Last Stories – William Trevor

William Trevor’s Last Stories is an exquisite collection of tales featuring lonely lives, individuals resigned to a quiet existence, love not panning out as desired, and finding contentment in small things.

As tends to be the case with any short story collection, some of the stories were very strong, while others failed to hit the mark. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on the ones that made an impression on me because in a sense they also form the essence of the whole collection.

One of my favourite stories, At the Caffé Daria, is a tale of two women – Anita and Claire – good friends once upon a time but no longer. Anita is now a publisher’s reader and frequently visits Caffé Daria as part of her daily routine. On one of these visits, she runs into Claire who informs her that her husband recently died. The death of Claire’s husband brings back a flood of painful memories, as Anita recalls a past tarnished by betrayal. The reader is made aware of Anita and Claire’s friendship when they were dancers in a troupe called Fireflies. During this period, Anita agrees to marry an older man, who declares his undying love for her, and chooses to settle down. But while she is content with married life, her husband abandons her for Claire, leading to a rift in their friendship. When the man dies, in a fit of loneliness, Claire seeks out Anita, but will the latter find it in her heart to let be bygones be bygones? This is a brilliant piece on how betrayal can tilt the delicate balance of friendship, on how loneliness and anger afflict the two women as they cope with abandonment.

Claire cherishes in her lonely solitude what Anita, in hers, too late embraces now: all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.

What is the price one is willing to pay to harness talent? At the heart of The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, is our protagonist Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, a woman in her early fifties, “slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features.” Miss Nightingale, now all by herself, gives music lessons in the same rooms where she spent most of her childhood and also carried out her secret love affair with a married man. Her parents are now no more, and the affair fizzles out, but Miss Nightingale is not a bitter woman, for “after all there was the memory of a happiness.” When a child prodigy begins to take piano lessons from her she is dazzled by his talent, until, she realizes he is equally adept at stealing objects from her room.

She had sought too much in trying to understand how human frailty connected with love or with the beauty that the gifted brought. There was a balance struck: it was enough.

In Mrs Crasthorpe, the titular character feels profoundly humiliated because she is the sole mourner at her husband’s bleak funeral, in a village he requested, though she does not know why. But, Mrs Crasthorpe is a woman of secrets herself, and believes that although she married her husband for money and was blessed with a comfortable life, she couldn’t really blossom in their union. Thus, she perceives his death as an opportunity for her to rise in life.

I shall relish my widowhood. I shall make something of it.

Her journey through grief and attempting to forge a new life is contrasted with that of another character called Etheridge. Etheridge has also experienced tragedy with the death of his wife, who he loved dearly, but he finds solace in work, reinventing himself and somehow moving on.

Etheridge’s path occasionally crosses with Mrs Crasthorpe’s, though he wishes it didn’t, and this uneasiness is also mirrored in the reader. This is an excellent, nuanced tale of two people, who grapple with a major upheaval in their personal life, and yet what fate eventually has in store for them is diametrically opposite. 

In An Idyll in Winter, a teenage girl, Mary Bella, living in a big house surrounded by a farm, finds her imagination fired up by her tutor, Anthony, an older man. An attraction that does not play out then, Anthony alters his career path to become a cartographer, marries and settles down with two daughters. A chance visit to the farm, several years later, kindles the romance between Mary Bella and Anthony, and the latter proceeds to end his marriage. Fear grips both the women in the story as they are bound to a man, who despite his best intentions, ends up equally hurting them.  

With that simplicity a loneliness began for Mary Bella that was more than loneliness had ever been before. Belittling the solitude she had so often known, it was mysterious too, coming as it did while she still had the companionship she valued more than any other.

The story Two Women, begins thus: “Cecelia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all.” Cecelia is aware of her mother’s absence during her childhood, but is plagued with doubt whether she is dead. This feeling of uncertainty persists, and her father is reluctant to make things clear. Meanwhile, a new life beckons for Cecelia. Once she is ensconced in a boarding school, where she begins to blossom after initial hiccups, Cecelia notices two women who are possibly stalking her – they are always present at her hockey matches and other events. Who are these two women and will they shed some modicum of light on Cecilia’s origins?

This flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise crept, unsummoned, into Cecelia’s thoughts and did not go away. Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, its suppositions were vague, inchoate. Yet they were there, and Cecelia reached out for their whisper of consoling doubt.

Last Stories proves that Trevor is truly a master of the short form. His writing is brilliantly understated and nuanced, the stories abound with sensitively portrayed characters.  He crafts his sentences with care, and every piece crackles with aching poignancy.

