The Distant Past by William Trevor: A Book Review and Discussion Guide
The Distant Past by William Trevor: A Review
William Trevor is one of the most acclaimed and prolific writers of modern Irish literature. He has written over 40 books, including novels, short stories, plays, and memoirs. He has won numerous awards for his work, such as the Whitbread Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, and the David Cohen Prize for Literature. He is widely regarded as a master of the short story form, with a distinctive style that combines realism, humor, irony, and insight into human nature.
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The Distant Past is a collection of 12 short stories that was first published in 1979 by Poolbeg Press. It is one of Trevor's most popular and celebrated books, as it showcases his skillful portrayal of Irish life in different periods and places. The stories range from historical to contemporary settings, from rural to urban landscapes, from comedy to tragedy. They explore various themes such as memory, nostalgia, identity, change, love, loss, betrayal, violence, and death.
In this article, I will review The Distant Past by William Trevor, and provide a critical analysis and a personal reflection on the book. I will discuss the author's background, the book's plot, the book's themes, the book's strengths and weaknesses, and the book's impact and relevance. I hope that this article will help you to appreciate and enjoy this remarkable book by one of the greatest writers of our time.
About the Author
William Trevor was born in 1928 in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland. He grew up in a Protestant family in a predominantly Catholic country, which gave him a sense of being an outsider and a keen awareness of the religious and political conflicts in Ireland. He studied history at Trinity College Dublin, and then worked as a sculptor, a teacher, and an advertising copywriter. He moved to England in 1954, where he began his writing career. He died in 2016 at the age of 88.
Trevor's writing is influenced by his Irish upbringing, his Protestant heritage, his artistic sensibility, and his experience of living in exile. He is known for his realistic and nuanced depiction of Irish society, culture, and history, especially the effects of the Troubles, the Irish War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War. He is also known for his subtle and understated humor, his use of irony and paradox, and his deep understanding of human psychology and emotions. He often writes about ordinary people who face extraordinary situations, moral dilemmas, or personal crises. He creates complex and sympathetic characters who struggle with their identity, their relationships, their choices, and their fate.
About the Book
The Distant Past is a collection of 12 short stories that span different genres, tones, and perspectives. The stories are:
A Choice of Butchers: A historical story set in 1798 during the Irish Rebellion, about a young man who joins a group of rebels who plan to assassinate a British officer.
Memories of Youghal: A nostalgic story set in 1950s Ireland, about a middle-aged woman who recalls her childhood holidays in a seaside town.
The Ballroom of Romance: A tragicomic story set in 1960s rural Ireland, about a spinster who attends a weekly dance at a rundown hall.
The Distant Past: A satirical story set in 1970s suburban Ireland, about a Protestant family who live in fear of their Catholic neighbors.
Death in Jerusalem: A dramatic story set in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli War, about a Jewish woman who witnesses the death of her lover.
The Time of Year: A melancholic story set in 1970s London, about an elderly man who visits his estranged daughter on Christmas Eve.
Attracta: A dark story set in 1970s Northern Ireland, about a Catholic schoolteacher who is kidnapped by IRA terrorists.
The Death of Peggy Morrissey: A mysterious story set in 1970s rural Ireland, about a farmer who discovers the body of his wife's cousin.
Miss Smith: A humorous story set in 1970s urban Ireland, about a young man who falls in love with his boss's secretary.
The Forty-Seventh Saturday: A suspenseful story set in 1970s England, about a married couple who plot to murder their wealthy aunt.
Mr. McNamara: A poignant story set in 1970s France, about an Irish expatriate who reunites with his old friend.
The Mark-2 Wife: A bitter story set in 1970s England, about a successful businessman who cheats on his wife with a younger woman.
The stories are linked by common themes and motifs, such as the past, the present, the future, memory, nostalgia, identity, change, love, loss, betrayal, violence, death. They also reflect Trevor's diverse influences and interests, such as history, politics, religion, art, literature, music, cinema, and travel. They demonstrate Trevor's versatility and creativity as a short story writer, as he uses different narrative techniques, styles, and voices to tell his stories.
About the Themes
The Distant Past explores various themes that are relevant to both Irish and universal human experiences. Some of the main themes are:
Memory is a recurring theme in The Distant Past , as many characters remember their past events, people, places, and emotions. Memory can be a source of joy, Nostalgia
Nostalgia is another theme in The Distant Past , as many characters long for a time or a place that is gone or changed. Nostalgia can be a form of escape, comfort, or regret, depending on how the characters view their past. For example, in Memories of Youghal , the narrator feels nostalgic for her childhood holidays in a seaside town, where she experienced happiness and freedom. She contrasts her past with her present, where she is unhappy and lonely. In The Distant Past , the Middleton family feels nostalgic for their ancestral home in Ireland, where they had a privileged and peaceful life. They resent their present situation, where they live in a modest house in a hostile neighborhood. In Mr. McNamara , the title character feels nostalgic for his youth in Ireland, where he had a passion for art and literature. He regrets his present life, where he has become a cynical and disillusioned businessman.
