Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Secret Life in the Short Story and William Trevor's "The Women"

Although many readers agree that Alice Munro and William Trevor are the two greatest short story writers in the world today, Munro, whose most recent book, Dear Life, has been on bestseller lists for several weeks, is the more active of the two and usually attracts more attention than Trevor when one of their stories appears in The New Yorker.

Trevor has not had a story in that magazine since “The Woman of the House” on Dec. 15, 2008, whereas Munro has published most of her Dear Life stories there in the past few years. (My blog entry on “The Woman of the House” is in my archives)

Although Munro’s stories, especially those in The New Yorker, often attracts a lot of blog review attention, Trevor’s new story, “The Women,” which appeared on January 14, 2013, has attracted very little, with the Irish Writing Blog opening with “it’s fair to say that the reaction to William Trevor’s latest New Yorker story has been a bit mixed.”

Indeed, on his blog, Clifford Garstang has called “The Women” a simple cliché story about an unwed mother who has given up her child and then later tries to find her, concluding that although William Trevor may be one of our greatest short story writers, “this one seems to have been written in his sleep.” So there, Mr. Trevor, wake up!

The writer on the blog entitled “New Yorker Story Critiques Blog,” says he/she likes the premise or the plot of the story, but “finds the execution lacking,” with lots of digressions and superfluities that “bleed the main story arc of tension.”  The blogger says he/she tried skipping over the offending sections and found the story “much improved.”  So there, Mr. Trevor, get yourself a decent editor and do it his/her way instead of your own!

On the other hand, there is the always thoughtful blog “The Mookse and The Gripes,” graciously managed by Trevor Berette, which opens with, “It was a beautiful thing to find a new William Trevor story in this week’s issue of The New Yorker.  Obviously reading the story more attentively than Clifford Garstang and the anonymous New Yorker Critiques blogger, Berette says “The Women” is about the kind of quiet sadness that does not go away as we age, admiring the “careful style that brings us so close to the source of pain and the desire to turn away from it that makes this such a powerful story…It’s the secret pain that these people feel they cannot share, so carefully rendered, that makes this story come to life.”  Indeed, and what also makes the story a classic of the genre.

I recommend that you take a look at the extended debate about Trevor’s “The Women” on “The Mookse and the Gripes” blog.  The reader Betsy provides a detailed close reading that tries to account for the story’s sense of secrecy and mystery by accusing the father of abuse of the daughter, similar to that in Nabokov’s Lolita.  Berette doesn’t think the background is that “sinister,” but Betsy is not to be denied, suspicious of the father/daughter travel in Europe and the priest who has arranged for the transfer of the child from unwed mother to unhappy father. Berette agrees there is something “haunting” about the story, even something a “bit creepy,” but does not think it is parental abuse.  Then reader Ken joins in, trying to mediate the debate over the something “sinister” in the story, concluding that the story is about the ambiguity of how lies can both serve us and harm us and others.  Betsy remains “concerned” for the young Cecilia.

Sensing that the debate about what is “secret and sinister” in the story has run its course, reader Ken concludes that the story is “endlessly interesting,” and (perhaps because it has created so much debate about the mystery behind the story), a “masterpiece.”  A new reader, Roger, agrees. And the debate ends with Betsy somewhat relieved about her fears of child abuse, hoping there will be another William Trevor coming along soon.

I summarize this little debate on The Mookse and the Gripes blog not only because I so enjoy good close readers energetically engaging with a complex short story, but because the sense of the sinister and secrecy and mystery evidenced in “The Women” seems to me to be so typical of the kind of human reality that the short story as a genre does so well.

I wrote a piece a few years ago about this “secret life” aspect of the short story as a genre, and would like to share a few passages in the hope that I might provide a context for understanding William Trevor’s story as well as the lively debate on The Mookse and The Gripes blog.

A central problem for short-story writers in the nineteenth century was how to use newly developed eighteenth-century conventions of realism to communicate spiritual meaning formerly explored allegorically in the mythic romance.  In the older tale or romance form, characters functioned as psychic projections of basic human fears and desires; in the new fiction, the characters had to be presented as if they were real.  Early nineteenth-century writers solved the problem by combining conventions of allegorical romance and realistic fiction.  In "Young Goodman Brown," for example, Hawthorne joined allegorical and realistic elements in an ambiguous mix of dream and reality in which his protagonist sometimes seems motivated by the demands of the allegory and sometimes by the demands of his own psyche.
            In "The Fall of the House of Usher," Edgar Allan Poe presented an “as if” real character entering the hermetically-sealed world of the artwork dominated by an obsessed and ultimately metaphoric character.  And in "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Herman Melville moved closer to realistic conventions by beginning with what appears to be the "real world,” only to have that world invaded by an emblematic character who transforms reality into metaphor.  The problem for all three of these early narrative experimentalists was how to bridge the gap between romance conventions, in which characters embody psychic states, and realistic conventions, in which characters possess individual psyches. By rejecting the supernatural and suggesting the strangeness of life as a function of individual psychology, the nineteenth-century short story no longer presented the drama of the clash between the sacred and the profane as existing in realm of the spiritual, but rather in the minds of the individual.
However, it is not until the end of the nineteenth century that Chekhov, the great master of the short story, perfected the form’s ability to present spiritual reality in realistic terms by focusing on the essentially mysterious and hidden nature of the basic human desire to transcend the everyday and live in the realm of spiritual reality.  Critic Peter Bitsilli has suggested that the complexity of Chekhov's characters leads us to feel there is something about them we do not understand, a something hidden from us, a something that is part of Chekhov's appeal.  Although the theme of the basic desire of the secret self could be illustrated in any number of Chekhov’s short fictions, the paradigmatic statement can be found in one of his most famous stories, “Lady with the Dog.”  Near the end of what seems to be merely an anecdotal tale of adultery, the central male character agonizes over the division he senses in himself.
He had two lives:  one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life, running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest, and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open.

