Wednesday, November 30, 2016

On Reading William Trevor's Access to the Children

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The second installment of   William Trevor’s The Collected Stories comes with his piece “Access to the Children.” This story follows a similar line of thought to “A Meeting in Middle Age” in that in rings with the pangs of loss and the pains of regret. At the center of the story sits Malcolmson, an aging divorcee at the end of his sanity. Like many who go through great change and upheaval, he has lost sight of who he is, where he is going, and what his true purpose is. The man, in the words of his ex-wife, has lost everything and been reduced to rubble: “‘You have lost all dignity,’ Elizabeth had whispered, in the darkness, at night. ‘I despise you for that’” (28). Malcolmson is not who he once was, and despite the fact the he still loves her, Elizabeth has grown to loathe and detest the father of her children. Devoid of respect for him, she can no longer even offer him her pity, and with these thoughts in mind, she is free to replace the man.
Yet, Malcolmson remains largely naïve to reality. While he admits he was the cause of the entire problem when he cheated on his wife by running off with Diana, an American woman he met on a train: “Diana she described as a flatchested American nymphomaniac and predator, the worst type of woman in the world,” he clings to the faint hope that time will heal all wounds and that Elizabeth will take him back (16). But the use of the term predator brings to light Malcomson’s problem: his ex-wife Elizabeth sees Diana as an animal who stole her husband, stability, and life in general. Diana killed it all, and as prey, Malcolmson gave in, fell apart, leaving behind only a carcass in his wake.  Of course the marriage was terminated, but said divorce came after Diana left for another man. The American murdered it all.
Thus Malcomson finds himself locked out of his old life. His wife both hates and blames him for their breakup, he lives alone in a flat he obtained to be with his now wayward lover, and he only has “reasonable access” to their children (17). He can see them when he wants to, but that want is only on Sundays at 3pm. So he dutifully arrives wearing the same suit and attempts to take them to either the Zoo or the same movie every time. Somewhere in the thick of it all he is fired from his job, he grows a beard, and begins drinking to excess at odd hours of the day. While he attempts to reason with his actions and his, he cannot see the reality of his predicament, thinking time would save him, time would bring him back, time would place him back in his wife’s flat and their old bed and their old life: “But he didn’t say anything, knowing that wounds had to heal” (17). But time is not on Malcolmson’s side, for yes time allows Elizabeth’s pain to fade and in doing so find and meet a replacement man. Malcolmson is haunted by the visage of his unknown other, his replacement. This replacement cements itself in reality of his wife’s new fiancé Richard, a man that will replace Malcolmson in all roles, crushing his spirit and sending him deeper into the spiral of depression.
As these events play out, Trevor captivates and inspires. He shows life through Malcolmson’s eyes only to yank away the curtain and thrust Elizabeth’s reality upon us: “It enraged her that he was sitting in an armchair in her flat with his eyelids drooping through drink and an unlighted cigarette in his hand and his matches spilt all over the floor. They were his children, but she wasn’t his wife: he’d destroyed her as a wife, he’d insulted her, he’d left her to bleed and she had called him a murderer” (26). And he was a murder, is a murder, for he destroyed their family and then himself. For he does not understand what reasonable access entails, for he cannot grasp the truths of reality and understand where he truly stands.

Monday, November 28, 2016

On Reading William Trevor's “A Meeting in Middle Age”

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After letting William Trevor’s The Collected Stories languish on my bookshelf for many years, I have endeavored to read the thousand plus pages. Of course his recent death has spurred my interest, but the recommendation of one of my college writing instructors, Padgett Powell always rings true here, so I am now questing through and pondering the greatness of Trevor’s works.

To begin, Trevor’s “A Meeting in Middle Age” crafts a slow burn narrative around an unlikely couple. On one end is Mr. Mileson, a man who has nothing to live for, nor anything of distinction in his past. His family had had a house on a lease of ninety-nine years, but despite being unmarried and childless, Mr. Mileson is unable to retain the property. While he mentions a lack of regret over this fact, his thoughts repeatedly cycle back to the residence and pang with loss in general. Thus, while he has failed to fulfill his biological purpose of reproducing, he also relinquishes the family’s material legacy. As Mrs. da Tanka later notes, “‘What kind of life have you had? You had not the nerve for marriage. Not the brains for success. The truth is you might not have lived’” (9). He lacks fulfillment, and even struggles to play his full part in their brief encounter.

Mr. Mileson is pitted against Mrs. da Tanka. A dashing woman of middle age, she still hangs on the laurels of her beauty. She is seeking a separation from her husband and has arranged to be seen with Mr. Mileson in bed. While the two do not outwardly intend to be lovers, they are placed in the ample position to do so if wanted. With these facts in mind, Trevor places the perfect strangers in a room and allows the fires of reality to burn. The stodgy Mrs. da Tanka rails on her whole life, calls foul to her existence due to her dissatisfaction with her husband and his predecessor, and shreds her current companion as well: “‘Have you ever thought of wearing an eye-patch Mr. Mileson? I think it would suit you. You need distinction. Have you led an empty life? You give the impression of an empty life’” (5). She sees the man as a low class lackey and, as unfortunate as it may seem, Mr. Mileson lives up to the role. He is a shell, a vessel waiting to be filled but lacking the capacity to do so. She clings to this fact and works to tear him down to what she deems to be the appropriate level.

In actuality, Mr. Mileson has little to hold on to. His garden and the cottage that held it vanished with his lease, and without children, women, or even a desire to marry and love, he clings to empty vessels from his past: “‘As a child I collected birds’ eggs on the common. I have kept them all these years’” (8). While an act of tenderness, the retention of these eggs only serves to show Mr. Mileson is the end of his line and a child at heart. He takes pride in the past, and it is with his past that he will mistakenly attack his pseudo-lover and tear her heart out. It is in this past, the mention of cow-parsley, that the two connect at the very time that the walk off the train and go their separate ways. All the while, Trevor forces his readers to consider the implications over who was worse off and who really was the failure.   

Favorite line:
“In fact she was not, but finding herself involved at all reflected the inadequacy of her married life and revealed a vacuum that once had been love. ‘We are better apart,’ she had said. ‘It is bad to get used to being together. We must take our chances while we may, while there is still time’” (2).