Tuesday, 10 December 2013

                                                    Some thoughts on
The Dressmaker’s Child

What happens?    Cahul drives a Spanish couple to see the statue once thought to shed tears, and have the power to pardon penitents.   The couple have heart about it and Cahul does not tell them that the alleged powers have long since been discredited, because he wants to make money by charging them for the trip.  He deceives them and his father, and takes a longer way round.    He’s attracted by the woman and wishes he had her instead of his girlfriend.   After having to change a tyre, he drives the couple back when they’ve spent enough time at the statue.  While they’re kissing in the back of the car he goes past the Dressmaker’s house, and her daughter runs out at the car and there’s a bump.  He doesn’t stop but sees her nightdress on the road in his rearview mirror.    He is anxious about repercussions, having been seen, and so on, although the girl has a reputation for running at cars and surviving.   However there’s no news for several days, when he hears that she’s been found in a quarry some distance from where he hit her, and he seems not to be in the frame.   The mother, a single mother, drinker and prostitute, is accused.  She stares at him in a café, and then later, when he’s walking to where he meets his girlfriend Minnie very late at night, he is accosted by the mother who wants him to go home with her.  She lets him know she knows what happened, although it was she who moved the body and so deceived the police.  He resists her pleas to go home with him.   She tells him Minnie is not good for him, and indeed she marries someone else about a year later.  This is partly, we assume, because the incident has affected Cahul and made him more withdrawn.   He sees that the mother of the dead girl has changed.  She doesn’t drink or whore now, and is doing up her cottage with many beautiful flowers.   And Cahul too finds himself going to confession, and even  goes up to the statue and tastes the ‘tears’.    Something has changed in both of them and eventually, Cahul, knows he will go to her.

But how does all this gell?   Perhaps we need to look also at the imagery.   The statue is debunked as superstition, and placed against the very realistic world of the motor mechanic’s spanners and oil.   The stories about the statue are matched by stories about the Dressmaker.   Cahul becomes confused about what really happened that night?   About his feelings for the Dressmaker in spite of his rational self.   He ‘knows’ that the statue doesn’t really shed tears, but he tastes them even so.    The girl who runs at cars is a spirit-like figure, but her bodied by the barbed wire physical enough.   There’s uncertainty about what the Spanish couple mean when they speak, why they want to go to the statue (Do they have something to repent?).  The feelings that overtake Cahul, fear but not only fear,  are not quite rational.   Is Trevor, then, saying something about the meaning of superstition?   The emotional need people may feel to get the Madonna’s blessing is something spiritual and not actually connected to the facts about her status.     Cahul’s calculation,  his deception,  his boorish way of comparing Minnie to the Spanish woman, to the singer Madonna, on the basis of he physical only -  these are in some way challenged and undermined by his experience with the child.   Even though, as he says, it’s not his fault she ran out at the car,  he feels guilty, and his guilt seems to go on after there’s a danger of him being arrested for not stopping.     And gradually he’s drawn to the Dressmaker, who is now filling her garden with flowers just for him.    It’s as if the child has been sacrificed to release both he and the Dressmaker from the styles of life they are living.   She too, being mental ill and rushing out at cars,  exemplifies the irrational as does the faith people have in the irrational statue of the Virgin.   The complete lack of sympathy, or expression of grief by her mother, for the child makes her seem more like a spirit, even an angel,  perhaps an angel of death?,  or else a lost spirit continually trying to get herself killed to return ‘home’ to where she came from.

This, then, seems very much a religious story,  about denial of the miraculous, and about marriage and guilt,  perhaps the kind of guilt which Christians feel we are born with, a guilt associated with forbidden knowledge and carnal love.

I’m not at all sure of any of this!!


Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Some discussion points

1       What evidence does John Michael have that going to America is a good idea?

2       In what ways do John Michael and Fina seem callous?

3       What picture is painted of America,  things foregrounded, things not mentioned?

4       Bat Quinn’s role in the story is sinister?

5        Family ties,  economics, ceremony -  but no love?

6       Why doesn’t John Michael want to take on his uncle’s farm or work for his
          future wife’s father?   What does that tell us about him?

7        What picture of Ireland is painted in the background?

8       Fina is empty headed?   John Michael is well rid of her?

9       Does the story allow that in later life John Michael and Fina might marry?

10      In what ways does Big Bucks remind you of other story/stories by William Trevor?

Monday, 4 November 2013

William Trevor stories: Justina's Priest

                            JUSTINA’S PRIEST
                                                some very preliminary thoughts

What is the story about?   The tender opening and conclusion suggest about Father Clohessy and his sense of helplessness and anger and not knowing what to say to the  his congregation in the face of  a society of well-fed,  consumerists, who haven’t time for God any more.

In the story, only he and Justina are pious and she has learning difficulties, but then so does he,  so does Maeve unable to deal with her burdens placed on her, burdens she never thinks of bearing as God’s will.   Justina is innocent in that she doesn’t grasp a very wide world,   and desperate to be forgiven her imaginary sins,  but these are sins which has has internalised from Maeve, surely,  her sense of not being wanted, being a drag on Maeve’s life as enforced carer for her as well as her drinker husband and helpless father in law neither of whom make any effort to save the garden turning into a kind of plumber’s dump.   And she is childless.  

