Demented Brothers

Declan Kiberd

  • The Hill Bachelors by William Trevor
    Viking, 245 pp, £15.99, October 2000, ISBN 0 670 89256 4

George Birmingham, a Church of Ireland clergyman and novelist, wrote in 1926 that the Irish conflict, whatever its roots, could now be reduced to a matter of style:

In Catholicism there seems to be a certain suavity, the result of a feeling of security. Protestantism is another name for aggression in religion. The Catholic spirit belongs to the man who is comfortably aware of being one of the unassailable majority. The Protestant is forced to assert himself and his position. His spirit is the vice – or perhaps the virtue – of active minorities. The Catholic is conscious of being a member of that universal, time-transcending Church which is the blessed company of all faithful people. He does not want to say so and is quietly tolerant of people who do not understand. The Protestant is eager to proclaim an evangel of some kind, and therefore must be aggressive.

A story in William Trevor’s new collection, The Hill Bachelors, treats these themes in a surprising but apposite way. ‘Of the Cloth’ describes the declining days of a Church of Ireland clergyman, the Rev. Grattan Fitzmaurice, rector of the mountain parish of Ennismolach, as his father was before him. Named for the great Protestant patriot Henry Grattan, the orator and constitutionalist of the Anglo-Irish Parliament of 1782-1800, Fitzmaurice upholds a tradition both proudly Protestant and definitely Irish. Yet his parish has dwindled almost to nothing in the decades since Independence. ‘You realise it’ll get worse,’ his father had said just before he died in 1957. The son notes tartly that the very designation Church of Ireland seems by now ‘too imposing a title, ludicrous almost in its claim’. Yet he also knows that the great Protestant leaders of the past – Tone and Emmet as well as Grattan and Parnell – ‘had in their different ways and in their different times been the inspiration for the Ireland that had come about, and . . . that its birth was Ireland’s due, no matter how, in the end, it had happened. Yet it was true: they were a remnant.’

William Trevor recently admitted that he was still a ‘God-botherer . . . one of the six left in the pews listening to the tape-recording’. He was born in 1928 and grew up in the newly independent Ireland, the son of a bank manager whose job meant that the family moved repeatedly from one provincial town to another. In some of these there was a Protestant school, in others he had to go to the local Catholic school, waiting outside during religious education classes (a kindly nun used to give him biscuits to help while away the time). ‘As one of the few Protestant children in that confident Catholic world I was treated fondly, and recall neither prejudice nor attempts at religious influence.’ Trevor says that he still feels at home in a Catholic as much as in a Protestant church.

The Rev. Grattan Fitzmaurice is struck by the ‘simplicity of total belief’ among his Roman Catholic neighbours: ‘the varnished pews were ugly, the figure in the Stations of the Cross lifeless, but still you felt the confidence and the rock.’ Then, just when such confidence seems unassailable, scandal erupts and a series of child molestation cases undermines the Roman Catholic hegemony. When a local priest comes to visit him, Grattan Fitzmaurice, ever discreet, quickly turns over a newspaper bearing the grinning photograph of one such clerical offender, not wanting to upset Fr Leahy, who has come to thank him for a kindness to one of his flock. The Rev. Fitzmaurice worries that his well-intended if hurried gesture might have been even more humiliating to the visitor than inaction would have been.

The exchange between the two clerics is conducted in a sort of code. ‘Different for yourself, I’d say, Mr Fitzmaurice.’ ‘Oh, I knew what I was in for.’ ‘It’s where we’ve ended.’ The confident style perfected by the priests turns out to have been a preparation for the moment when style is all that they have left, ‘a surface that lingered beyond its day’. Finally it is the Protestant clergyman who offers consolation to his depressed comrade: ‘You’re not left bereft, you know.’ And the conclusion is strangely upbeat: the future may be frightening for Fr Leahy, but only as it once was for those early Christian monks who rowed away into the unknown.

All Trevor’s narrative gifts are evident in this story. The short paragraphs, cut and chiselled, are those of a puritan stylist. Vital pieces of information are quietly slipped in in mid-paragraph. The technique is the Joycean epiphany: a state of near-paralysis is revealed not only to the reader but also to its victims, at the end of a slow build-up of tell-tale details. In Trevor’s stories, the methods of Dubliners are spliced with Beckett’s minimalism.

The characters in this collection are solitary, isolated and generally tangential to their communities. An amplitude in the telling permits the reader to infer forwards as well as backwards from the given moment, to construct entire lives. ‘Low Sunday, 1950’ is a gorgeously understated account of a Protestant brother and sister, both unmarried, living in a pointlessly imposing home inherited from an aunt, and looking back 34 years to the 1916 Rising and ahead, by a curious symmetry, to 1984. The brother is romantically attached to the insurrectionary tradition of Robert Emmet, a tie which has left him and his sister on the margins of the new society. The balancing of hope and frailty at the mid-point of the century is masterly: ‘The past receded a little with the day; time yet unspent was left to happen as fearfully as it would.’

In the hands of such writers as Trevor and John McGahern, the short story in Ireland has made an unexpected comeback. Earlier generations – that of Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain and, before them, of George Moore and James Joyce – had established it as the quintessential genre for a society still in the process of inventing itself. If the novel dealt with established societies such as England or France, the theory went, then the short story was better calibrated to societies in the making. In a charming and influential study called The Lonely Voice, O’Connor advanced the argument that the form flourished best among ‘submerged population groups’ who lived in transitional communities alongside larger and more confident ones: the Jews in New York were, he said, a little like the Irish in the so-called British Isles, and so on. This was a plausible description of the world out of which ‘The Dead’ and ‘Guests of the Nation’ came, but it began to look increasingly threadbare as Ireland boomed with an economic self-confidence which seemed founded on exactly the sort of social consensus thought likely to produce long, accomplished novels. As early as the 1960s O’Connor and O’Faolain had begun to go out of fashion, their demise chronicled in John Montague’s Larkinesque rewriting of Yeats:

Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone,
A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain.

