Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

After Rain – William Trevor

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 13, 2012

INTERVIEWER: What is your definition of a short story?

WILLIAM TREVOR: I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

The above is an extract from an interview given by William Trevor to The Paris Review Magazine in 1989 carrying one of the most comprehensive and finest definitions of the art form of short story. However, what caught my attention is his declaration that life for most part is meaningless. If one were to suspend the commonly accepted religious and philosophical positions that life has certain inscrutable cosmic purpose, then Trevor’s assertion appears to have hit bull’s eye. Yet no other writer, other than Chekov, could use life’s inclusive sense of meaninglessness, dereliction and frequently perplexing feeling of purposelessness as raw material to spin stories of dazzling brilliance and lasting beauty as Trevor can do. Both Trevor and Chekov are like the eponymous dwarf in the story Rumpelstiltskin who could spin gold threads of finest counts out of bundles of worthless hay. The artistic achievement of Trevor lies not in dwelling on the grand truths of life, shattering epiphanies or shocking realizations but in the ability to depict the minor turmoils and tremors of quotidian life with a refined gravity and a frightening clarity which is subtly haunting and definitively disturbing. This is the conclusion that I have come to after reading Trevor’s collection of short stories ‘After Rain

The characters that Trevor so tellingly portrays in this collection are ordinary people living commonplace and routine lives. On the surface, their lives are like placid lakes without ripples but underneath there are strong undercurrents of human jealousies, apprehensions, unintended cruelties, intended kindnesses, habitual indifferences, silent and explicit expectations, lingering memories, staunch and sincere dogmas and beliefs, failed and failing marriages, of being victims at the hands of villains who themselves are equally ordinary, personal hurts and the ensuing pain. It is these undercurrents that Trevor captures and depicts with extraordinary skill and mastery. Trevor makes no attempt to build heroes, heroines or larger than life personalities in his stories. In an admission in the interview to Paris Review, Trevor claimed that “he finds the unheroic side of people much richer and more entertaining than black-and-white success”. This belief is never broken in any of his stories in this collection and the tales he spins out of the common lives and mundane incidents are rich with feelings, sensitive, full of pathos and harrowing gravity that one ends up marveling at Trevor’s grasp of human predicament in diverse situations.   

In the story ”The Piano Tuner’s Wives”, an ageing blind piano tuner gets married second time on account of the death of his first wife and his new wife is dismayed at the strong traces of conditioning left by the former. The ensuing jealousy drives her to erase these traces to create her stamp of authority. What makes the story touching is that a living person is competing with a mild sense of spite and bitterness with a dead person to whom these things do not matter anymore. In the story “A Friendship”, a woman’s infidelity with an acquaintance from her past inadvertently facilitated by her close friend leads the woman’s husband to demand the termination of this friendship as atonement to the indiscretion. In the story “Timothy’s Birthday”, a homosexual son’s indifference to his parent’s efforts to celebrate his birthday leads him to send a substitute to inform of his inability to attend the birthday celebration. The substitute turns out to be a petty crook who steals from the house after having a generous meal and this whole incident further deepens the resentment and sadness of the already distraught couple. In the story “A Bit of Business”, two small time crooks break into the house during a papal visit and mug an old man, steal money and go on a jolly ride in the town with a couple of girls. However, the joy of the jolly trip is spoiled for one of the crooks by the nagging feeling that it would have been better to have killed the old man instead of hurting and binding him to a chair to avoid consequences of identification. In the title story “After Rain” a broken relationship brings a lady to a small town in Italy on a holiday which she had visited as a child along with her parents. Along also come a flood of memories from her past that is mildly unsettling. In the story “Widows” the attempt by a house painter to extract his due for work done from a recently widowed lady brings back the memories to her sister of her position, beauty, authority and her own unhappy marriage. The sister is a widow herself. “Gilbert’s Mother” is a mildly disturbing story of a mother who suspects her son of being a murderer and yet they continue to share an affectionate life under the same roof. In the story “The Potato Dealer” – driven by economic reasons a poor potato dealer marries a pregnant girl half his age. Many years later the mother reveals the truth to the child which had been kept a secret so far much against the wishes of the potato dealer. In the story “Lost Ground” an entire family and community gangs up against a protestant boy for his claims and beliefs in the visitation of a saint from Catholic Church. The boy is sequestered in his own house and eventually killed by his own “hard-man” protestant brother. “Marrying Damian” is the story of a troubled old couple whose daughter ends up in a marital relationship with a shiftless man twice her age – who himself is a close friend of the couple

There are no happy stories in this collection. The conclusions around loss, hurt and unhappiness are mostly allusions lurking in shadows. Trevor leaves the inferences as interpretations that the reader is forced to arrive at. And it is in this lies the grace and beauty of these brilliantly written stories. A wonderful reading experience

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