The esteemed Irish writer William Trevor is frequently cited as a master of the short story, and rightly so. His stories are spellbinding – humane, compassionate and beautifully written. He has a way of getting into the hearts and minds of his characters with insight and precision, laying bare their deepest preoccupations for the reader to see. These skills are very much in evidence in Nights at the Alexandra, a slim collection comprising the titular novella and two short stories, The Ballroom of Romance and The Hill Bachelors. I simply adored these achingly melancholy pieces, exquisitely expressed in Trevor’s deceptively simple, understated prose. As in Clare Keegan’s novellas Foster and Small Things Like These, there’s a luminosity or purity to Trevor’s stories, an emotional truthfulness that’s hard to capture in a review.
The collection opens with the titular novella in which fifty-eight-year-old Harry looks back on the days of his youth during WW2 – commonly known as the ‘Emergency’ in Ireland. At fifteen, Harry forms an unlikely but deeply touching friendship with Frau Messinger, a young Englishwoman who has come to live in Ireland with her much older German husband. The Messingers, who are comfortably off, have moved to Cloverhill to escape the war, Ireland being neutral and a place of relative safety.
Harry’s traditional Protestant parents are suspicious of the Messingers, viewing them as Jewish or amoral in some way (neither of which is actually true). Meanwhile, Harry runs errands for Frau Messinger, marvelling at the time he spends in her intoxicating company, listening to tales of her youth and other such pleasures. Herr Messinger seems equally fond of Harry, sharing his plans to build a beautiful cinema in the town – it will be called the Alexandra, a wedding gift for his wife.
As one might expect with Trevor, the burgeoning friendship between Frau Messinger and Harry is beautifully portrayed. Harry is enchanted by this sophisticated woman with her fine clothes and cigarettes, but their relationship is an innocent one – a motherly peck on the cheek at Christmas, a touch of the hand here and there, but nothing more sensual.
Frau Messenger had claimed me from the moment she stepped from her husband’s car that day in Laffan Street: and she had held me to her with the story of her life. Details that were lost in the enchantment of her voice return with time. (p. 57)
On finishing school, Harry joins the staff of the Alexandra, selling tickets in the box office, standing in for the projectionist in times of need and generally mucking in, much to his family’s disgust. At first, the picture house is a great success, attracting visitors from the surrounding area, especially once the Emergency is over.
As the story unfolds retrospectively, we learn what happens to the Messingers, the Alexandra and Harry himself in the intervening years. In some respects, this is a sad, melancholy story; but as Harry looks back at his life, he feels no regret. His memories of Frau Messinger and the cinema are enough, shot through with happiness despite the spectre of loss.
People loved the Alexandra. They loved the things I loved myself – the scarlet seats, the lights that made the curtains change colour, the usherettes in uniform. People stood smoking in the foyer when they’d bought their tickets, not in a hurry because smoking and talking gave them pleasure also. They loved the luxury of the Alexandra, they loved the place it was. Urney bars tasted better in its rosy gloom; embraces were romantic there. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shared their sophisticated dreams, Deanna Durbin sang. Heroes fell from horses, the sagas of great families yielded the riches of their secrets. Night after night in the Alexandra I stood at the back, aware of the pleasure I dealt in, feeling it all around me. (p. 55)
The Ballroom of Romance and The Hill Bachelors touch on broadly similar themes – quietly devastating stories of everyday country folk caught between the pull of their own desires and the familial duties that bind them to home.
Ballroom focuses on Bridie, a thirty-six-year-old spinster who cares for her elderly father on the family’s remote farm. With only one functioning leg, the father relies heavily on Bridie for help with the livestock, effectively tying the girl to home. Trevor paints him as a gentle, understanding man – someone who feels bad about the restrictions his conditions impose, especially on Bridie.
Every Saturday evening, Bridie cycles seven miles to the nearest dance hall, where she hopes to catch the eye of Dano Ryan, the middle-aged bachelor who plays the drums with the amateur band. As the story plays out, we learn more about Bridie and the other singles hoping for a touch of romance. Back in the days of her youth, Bridie only had eyes for Patrick Grady, a local boy who captured her heart. But some other girl ended up with Patrick, spiriting him away, leaving Bridie broken-hearted. With tonight’s dance in full swing, Bridie yearns for the other lives she could have lived – marriage to Patrick, for instance, raising a family together in England, maybe a job of her own.
The great tragedy of this story lies in the closing pages as Bridie realises what lies ahead of her. Even Dano Ryan, a man she doesn’t love, seems destined to marry another, crushing Bridie’s dreams of companionship and some help with the farm. The only remaining option is Bowser Egan, an unreliable chancer who likes to drink, frittering away his money on a regular basis. It’s a quiet, heartbreaking story, perfectly captured in Trevor’s luminous prose.
The Hill Bachelors taps into similar themes with young Paulie returning home to help his mother with the family farm following his father’s death. The opening is quintessential Trevor, portraying Paulie’s mother with grace and humanity.
She was a small woman, spare and wiry, her morning clothes, becoming her. At sixty-eight, she had ailments: arthritis in her knuckles, and her ankles, though only slightly a nuisance to her; a cataract, she was not yet aware of. She had given birth without much difficulty to five children, and was a grandmother to nine. Born herself far from the hills that were her home now, she had come to this house, forty-nine years ago, had shared its kitchen and the rearing of geese and hens with her husband’s mother, until the kitchen and rearing became entirely her own. She hadn’t thought she would be left. She hadn’t wanted it. She didn’t now. (p. 87)
As the only bachelor in the family, Paulie is best placed to give up his current job and move back home after the funeral. All the other siblings are all married with busy lives and young children of their own, so Paulie knows he must do his duty on the farm. His one regret is that Patsy Finucane will not join him there. Sadly, Patsy prefers the buzz of town life to the prospect of life on an isolated country farm, so she ditches Paulie for a post office clerk before his notice period is out.
These are beautiful, deeply moving stories, exquisitely told. A gem of a collection from one of my all-time favourite writers.
Nights at the Alexandra is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. My second review for Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month, more details here.