Not all the people in his stories are lonely though. They are certainly alone, but some find peace in routine and the life they have shaped for themselves.  Others are lonely creatures not only because they have no one that matters, but also when they are in relationships. Some are marginal people, on the fringes of life, like the dead woman in The Unknown Girl, whose life is summed up in a sentence – “Between the childhood and the death there was a life that hadn’t been worth living.” Others like Mary Bella are beset by persistent dread of losing the love they possess.

What is also remarkable about these stories is how unpredictable they are. A story will coast along in a certain direction, and the reader might form some assumptions, only to realize that it has shaped up in completely unexpected ways. A tincture of melancholia seeps into each of these tales, punctuated by ambiguities and moments of creeping doubts. Last Stories, then, is a fitting finale to Trevor’s illustrious writing career.

A Month of Reading – October 2020

Here’s what I read in October – a mix of translated literature, contemporary lit and early 20th century lit. It was a slow reading month, but I am pleased that atleast the books were high quality. My favourites, however, were The Other Name by the Norwegian author Jon Fosse, and Dead Girls by the Argentinean writer Selva Almada.

Dead Girls – Selva Almada

Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina. It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved, where “being a woman” was the primary motive for these heinous acts being committed.

At the beginning of the book, Almada writes:

Violence was normalized. The neighbour beaten by her husband, the teenager next door who put up with her jealous boyfriend’s tantrums, the father who wouldn’t let his daughters wear short skirts or make-up. All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.

Almada is, of course, referring to the environment in Argentina. But really, the violence she points to, unfortunately, has global resonance and is the story of pretty much any country.

The Other Name – Jon Fosse

The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.

The Fountain Overflows – Rebecca West

The Fountain Overflowsis a lovely depiction of childhood and family life as it centers on the talented Aubrey children comprising Cordelia, Mary, Rose and Richard Quin (Rose is the narrator). Their father’s financial instability reduces them to near poverty and their mother frets over their circumstances, but the children’s appetite for adventure remains intact. This is a book filled with music, poltergeists, wonderfully described Christmas gatherings, and a murder trial. West’s writing is warm and charming, and reading the book had been pure delight.

Ankomst – Gohril Gabrielsen

In Ankomst, our narrator is a woman, a scientist whose job is to study the impact of climate on the behavioral patterns of seabirds. For the purposes of her research, she decides to spend six months in isolation in a remote cabin in northern Norway, way up in the Arctic. And yet she has no plans of really being alone. Rather she awaits the arrival of her lover, who is reluctant to come because he has a daughter to look after. Our narrator is also married with a daughter of her own. Gradually, it emerges through a series of flashbacks that her marriage is troubled as she is a victim of domestic violence. Not to mention, she is also plagued by the guilt of abandoning her daughter. The sense of place in the novel is excellent, the feeling of isolation against a backdrop of snow, ice and freezing temperatures. Gabrielsen also racks up the tension as the reader wonders whether the abusive husband will be successful in tracing our narrator’s whereabouts. As the drama builds up, so does our narrator’s feelings of isolation and possibly disorientation. And then, in the final pages there is a knock on her cabin door – is it her lover who has finally arrived, or is it her violent husband?

Academy Street – Mary Costello

Academy Street is about Tess Lohan, a book that journeys through six decades of her life. Born in a rural farm in Ireland, Tess is confronted with a tragedy as a young girl – the death of her mother due to tuberculosis. Raised in a big family of brothers and sisters, prone to not expressing their feelings, she is overwhelmed by a sense of stasis and longs for escape.  Pouncing on an opportunity to train as a nurse, she migrates from Ireland to New York in the 1960s, seeing America as a land of many possibilities. And then she falls in love, and this has consequences. This is a beautifully rendered tale, full of heartache, and compassion and Tess is a wonderfully realized character. The prose is lovely, which is always to be expected from Irish authors, who are truly masters of the language.

That’s it for October.  I plan to read a few novellas in November and have started on Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. It’s been very good so far, but my concentration had dwindled largely due to the anxiety over US elections. With Biden finally (and thankfully) emerging as a victor, I am hoping to resume reading soon.

Actress – Anne Enright

Some years ago I had read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz and was quite bowled over by it. The premise of the book was a theme done to death a countless times – the examination of an extra-marital affair. But Enright with her smart and spiky writing transformed it into something special. Thus, the release of her new novel Actress made me quite eager to savour her writing once more.

In Actress, our narrator is Norah FitzMaurice, now a middle-aged woman, and a writer who has been married for many years with kids. When the novel opens, her mother Katherine O’Dell – the famous actress – has been dead for some years and Norah begins to reminisce about their relationship, her ascent as a movie star, followed by her descent into madness.

