The Shape Events Take in the Human Mind–William Trevor’s “After Rain”

Finally, I am back to blogging again, and it has been a long time since I could really call myself a regular blogger, several months in fact.  Therefore, I hope my readers will be patient with a very long post, to make up for all the time away.  Also, I need to issue spoiler alerts for the short stories in this volume, but since they are literary short stories and not suspense or mystery ones, but ones which a person might read again and again for their staying power and quality, I don’t feel so bad about that.  So here goes:

In his well-known short volume The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode said, “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.”  To again quote and paraphrase Kermode, this critique is thus “at two removes” from life itself, and at one remove from “the meaning of the work.”  Humans, he indicates, are “uncomfortable with their own short life span, and they try to make sense of the beginning, middle, and end of history and histories,” seeing themselves in “a middle” which is particularly important to “a future.”

I find Kermode’s words particularly interesting in the evolving story pattern which develops in William Trevor’s collection of short stories, After Rain.  Even when the characters are near the end of their lives, as are the devoted husband and wife who are snubbed by their son at his birthday celebration in “Timothy’s Birthday” in the third story of the collection, there is no real compositional sense of resolution at hand outside of what characters think.  Characters markedly have trouble making sense in any sustained way of their facts and changes near the ends of their lives, or fail to do so, as does Eddie the “rough trade” character in the same story.  By contrast, they sometimes (especially as one gets farther into the book) create whole worlds of events to happen or which they surmise have happened.

In the first story (to go back a bit), “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” the blind piano tuner accepts that his second wife may be lying to him about things his first beloved wife described to him in detail, in order to claim her own place at his side, but he doesn’t seem to feel any need to resolve the contradictions:  instead, he faces the remainder of his life with two different versions of reality as his compass.

The story “The Friendship” is anticlimactic at the end, which spells the end of a long friendship over what was a moment’s choice of deceit in the story.  The two friends merely separate, but the finality of it, though stated, is not emphasized at its otherwise preeminent and important place at the end of the story with anything like strong emotion.  It seems instead deliberately understated.  Though they separate for good, the emphasis is rather on the day as an ordinary day, which prefigures “A Day” later on.  Yet even though no one can foresee the future, the deceitful character tells herself that the other will mention their resolve to part later on, and even thinks she knows what the circumstances will be.

“Child’s Play” is a story in which two children, Gerard and Rebecca, are thrown together as playmates because two of their parents are cheating with each other.  There is a divorce, and a new family structure is formed.  The adults are never known by their own names, but in a reversal of their importance to themselves and the children’s minor positions are known only by appellations such as “Gerard’s father,” “Rebecca’s mother.”  The children play together by imitating the words and phrases they have heard the parents say, underlining the actual rockiness and irony of the children’s ability to possess them.  But even this pattern gets disrupted in the sudden impermanence that comes from the adults’ inability to behave well themselves in terms of their children’s interests.  The children’s game is broken, and with no future to it in sight.

“A Bit of Business” is a story in which two hoodlums, Mangan and Gallagher, are busy looting empty homes left empty while people go to see the Pope in Phoenix Park.  Mr. Livingston, an older man, is left by the Herlihys to mind their flat “while the Guards [are] all out at the park,” as they tell him.  He thinks that they really just wanted him to be able to watch the Pope on their television set, and so isn’t prepared for the two crooks when they break in on him; they are equally surprised to confront anyone at home.  But the rest of the story follows the action of the two burglars, who pick up a couple of girls, or “motts,” as they call them, and spend the day drinking and taking advantage of the girls’ only too willing favors.  The worst thing that happens to them this day at least is that at the end of it, the girls become insistent about seeing them again, which promise the men do not intend to keep.  The end of their day consists in each wondering how long it will be before Mr. Livingston gives an accurate description to the police, their individual regrets that they didn’t kill him while they had the chance, and their questions, each to himself, as to whether the ability to kill was acquired.  Their future, such as it is, is one in which they imagine themselves caught.

