A Moment of Grace

Have you ever fallen in love with a short story? I have. “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, “A&P” by John Updike, “The Dead” by James Joyce, “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri, and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway are just a few I love. “After Rain” is another. It’s a real charmer.

“After Rain” is the title story of a William Trevor short story collection. In the story, Trevor returns to one of his on-going themes, the exploration of a woman’s inner life, her alienation from her environment, her loneliness, and her dignity in the face of that loneliness.

If ever there was a woman in purgatory, it is Harriet. Harriet, a thirty-year-old English woman, had plans. For vacation, she was going to an island spa with her lover. Until he dumped her.

Pensione Cesarina is the consolation prize she gives herself. She chose the Italian hotel because her parents vacationed there when she was a child. Not only is she faced with her own failures at love, her parents were failures as well, both having committed adultery, then divorced.

The story begins in the dining room of the hotel. From her table for one, she orders the same wine she’s ordered all the other nights of her stay. All she has done for the past eleven days is read and stroll through the town and visit the church, not as an act of faith but rather as something to do to pass the time.

Trevor gives us sentence upon sentence, detail upon detail, of the life of the room. He contrasts the four solitary diners with the gregariousness of the other parties, detailing each with their own individuality.

As Harriet sits and dines, moments with her former lover flood back into her thoughts, intensifying her loss. She questions why she made this return visit to the place her parents chose to bring her. She wonders not why her affair had to end, but why did it end before the holiday and not after. It seems like her life has been made up of endings. Unlike the beginnings of young love in the room. Two young Englishmen are hooking up with two Belgian girls. One a stylist, one studying the law.

One of the other solitaries, an older man, joins her at her table. This is the only time in the story when Harriet carries on a conversation. And it’s a conversation with someone she sees as an intruder. Instead of listening to his words, she finds herself daydreaming of what might have been if only her lover had not dumped her. After the older man leaves, she realizes that he was lonely just like her. It is becoming obvious that she is oblivious to her surroundings.

And to what should have been obvious to her. She was unable to see her parents’ divorce coming. She has been unable to see that she has fallen in with lovers who aren’t up to her desire for more in a relationship.

The next morning, a stroll through the town and a seat on a park bench and a rehashing of a conversation between herself and her former lover. She missed all the signs. She was convinced she was happy. Then she’s on for more of the town and then, to get out of the rain, a cappucino and the memories of her parents taking delight in this place.

In the center of the town is the Church of Santa Fabiola. Harriet wanders inside and sees a painting of the Annunciation. Then Trevor describes this painting that will change Harriet’s life in as much detail as any other single thing in the story.

The Annunciation in the church of Santa Fabiola is by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo, no one is certain. The angel kneels, grey wings protruding, his lily hidden by a pillar. The floor is marble, white and green and ochre. The Virgin looks alarmed, right hand arresting her visitor’s advance. Beyond—background to the encounter—there are gracious arches, a balustrade and then the sky and hills. There is a soundlessness about the picture, the silence of a mystery: no words are spoken in this captured moment, what’s said between the two has been said already.

Harriet’s eye records the details: the green folds of the angel’s dress, the red beneath it, the mark in the sky that is a dove, the Virgin’s book, the stately pillars and the empty vase, the Virgin’s slipper, the bare feet of the angel. The distant landscape is soft, as if no heat has ever touched it. It isn’t alarm in the Virgin’s eyes, it’s wonderment. In another moment, there’ll be serenity.

When she leaves the church, Harriet notices a change in herself. The rain has cleared things out. The heat has been replaced by a coolness emanating on the road. A bird sings. It seems like the world around her has been invaded by softness.

She returns to the Pensione and walks in the garden. She struggles to make “a connection to that she knows is there.” Then it comes to her. “The Annunciations was painted after rain.” And so the story continues for a few pages more, revealing that change of hers to her. She has been given the grace to continue her life but not in the isolation and alienation she once felt. She is now connected to the world around her.

This is not the only story in the collection where the supernatural impacts the mortal. In “Lost Ground”, a Catholic saint appears to a Protestant teenager. As the stories reveal, sometimes the supernatural can bring grace, sometimes not. It all depends on our response.

Read a Good Story Lately?

I am a sucker for short stories. Short stories by such amazing writers as Anton Chekhov, Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien and Kevin Brockmeier often blow me away. For my money though, the Irish writer William Trevor is one of the best, a real master of the craft. If you love short stories the way I do, you’ll enjoy his Selected Stories.

There’s nothing like a good start to a story. Here’s the opening sentence from Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”: Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man, Belle married him when he was old. When a story gets off to a good start like that, I know I am in for a treat.

The story, “A Friendship”, opens with a practical joke two brothers play on their father. But soon the tale turns into the story of a slowly dissipating marriage. As is true for many of Trevor’s stories, it doesn’t take you where you thought you were going. When I finished the story, I could see the influence Trevor may have had on another writer, Alice Munro, and her “Runaway”. In “Child’s Play”, there is the story of two children. They use their imagination to create dramas to help them overcome the pain of separation from their divorced parents.

If you think Trevor only creates tragic stories, think again. For instance, there’s “A Bit of Business”. Two thieves see an ideal opportunity for burglary on the day the Pope visits Dublin. They’ve done their business for the day. It’s been a successful business. Then, on a whim, they decide to do one more house. One more house. That will always get you into trouble.

Trevor’s endings can be just as stunning as his beginnings. Such is the masterpiece of a story called “After Rain”. A woman entering her thirties finds herself ditched by her boyfriend. She returns to the Italian hotel where her parents took her when she was a girl. It concludes with this: She sees again the brown-and-green striped tie of the old man who talked about being on your own, and the freckles that are blotches on the forehead. She sees herself walking in the morning heat past the graveyard and the rusted petrol pumps. She sees herself seeking the shade of the chestnut trees in the park, and crossing the piazza to the trattoria when the first raindrops fell. She hears the swish of the cleaner’s mop in the church of Santa Fabiola, she hears the tourists’ whisper. The fingers of the praying woman flutter on her beads, the candles flare. The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death. Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also. These closing lines remind me of another Irish master of the short story, James Joyce, and the end of his most famous story, “The Dead”.

Trevor’s stories often have echoes of other great predecessors of the short story, most of all Anton Chekhov. Trevor does for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia. He explores the landscape of a country and its people, giving each character her dignity. With a rich, lush language, he is as likely to offer the life of a woman as he is a man, of a Catholic or a Protestant, and to burrow in deep to find out what that character carries in his or her heart.

In his stories, there are priests, wives, businessmen, tramps, blind piano tuners, farmers, children, burglars, auto mechanics and dressmakers, people from many of the nooks and crannies of Irish society. And there is love, or the desire for love no matter the consequences. Trevor shows us that it’s the little things, the quiet moments that matter in a life, and that a life can mean so much.

His particular way of saying things often makes me stop in awe and question how I might write like that. Lines that soar. Lines that are more than lines. There never is fairness when vengeance is evoked or Their own way of life was so much debris all around them or This no-man’s land was where Gerard and Rebecca played their game of marriage and divorce or All the love there had been, all the love there still was–love that might have nourished Ellie’s child, that might have warmed her–was the deprivation the child suffered or gratitude was always expressed around this table. It’s a great writer working his magic and I am never disappointed with that magic. He always leaves me wanting more.