In a way Norah is writing about her mother, a fictionalized biography if you will, and it is addressed to her husband, the ‘you’ in the narrative.

The first chapter begins with a snapshot of Katherine and ends with her shooting a well-known producer Boyd O’ Neil in the leg after which she is committed to an asylum.

People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like as a mother, or what she was like an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might, themselves, be secretly askew.

Gradually in the subsequent chapters, Katherine’s personality and life is revealed to us in layers.

Katherine is attracted to the stage at a young very age influenced by her father who is a small time actor at the time. Katherine, however, is destined for bigger things. These are days just after the war and she rises to stardom in Ireland led by her stellar performance as a nurse in a war movie that enamours audiences. Thereafter, a stint in Hollywood and all the trappings of glamour follow. It means that Katherine’s home is often frequented by men and admirers, which carries on even when her daughter is born.

Katherine does not reveal the identity of Norah’s dad, and Norah often wonders why although she imagines her father to be some sort of a hero.

I woke up one spring morning with a sudden urge to discover my DNA before I tried to pass it along. This was the missing thing. This was the rope I needed to haul my baby out of the universe and into my body. I needed to find out who I ‘was’.

Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself pandering to the men in the industry for quality roles and this in many ways gradually begins to take a toll on her mental health. For Norah, her mother’s fame and company of men bring another set of problems – unwelcome sexual advances that Norah has to grapple with.

But the book is not all about Katherine. We learn something of Norah’s life as well – the revolution in Dublin in the 70s, her own sexual awakening and her subsequent marriage. Norah goes on to build a life different from Katherine’s. In a way, she opts for a more conventional life centred around marriage and motherhood in stark contrast to Katherine’s bohemian existence.

While Katherine does enjoy the sweet fruits of success, it does not last long – a bitter truth that she struggles to accept. Actress, then, is a beautifully written novel that explores fame and the price one has to pay for it.

The nuances of the connection between Katherine and Norah is sensitively evoked – despite many challenges, mother and daughter share a deep bond.

Among the images of my mother that exist online is a black-and-white photograph of me, watching her from the wings. I am four or five years of age and sitting on a stool, in a little matinee coat and a bowl haircut. Beyond me, Katherine O’Dell performs to the unseen crowd. She is dressed in a glittering dark gown, you can not see the edges of her or the shape her figure makes, just the slice of cheekbone, the line of her chin. Her hands are uplifted.

Enright does not give too much weight to plot, and she also chooses not to tell her story in a linear fashion. Rather, the book is a more like a meditation on a mother-daughter relationship and their contrasting personalities. As usual, Enright’s writing is smart and suffused with enough wisdom and perception to bring out something new in the tale.

Overall, the novel has a very reflective feel to it, which in a way makes sense. After all, the narrator is also an author because writing about her mother gives her the time to dwell on the past and try to understand her mother more deeply in a way that will enable her to convey it all in her book.

I have read two Enrights now – Actress and The Forgotten Waltz – the latter examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

Two Faber Stories – Edna O’Brien & Claire Keegan

The Faber Stories is a wonderful series of short books devoted to either a single story or a couple of them by an author. They are akin to wine tasting – you want to sample a sip before deciding whether to go in for the bottle.

On a recent weekend getaway, I packed two of them in a suitcase – Paradise by Edna O’ Brien and The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan. Honestly, I had never heard of Claire Keegan before and was dimly aware of Edna O’Brien. Both the writers are from Ireland and these stories are a great reminder of how rich Irish literature really is.

Both the stories come in at around 60 pages in these Faber Stories editions. And both have done their job of piquing my interest in trying out more of their work in the future.

Since these stories are short, I intend to keep the reviews brief too.

Paradise – Edna O’Brien

In Paradise, the protagonist – an unnamed woman – is on vacation with her millionaire lover, who is also not named. They are holidaying in the countryside and staying in his mansion. They are not alone though. Guests stream in and out on all days and the couple are required to entertain. It is a milieu of wealthy people. 

At once we are made aware of the woman’s discomfort in these surroundings. There is this unspoken code of the super-rich she is pressured to confirm to, which causes her great distress. It is mainly evident in the swimming lessons she takes everyday despite the fact that she enjoys neither the sea nor the water.

To the rest of the guests, swimming is akin to any other activity that naturally comes to them. Thus, the woman is burdened by the expectations placed on her of becoming a swimmer when the lessons end in the final days of their stay.

‘Am I right in thinking you are to take swimming lessons?’ a man asked, choosing the moment when she had leaned back and was staring up at a big pine tree.