Her bitterness and despair foment for lack of companionship and equal love and she has no time for religion.  She laughs away the confession  Justina tells her she, Justina has to make.   Justina is much more ready to clean the church brass than to lay the table or wash the dishes.   At church she is preserving and cleansing, stopping things falling into a mess like her sister’s garden. 

Father Clohessy is moved by Justina’s faith, and feels helpless before it, and she leaves him with a sense of emptiness.   His social round seems pleasant and pointless.  He is still just about respected as a priest.   He is less able to compromise (if that is the word) with contemporary materialism than is his colleague, Father Finaghy,  golfer and drinker good socialiser.   He’s driven to talk Maeve for practical reasons as well as moral ones, that is to prevent her doing drawn into the kind of life her friend Breda is living (or so everyone assumes).   He has a protective instinct towards her.   His sense of inadequacy is focused most poignantly at the end when he sees her looking at his face as if it were the face of God Himself.

Justina is able to have trust.  Nobody else in the story does.   There is a sense, perhaps, in the back of Father Clohessy’s mind that the modern world, for all its greater comfort and provision, is ultimately unrewarding,  ultimately empty, and perhaps – especially if we allow the other characters’ judgements on Breda, decadent,  and above all comfortless.   Maeve’s situation is not going to improve.  She will get more and more bitter and unhappy.  Breda’s high life prosperity is surely to be short-lived.  Gilfoyle and his son are close to being ‘wasters’.

But Father Clohessy can hardly preach all that without alienating his congregation still further and driving still more of them away.

Only Justina is comforted, but perhaps by giving her a learning difficulties Trevor is hinting that her comfort may be over simplistic, or is he coming back to the idea of simple faith,  her learning difficulties are a kind of metaphor for an inability to learn the  modern world, though this is no more than hinted at.  Trevor has no political or religious ‘agenda’ 

In an interview with the Paris Review Trevor sees himself as religions in a ‘primitive’ sort of way.

I don’t really think of myself as religious . . . I only ever go to church in Ireland. I don’t like the Church of England. I feel much more drawn towards Catholicism when I’m in England—not that I’d do anything about it. I always feel that Protestantism in England is strangely connected with the military. All the cathedrals here are full of military honors. It’s part of an establishment with the armed forces; tombs, rolls of honor, that sort of thing. It’s a strange combination. The Protestant Church of Ireland is a shrunken, withered little church that I’m quite attracted by.

There is a strong element of faith in your work, of people coping, enduring, of being borne along in their lives. Is it humanist or spiritual faith?

I don’t think it is humanist; I think it is just a kind of primitive belief in God. I think that certainly occurs in my books. I’m always saying that my books are religious; nobody ever agrees with me. I think there is a sort of God-bothering that goes on from time to time in my books. People often attack God, say what an unkind and cruel figure he is. It is outside formal religion; the people who talk about it aren’t, generally speaking, religious people, but there is a bothering, a gnawing, nagging thing.

In the same interview he distances himself from what is sometimes called ‘commitment’ writing from a particular social or political point of view.  “I am probably politically naïve,” he says.

I’m not at all sure ‘where this story goes’,  or ‘what it means’,  but many of the characters seem to be to be like Biblical ‘villains’,  people who have forgotten God and gone astray.    Of course it’s hard to blame Maeve for her  situation, but her bitterness does seem to express some sort of ‘fallen’ state – directly opposite to and comparable to the happy fallen state of Breda.

Justina has her learning difficulty to bear, but she has found a way of bearing it.  She has found something which Father Clohessy himself has, as yet, not found.  Hence his  anger, comparable/contrastable to Maeve’s own state of continuous submerged anger, which might in another age have been direct at God himself (I did not deserve this!).   Justina also does not deserve that endless criticism she gets from Maeve. But Justina feels guilty nevertheless for Maeve's anger, which she feels she must 'confess' to Father Clohessy.   But in a sense, too, she takes Maeve's sins onto herself.

It’s worth reflecting that the title of the story makes Father Clohessy, Justina’s.  He, grammatically at least, belongs to her.   Much more than he does to himself.  He is the representation of God in her eyes, not his own.  And this, in another way, is something he does not deserve.

Finally, perhaps her cleaning and caring for the candles tells us something at a symbolic level.   

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

on Death of a Professor

What is the story about?
Who got the obituaries into the papers?
The disappointment of Kellfittard?
The loyalty of Vanessa?
The hurt, shock and enlightenment of Ormston?

Why does Ormston go to the pub?
To hide?
To get over the shock?
To think through possible motives for the hoax?
To think through his 'life'?

Why the university setting?
Have a go at academics?
Ask what counts as 'education', 'wisdom'?
Suitable context for rags and pranks?
A way of bringing together competitive men at a function?

