James Urquhart, review of A Bit on the Side by William Trevor in Independent [UK] (23 May 2004)

Details: James Urquhart, ‘Is That A smirk on the Face of the Old Master?’ [review of William Trevor, A Bit on the Side], in Independent [UK] (23 May 2004).

It always surprises me how shamefully unregarded short stories are in Britain. There are decreasing opportunities for publishing individual stories and those that specialise in the medium, such as the peerless Helen Simpson, rarely gather the reputation they deserve.

Yet on top of over a dozen novels, William Trevor has clocked up his eleventh volume of stories. It is as strong and fresh as one might expect from an old master of the craft. A Bit on the Side retains the same sense of strained intimacies and emotional compromises found in Family Sins, his seventh volume published back in 1990, but - as the title suggests - these stories cluster more around the habits of adultery and sexual engagements. Eight are set in Ireland’s rural poverty, permeated with the ancient habits of Catholicism, but Trevor’s interest, explored with delicate humility, is in the stoic fragility of relationships. The remaining four, set in London, are detached from any religious concern or ambience, toying with the impact and debris of affairs and ill-judged attachments.

Trevor’s prose is elegant prose, but never dustily genteel. His opening story finds a widow unburdening her repressed life to two crones, with her rakish husband scarcely cold in bed. Another finds a mild-mannered wife offering her unborn child to a barren neighbour, for cash to relieve their desperate poverty. “Big Bucks" draws taut the emotional wire between shop-girl Fina and her fiancé John Michael when he leaves miserable Irish fishing for illegal labouring in New York, and the anticipated promise of a later passage. All three sound with calm clarity the tensions bracing lives which endure compromises of love through adversities.

A couple more tales dwell on mis-managed love. With a stylistic economy that almost loses the reader in mournful recollections, “Graillis’s Legacy” tells of a legacy refused in reparation for mistakes made in the conduct of affections. “An Evening Out” sharply defines two characters who meet via an introduction agency; a caddish photographer who wants an assistant, not a companion, and Evelyn, an older woman who is still haunted by the mistake of rejecting her true love 20 years ago.

A few stories stand out from the generality of modest regret. “Traditions” hints of the favours dispensed by a dining-hall maid to boys in the public school where she works. Trevor firmly resists any inference of servitude or exploitation in this, his lightest story, writing the piece more as a Lawrentian dalliance free from moral chastisement or consequence. “Solitude", by contrast, this volume’s longest and best piece, examines the emotional chaos wrought upon a daughter who witnesses her mother’s infidelities while hiding behind the sofa. Though the story is wistful, even sad, there remains an irrepressible authorial smirk at the ludicrous shenanigans that the daughter, like Henry James’s Maisie, inadvertently witnesses.

Poignance, resisting bleakness; few do this better than Trevor. Nuances glimpsed in the mundane café or street seismically alter the geography of affairs, and Trevor captures their significance with quiet, penetrating wisdom.

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