Lost souls: William Trevor, The Boarding-House

William Trevor (1928-2016), The Boarding-House. Penguin, 1968. (fp 1965)

In John, 2:18 Jesus said: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. He’s predicting his death and resurrection; as such, the words represent a promise, not a threat. In William Trevor’s wickedly funny subversion of the biblical message in his 1965 novel, the proprietor of the eponymous boarding-house, Mr Bird, is more of a satanic than messianic figure, he’s a lord of misrule:

Before he died, an hour or so before the end, Mr Bird had visualized the boarding-house as it would be after his time. He saw a well-run house in the care of his two chosen champions, with all its inmates intact and present, a monument to himself. [He dozed, then woke, imagining the house was dying too] He thought that someone asked him a question, seeking an explanation for his motives and his planning. He heard himself laughing in reply…and he said aloud: ‘I built that I might destroy’. Nurse Clock had looked up from her magazine and told him to take it easy. [My emphasis]

William Trevor, cover of The Boarding-House

My battered, ex-library copy was published in 1968 and it shows

This passage shows the insidious humour of this darkly funny novel. The narrative voice is corrosively, brilliantly ironic. Bird has deliberately chosen as his heirs to the property – a ‘place of my own invention’ as he boasts to a potential inmate – two characters whose mutual hatred and twisted, selfish natures are guaranteed to bring about its dissolution – as he well knows.

Nurse Clock, who was watching over Bird’s deathbed with such bored heartlessness, is a charmless, bitter dragon who terrifies her unfortunate patients and anyone else who meets her. Even the irrepressible Bird, in one of the ‘Notes on residents’ that punctuate the narrative – he keeps a dossier on his residents that reveal his true, disdainful feelings towards them and the sinister reason why he selected them to live in his ark for desperate, lonely outsiders – says this of her:

Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position.

His other chosen heir is Studdy, a mean-spirited Irish blackmailer, petty thief and trickster, foul-mouthed, crude and vulgar, a lover of lacerating innuendo – the most misanthropic of this group of lost, superfluous souls.

Bird’s legacy then is the engine of the plot. Each of his desolate residents – selected by him because they resemble him in having ‘neither family nor personal ties’ – is shown with all their foibles and weaknesses.

Bird bragged to one resident, with chilling, smug, calculating detachment, that

he had studied the condition of loneliness, looking at people who were solitary for one reason or another as though examining a thing or an insect beneath a microscope.

Yet Trevor never loses sight of the residents’ faltering humanity and consistent vulnerability. Their faults, frailty and touching desperation in a world they don’t fit in with are exacerbated not just by Bird’s nefarious schemes, succeeded by those of Studdy and Clock (who plan to evict all the residents to turn the house into a home for the elderly – these will be easier to bully and fleece), but because the world was changing:

Boarding-houses were becoming a thing of the past; bed-sitters and shared flats were the mid-century rage in London.

This dingy, decaying house, decorated throughout in the depressing colour of rich gravy, is then a ship of fools, but also a microcosm of the state of the nation at the time. Only Mr Obd, the exiled Nigerian whose faithful love is spurned, finally realises as his sanity disintegrates that Bird’s gathering together of these misfits into his house was a ‘cruel action’. He remembers Bird’s words to him on the day he arrived there; he’d said that

the solitary man is a bitter man, and that bitterness begets cruelty.

Like Barbara Pym, to whose novels this one has been likened, Trevor anatomises the marginalised, solitary souls who’ve lost connection in the modern world. Their God is a deus absconditus – or worse, if bitter, cruel Mr Bird is his incarnation. His name might imply the Holy Ghost, but he’s no Mr Weston dispensing good wine. He deals in something more vitriolic and destructive.

Trevor’s cross-section of a part of English life is darker, more surreal and less genteel than Pym’s (maybe more like Elizabeth Taylor’s darker work). These eccentrics are secretariies, clerks and district nurses, vindictive petty criminals, or a phony ex-Army ‘officers’ who frequents sleazy strip-joints, can’t hold his drink, and specialises in ‘dumb insolence’. Pathetic Miss Clerricot has spent decades waiting to be propositioned but when it appears to happen to her it’s as disastrous and farcical as the rest of her timid life.