‘Yes,’ she said, wishing that he had not been told.

‘There’s nothing to it, you just get in and swim,’ he said.

How surprised they all were, surprised and amused. Asked where she had lived and if it was really true.

‘Can’t imagine anyone not swimming as a child.’

‘Can’t imagine anyone not swimming, period.’

Meanwhile, the sex with her lover is great but she feels that when it comes to intimacy they are not yet on the same level; he is particularly reticent. Given that he already has had a few marriages under his belt, everyone around is pretty sure that his relationship with the woman is not going to last either. Painted in nuanced scenes, the strength of their relationship is something the woman begins to question too.

She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.

Paradise then is a gorgeous story about the pressures of meeting expectations imposed by society, the differences in class, and how the wealthy have invisible barriers around them that are difficult to break in order to be accepted.  There’s a sense of dread throughout the story that keeps you on the edge – will the woman survive the ordeal or will she snap?

Edna O’Brien is an assured writer and her prose drips with elegance. Luckily, I do have a collection of her short stories Love Object sitting on my shelves, so I am eager to savour them too, hopefully sooner rather than later.

The Forester’s Daughter – Claire Keegan

While in Edna O’ Brien’s Paradise, the spotlight is on a mansion peopled with the moneyed class, The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan is set in the heart of the Wicklow countryside in Ireland. The protagonist is Victor Deegan, a hardworking, sincere farmer who is struggling to make ends meet and hold on to his house (both literally and figuratively).

When Victor’s father dies and his siblings express no interest in taking over from him, Victor inherits the house. He takes a loan against the property to buy out his brothers’ share so that the place now truly becomes his own. But being indebted has its own share of ills, and Victor is under constant pressure to ensure that there is a steady income to pay off the loan after a certain number of years while at the same time keeping the expenses minimal. The prospect of a comfortable, retired life is what keeps him going.

Wanting to settle down, Victor persuades country girl Martha to marry him. Martha is unsure at first, but seeing that she has had no good marriage proposals, succumbs to his demands.

It is clear at the outset though that the marriage is an unhappy one. Both fail to live up to expectations that they have from their union.

Before a year had passed the futility of married life struck her sore: the futility of making a bed, of drawing and pulling curtains. She felt lonelier now than she’d ever felt when she was single. And little or nothing was there to around Aghowle to amuse her.

The couple go on to have three children – two sons and a daughter. To Victor, the sons are a disappointment. The eldest has no interest in farm life and yearns to move to Dublin when the right opportunity comes along. The second son is a simpleton. It is the daughter who has the intelligence and brains. While her presence somehow makes Victor uncomfortable, she is Martha’s favourite child.

One day, Victor comes across an abandoned gun dog when out in the fields. Having no clue who the owner is he takes the dog home and gives him as birthday gift to his daughter. She is thrilled. To her this is evidence that her father loves her.

And so the girl, whose father has never given her so much as a tender word, embraces the retriever and with it the possibility that Deegan loves her, after all. A wily girl who is half innocence and half intuition, she stands there in a yellow dress and thanks Deegan for her birthday present. For some reason it almost breaks the forester’s heart to hear her say the words. She is human, after all.

But Martha is not happy, she knows better. She is filled with foreboding that it is all going to end badly.

And while the story hurtles towards its sad but inevitable conclusion, there is nevertheless a ray of hope expressed in the possibility of new beginnings.

The Forester’s Daughter then is a wonderful, riveting tale of the consequences of an unhappy marriage and how it affects others around them, particularly the children. It is also a statement on the mundaneness of everyday life and the constant struggle to keep head above water financially, all of which can have a crippling impact on any family unit.  Is there any meaning to it all?

I don’t have any Claire Keegan on my shelves and a book buying ban means I don’t see reading more of her work anytime soon, but I will be looking out for her books later.

All in all, two excellent reads from the Faber Stories collection!

Good Behaviour – Molly Keane

My fascination with early 20th century women writers continues.

Just last week, I wrote about The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s stellar The Balkan Trilogy.

Earlier this year, I had also loved The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer and The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter.

And now Molly Keane joins this strong list as another wonderful discovery with her novel Good Behaviour.

Good Behaviour frontispiece
Frontispiece in the Folio Society Edition

Good Behaviour is narrated in the first person by Aroon St Charles, the main protagonist in the novel. When the book opens, Aroon is fifty seven and is living with her aged mother and their housemaid cum cook Rose in Gulls’ Cry, a gothic house built on the edge of a cliff.

