The Old Boys by William Trevor

Last year I read and loved The Boarding-House by William Trevor, a wickedly funny tragi-comedy of the highest order, first published in 1965. Ten months on, I’m returning to this writer for another of his early novels, The Old Boys, which came out the previous year in 1964. Like its successor, The Old Boys is a sharply observed ensemble piece featuring a cast of rather idiosyncratic characters – this time, the members of an Old Boys Association for an English public school. In short, the novel explores the longstanding beliefs and rivalries that resurface amongst the men (all in their seventies) when the committee comes to elect a new President. It is a marvellous novel, shot through with a particularly savage streak of humour and some poignancy too. Needless to say, I enjoyed it hugely.

The novel centres on Mr Jaraby, who is eager for the role of President of the Association. On the whole, life for Jaraby has been shaped by his days in the public school system, an environment where bullying and intimidation of the younger, weaker individuals were part and parcel of life. Inspired by Mr Dowse, his mentor and Housemaster, Jaraby spent much of his time at school persecuting his fag, a somewhat awkward young boy named Nox – an experience that Nox, another Old Boy, still remembers to this day.

In Nox’s new life Jaraby was everywhere. It was not the mere fact of receiving a gamma for a piece of English prose that distressed Nox; it was what Jaraby would say to him when Jaraby got to know about it. For somehow Jaraby always did seem to get to know. He knew everything that went on in the House and everything that concerned the boys who belonged to it. What Nox did, on the games field or in class, was inevitably ‘not good enough’. (p. 15)

In spite of the passing of time, Nox remains deeply resentful of his treatment by Jaraby, a point that fuels his determination to block Jaraby’s succession to the presidency, even if this results in the election of a less competent man. In short, Nox wishes to discredit Jaraby (there is some suggestion that the latter frequents brothels), so he hires a private detective, the appropriately names Swingler, to gather evidence of an incriminating nature.

He could not admit to Swingler that he cared little himself for the Association, that if a less able man than Jaraby were chosen it would not matter to him as long as Jaraby was shamed in the process. Some devil within him had urged him to get himself on to the committee, so that he might, by some chance that had not then been apparent, cook Jaraby’s goose. Jaraby was an influence in his life, but he could only confess it to himself. Jaraby was a ghost he had grown sick and tired of, which he could lay only by triumphing in some pettiness. (p. 43)

This all gives rise to some very amusing scenes, particularly when Nox decides to force the issue by tempting Jaraby with a little bait. Much to his annoyance, Jaraby finds himself being stalked by a strange, presumptuous woman who insists on joining him for tea and cakes (‘Shall we gorge ourselves on meringues today?’), all played out through Trevor’s pitch-perfect prose.

The punctilious Jaraby is also experiencing difficulties at home, particularly in relation to his wife, the rather forthright Mrs J. The Jarabys bicker and snipe at each other on a constant basis, mostly over their forty-year-old son, Basil, another former pupil at the school, who has turned out to be a great disappointment to his father. Mrs Jaraby, on the other hand, would like Basil, a rather dubious bird fancier, to come and live at their house, a point she continues to press with her husband at every opportunity.

While Basil has already had a few brushes with the law, Mrs J believes the worst is behind him, and she hopes to welcome her son back into the fold. Mr Jaraby, however, is having none of it, believing his wife to be of unsound mind and in need of psychiatric care. Perversely, it is Mr Jaraby, with his petty prejudices and obsessions, who would probably benefit the most from specialist attention, although both of the Jarabys have their flaws and failings.

Another source of tension in the Jaraby household is their cat, Monmouth – a savage creature loved by Mr J and loathed by his wife. If only Monmouth were not there, then Basil could return home complete with his budgerigars…

Alongside the themes of power, revenge and the resentments we hold on to in life, the novel also explores the nature of ageing, mainly through the portraits of other Old Boys on the Committee. There are touches of humour and poignancy here, a sprinkling of dark comedy alongside the tragedy and sadness.

Mr Cridley and Mr Sole spend their days cutting out newspaper coupons for freebies and no-obligation estimates, many of which they have absolutely no use for, living as they do at the Rimini Hotel. With its cheerless atmosphere and permanent smell of boiling meat, the Rimini (a glorified boarding house catering for the elderly) is presided over by Miss Burdock, a formidable, money-grabbing woman with a penchant for grey clothing. When it transpires that Mr Cridley and Mr Sole have arranged for a central heating salesman to assess the premises, Miss Burdock is most definitely not amused…

‘It is scarcely a month,’ complained Miss Burdock, ‘since those frightful women came here with corsets. And now a man with central heating. You can guess what I am going to say to you, both of you: if there is further trouble I shall be obliged to ask you to leave the Rimini.’

