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Richard Eder

The News From Ireland and Other Stories by William Trevor (Elisabeth Sifton/Viking: $16.95; 285 pp.)

May 04, 1986|Richard Eder

William Trevor makes being Anglo-Irish a universal condition, like the sweet futility of Chekhov's gentry, or Conrad's secret sharer.

Trevor's Ireland endures her passing Establishment, is shaped by it, and ultimately rejects it. She wears the Anglo-Irish notions of order as a livery, biding her time to fall back into her own decay; a decay that could be evolution writ longer.

Why should this be universal? Why should we care about these English families of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whose hegemony was both profound and wafer-thin? Simply because Trevor makes them stand for a broader image of human life as a struggle against entropy.

It is not a glorious struggle. It is a more than faintly foolish one; and it is seen from entropy's point of view. We live in the center of our schemes, but nothing else does; least of all, life itself.

Perhaps this suggests why the title story in Trevor's newest collection offers something considerably more than his usual evocative skill. A good short story encapsulates a moment and casts a suggestive shadow beyond it. A very few short stories pass that shadow almost endlessly, as far as the eye can follow. In a reduced number of pages, they are as long as novels. They empty a measure of time into a sea of time.

"The Dead" did that in James Joyce's "Dubliners." And, though the comparisons sometimes made between Trevor's short stories and Joyce's seem inadequate, "The News From Ireland" does it in this present collection.

"The News" is set in last century's potato famine. It tells of the Pulvertafts in their manor in the starving countryside. Arrived from England eight years earlier, after the death of a long-established relative, they are decent people, humane and concerned.

Mr. Pulvertaft has commissioned the building of a road around the estate in order to employ the starving. Mrs. Pulvertaft arranges for soup to feed them. The road is useless; the soup stretches misery without curing it. Both are palliatives, while the Pulvertafts get on with the round of their amiable private lives; and, outside, people flee to America, or die or go mad.

After eight years, the Pulvertafts "make allowances for the natives, they come to terms, they learn to live with things," Trevor writes. It is the horror of the situation, this cycle of visitors who adapt themselves--the Celts, the Vikings, the English. It foreshadows a tragedy set out in another Trevor book, "Fool of Fortune," when a Pulvertaft is shot dead in his house after the Easter Rising.

None of the other stories quite comes up to "The News," but it would be a very hard mark to reach. "Virgins" has some of its rare blend of a resonant vision with a sharp and disciplined moral irony.

Two middle-age women meet, sightseeing in Siena. They had been bosom friends as children. Both had been hopelessly in love with an aristocratic invalid who lived nearby. Laura, the "wise" virgin of the pair, had maintained her discretion; Margaretta, the "foolish" one, had blundered into a confession and had been humiliated. Trevor gives us the complexity of remembered love and remembered pain.

In other stories, the vision is narrower and the irony dominates. It is a compassionate irony, though. Over and over, Trevor presents an abused, unhappy, crippled or cast-aside protagonist, and gives him or her a moment of triumph. In "Lunch in Winter," an old chorine, all tag-lines and snatches of 1920s songs, achieves a kind of stoic valor from clinging to her hope that "Mr. Robin Right would come bob, bob, bobbing along." In "The Property of Colette Nervi," a crippled country girl acquires the jewelry left behind by a visiting French couple; and with it, some of their romantic glamour.

Trevor's stories are constructed with unfailing skill and almost unfailing delicacy. Sometimes, the construction overshadows the story. We can get the feeling of a stage manager setting up the props and arranging the actors in their starting positions; and then raising the curtain. Occasionally, as he displays his worms prior to their turnings, an excessive pathos creeps in.

Almost invariably, the author's intelligence justifies the risk of overarrangement. A rather Gothic tale about a mother who starves her daughter of affection, and who eventually starves to death herself--while the daughter becomes a cook--is the only real failure.

On the other hand, the story of a wife who is displaced by her aging husband's young mistress, finds a life of her own, and is compelled to return when the husband falls ill and the mistress decamps, is a magical play of moral light and shadow.

Trevor fashions contrivance into high craft; and at his best, he elevates high craft into art. And when he steps into the Anglo-Irish world of dying order and dying memory, he goes far beyond his best and achieves something whose skill should not distract us from the prophetic power that is in it.

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