 In Chekhov’s great story, the secrecy of Gurov’s idealized desire constitutes true reality for him, just as the sacred constituted true reality for primitive man and woman.  Indeed, in the modern short story, idealized human desire--unsayable, unrealizable, always hovering, like religious experience in the realm of the "not yet"--replaces the sacred revelation embodied in primal short-fiction forms.  When Anna leaves, Gurov thinks it has been just another episode or adventure in his life, nothing left but a memory that would visit him only from time to time.  But she haunts him, and he imagines her to be lovelier and himself to be finer than they actually were in Yalta.  The story ends with the couple agonizing about how to avoid the secrecy and to be free of their intolerable bondage.  “How?  How?” Gurov asks.  But, of course there is no answer, no way that the romantic, spiritual ideal they store up in their ghostly hearts can ever be actualized, except, of course, as it is manifested in the short story—as the immanent, the “not yet.”
             James Joyce confronted the quintessential problem of the modern short story in "The Dead": How is it possible for a realistic narrative to convey meaning and significance?  It is the same problem that Chekhov had to deal with--how to arrange concrete details in such a way that they develop into a pattern equivalent to theme.  Joyce's achievement in this story, its contribution to the development of the short story as a genre, can be best understood if we see its most basic theme as the difference between the kind of reality that realistic prose imitates and the kind of reality that romantic prose reveals. 
              Thematically, the conflict in "The Dead" that reflects its realistic/lyrical split is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and private life, between life as it is in everyday experience and life perceived as the objectification of desire. The party portion of "The Dead" is the story of Gabriel's public life, and his only psychic interest is what kind of figure he is going to cut publicly.  However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marital union--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire.   Thematically, the basic issue the story poses is:  In which one of these realms does true reality reside?   Gabriel's discovery at the end of the story is not only that his wife has an inner life inaccessible to him but that his own life has been an outer life only. Filled with desire and the memory of intimacy, wishing Gretta to at one with him, Gabriel is annoyed that she seems so distracted.  When he discovers that she has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he tries to use his typical public devices of irony, but the very simplicity of her story undercuts the effort, and he sees the inadequacy of his public self. 
             In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is.  "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday.  The ending, in which Gabriel, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him, allows himself to lose self and imaginatively merge into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness, makes it possible for the reader to begin the story over again with this end in mind.  "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful. 
             The theme of the inaccessibility of the private life and the inadequacy of public life is most emphatically explored in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio The most frequent remark made about the characters in Winesburg, Ohio is that they are psychic deformities, cut off from society, adrift in their own consciousness.  The story that most centrally focuses on Anderson’s effort to explore the secret life of his Winesburg grotesques is “Hands.”  Anderson’s suggestion that the secret of Biddlebaum's hands is a job for a poet is part of the basic change in the short story signaled by Chekhov.  Anderson struggles with the problem of the prose writer trying to communicate something subtle and delicate, feeling the words are clumsy, for all he has are the events and explanation.  What he needs is a way to use language the way the poet does, to transcend language. 
              The hidden, secret self is a persistent characteristic of the modern short story as a genre, understood by writers who know the form well and have mastered it.  This could easily be illustrated in any number of well-known stories by Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and other modern masters of the form.  For example, in Munro’s best work, the hidden story of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere and tone, is always about something more enigmatic and unspeakable than the story generated by characters and what happens next. 
            William Trevor’s “The Women” is a story about how “fragments make a whole,” about loss, melancholy, uncertainty, secrecy, need, desperation, desire for the truth, fear of the truth, being of two minds, playing roles, being haunted by the past, having regrets, hating the truth, making something better than the truth, abandoning “stern reality for what imagination more kindly offered.”  The story ends with Cecilia not knowing the truth, for her father has chosen not to tell her, and thinking that the two women have invented this “shadowland” and kept it alive in the “bluster of daring and pretense.”   Although Cecilia knows this is a flimsy exercise in supposition, both tenuous and vague, she reaches out for its “whisper of consoling doubt.” 
The hidden story of emotion and secret life, communicated by atmosphere, tone, and mood is always about something more unspeakable, more mysterious, than the story generated by the reader’s focus on characters and on what happens next.  The genius of the short story form is that whereas they often could indeed be the seedbeds of novels, they do not communicate as novels do.  And if we try to read them as if they were novels, they will never haunt us with their sense of that mysterious secret life within all of us.


Nyasha said...

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Anonymous said...

A very thought-provoking article, Mr May, a lot to digest there and thanks for flagging up the other site.

Sandra said...

As always Mr. May I find your discussions about the short story form so essential to my growing appreciation for writers like Munro, Trevor and Dubus. I have gone back to Anderson's work since it's been a long time since I last read him.

Criticus said...

If you disagree with my analysis you are welcome to say so on my blog. That's what comment threads are for. At the very least it is common courtesy to link to the blogs you quote from.