William Trevor is easily one of my very favorite writers and particularly a favorite short story writer. He is an always reliably wonderful storyteller who writes with such grace and elegance. His stories are so very often melancholic and his characters living quiet lives of desperation. They are a little bit tragic but always sympathetic. He was a prolific writer with an extensive backlist that includes easily as many short story collections as novels. I will happily read my way, ever so slowly so as to savor, his entire oeuvre.
It was a given that I would have to read something by William Trevor in March especially since my monthly prompt was Irish Eyes are Smiling. It was only a matter of choosing which of the many books I own by William Trevor that I would choose. Since I was hoping to read more than one book for my prompt I decided on the slender Nights at the Alexandra, which is a novella and two short stories.
Elegiac is one of those words that feels very ephemeral to me. A word that is hard to explain, but it fits all three of the stories in this volume which are all set in mid-twentieth century Ireland. In "Nights at the Alexandra" (1987) is narrated by a middle aged man looking back at his youth in a small Irish town. "I am a fifty-eight-year-old provincial, I have no children. I have never married." And immediately we are transported back to his youth. We enter his mind and memory, but that falls away and we are living his life alongside him. Harry, Frau Messinger tells him, "I have the happiest marriage in the world! Please, when you think of me, remember that." And think of her he will since her life and that of her husband will become inextricably linked together with his.
The Messingers come to Ireland as their marriage pushes them outside the boundaries of acceptability in their own countries. He is German and she English. He much older with sons in the German Army and she beautiful with an unusual past history of travel and perhaps left on the shelf too long. But their marriage is one of equals and they are happy together. It's the War and they would end up in internment camps had they chosen to remain in either country. In Ireland, a neutral country, the War is simply known as the Emergency. The couple of more a matter of curiosity as to the possibility of their Jewishness than anything else.
The Messingers befriend Harry, who is fifteen at the time of their friendship, but it is one that is frowned upon by Harry's mother. The impropriety of it. And they are Protestants and perhaps the Messingers are just too Continental. Harry is meant to get his education, which is just barely average and in which he does not excel, and then go to work, just as his father did, in the family timberyard. Only that is not what he wants. Rather it is to run the Alexandra that is his dream, and the promise of the Messingers as Herr Messinger builds the Alexandra Cinema in honor of his wife.
William Trevor's stories are always peopled with very average characters who have dreams that may or not be realized. Often, as is the case in reality, they simply must settle and accept life as it is happens. And if they do pursue their dreams, they come at a cost, as is the case with Harry.
The two short stories, "The Ballroom of Romance" (1972) and "The Hill Bachelors" (2000) are perfect companion pieces. They fit together as flip sides of the same coin. The former story I read some years ago though it was a bit hazy. It is, like all his work, well worth revisiting. Each story is set in rural Ireland, about daughters (which is expected and generally what happens in stories), though also sons, who must return home and care for an aging parent after the death of a mother or father. Living in rural Ireland after the midpoint of the twentieth century is lonely business. Youth leave to go to the cities and rural life means hardship and loneliness. It means cycling nine miles to get to the closest ballroom for a night's society, which perhaps ends in a bit of romantic tussle with someone you might not otherwise have looked at, but that's your only option. Or maybe not even that is an option. Knowing that you are stuck running a farm in the country isn't much of an attraction for a single young woman who would prefer to work in a factory or be a clerk in a shoe shop.
Melancholic stories but oh so beautifully told. So very typically Trevor are the landscapes in these stories. It may be familiar ground but his storytelling is always fresh and engaging. I've been so lucky with my reading this year as once again I am (in this case revisiting) an author of whom who I would love to pick up another book and start reading right now (John Wyndham, Sara Sheridan, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Barbara Comyns still linger in my mind). If you have never read William Trevor, please go and find one of his books or at the least one of his short stories and read him this year. You will not regret it!
April is here and with it comes a new prompt, and already I have a little stack of reading possibilities which I will tell you all about tomorrow!