Moody Tales of Love

There is a grey cloud hanging over many of William Trevor’s short stories in Cheating at Canasta. The day is cloudy and misty, a melancholy mood surrounds the characters, their talk is reflective, nostalgic, and sad.

In Folie a Deux a man returns to Paris alone and, while reading in a cafĂ©, muses, “The will to go on can fall away.”

Is there no gaiety in Ireland any more? Is it always so gloomy there?

There is also recognition of the truth, largely the truth of what really happened and what was really felt in a marriage or an affair, even though it was never expressed.

In A Perfect Relation Prosper says, “There was, for him in marriage, the torment of not being wanted any more.” And later “Often disagreeing, they would agree because it made things easier if that falsity seemed to be the truth.

His language is terse and a strange rhythm of uncertainly characterizes many of the passages. From The Room, “Love makes the most of pity, or pity does of love, I don’t know which. It hardly matters.”

The Room describes in Trevorian fashion an affair between Phair whose marriage was breaking up and Katherine who seemed relatively satisfied with hers. They meet from time to time in a rented room.

They never learn much about each other and often speak elliptically leaving much unsaid or untrue. “This evening he would tell her about his day, and she would say about hers and would have to lie.”

Their affair had been an excitement for both of them. It always is, at least in the beginning. “Risk came into it in all sorts of ways; risk was part of it, the secrecy of concealment, stealth. And risk had claimed its due.”

Eventually, their affair ends. It usually does. “He expected no more of her than what she’d given him, and she would choose her moment to say that she must go. He would understand; she would not have to tell him. The best that love could do was not enough, and he would know that also.”

There are trips to Paris or Venice in several of the stories, always taken alone. Similar experiences are not unknown to me, although they are never as dark or as bleak as Trevor depicts them.

“In Folie a Deux, Wilby travels by himself to Paris. “He reads again, indulging the pleasure of being in Paris, in a brasserie where Muzak isn’t playing, at a small corner table, engrossed in a story that’s familiar yet has receded sufficiently to be blurred in places, like something good remembered.”

And in Cheating at Canasta, the story that gives the book its title, a widower returns to Harry’s Bar, a well-known restaurant in Venice, where he and his wife had many happy times. (Harry’s Bar was one of Hemingway’s haunts and it is also a bit of a legend among the celebrity crowd. I have had the good fortune of going there a couple of times and Trevor brought those experiences back to me again.)

Upstairs in the dining room Mallory overhears a young American couple arguing at the next table. To Mallory their quarreling ruins the memories of the good times he and his wife had there. But then he remembers that their life hadn’t always been quite so free of pain. He says, “Marriage was an uncalculated risk, Mallory remembered saying once. The trickiest of all undertakings.”

In reading these short stories it wasn’t long before I fell into their mood and began to speak the way his characters did. Never so dark or austere, but sometimes as indirect or cryptic and at other times contradictory or ambiguous, never saying exactly what I meant, since I was never very sure what I meant.