In “After Rain,” the scene taking place once the refreshment of rain is over doesn’t happen until the last sentence, which it is compared to a visual scene in the background of a painting of the Annunciation in the Church of Santa Fabiola, in a town in Italy where a young woman has gone after the death of a love relationship.  She stays in a pensione she visited when a child.  Going to the church and viewing the painting, the young woman thinks that it was intended to show a scene that happened after rain.  “The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death.  Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also.”  Thus, her past and her present and her future too are telescoped just as in the Annunciation the angel was both a vision to Mary of the future and a prefiguration of the Angel of Death.  Still, the angel’s coming mysteriously is the source of the title of the whole book of stories, for the entire collection has mysteries and predictions and truncated endings as its modus operandi.  The entire book falls under the rubric of death in terms of death of relationships, as in this story, and each story ends and yet most don’t really resolve.  Therefore, after the rain, though it may seem to clear the air, the mystery of the angel remains.

The story “Widows” is perhaps not so much about the death of a relationship or death itself as it is about the transformation of a relationship, just as the Tarot card “Death” signifies not actual death but change.  In this case, the relationship between two sisters is fated to change.  Catherine (a recent widow who was happy with her husband) and Alicia (a widow of many years, who had an unhappy marriage) live together, and in this composition have to deal with a dishonest odd-jobs man with the outsize (and inaccurate) name of Thomas Pius John Leary, who insists that the job done for them before Catherine’s husband died is not paid for.  This is a kind of fraud that he and his wife are likely to practice on a widow, but because she can’t find the receipt that proves her husband’s payment, Catherine eventually feels she has to pay.  He presses, by insisting that he has no copy of a receipt in his book.  Alicia, the stronger and older sister, wants to report Leary to the Guards for trying to run a confidence trick, but even though she always protected her sister in their youth, Catherine won’t allow it now because of a strange sort of pride and desire for privacy about her married life.  “….Catherine was paying money in case, somehow, the memory of her husband should be accidentally tarnished.”  The relationship between the sisters is conditioned in the present by the relationship each had with her husband:  Alicia’s husband was a disappointment, Catherine’s was a jewel of a gentleman.  Thus, Alicia cannot understand Catherine’s protectiveness towards her own husband’s memory.  But as Catherine realizes the morning before she goes to pay the undue debt, “[w]hile they were widows in her house Alicia’s jealousy would be the truth they shared….widows were widows first.  Catherine would mourn, find in solitude the warmth of love.  For Alicia there was the memory of her [own] beauty.”  This story too has no obvious ending, other than an implied one, but this makes it more complete than the stories which are placed before “After Rain” in the book.  Indeed, the stories featured after that pivotal title story all seem to have at least some implied ending if not a complete one.

Another aspect of family membership, motherhood in particular, appears in “Gilbert’s Mother.”  Rosalie Mannion, who is the “Gilbert’s mother” of the title, is in a story which is chilling for two (at least) different reasons:  the first is that if Gilbert is the serial miscreant being covered in at least one local news story, then he is too clever to be caught.  The second is that it’s his own mother who suspects him of being that person and her suspicion is parsed in a grammar of differences that she has noticed about him, at least in her own imagination, since he was two.  “It was always the News, on the radio or the television, that prompted her dread.  When a fire was said to have been started deliberately, or a child enticed, or broken glass discovered in baby-food jars in a supermarket, the dread began at once–the hasty calculations, the relief if time and geography ruled out involvement.”  The story is left unfinished in a sense, because even though there’s never any proof against Gilbert, the suggestion is that he controls his mother and makes himself the center of her life by manipulating her fears about him.  Yet, he is never arrested or accused of anything in any but his mother’s mind.  Inasmuch as there is the Biblical clause “and Mary pondered these things in her heart,” and the central story of this collection, “After Rain,” is connected with a painting of “The Annunciation,” so this story is the negative version of the Virgin Mary’s “ponderings.”  The destiny of a child, who can foresee or control it, even its mother?

