour of her own. So one day Attracta tells the kids about her life and also talks about the things that happened in the very town in which she lives and teaches, and of Penelope Vade, a woman whose army officer husband was murdered, and whose head was delivered to her as a parcel. Vade then joined the peace movement but was raped one by one by the men who had killed her husband, and after this Vade took her own life. Somebody comes to visit Attracta one day shortly after she tells this horrific story and proposes that she should retire. Clearly she is too unstable to continue the teaching the kids, is the implication. It is as though a life of normalcy caves in, as a moment of madness and truth is revealed.
In 'Mr Tennyson' the title character is seen by all the girls as a ladies man, but we find out in fact that the married Mr Tennyson committed an indiscretion several years before, and rather than being the lady-killer everyone assumes him to be, he was someone in whom love has died as a hope: his feelings for a young girl and former student, Sarah, are clearly still present, but the reality of his life one of commitment and expectation: a wife and several children. Trevor presents him simultaneously as slightly shabby and also romantic: "he was forty years old. He had dark hair with a little grey in it, and a face that was boyish: like a French boy's..." But he also drives an "old red Ford escort", and talks of Sarah going to "Warwick University" as if she has opportunities he has long since given up on ever having. In each instance, in 'Access to the Children', in 'Attracta' and in 'Mr Tennyson', there is a feeling of people crumbling in the face of conformity, whether that is marital life or educational convention. Malcolmson might go mad without his family; Tennyson becoming increasingly melancholic as he stays with his. Attracta has revealed too much, refused to play the educational game, and we might wonder how often in Trevor's stories characters are wary of saying how they feel for fear of the social norm defining them as crazy, senile, eccentric. As the elderly woman in Broken Homes thinks to herself, when a teacher visits her house, "Thirty four years after the destruction of your family [in WWII] you were happy in your elderliness because time had been merciful. She wanted to tell the teacher that also, she didn't know why, except that in some way it seemed relevant. But she didn't tell him because it would have been difficult to begin, because in the effort there'd be the danger of seeming senile. Instead she said goodbye..."
Convention and loneliness hover over Trevor's work, the struggle between manners and mystery. When Trevor says he writes pages and pages without them making it into the final work, we may wonder whether it isn't a bit like the aging woman, with so much to say but knowing that there might be nobody there to listen. This is Trevor's sub-text, perhaps. It is more than the simple demand that the reader wants the story not to dawdle; such an observation perhaps contains a deeper one where people in life aren't easily allowed to dawdle either. The quiet desperation in Trevor's stories never manifests itself in the subjunctive mood Kelman talks about, nor the literature of exhaustion Barth pinpoints. But there is a mysterious mood hanging over much of the work; a sense of the unsaid not only as sub-textual technical rigour, but also low-key existential misery: as if people can never quite say what they mean or what they feel, because indifference on the part of the other, and madness on the part of oneself, dooms us perhaps to convention. Many great modern writers have fought to explore that space; but many a good minor one, like Trevor, has at least alluded to it.
© Tony McKibbin