Identity is another theme in The Distant Past , as many characters struggle with their sense of self, their role in society, and their relationship with others. Identity can be affected by factors such as religion, politics, culture, class, gender, age, and love. For example, in A Choice of Butchers , the protagonist faces a dilemma between his loyalty to his country and his friendship with his enemy. He has to choose between his Irish identity and his human identity. In Attracta , the protagonist suffers a crisis of faith after being kidnapped by IRA terrorists. She questions her Catholic identity and her moral values. In The Mark-2 Wife , the protagonist loses his identity after having an affair with a younger woman. He alienates himself from his wife, his family, his friends, and his work.
Change is another theme in The Distant Past , as many characters experience or witness changes in their lives, their environment, and their society. Change can be positive or negative, voluntary or involuntary, gradual or sudden, depending on how the characters cope with it. For example, in The Ballroom of Romance , the protagonist accepts the change in her life as she grows older and realizes that she will never marry. She adapts to her situation and finds happiness in small things. In Death in Jerusalem , the protagonist resists the change in her life as she loses her lover in a war. She refuses to accept reality and clings to her memories. In The Forty-Seventh Saturday , the protagonists initiate the change in their life as they plot to murder their aunt. They hope to improve their situation and escape their boredom.
The Distant Past: A Critical Analysis
The Distant Past is a brilliant book that showcases William Trevor's talent as a short story writer. It has many strengths and few weaknesses, which I will discuss in this section.
The Strengths of the Book
The book has many strengths that make it a compelling and enjoyable read. Some of the strengths are:
One of the strengths of the book is its realism, which means that it depicts the world as it is, without idealizing or exaggerating it. Trevor uses realistic details, descriptions, dialogues, and events to create a vivid and authentic picture of Irish life in different times and places. He also uses historical facts and references to ground his stories in reality and to show the impact of history on his characters and their society. For example, in A Choice of Butchers , he mentions the names of real historical figures and events involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, such as Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and the Battle of Vinegar Hill. In Attracta , he refers to the real political and religious conflicts in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, such as the IRA, the British Army, and the Bloody Sunday. In Death in Jerusalem , he describes the real situation and atmosphere in Jerusalem in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli War, such as the bombings, the snipers, and the checkpoints.
Another strength of the book is its humor, which means that it uses comedy to entertain and amuse the reader. Trevor uses humor to lighten the mood and to contrast with the tragedy in his stories. He also uses humor to reveal the absurdity and irony of life and human nature. He uses different types of humor, such as satire, parody, sarcasm, wit, and slapstick, to suit different situations and characters. For example, in The Distant Past , he uses satire to mock the paranoia and prejudice of the Middleton family, who believe that their Catholic neighbors are plotting to kill them. He exaggerates their fears and actions to show how ridiculous they are. In Miss Smith , he uses parody to poke fun at the clichés and conventions of romantic stories, such as love at first sight, secret admirers, and happy endings. He twists and subverts these elements to show how unrealistic they are. In The Forty-Seventh Saturday , he uses sarcasm to expose the hypocrisy and greed of the married couple, who pretend to be loving and caring while planning to murder their aunt. He contrasts their words and deeds to show how dishonest they are.
Another strength of the book is its irony, which means that it uses a discrepancy or a contradiction between appearance and reality, expectation and outcome, or past and present. Trevor uses irony to create surprise, suspense, and drama in his stories. He also uses irony to convey a deeper meaning or a moral lesson in his stories. He uses different forms of irony, such as verbal irony, situational irony, dramatic irony, and cosmic irony, to suit different purposes and effects. For example, in A Choice of Butchers , he uses verbal irony when the protagonist says that he is "a butcher by trade" (Trevor 7), implying that he is a rebel who kills British soldiers. However, he later reveals that he is actually a butcher by profession, who sells meat for a living. This creates a contrast between his words and his true identity. In The Ballroom of Romance , he uses situational irony when the protagonist meets a man who seems to be interested in her at the dance hall. However, he later turns out to be a married man who only wants a one-night stand with her. This creates a contrast between her expectation and his intention. In The Time of Year , he uses dramatic irony when the protagonist visits his daughter on Christmas Eve, hoping to reconcile with her. However, the reader knows that his daughter has already died in a car accident earlier that day. This creates a contrast between his knowledge and the reader's knowledge.
Insight into Human Nature
Another strength of the book is its insight into human nature, which means that it shows a deep understanding and appreciation of human psychology and emotions. Trevor portrays his characters as complex, diverse, and vulnerable beings who have their own strengths, weaknesses, motivations, desires, fears, and hopes. He explores various aspects of human nature, such as love, hate, loyalty, betrayal, guilt, forgiveness, courage, cowardice, and compassion. He also examines how human nature is affected by external factors, such as history, society, culture, religion, and fate. He creates sympathetic and relatable characters who make the reader feel for them and care about them.
