Analysis of William Trevor’s A Bit on the Side

A Bit on the Side, William Trevor’s collection of twelve short stories appeared when he was 76 years old, and it has been suggested that the tone of the stories betrays Trevor’s age. A distaste for modern, superficial culture is apparent when characters complain (through free indirect speech) about the intrusion of modern music into the public sphere. In “Justina’s Priest,” Father Clohessy laments the playing of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” (perhaps the song’s message disturbs the representative of a declining church more than the loud music itself); the omniscient narrator of “Graillis’s Legacy” condemns the inanity of “a brash disc-jockey” who “pumped out his chatter before a cacophony began”; in “On the Streets,” a character feels that music in a bar sounds “more like a noise than anything else”; and Trevor’s contempt for the vapid “Musak that was playing, jazzy and sentimental” in the background of the title story is made clear through the choice of derogatory nouns and adjectives.

Inevitably, the lives of many of Trevor’s contemporaries are coming to an end: Trevor’s enhanced awareness of mortality seems to manifest itself in the collection’s higher-than-usual quota of stories involving death. In the quietly gothic story “Sitting with the Dead,” two ghoulish old sisters spend much of their time visiting, without invitation, bereaved families accompanying corpses and their often lugubrious surviving spouses. Jackdaws (small crows) are deliberately slaughtered by a frustrated and slyly malevolent boarding school maid in “Traditions.” A more serious killing occurs in “On the Streets,” which tells of an impoverished breakfast waiter who outdoes a career of petty theft by stalking and then murdering a supercilious customer. In “Solitude,” a bourgeois family flees Britain and pays former domestic assistants to remain quiet about the inconvenient death of the mother’s illicit lover. And in the sarcastically titled “Big Bucks,” a young couple’s desire for a new life in America is motivated in part by the fact that some of the man’s relatives have died when carrying out the only available work—fishing in the treacherous waters offshore. A sense of closure, then, dominates many of the stories.

William Trevor in 1993/Rex Features

Closure comes to many of the adulterous relationships that, as ever, characterize companionate relationships in “Trevorland.” Trevor’s stories have often elicited sympathy for characters who pursue sexual affection outside of marriage. In “Graillis’s Legacy,” an adulterous affair has ended because the male character’s older lover has died; although aware that the woman has written him into her will to celebrate the limited time that they enjoyed together, he seeks to exclude himself legally from her will (through embarrassment or guilt?). An apparently interracial affair between Mrs. Bouvrie and Mr. Azam in “Rose Wept” ends because the woman’s aging husband will no longer work overtime to distract himself from his wife’s infidelity. In the collection’s concluding story—the title story—a different sort of life change causes the separation of two middle-aged lovers. The woman gets divorced, changing the whole tenor of the affair. The reader, inspired by the deceptively dismissive title, may cynically feel that the relationship has lost its illicit excitement for the male. But we are left in no doubt that there was an “intensity” to the affair, and both characters walk away proudly at the story’s end: Their affair was a secret and short-lived triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. While most of the stories involve narratives of closure and ending, the lasting impression from this title story and the collection as a whole is one of reasoned satisfaction: At least these characters were able to enjoy some amorous diversion, however ephemeral and retrospective these joys now seem.

Adair, Tom. “Return to Trevor-Trevor-Land,” review of A Bit on the Side. The Scotsman, 16 May 2004.
Fitzgerald-Holt, Mary. William Trevor: Re-imagining Ireland. Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2003, 173–189. Lee, Hermione. “Old Ireland, Far Hence,” review of A Bit on the Side. The Guardian, 12 June 2004.
Ormsby-Lennon, Hugh. Fools of Fiction: Reading the Fiction of William Trevor. Dublin: Maunsel and Co., 2004. Trevor, William. A Bit on the Side. London: Viking, 2004.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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