“The Potato Dealer” is a tale in which yet another birth occurs, in which the unwed mother, Ellie, is married off to a much older potato dealer, Mulreavey, to hide her shame.  He is willing to take her for the sake of her uncle’s farm and lands, a deal made for the future.  While he doesn’t insist on his “conjugal rights,” Mulreavy does expect to inherit the farm from Mr. Larrissey, Ellie’s uncle.  When the baby, Mary Josephine, is born, Ellie remembers the real father, a visiting priest, but whereas she treasures the child for the sake of this real father’s memory, Mulreavey accepts the child out of greed, practicality, and even a small measure of affection.  Finally, though, when the child is ten, Ellie can no longer keep the father’s identity a secret, and tells the potato dealer he was a priest; her family is angry with her.  Then, that same evening, she tells the child.  The local priest is as angry with her for revealing the truth as he is with her for her original activity with the visiting priest.  In the end, the revelation doesn’t much affect the relationship between Mulreavy and Ellie.–So, what is the story’s point?  Interestingly enough, and obviously enough as well, I suppose, when viewed from the perspective of the child’s name (Mary Josephine, family names, “Joseph” being Mr. Larrissey’s first name), this is about a modern version of the Biblical story of Christ, with a priest (God’s representative) standing in the place of the Holy Dove.  The story is shot with many ironies, but most of all, it suggests human dimensions to the divine birth, dimensions that one can imagine in any time or any place.  Most of all, the events are like those of a storm which has been long coming, and thus again “after the rain” is a representational idea.

Events in Northern Ireland are in the forefront of “Lost Ground.”  Briefly, it is the tale of a Protestant boy who is slain by a member of his own family for saying that a woman who called herself St. Rosa kissed him with a holy kiss in his father’s apple orchard.  Before the bitter ending, however, the reactions of people on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic split are shown.  His brother-in-law, the Protestant minister, tells him to forget about it and not to mention it.  The Catholic priest tries to help him identify the woman as a known saint, assuming that she was actually a saint, but is privately resentful and angry because the appearance wasn’t to a Catholic.  His family gradually restricts his movements until he is confined to his room permanently, because he becomes convinced that he has to go from town to town and preach about her appearance to him.  Finally, when his whole family but one is away for the day at a Protestant march, his one brother remaining, who is a butcher and a sort of gangster, comes with a friend and murders him.  And even though most of the family members secretly know that this is what happened to him, yet they as well as the other guessing members of the community remain silent.  The story ends:  “The family would not ever talk about the day, but through their pain they would tell themselves that Milton’s death was the way things were, the way things had to be:  that was their single consolation.  Lost ground had been regained.”  This is yet another story in a progression of Christianity-related material, yet even though there’s a discernible pattern of events to it with a discernible ending, the tragedy of the fighting back and forth in the Northern Ireland of the time is highlighted:  one side loses ground, then the other side.  At times, it must have surely seemed that there was indeed no ending.  And the fact that none of the family members actually witnessed the event of the boy’s murder yet that all accepted it was necessary and had been done by a family member–what if it wasn’t?  What if it had been the breaking and entering that they apparently represented it as in public?  Again, there are characters surmising, not being sure of an ending, yet creating it for themselves.