‘A genuine misunderstanding, Miss Burdock, a genuine error.’

‘I could easily fill your rooms. There is a waiting list for the Rimini.’ (pp. 50-51)

The poignancy comes through in the portrait of Mr Turtle, a gentle, lonely Old Boy who is finding it difficult to remember things, particularly in the short-term. In some ways, Mr Turtle would prefer to return to the simplicity of his schooldays, complete with its regular routines and rituals – a point that becomes apparent during the annual school visit for Old Boys’ Day.

A woman in a white overall broke in on his thoughts, pressing a plate of wafer biscuits on him. He sighed and smiled and took one. How nice it would be to hear a bell and run to its summons, to join a queue for milk or cocoa, and later to do prep and wait for another bell that meant the rowdy security of the dormitory. How nice it would be to slip, tired and a little homesick, between the cold sheets. He heard his name called. Somebody gave him a fresh cup of tea and asked him a question he did not understand. (p. 101)

As the narrative plays out, there are one or two shocks for the main players, the Jarabys in particular; but I had better not say any more for fear of revealing spoilers.

The Old Boys is another excellent novel by William Trevor, sharing many similarities with The Boarding-House. Much of the book is written in dialogue, which gives the story a sense of immediacy, almost as if you are watching a play unfold before your eyes.

Although only touched on through memories, the realities of the public school environment are very well portrayed, complete with all their cruelties and insensitivities. It is a world where influence and power over others are all important, dictating the nature of life for the younger, less experienced boys. The only glimmer of hope for these individuals is to wait until they too gain senior status and all the authority this confers. It is clear that Nox was never able to acquire this kind of standing within the school, a point that has left him marked by Jaraby’s sadistic behaviour for most of his adult life.

As a novel, The Old Boys highlights the importance of our formative years, how the things we experience during this time continue to shape our lives well into adulthood. It can be hard to forget the injustices of our childhood, especially if they are never adequately redressed at the time. Trevor explores this theme through the novel with its striking blend of sharpness, dark humour and tragedy.

This is my contribution to Cathy and Niall’s Reading Ireland event which started yesterday. You can find out more about it here. For another take on this novel, please see Kim’s review here.

The Old Boys is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

46 thoughts on “The Old Boys by William Trevor

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cathy. I’m glad the timings worked out for me this year! I get the feeling that these early novels are somewhat different in tone to his later work, much darker and savagely comic in style. I’d love to hear what you think of them.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I’ll be interested to see what you have to say about that. I’ve read one or two of his stories in journals and anthologies, but it would be nice to do a dedicated collection at some point, maybe later this year if I get a chance.

          Reply
  1. Tredynas Days

    I’ll read this post more closely when I’ve read the novel. I read Boarding House recently, and a post on Felicia’s Journey is pending – far darker and more disturbing than I’d expected

    Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    I tend to like books about people who have known each other for a long time and havevold ghosts haunting them. The book also sounds like it is funny which is a plus. Trevor sounds like a very worthwhile writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great subject for fiction – long-held resentments and prejudices festering away, just waiting to come out into the open. Some of the humour is quite savage here, definitely at the darker end of the spectrum if you see what I mean.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I think you’d like The Boarding-House, the one I wrote about last year. It’s not a million miles away from the worlds of Patrick Hamilton and Julian MacLaren-Ross, complete with all their idiosyncrasies and misfit characters.

      Reply
    1. gertloveday

      Have you tried buying second hand? Abe Books and Alibris have very cheap second hand remaindered books and if you live in US or UK postage is also cheap. I often find gems there, but then I have to pay for postage to Australia. Love William Trevor’s acerbic wit.

      Reply
        1. gertloveday

          A long time ago. I don’t know why I have forgotten about him. The Story of Lucy Gault sounds intriguing and it was short listed for the Booker, as does Cheating at Canasta.

          Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            Lucy Gault has been recommended to me in the past. It does sound excellent but very sad. I’d like to read some of his short stories in the future – but there are so many of them, I’m not sure where to start!