In the starting chapter, it is hinted that Aroon has been dominating over the household – especially her mother and Rose – making life difficult for them. Or so Rose implies. And then a dramatic event happens but in such an understated way that it sets the tone for the events leading up to this moment.

After the first chapter, the rest of the novel goes back several years when Aroon is a child living in the estate called Temple Alice in the Irish countryside with her younger brother Hubert and her parents.

Aroon’s father is a gentleman, extroverted, who loves horses and manages the affairs of the estate. That said, despite the affection he has for his wife, he is prone to drinking and having extra-marital affairs, which Aroon’s mother strangely does not mind too much.

Aroon’s mother is just the opposite. She cherishes the intimate moments with her husband, but does not care much for running the household or looking after her children. She is largely withdrawn, preferring to lose herself in her hobbies – painting, gardening and even collecting antique furniture.

It is no surprise then that Aroon grows to love her father more, as her mother remains cold and indifferent towards her.

This brings us to Aroon herself. Throughout the novel Aroon is always at the fringes, longing to belong, to be included, to be loved. With no hope for affection from her mother, Aroon becomes greatly attached to her brother Hubert and their father, who, in fragmentary moments, does display kindness towards her.

It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated. As a result, when it comes to relationships, all of them in some form or the other come across as emotionally stunted.

Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete. Although they feared to speak, Papa and Mummie spent more time together; but, far from comforting, they seemed to freeze each other deeper in misery.

We are also, earlier, introduced to Mrs Brock, governess for Aroon and Hubert when they were children. Mrs Brock is more generous and expressive and naturally Aroon comes to love her as well. Through Mrs Brock, the details of her earlier stint as a governess are revealed to us. This is at the home of Captain Massingham and his wife Lady Grizel, where we are also introduced to their eldest son Richard.

Many years later, at one time, Richard comes to stay with the St Charles family during the holidays, and Aroon falls in love with him. But it becomes obvious that Richard mostly does not harbor the same feelings towards her.

This is just the broader outline of the novel.

What makes the novel so brilliant is that it is such a multi-layered work. Desire and secrets abound in the St Charles family, but its members do not believe in openness and frank discussion. This is conveyed by Keane in prose that is subtle, elegant and understated – much in line with how the family believes things should be; that keeping up appearances is what matters at all costs.

Major events such as suicide, death, which take place over the years and over the course of the novel, are brushed under the carpet, as there’s too much awkwardness in openly discussing these episodes and coming to terms with them.

The family also lives in a world of its own, choosing to eschew reality when it comes to finances and other household matters. The world of aristocrats and country estates is slowly fading away across Ireland and England, but the St Charles family pretends it has nothing to do with them. Their decadent household rots, the debts keep piling up, but all of this seems too much of an inconvenience to deal with.

Good Behaviour illustration
An Illustration from the FS Edition…Aroon and Her Father Having Tea with the Crowhurst Girls

In the midst of all this, Aroon stands out as a woman who is incredibly naïve and yet strangely compelling. Her physical attributes – she is big and ungainly – only amplifies her awkwardness.

Her naiveté becomes all the more apparent in her inability to grasp any deeper meaning in the way her dysfunctional family behaves. Hints or the significance of things she has seen pass her by. She is largely consumed by loneliness and it’s her desperation to be loved that takes the centrestage for her.

I stood for a moment waiting for Papa to say a word in my praise or favour. I stood there stupidly, betrayed in his silence. I saw her looking up at him, with something else to say.

I turned away, my loneliness walking with me, taller than my own height as a shadow is tall – and irremediable as my height was.

There are some brilliant set pieces that are peppered throughout the novel, and there is one towards the end, when Aroon is invited to a ball, that is particularly poignant. Here, Aroon’s isolation in the midst of company is so pronounced that it’s heartbreaking.

All of this makes Good Behaviour akin to a dark, delicious cake – it is rich, intriguing, wonderfully spiced and layered with dollops of hidden meanings. Molly Keane’s writing is superb and the narrative never sags. It had me riveted throughout.

Jane Gardam, in her introduction to this novel, writes that Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s tour de force, and was written in 1981 when she was 77 years old.

Here’s another fact that Gardam throws light on…

What is so interesting is that Good Behaviour was turned down flat by two publishers because it was ‘too dark’ even in a time when ‘darkness’ was in fashion. In other words it was contemporarily realistic and had stepped away from the notion of romantic, lovely, comical Ireland. It is a hunting, shooting and fishing book but the great houses are crumbling and there is every kind of physical and moral decay. 

All in all, Molly Keane has turned out to be another terrific writer whose back catalogue I certainly intend to sample and savour in the coming months.

Good Behaviour cover
Folio Society Hardcover Edition