University of Zaragoza, Spain
by Constanza del Río-Álvaro. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor
(London: Viking, 2007)
Re-entering William Trevor’s imaginative universe is like visiting a territory whose contour is all too familiar and at the same time slightly altered: a new shade of colour here, a displaced angle there or an arresting lighting effect that in turn lend distinction and freshness to Trevor’s customary exploration of the human condition. The regular Trevor reader knows that in this new collection,Cheating at Canasta, there will be the expected series of twelve short stories, set in either Ireland or England, with the occasional foray to Italy or France. He or she can also predict an assorted array of fictional characters: children, teen-agers, middle-aged and old people, both male and female, Irish and English, Catholic and Protestant, of dissimilar social and living conditions, yet all of them carrying their particular burden: secrets and silence, lies and deceit, guilt and shame, loneliness and disaffection, but also tenderness, endurance and courage, together with a readiness to forgive and a desire to be forgiven.
As if responding to charges of anachronisms in his view of contemporary life, Trevor now incorporates mobile phones, cyber cafés, chat lines and word-processors. Yet, these are all accessories; certainly helpful to flesh out Trevor’s raw material and render it more credible, though peripheral to the core anxieties that beset his characters. In this sense, it matters little whether, in “An Afternoon”, Jasmin/Angie has met the middle-aged paedophile on a chat line or while shopping in the supermarket. The story does not concern the risks of new communication technologies for inexperienced teen-agers. Its emotional centre rather lies with Jasmin, a sixteen-year-old forlorn girl – not particularly pretty, not particularly smart – driven to dangerous romantic infatuations by her mother’s lack of care, sexual promiscuity and relentless undermining of Jasmin’s self-esteem.
One of Trevor’s assets as a writer is his ability to discover the ineffable in the ordinary, to transmute commonplace experiences into uncanny or mysterious occasions. Unexpected or contrasted reactions to similar events are usual in his fiction and the reader is made aware of the depths of human behaviour. Why do we act the way we act? Trevor answers this question by offering a wide range of motives, and it is in this variety that he continues both to surprise and engage the reader. “Bravado”, like “An Afternoon”, chooses adolescence as its focus of interest. The story, set in contemporary Dublin, presents a group of three teen-age boys and two girls walking back home in the early morning hours after an evening out in the Star nightclub. In a macho display meant to show off his “bravado” in front of the girls, Manning, the leader of the bunch, beats another boy to death. Aisling, Manning’s girlfriend, tries to convince herself that there was a reason for such brutality, not so much to exculpate Manning as to exonerate her own guilt for her silent complicity. As an adult, Aisling finally comes to accept her responsibility and takes to visiting the deceased boy’s grave: “In a bleak cemetery Aisling begged forgiveness of the dead for the falsity she had embraced when what there was had been too ugly to accept. Silent, she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching, there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been” (88).
“The Children” opens with a funeral. The death of Connie’s mother draws her, an eleven-year-old Irish girl, even closer to her father, Robert, while they both come to terms with their loss and share “the awareness of a ghost that fleetingly demanded no more than to be remembered” (155). Two years go by and Robert announces his intention to marry Teresa. Connie’s tacit though obstinate disapproval of this decision finally compels Robert to forego the engagement. Out of love for his daughter, he understands Connie’s hostility to Teresa as her dutiful honouring of her mother’s memory. Yet, Connie’s motives are not so plain for the reader. Her stubborn resistance may also come from her jealousy – her desire to preserve the intimacy she has gained with her father – or from a malicious wish to harm the intrusive Teresa.
The cruelty of childhood acts is also one of the themes of “Folie à Deux”, the last piece in the collection. Wilby’s chance meeting in Paris with his childhood friend, Anthony, whom he thought dead, triggers memories of their friendship in rural Ireland and of the secrets they shared. One such secret, never spoken about after its occurrence, concerns a nasty and shameful act committed by both: out of reckless curiosity, they provoked the drowning of an old lame dog. Like Aisling in “Bravado”, they just watched and listened to the poor creature’s barking and wailing. Whereas Wilby has “lived easily with an aberration, then shaken it off” (227), Anthony has been unable to forgive their own foolish wickedness and has opted for withdrawal, severing all connections with his previous life.
In Trevor’s fiction, the past usually takes its toll on the present, a theme that appears as well in “The Room”. Here, Trevor is at his best in his mastery of suspense and piecemeal delivery of information. The story shows how Phair’s adultery and suspected murder of a prostitute nine years before have led to his wife’s present infidelity and to a broken marriage. For Katherine, the middle-aged adulterous wife, not even her deep love for Phair can keep their marriage alive. Her husband’s betrayal opened a rift in their relationship that nothing can patch up. She does not blame him, though the story ends with Katherine’s epiphanic determination to leave him: “[…] she would choose her moment to say that she must go. He would understand; she would not have to tell him. The best that love could do was not enough, and he would know that also” (41).