            Reply
  3. Jay

    Great post. Sounds like a great read! Trevor is one of my favorite writers, but I’ve only explored his short stories thus far. I’ve added this one to my “To Read” list on goodreads. :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! I really hope you like it. His short stories sound excellent, beautifully observed and judged. I quite fancy reading his final collection, maybe later this year once it’s available in paperback.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    I really like the sound of this one, the last William Trevor I read was Mrs Eckdorf… Which I wasn’t mad about, but I generally really like his writing, such a good sense of place and excellent characterisation. I think most of the books I have read by him are from later in his career, it’s always so interesting to see where a writer started.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d enjoy this, Ali. The characters are nicely captured, complete with their inherent flaws and failings. There are some pretty unlikeable individuals here, but they always feel credible and believable – and, as you say, the writing is excellent. It’s a good one if you’re looking for something dark and spiky.

      Reply
  5. Peggy

    Sounds really good. I read my first William Trevor book last May. The Story of Lucy Gault, it was sad but so beautifully written. I’ve picked up a couple more of his books with this month in mind. Lovely review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’d really like to read that at some point. It seems to be a favourite amongst fans of his work. I’m glad you liked it so much, in spite of the sadness.

      Reply
  6. philipanderton00

    I’ve never read William Trevor but your review has completely whetted my appetite – it sounds marvellous! I’ve just got a secondhand copy on Abe Books for £2.90 all told. I look forward to reading it. Thanks Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! I do hope you enjoy it. Trevor is a terrific writer with a real insight into human nature. A little like Elizabeth Taylor, he has a rare ability to capture individuals in their most private of moments. I couldn’t help but feel for Mr Turtle as he struggles to cope with his failing memory – the scenes in which he appears are particularly poignant.

      Reply
  7. Caroline

    It’s sounds very good but different from the William Trevor I know who is particularly good at depicting women. Admittedly, I’ve only read a few novellas, one novel (The story of Lucy Gault) and short stories. You’re review reminds me that i want to read more of him and also how much I used to enjoy joining in the Reading Ireland Month.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I get the feeling his early novels were somewhat different from the later ones, more savagely comic and devilish in certain respects. Nevertheless, there are real moments of poignancy in this one, particularly in the depiction of Mr Turtle. I’d like to read some of his other, more melancholy books, maybe Lucy Gault or Love and Summer as always seem to attract such positive reviews.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, it’s interesting how some writers mellow with age while others — Patrick Hamilton springs to mind here — become more cynical and bitter.

          Reply
  8. madamebibilophile

    This sounds an absolute joy Jacqui. Its interesting you say its like watching a play unfold because as I was reading your review I was thinking it sounded as if it would work really well on stage. I’ve only read Felicia’s Journey by Trevor, I really should read more and this sounds so tempting :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Interestingly, after I’d posted this piece, someone replied to me on Twitter to say that it had been adapted for the stage with Sir Michael Redgrave in one of the lead roles, possibly Mr Jaraby. Quite a production, I suspect!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month: Week 1 round-up #readingirelandmonth19

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  11. philipanderton00

    I’ve just finished reading The Old Boys on your recommendation and have thoroughly enjoyed it thank you. The jacket of my old copy quotes Evelyn Waugh who called it “uncommonly well written, gruesome, funny and original” which it is. It’s also a novel you felt that Waugh could have written – the dark humour is very much him.

    What struck me is how the school, in trying to equip boys for life and make them achievers, has succeeded only in breeding generations of dysfunctional men. Few of them appear to have married and those who have are not happy. Having been brutally treated during their formative years they have failed, seemingly, to have done much in life and the school retains a hold on them. Dowse, the legendary housemaster worshipped by Jaraby, was “perverted, sadistic, malicious and dangerous” according to General Sancutary and, in turn he affected Jaraby amongst many other including his son Basil, also an old boy and now a grievous criminal. It says much that Mr Turtle pines for lying in the sanctuary of the dormitory in a cold bed feeling homesick. But it is wonderfully funny and I’m still laughing at Mrs Jaraby telling her husband that the despised cat Monmouth, who she has dispatched, was run over by a van and looked like a tiger rug on the road. I shall look up The Boarding-House.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Philip – that’s really wonderful to hear! Yes, there’s definitely a touch of Waugh about the humour at times – it’s savagely wicked. Nevertheless, Trevor manages to counterbalance that devilish streak with some nicely judged moments of pathos, a touch that ensures the overall story doesn’t feel too vicious.

      I think your comments about the school are spot on as it fails virtually all the Old Boys, albeit in different ways. The details of public school life feel very authentic – also reminiscent of Waugh, especially the first part of his debut novel, Decline and Fall.

      Those scenes with the Jarabys are priceless, aren’t they? Mind you, I should probably add a warning about this book for cat lovers, particularly given poor Monmouth’s ultimate fate…

      Reply

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