Why the age difference?
Air the question of love and it's basis?
Show people who don't quite fit in?
Contrast love and intellect?
Raise the question of jealousy?

Trevor once said that there are just two kinds of people, those who have imagination and those who do not?

Saturday, 19 October 2013





"I did some research this afternoon .
The Mourning Looks to have been first published in the New Yorker in September 1997.
Michael Collins, the film,  was released in 1996 , a year that saw 2 major IRA atrocities on the UK Mainland – explosions in the London Docklands and the Manchester shopping centre.So it seems not unreasonable to give a time setting of the story around this time.
A ceasefire took place and largely held from 1997 on."

I  also checked the reference to 1921 on page 199, and found this
A movement for Irish home rule gained momentum in the late 19th century, and in 1916 Irish nationalists launched the Easter Rising against British rule in Dublin. The rebellion was crushed, but widespread agitation for independence continued. In 1919, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) launched a widespread and effective guerrilla campaign against British forces. In 1921, a cease-fire was declared, and in January 1922 a faction of Irish nationalists signed a peace treaty with Britain, calling for the partition of Ireland, with the south becoming autonomous and the six northern counties of the island remaining in the United Kingdom.

Michael Collins was involved in the Easter Rising of 1916, along with several of the other men mentioned in the story, and later involved the foundation of the IRA.  Also the founding of the Irish Free State.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Reading some William Trevor Short Stories

Session One:   On ‘A Friendship’

Kids’ tricks
We begin with the boys playing a trick on their father, which they must know is cruel.  If they really think it’s a ‘joke’, then they lack sensitivity, surely, even love.  

His response is not to look at what could be wrong with his relationship to them, nor to reprimand them directly.  He focuses on their mother’s alleged negligence.  Is that easier  for him?    The marriage is threatened (first time), by their both avoiding their own parenting issues.

Their ‘trick’ on their mother about the death of Miss Martindale’s mother is also insensitive, and seems designed for them to be able to laugh at her for being so gullible.   It’s Margy who sees the lying, and then Francesca tries to pass the problem on to  Philip as a matter of punishment and discipline, which he doesn’t deal with properly.  

Friendship and Marriage
Margy is more perceptive, but also more manipulative, than Francesca.   She’s never had a stable ‘weary’ relationship, and there’s a suggestion that she dislikes Philip out of jealousy.  Francesca seems to be the one stable thing in her life.   Their friendship is longer, and deeper, than Francesca’s marriage.

Philip is ‘stable’ because he is tradition and profession and class and gender bound.  He has no vitality.  He controls, and perhaps stifles Francesca who doesn’t seem to mind that, and is willing to be dominated.   In his stability he is the opposite of Margy, but he is like her in dominating Francesca, though she does this more subtly than he does.

Philip is able to hold in  his feelings in the manner of the British gentleman.  This makes him seem cold, boring, and limits his ability to show affection to Francesca, and perhaps more destructively, to the boys.   He is, it seems, genuinely hurt by Francesca’s unfaithfulness.   But it doesn’t threaten the marriage.

His dislike of Margy is very much unspoken, though she knows it’s there, and perhaps they are jealous of each other in relation to Francesca.   She is innocent in that she takes people at their word, things as they seem, and so is led into an affair with Sebastian, though how this exactly happens is left unexplored.  As also the temporary ‘depth’ of her feelings.  You may think that such a wife would be unlikely to do such a thing.  Or perhaps she’s naïve enough to be drawn to it by Margy and then weak enough for Sebastian to take advantage of her, as everybody else in the story does.

Why does Philip demand his ‘pound of flesh’ at the end?   He can at last get rid of Margy.   Her friendship with Margy is surely deeper than her love for Philip, though she seems to understand neither.   The friendship leaves both women in a dungeon of loneliness.

Trevor always treats the crises in the story  in a retrospective way, not directly described, by as reported by a character.  This is true of Philip’s discovering the cemented golf bag,  Francesca and Philip’s row,   Sebastian’s seduction of Francesca and their affair,   Philip’s discovery of her infidelity,  Philip’s demand that Francesca drop Margy.   There is only one ‘face to face’ climax, which is  where the friends part.  

Point of View
The treatment of the crises in retrospect allows Trevor to give one or other character’s point of view of it.  But throughout the story he shows this or that moment from a particular character’s point of view.   Sometimes he does this conventionally.

He hated her, Francesca thought

Sometimes it’s almost imperceptibly done through free indirect discourse.  When Trevor describes ‘the stuff he dabbed on his underarms’ (my italics) this is the viewpoint of Margy, a symptom of her lessening affection for him.  And there’s also irony.  In the same passage, we get

‘Handsome,’ Margy remarked, referring to the commode.  

Wider Themes
·         People don’t know much about each other or themselves?
·         Nothing happens until the end of the story.  Other happenings are mainly ‘offstage’?
·         Do we ‘like’ any of the characters?  Do we just lament human beings’ behaviour?
·         Loneliness and our fear of it and attempts to evade it?
·         Kinds of deception?
·         Lack of love anywhere in the story?