Trevor believed that Ireland was far from achieving a social consensus and that the people about whom novels had once been written – the Anglo-Irish, Protestant ministers – were now sufficiently marginal to be fitting subjects for the short story. A favourite Trevor phrase is ‘beyond the Pale’, and so most of his characters are. Out on the edge, they see more of the inner workings of society than those at its centre. ‘I was born,’ Trevor wrote, ‘into a minority that all my life has seemed in danger of withering away.’ This was a godsend to a budding writer, as was the peripatetic progress of his family through so many settings (Skibbereen, Tipperary, Wexford, Youghal), leaving the son ‘a middle-class gypsy’. Trevor was also lucky to arrive at Trinity College Dublin just when it seemed to contain its greatest variety of characters: Hooray Henrys from England, Egyptians and Nigerians, Northern Protestants, demobbed GIs and lots of colourful Anglo-Irish remnants (not to mention those Catholics intrepid enough to break the ban on attendance imposed by the Archbishop of Dublin).

Trevor didn’t become a writer at once. In fact his early artistic career was as a sculptor and, though he denies any connection, it is there for all to see in his shapely prose. A favourite hobby while at Trinity was to study its prized possession, the Book of Kells, and to try to emulate its detail. (He used it as a model for a lectern he carved after graduation.) By the end of the 1950s he had married his college sweetheart, Jane Ryan, but given up sculpting because it had become ‘too abstract’. Abstraction is not a flaw which critics have ever found in his stories, which are concrete, clear and utterly representational.

At first Trevor didn’t write about Ireland: he preferred to write about what was strange, unfamiliar, mysterious – and in the 1950s and 1960s, that was England, where he had settled and still lives. ‘Out of curiosity I write about what I don’t know.’ Like Oscar Wilde, Trevor invented and occupied his own England of the mind, a place so completely and successfully imagined that his novels, from The Old Boys to The Children of Dynmouth, have become bywords for a certain kind of Englishness. But it was an outsider’s imagining, the view taken by someone who stands on the edge of a society, in order to have the best view, and who recognises that its misfits are usually the key to its meaning.

Wilde turned in a lifelong performance of Englishness which amounted to a parody of the very notion, and was ritually punished by jail and exile. Trevor’s penance was rather different: a CBE in 1977 as a tribute to his integration into the host society. It was at about this time that he seems to have turned his thoughts back to Ireland, now troubled and sufficiently distant to seem redemptively strange. Beckett similarly embraced France and French when they seemed foreign enough to challenge his imagination, was awarded the Croix de Guerre, and reverted to writing in English because French had become ‘trop facile’.

Another reason for Trevor’s return to Ireland for subject-matter may be found in his unwavering conviction of the fundamentally modern, even futuristic nature of Irish society. During the Irish election in the spring of 1987, at a time when the Irish owed more per capita to world bankers than the Mexicans, a pundit in the Daily Telegraph suggested that the only thing now keeping the country out of the Third World was the weather. Not long afterwards, Trevor appeared on a BBC documentary and softly offered an alternative analysis: ‘Whenever I come back to England, I think of its great traditions. The Tower. Buckingham Palace. Westminster, the Mother of Parliaments. What a past! But when I step out at Dublin Airport I think – this place will really be interesting in thirty years’ time.’ The country which had become strange and interesting to him was now changing so fast it was becoming strange even to itself, a Post-Modern pastiche of styles and traditions. And ‘of all literary forms,’ Trevor insisted, ‘the short story belongs most unequivocally to the modern age.’

The title story of The Hill Bachelors is a case in point. On the surface it seems to revisit the old, familiar tale of slightly demented bachelors so tenderly told in ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ in the collection of that name – a story of middle-aged men who are described as ‘boys’ until the death of an ageing parent frees them for a late marriage. In fact, it is a study of a much more contemporary phenomenon: the difficulty young people have in finding not so much a sexual partner as a life partner. The cultural crisis at the centre is, as always, even more visible on the periphery. The story concerns a young man who returns to a hill farm after a spell in the city – only to discover that the community of his childhood no longer exists.

Though Ireland is at the centre of this collection, several of the stories are set elsewhere. Trevor has long been fascinated by the English addiction to practical jokes (which he seems to see as a function of repressions in cultural life) and in one story, a don wakes to find obituaries of himself in the morning papers: the grim mockery of his colleagues’ response to his supposed death is as lethal as the story’s unexpected conclusion is tender. In another, an engaged man celebrates his pre-nuptial party (it can’t be called a stag night, since women are present) by making a hoax call to an infirm old woman – before being humbled by his fiancée’s rebuke. In another still, a con-woman who bilks strangers across the North of Ireland is suddenly detained by the possibility of a late-blooming love. And in ‘The Mourning’ Trevor enters the mind of an IRA recruit, a young man who carries a bomb onto a London bus. Again, the ending is filled with a delicate reverence for the multiplicity of human motives and types.

Those who are guilty of cruelty in these stories are maimed by a lack of empathy; those who are capable of unexpected kindness are shown to be possessed of an ability to imagine the world as it is experienced by other people. The wronged professor finally pieces together the plot which led to his discomfiture: in recognising that he is merely a fall-guy in another man’s drama, he is saved from the world of self-love which disfigures his colleagues. The engaged prankster never sees how hurtful his deceptions can be, but the con-woman does. ‘What interests me are people,’ Trevor once remarked, ‘and if one is interested in people, one cannot be uninterested in the mentality that can, on a pretext, wipe them out.’