The prose style and narrative technique owe more to Beckett and Joyce than Pym. There’s more than a touch of Sterne as well in the bizarre eccentricities of the characters and their actions, and the flitting, shifting nature of the narrative.

I hope I haven’t made the novel sound too dour; it’s outrageously, twistedly funny, but it’s the humour of Beckett’s godless tramps beneath a gallows.

 

 

 

Ruthlessness. Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published in the USA 2016.

Is the visit of her mother at the hospital overlooking the Chrysler building in NYC, a woman from whom she’d been estranged for so many years, who beat and traumatised her as a child, partly to mitigate (in Lucy’s eyes) the more brutal and disturbed behaviour of her war-damaged husband, Lucy’s father? Is her visit a real event, or does Lucy imagine or hallucinate it? She’s in hospital for a serious somatic condition (or is it?) that requires nine weeks of treatment, but we never learn exactly what it is that ails her. Is her illness in her head? Is she really ill, or even in hospital? All this happened back in the seventies.

After all, the warping events that bent her out of shape as a child make me feel that the unexpected appearance of her mother after such a long separation, and who colluded in her fierce, abusive upbringing, is more of a deus (dea?) ex machina than a realistic event.

This is a mother who did nothing to prevent her PTSD-suffering husband from cruel treatment of his children, such as shutting up Lucy, when she was a little girl, in the cab of his truck when they were both out at work all day. On one occasion a snake entered the cab and so freaked her out she can’t even bear to hear the word ‘snake’ as an adult. He publicly humiliated her little brother when he innocently dressed like a girl; now he seems even more traumatised than Lucy.

Strout Lucy B coverI found the first half of this novel deeply affecting. Then it began to pall a little after such a dazzling start. The fragmentary structure – each chapter is very short, sometimes just a paragraph, and written in lucid, simple prose – perfectly conveys the mosaic of mostly bitter memories the narrator Lucy pieces together as her drug-dumbed mind tries to cope with this unprecedented solicitude from a mother she loves dearly, but who showed little in return when she was little, and is still incapable of saying now that she loves her daughter.

The mother is a damaged Madonna, a vampire nurse, who seems to need contrition and her daughter’s nurture as Lucy needs a gesture or expression of love and kindness from her – which is not forthcoming.

The kids when growing up were so poor they felt deeply the insults and mockery of their peers at school, who sneered at their ragged clothes and unkempt, filthy appearance, their uncouth manners.

If her mother’s sequence of stories is to be believed, nearly all of Lucy’s former female acquaintances married badly and are now divorced or worse. Has she embroidered the truth in order to deflect Lucy’s attention from her own neglect, or to exculpate herself?

This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

Lucy still meets people who try to denigrate her, as they did when she was a child when she was dirt poor, living in her uncle’s garage:

It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people…Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

The deceptive simplicity of style here and through the novel, the colloquial, unadorned register, are used to express some profound and gnomic insights into the human condition – and in particular into the tribulations and recriminations of the mother-daughter relation.

Lucy found refuge in reading, she tells us, and then in writing. She meets a writer whose work she’d admired, and feels inspired to overcome her lack of self-confidence and do her own writing. These character-assassination stories her mother tells her, Lucy’s own experience in the hospital: all this becomes the novel we’re reading. She shares what’s become her artistic mantra:

I like writers who try to tell you something truthful.

Telling the truth: that’s what she’s trying to do here. In a work of fiction.

That’s partly where I start to part company with this novel: it’s too self-referential, like a creative writing exercise. ‘I had to become ruthless to be a writer,’ she says a friend told her. Even that inspirational writer who set her off on the road to becoming one herself had her struggles:

I think I know how she spoke of the fact that we all have only one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is. I like the books she wrote. But I can’t stop the sense that she stays away from something.

Staying away from something, thinking she knows or doesn’t know something: such simple language, such complex concepts – like the need for ruthlessness in a writer. So she’s got herself out of her first, unsuccessful marriage to

hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think./My mother told me in hospital that day that I was not like my brother and sister: “Look at your life right now. You just went ahead and …did it.” Perhaps she meant that I was already ruthless. Perhaps she meant that, but I don’t know what my mother meant.

Refreshing to find a narrative voice that doesn’t profess to know everything. Maybe she isn’t yet ruthless. There’s pity for this cruel mother, for one.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, about which I wrote last December, I found a more fully realised and satisfying novel.