The Weaknesses of the Book
The book has few weaknesses that make it less appealing or satisfying for some readers. Some of the weaknesses are:
One of the weaknesses of the book is its ambiguity, which means that it leaves many questions unanswered and many endings unresolved. Trevor does not provide clear explanations or conclusions for his stories, but rather leaves them open to interpretation and speculation. He also does not provide much background or context for his characters or their situations, but rather leaves them vague and mysterious. This can create confusion, frustration, or dissatisfaction for some readers who prefer more clarity or closure in their stories. For example, in The Death of Peggy Morrissey , he does not reveal who killed Peggy or why. He also does not reveal what happened to her cousin or her husband after they found her body. He only hints at some possible motives or suspects, but does not confirm or deny them. In The Mark-2 Wife , he does not reveal what happened to the protagonist or his wife after he confessed his affair to her. He only suggests that she might have left him or forgiven him, but does not specify which one.
settings in his stories, but rather sticks to his familiar and favorite ones. He also does not experiment much with his narrative techniques, styles, or voices in his stories, but rather follows his established and successful ones. This can create boredom, predictability, or monotony for some readers who prefer more diversity or originality in their stories. For example, in The Distant Past , he uses the same theme of the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Ireland that he has used in many of his other stories, such as The News from Ireland , The Old Boys , and Fools of Fortune . He also uses the same motif of the distant past that haunts the present that he has used in many of his other stories, such as The Ballroom of Romance , The Time of Year , and Mr. McNamara . He also uses the same situation of a family living in fear of their neighbors that he has used in one of his earlier stories, The Penthouse Apartment .
Another weakness of the book is its pessimism, which means that it has a bleak outlook on life and a lack of hope for its characters. Trevor does not offer much happiness or optimism in his stories, but rather shows a lot of sadness and despair. He also does not offer much justice or redemption in his stories, but rather shows a lot of injustice and suffering. He often ends his stories on a note of loss, death, or failure, leaving his characters and his readers with little or no consolation or resolution. This can create depression, anger, or apathy for some readers who prefer more positivity or inspiration in their stories. For example, in A Choice of Butchers , he ends the story with the protagonist being killed by his friend who betrays him to the British. He also implies that the Irish Rebellion was doomed to fail and that the Irish people would continue to be oppressed by the British. In The Ballroom of Romance , he ends the story with the protagonist being rejected by the man she hoped to marry. He also suggests that she would never find love or happiness and that she would die alone and lonely. In Attracta , he ends the story with the protagonist being shot by her kidnappers who mistake her for a spy. He also indicates that she would never regain her faith or her peace and that she would die in agony and terror.
The Distant Past: A Personal Reflection
The Distant Past is a book that has made a strong impression on me and has influenced my thinking and feeling about many issues and topics. In this section, I will share my personal opinion on the book, its impact on me, and its relevance today.
My Opinion on the Book
My opinion on the book is that it is a masterpiece of short fiction that deserves to be read and appreciated by anyone who loves literature and who wants to learn more about Ireland and human nature. I liked the book very much because it was well-written, engaging, informative, and thought-provoking. I admired Trevor's skill and craft as a writer, his ability to create realistic and memorable characters, his use of humor and irony to enhance his stories, and his insight into human nature and emotions. I enjoyed reading the book because it was entertaining, captivating, educational, and challenging. I was entertained by Trevor's humor and irony, captivated by his plots and twists, educated by his historical and cultural references, and challenged by his themes and messages.
The Impact of the Book on Me
The impact of the book on me was that it made me feel and learn a lot about myself and others. It made me feel various emotions such as joy, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and curiosity. It made me feel joy when I read about Trevor's humor and wit, sadness when I read about Trevor's tragedy and loss, anger when I read about Trevor's injustice and violence, fear when I read about Trevor's suspense and danger, surprise when I read about Trevor's irony and paradox, and curiosity when I read about Trevor's mystery and ambiguity. It made me learn a lot about myself and others such as my values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships. It made me learn about my values when I read about Trevor's moral dilemmas and choices, my beliefs when I read about Trevor's religious and political conflicts, my attitudes when I read about Trevor's social and cultural differences, my behaviors when I read about Trevor's actions and consequences, and my relationships when I read about Trevor's love and hate.
The Relevance of the Book Today
The relevance of the book today is that it still speaks to the contemporary reader and the current world. It still speaks to the contemporary reader because it deals with universal and timeless themes and issues that affect everyone and everywhere. It deals with themes and issues such as memory, nostalgia, identity, change, love, loss, betrayal, violence, and death, which are relevant to anyone who has a past, a present, and a future, who has a self, a society, and a world, who has a heart, a mind, and a soul. It still speaks to the current world because it reflects the reality and the complexity of the world we live in. It reflects the reality and the complexity of the world we live in such as the history, the politics, the religion, the culture, the art, the literature, the music, the cinema, and the travel, which shape and influence our world and our lives.
In conclusion, The Distant Past by William Trevor is a remarkable book that deserves to be read and appreciated by anyone who loves literature and who wants to learn more about Ireland and human nature. It is a book that has many strengths and few weaknesses, that has made a strong impression on me and has influenced my thinking and feeling about many issues and topics, and that still speaks to the contemporary reader and the current world. I hope that this article has helped you to appreciate and enjoy this book by one of the greatest writers of our time.