The Trevor reader is, however, more used to stories that end in resignation, endurance or brooding moods, as in “The Dressmaker’s Child”, a story set in small town Ireland. Nineteen-year-old Cahal offers to drive two Spanish tourists to a nearby place where they want to visit the statue of a weeping Virgin. Although it was discovered, and is now common knowledge, that there is nothing miraculous about this statue – the teardrops proved to be just raindrops – the prospect of earning 50 euros seals Cahal’s lips. On their way back home, he runs over and kills the retarded daughter of an unmarried dressmaker. The incident haunts Cahal, and, in his mind, fear at being discovered combines with religious feelings of guilt for his dishonesty with the tourists and his sexual fantasies with the Spanish girl. He escapes the law but not the child’s mother. The dressmaker knows the truth and wants Cahal as reward for her silence. Cahal visits the Virgin, offers reparation for his sins and promises to accept his fate. The story ends in an ominous tone: “Driving back, when he went by the dressmaker’s blue cottage she was there in the front garden, weeding her flowerbeds. Even though she didn’t look up, he wanted to go to her and knew that one day he would” (23).
In “A Perfect Relationship”, a rewriting of the Pygmalion myth, Trevor’s indirection is perhaps excessive. In an unequal relationship, Prosper loves Chloë while she just considers him a friend and is grateful for everything he has taught her. She abandons Prosper but then one day returns to their flat with the excuse of handing in the key she had taken away by mistake. In the final scene, Prosper and Chloë recall and celebrate their time together but the story ends without any clear indication of whether their reconciliation is definitive. Prosper’s final musings increase the reader’s perplexity even further. “Men of Ireland” fails to provide convincing motives for Father Meade’s behaviour. Donal Prunty may blackmail him with lies about the Father’s abuses when Prunty was an altar boy. This fits his character. However, Father Meade’s reasons for handing Prunty all the money in the house – a guilty conscience for the misdeeds of the Irish Catholic Church and of Ireland’s priesthood – sounds untrue. It is as if Trevor himself had wanted to bring up the theme without finding a suitable fictional channel.
“Cheating at Canasta”, the title story, is a moving study of tenderness and loyalty in marriage. Mallory, a middle-aged Englishman, has travelled to Venice alone to fulfil the promise made to his wife Julia, even though she has now lost her memory and does not remember exacting such promise. While having dinner alone, Mallory observes an American couple – she looking sad and discontented, both quarrelling – that provide a contrast to his and Julia’s marriage. Fond of speculating about strangers, and tenderly recalling Julia’s excitement at this pastime, Mallory sees the couple as “what he’d heard called Scott Fitzgerald people […] a surface held in spite of unhappiness” (65). Mingled with his present observations, come memories of his life with Julia. He imagines what she will be doing in her confinement and evokes their games of Canasta in his visits to Julia: “’No matter what’, Julia had said, aware then of what was coming, ‘let’s always play cards’: And they did; for even with her memory gone, a little more of it each day […] their games in the communal drawing room were a reality her affliction still allowed. Not that there was order in their games, not that they were games at all; but still her face lit up when she found a joker or a two among her cards […] He cheated at Canasta and she won” (62). Mallory cheats for Julia’s glimpses of happiness and it is for her that he will fulfil his promise – to return to Venice and go to see again all the places they had enjoyed together. This is his way of restoring her memories to Julia.
“Cheating at Canasta” announces the thematic thread that runs through many of the stories in the collection: our endless propensity to deceive others and to deceive ourselves, for honourable reasons, for spurious ones or because that seems to be our only escape route. In this new work, some of Trevor’s Irish stories – “The Dressmaker’s Child”, “Men of Ireland”, “At Olivehill” and “Faith” – retain their unmistakably Irish flavour. Nevertheless, the reader can appreciate that, overall, Trevor has moved towards further abstraction and universality. This does not mean that he has abandoned his precise, sharp and frequently symbolic characterisations and descriptions. What it means is that, in Cheating at Canasta, nationality, social class or any kind of contextual factor seem to matter less. The plight of Aisling in “Bravado” or of Connie in “The Children”, the feelings of Jasmin in “An Afternoon” or of Katherine in “The Room” belong to all of us. Perhaps now age has become the determining issue, with Trevor’s distinctive attention to childhood and adolescence. Nevertheless, the reader will still find Trevor’s recurrent preoccupation: How can we judge the ethical dimension of human behaviour when there is so much that eludes us, so much we are also guilty about?