Roy Foster, review of Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor, in The Irish Times (4 Aug. 2007)

Details: Roy Foster, ‘The evil, the mad, the sad’, review of William Trevor, Short Stories: Cheating at Canasta, in The Irish Times (4 Aug. 2007), Weekend - online [orig. date of access unknown].

Sub-heading: It is a daring coup to open a book of short stories with a masterpiece, but William Trevor carries it off with characteristic panache in his new collection - the fourth since his hefty Collected Stories of 1993.

You will always remember where you were when you read “The Dressmaker’s Child”, just as when you read Attracta or The News from Ireland. And as with those stories, the reading, and the memory, brings a shiver down the spine.

A shy, introverted boy working in his father’s garage in the west of Ireland drives two Spanish tourists to see a supposedly miraculous statue, provoking an accident that will change his life.

In 22 pages, the focus swings radically from the visitors to the boy’s relationship with the village outcast, like a movie camera slicing shots into an unexpected montage. Yet there is no question of unevenness or uncertainty. The 11 subsequent stories inevitably vary in weight and heft, but the deftness and economy never falter. How does he do it?

Partly, perhaps, because he possesses the art of writing a wide range of consummate novels as well as short stories. In this he resembles Elizabeth Bowen rather than other masters of the short story such as V. S. Pritchett, Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor or Sean O’Faolain. Like Bowen, too, Trevor goes for the eccentric and farouche; his oeuvre is full of bizarre characters at pub counters, ghostly voices down the telephone, people who suddenly address strangers in public places, like the lonely husband on his Venice holiday in the title story.

Like Bowen, too, Trevor moves easily between Ireland and elsewhere; monosyllabic midlands farmers and frugal Irish Protestants are drawn with the same authority as the maimed products of minor English public schools, or angry Mitteleuropean inhabitants of London mansion flats.

The new stories alternate between Ireland and (usually) London, six of each. But the sometimes savage humour and the ironic humanism sustain a characteristic tone throughout.

As we might expect, small-scale lives, trapped existences, broken dreams are delineated: people suddenly imagine futures that will never happen, in exact, hallucinatory detail. A long-treasured infidelity of the spirit is observed by an all-knowing wife in "Old Flame", while in "The Room" a woman embarks on a desultory afternoon affair in order to punish her husband for a long-ago wound, only slowly arriving at her real reasons for doing so. But it is significant that in the background hovers an unsolved murder, because Trevor’s universe has always encompassed a wider, wilder canvas of life than the writers to whom he is so often compared. It takes in the evil and mad as well as the sad.

Throughout his oeuvre, people talk in tongues, the truth comes unforgivably out of the mouths of unlikely people (a manic schoolboy on a train; a mentally retarded dwarf in a remote Cork village; the unforgettable protagonist of Miss Gomez and the Brethren ); by writing a whole short story in surreal conversation ( The Day We Got Drunk on Cake ), he manages to reveal an entire life.

In the new collection, the protagonist of "An Afternoon" is an unloved 14-year-old being groomed for abuse by a man she "meets" in an internet chat-room: the story resonates with the seedy menace at which Trevor excels, and it is all too clear that the fortuitous rescue at the end is temporary at best. Jasmin’s mental world is evoked with a kind of merciless compassion, as is the show-off violence of a group of Dublin youths in "Bravado", and the enduring guilt of the girl who watches them kick someone to death. The boundaries of traditional Trevor territory are being pushed out with a deceptive ease; even if Jasmin’s fate reminds us of Felicia’s Journey , and the declining Big House in "At Olivehill" recalls Fools of Fortune and The Story of Lucy Gault , the treatment is radically different. The family of Olivehill are Catholic gentry, and the sons' hard-headed decision to tear apart the ancient landscape for a golf-course sends their mother into a sort of self-enforced internal exile, which Trevor audaciously parallels with the lives lived by previous generations in the era of the Penal Laws. Here, as in several of the stories, time is opened out and closed again like a fan, linked by history and guilt.

The book ends as strongly as it begins, with a story of two men connected by a childhood act of experimental cruelty; again, there are echoes here of Trevor’s many previous treatments of children and their enclosed worlds. It also anatomises, in a Bowen phrase, the death of the heart. Here, as in many of these stories, the eerie accomplishment sends one back to re-reading, trying to understand how mastery is achieved. Perhaps part of the answer is that an economy of line, releasing mass and depth, is the gift of the visual artist too, and Trevor is also an accomplished sculptor. He knows, above all, how to release the form trapped in the stone.

[ Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford. His book, Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change 1970-2000, will be published by Penguin in October ]

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