In the short piece “A Day,” reminiscent in a sense of a dark Mrs Dalloway, though it’s seemingly simple enough, there is a sudden surprise “ending”; of course, the scene is rather of repetition and continuation and not of an actual isolated event at all, by the time that the story is over in words.  Mrs. Lethwes’s day is presented, event after event, a simple unfolding of a daily routine.  In the course of this routine, we learn that her husband, who is apparently a very kind and considerate person, is cheating on her, at least to judge by an intercepted letter of his which she read and threw away (we know only a few isolated facts from it which she assumes as a matter of course, and we never see the letter.  Is it possible that there is some other explanation?).  She is barren, and is afraid that her husband intends to leave her for the other woman, whom she imagines to be younger and more fertile than she.  The story moves slowly, chronologically, through the day.  It is only at the cocktail hour, while she is preparing dinner, that we hit upon the crux of the matter:  for her repeated cocktails as she is fixing the food show that she is in fact an alcoholic, which is the real surprise.  It seems that she drinks out of fear every day, of that being the one day in which her husband will come in and announce that the other woman is pregnant and that he is leaving her, Mrs. Lethwes.  The story ends with her having passed out, as it appears she often does, and her husband carrying her away gently to bed.  The emphasis in this story is divided between the ending she thinks is coming, and the continued sense of her husband’s love and gentleness, one playing against the other.  One wonders if it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The last sentence of “Marrying Damian” is in a certain sense a motto for the whole book, but more of that in a moment.  This story, as the last one in the book, is indeed entitled to have the last word, though the plot doesn’t force this conclusion.  Though the story  is evidently complete, it reverts in a way to the overall foregoing pattern of something unresolved.  When Johanna is five, she tells her mother, Claire, and her father (the “I” of the story) that she is going to marry Damian, a family friend who is their age, and who is already married.  A brief tale of the years passing shows them manifesting consternation and some amusement as Damian weds and divorces woman after woman.  He is their soap opera, if you will.  They don’t take Johanna’s words seriously.  After all, it’s not their problem.  But then comes the day when, on one of his periodic sponging visits, Damian and Johanna meet again;  she is twenty-seven.  The parents fear at once that she is taking to Damian as one of her human projects to an alarming degree, and that the conclusion is foregone.  Yet, they do not feel that they can do anything about it.  As the speaker sees it:  “It was too late to hate him.  It was too late to deny that we’d been grateful when our stay-at-home smugness had been enlivened by the tales of his adventures, or to ask him if he knew how life had turned out for the women who had loved him.  Instead we conversed inconsequentially.”  In a way, this story has commonalities with “Gilbert’s Mother,” in that a character is postulating a series of actions that may or may not be true, though in this case they are future actions; in the case of Gilbert’s mother, she is guessing at the actions of his immediate past.  And in both cases, their surmises are a sort of annunciatory angel, as in the central story’s artistic reference, though a sort of this flawed world, which may be imperfectly true.  What we are in fact being given a chance to see and speculate upon in this collection is in fact the number of times our actions are inconsequential and incomplete, until we shape them by our own beliefs and prognostications.  Then, they become the plots in our lives whose structures seem given by our stars.  As the character above says, we try to duck beneath what we may have caused to happen by “convers[ing] inconsequentially.”

Indeed, this is a fine book of stories, and one of the best I’ve ever found for carrying a theme from beginning to end.  I hope that you will read this book for yourself, for even if you know the plots by my recalling them, the point of a fine story is in the number of times it can be reread or retold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

5 responses to “The Shape Events Take in the Human Mind–William Trevor’s “After Rain”

  1. Reblogged this on D. JAMES FORTESCUE and commented:
    Wow. Far too clever for me =)

  2. Blimey, you really are back with a bang, that was an epic blog post! Not complaining though, thoroughly enjoyed it and the book is added to the unwieldy wish list.

    I do enjoy short stories that are a snapshot of people’s lives, that there is little in the way of resolution is a good thing in terms of those of us who like to speculate on such matters or at least on the perceptions of the character, it is probably less perplexing than the meaning of like or universe stuff.
    Each one of these stories sound great, had I not known your time away was for other reasons, I would have thought you had spent a good part of it on this insightful review, the length and detail of which are impressive.

    • While I really appreciate the ego rub your praise gives me, you know very well that without your posts to read and keep in touch with, I probably would have stopped the desire to blog altogether some time ago. It’s knowing that at least one person I know is still out there blogging away and doing worthwhile stuff that makes it easier to start again. So, thanks for the kudos and the example.

      • It’s symbiotic I fin this blogging malarkey, there are a number of bloggers, yourself included who push me to up my own game with their writings, so there! It seems more of the bloggers I have been chatting to for a long time are disappearing or taking long breaks so it is good to have you back. As for me, as long as there are books there are posts to be written and I happen to know that there are at least 400 books in print, I saw them in a shop.

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