With this ring I do thee confuse; William Trevor and the emotional uncertainty of love and marriage
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 18 December 2007)

When an expensive prostitute is murdered, the police find a suspect, a client who on one occasion made the colossal error of paying her by cheque. The man's wife, startled to learn that her husband used a prostitute, and one who had been murdered, more or less automatically supports her husband's alibi. Guilt or innocence comes down to the time he arrived home on the night of the murder: His wife says he returned at his normal hour, though she's not really sure. When a woman who thought she saw him at the scene turns out to be a faltering, half-hearted witness, the prosecution's case collapses and the man returns to his wife. The marriage resumes on a new basis, running on rules neither party can articulate.

Nine years pass before William Trevor looks in on the life of this wretched couple in "The Room",one of the 12 stories in his rich, absorbing collection, Cheating at Canasta (Knopf Canada), published recently. Trevor tells us that in those years silence has become central to their lives -- "silence in their ordinary exchanges, in conversation, in making love, in weekend walks, and summer trips abroad."

They talk, but not about what matters. The woman loves her husband (or so she thinks, sometimes), needs him, and tries to keep him. She fears what someone in another of the book's stories calls "the torment of not being wanted anymore."

She tries to forgive his relationship with the prostitute and tries even harder to believe him innocent of murder. She discovers that working hard at her job distracts her from the afflictions of doubt. But when her job disappears, she's alone with her anxiety. "Chance and circumstance had brought about a nightmare," Trevor writes. Their future depends on the wife's feelings about living a life that's both unexamined and undiscussed.

Trevor calls marriage, "the trickiest of all undertakings" and often illustrates that remark by inventing couples whose lives together require choked-back feelings, cunning, pretense and strategies of evasion that must not be talked about.

A woman in a Trevor story may open her husband's mail and learn about his mistress. But she will never tell him what she knows. Eventually he will learn, but only by guesswork.

Trevor, an Irishman who has lived for decades in England, turns 80 in five months. He's produced a shelf of first-class fiction -- 13 novels, two novellas and 12 collections of short stories. (In 1999, Atom Egoyan directed a film adaptation of his novel Felicia's Journey with Bob Hoskins and Arsinee Khanjian.)

Cheating at Canasta made me wonder, not for the first time, whether Trevor pursues a central theme. The book demonstrates his modest but precise tone, his astonishing range of characters and his subtle, never-absent moral sense. But it's hard to identify his recurring subject.

Trevor's people rarely show any interest in politics, war, sex, religion or ethnic struggle. Instead, they worry about, or are touched by, shame, regret, disappointment and the need to maintain a version of respectability, sometimes against heavy odds.

Perhaps they worry most about love: how to get it, how to keep it when it's found and what to do when it disappears.

In the title story, a man named Mallory dines alone at Harry's Bar in Venice, thinking of the wife he has lost to Alzheimer's. Harry's Bar was one of their favourite places and his wife, when she realized what was happening to her, said, "Promise me you'll go back for both of us." That was "in the depths of her darkening twilight," and of course he promised. That's how he finds himself in Harry's Bar honouring "a whim that would have been forgotten as soon as it was expressed." He remembers playing cards with her, cheating at canasta so that she would win and be briefly happy even if she couldn't remember why.

At a table near him a young man and wife are exchanging insults, apparently out of a need to punish each other. The loss of his wife makes him angry at them; they are insulting marriage, which to him has acquired a sacred quality. But he remembers that pain of the kind they are inflicting was a part of marriage, possibly an essential part. Whenever they were hard on each other, his wife would say, "Love's cruel angels at play."

Few writers can so persuasively forgive the sins of their characters. Not even Anton Chekhov, the great-hearted inventor of the modern short story, could manage that as well as Trevor. In Cheating at Canasta, various stories arouse our sympathy for a hit-and-run killer, a series of adulterers, an incompetent con man and even a pedophile. In a story called Men of Ireland, a crook has made so many mistakes that he's become a homeless beggar. Wearing shoes stolen from an unconscious drunk in the street, he's made his way back to the Irish town he left 23 years earlier when caught stealing charity donations. He's there to blackmail the now ancient priest he served as an altar boy by falsely charging sexual misconduct. The priest, while innocent, gives him all the money in the house, then goes off to ask God's forgiveness for not reaching that boy.

Trevor has always been greatly loved and admired by other fiction writers, partly because they can grasp the layered richness of his stories. The depth of that feeling was demonstrated last month on the New Yorker's regular pod-casts of stories published in the magazine in the past. They are always chosen by someone other than the author, usually a younger writer. Jhumpa Lahiri, the Indian-American whose Interpreter of Maladies won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000, chose "The Day," a Trevor story first published in 1993.

She explained that Trevor has been one of her guiding lights since she began writing fiction. She loves the emotional power of his stories and the way he slides sharply from present to past, occasionally injecting elements of fantasy into his dense realism. She admires his ability to break all the rules taught in creative writing courses (switching from one character's mind to another's, for instance). I found her feelings about his work enormously touching. She had learned so much from him, she said, that "I would be lost without his work to turn to."

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