- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

A BIT ON THE SIDE

By William Trevor

Viking, $24.95, 245 pages

REVIEWED BY DEBRA BRUNO

Although William Trevor is one of the greats, he doesn’t always get the fanfare he deserves,

not in this country at least. Perhaps that’s because he’s such a quiet writer, taken up with subtle things. He concerns himself with the flow of language in a sentence and on the page, as rhythmic and continual as waves lapping the shore.

Mr. Trevor has won a host of English and Irish awards, from the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1994 for “Felicia’s Journey” to the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Fiction in 2001 (“The Hill Bachelors”). Yet this fact seems secondary; to Mr. Trevor, it seems to matter more that he can get right the sound of Irish voices, the musty smell of old houses, the sense of loss, of joy, of the quiet desperation that is the lot of so many of us.

His latest work, “A Bit on the Side,” is a collection of 12 short stories. More than half of the stories originally appeared in the New Yorker. The book is supposedly concerned with the theme of adultery; and although infidelity is a presence in a number of the stories, to say that Mr. Trevor’s new book is about cheating is like saying that “The Great Gatsby” is about rich people. Well, yes, but it’s also about much more.

For instance, Mr. Trevor captures, better than almost any writer I’ve seen, the sense of loss in today’s Catholic Church. And unlike the many writers who throw words and images at the reader until the larger impression gradually forms, he is selective and careful in his craft.

Here, for instance, in just three sentences in the story “Justina’s Priest,” he sums up the church today. The story is brilliantly written from the perspective of a despondent priest: “The grandeur of his Church had gone, leaving his priesthood within it bleak, the vocation that had beckoned him less insistent than it had been. He had seen his congregations fall off and struggled against the feeling that he’d been deserted. Confusion spread from the mores of his times into the Church itself; in combating it, he prayed for guidance but was not heard.”

What’s beautiful here is not just the juxtaposition of today’s world with an ancient institution that struggles to survive in it, but also the priest’s personal helplessness and sense of abandonment from the church and from God.

The Catholic Church hovers in the background of many of the stories, never central but never far away. Like a ghost felt rather than seen directly, it is a steady presence in the lives of the Irish, its rules and conformities often posing limits on lives already edged with boundaries.

As powerful as his treatment of the church is Mr. Trevor’s ear for the Irish voice. It’s the pared-down voice of simple men and women living simple lives. You can hear these voices and know, without understanding anything else about the setting, that these are the Irish.

“‘It’s cold,’ she said, ‘I’ll light the fire.’ ‘Ah no. Ah, no, don’t bother.’” In that plain-spoken exchange you can hear the middle-aged women trying to be polite as they sit with another woman, a stranger to them, whose husband has just died.

Poverty is another element Mr. Trevor captures. This is not the starvation that drove millions from Ireland, but day-to-day struggles, the sense that a lack of money limits one’s choices, draws lines around a life.

In the story “Sacred Statues,” for instance, a young father named Corry would love to express his art by carving statues of the saints, or just find employment in a stone yard cutting names on gravestones. But even the graveyard job is out of his reach. His wife tries a desperate measure, and is also turned away.

Even within their poverty and their limits, though, are moments of grace. Corry’s wife Nuala finds it at the end of this lyrical story: “In Corry’s workshop she remained longer than she usually did on her morning visit to the saints who had become her friends: St Laurence with his gridiron, St Gabriel the messenger, St Clare of Assisi, St Thomas the Apostle and blind St Lucy, St Catherine, St Agnes.

“Corry had made them live for her and she felt the first faint slipping away of her anger as they returned her gaze with undisturbed tranquility. Touched by it, lost in its peace, she sensed their resignation too. The world, not she, had failed.”

That ending, like so many of Mr. Trevor’s, could not have been written without James Joyce’s masterpiece “The Dead,” which allowed writers to fashion a narrative around regret and loss as much as a plot. Like Joyce, Mr. Trevor manages to combine melancholy and darkness with a glorious feeling of wonder and acceptance. This is the world we’ve made, and we’ll do best to find our joy right here.

There are never any overt sexual references in these stories, and rarely a hint of sexual passion. Even the title story, “A Bit on the Side,” which tells of the end of an affair, never tries to explore deep, irrational passion. The affair in the story seems to be more about taking pleasure in having tea together and walking through parks. But with what delicacy Mr. Trevor describes the permanence of this love: “Unspoken, understood, their rules of love had not been broken in the distress of ending what was not ended and never would be.”

More than any of the other themes, though, Mr. Trevor’s gift at portraying loneliness stands out. “An Evening Out” is about a blind date set up through a dating agency. It turns out that the man is a cad who is really only looking for someone to drive him to his photography shoots. The woman is lonely and bored, seeking company.

But Mr. Trevor manages to convince us, in the end, that this encounter is pleasant enough: “They did not shake hands or remark in any way upon the evening they’d spent together, but when they parted there was a modest surprise: that they’d made use of one another was a dignity compared with what should have been. That feeling was still there while they waited on two different platforms and while their trains arrived and drew away again. It lingered while they were carried through the flickering dark, as intimate as a pleasure shared.”

Another of the stories is called “Solitude.” In it, a child accidentally witnesses her mother’s tryst with her lover. That moment, along with the child’s vehement revenge, changes the girl and seems to be the reason she remains a solitary person for the rest of her life.

What’s lovely in all of Mr. Trevor’s portraits of solitude, though, is that they don’t necessarily represent unmitigated sadness. Instead, there seems to be a beauty and dignity in lives that are chiefly lived alone. While none of these characters is a hermit, many manage to live in the midst of others and maintain their sense of isolation and difference.

Moreover, it’s not such a terrible thing, this solitary living, if you’ve been freed from a tyrannical husband or if you can preserve a joyful memory for the remainder of your life. As Father Finaghy says to Father Clohessy: “Arrah, sure we do our best.”

Debra Bruno is an editor at Legal Times.

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