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]
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.