This week, after two abstract pieces about re-reading and time, let’s return to a writing example, William Trevor’s short story After Rain.
And yes, I’ve re-read this several time (s).
Heh heh heh.
After Rain was originally published in the March 19th, 1995 issue of the New Yorker and subsequently published as part of the story collection entitled After Rain, published in the US in 1996.
The story is built from five sections, set off by paragraph breaks. Let’s examine the first one, the longest of the lot, looking at how it establishes the story’s conditions.
The scene begins with the narrator doing some scene setting—actually it’s more than that. We’ll get to it by the end. The dining room is described, a solitary diner, Harriet, is introduced and described. Her reason for being present is explained—a failed love affair, a cancelled holiday and her decision to go by herself to the Cesarina, a place familiar from her childhood.
The first sentence: “In the dining room of the Pensione Cesarina, solitary diners are fitted in around the walls, where space does not permit a table large enough for two.”
Here, the reader who is not re-reading is presented with an enigmatic first sentence—enigmatic because a narrator is setting a scene without many clues about what’s going on. During a first reading, this sentence answers the question where? but not much else. Indeed, the reader reading the story for the first time might go back over the beginning, trying to make meaning and “figure out” what this story is about. Pensione Cesarina suggests but does not insist on Italy, as a reader might know that pensione means hotel in Italian. The title After Rain doesn’t specify much at first, although it and the language and imagery in the first sentence establish an elegant, rather melancholy mood—and this observation/sense proves to be quite accurate as things develop.
The story continues with a paragraph describing the dining room, and then the second paragraph introduces the protagonist, Harriet, who is a solitary diner.
There is a description of Harriet herself: “Wearing a blue dress unadorned except for the shiny blue buckle of its belt, she has earrings that hardly show and a necklace of opaque white beads that isn’t valuable. Angular and thin, her dark hair cut short, her long face strikingly like the sharply chiseled faces of Modigliani, a month ago she passed out of her twenties. She is alone in the Pensione Cesarina because a love affair is over.”
The description presents an image that “sticks” in the mind, someone angular and thin. If one knows the paintings of Modigliani, one gets a further clue as to what Harriet looks like.
Although this story is by a heterosexual male, this description of a female protagonist is not overly sexualized, there being no mention of breasts or hips or hot looks. Harriet is not objectified.
Sharp eyed readers might note that the simple present tense is used. “…diners are fitted in…” “She is alone…” This is contrasted with the simple past tense: “A holiday was cancelled, there was an empty fortnight.” Of course, this indicates the passage of time. The action of the story occurs in the present—although not the reader’s present, the narrator and character’s present, a “present” actually written in the early nineties.
This issue of time, so eloquently addressed in the last blog, brings to mind Russian savant Mikhail Bahktin, and his theory of a story’s chronotope, defined as a condition where “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.”
As I understand it, the idea here is that each novel or story handles space and time in a distinct way. After Rain consists of a narrator who is showing the protagonist in her present. She and the narrator dip back and forth from the present to the past, and this is usually framed as representing Harriet’s thoughts as she remembers people and events. The narrator too frames these time leaps. Time is not continuous or moment to moment, but often nearly so.
Present interactions with the waitstaff (in Italian) and other guests are, to use a cinematic term, intercut with digressions about the past. “Already, then, she regretted her impulse to come here on her own and wondered why she had. On the journey out the rawness of her pain had in no way softened, if anything had intensified, for the journey on that day should have been different, and not made alone:”
Here, then, the narrator tells us about her inner state by describing the recent past, a few sentences which show the time from when she left England to the first night there at the Cesarina. It also could represent the way she feels in the present of the story, once again dining alone.
Then while she is having dinner, she remembers what’s happened: “…for a moment…the man she has come to forget pushes through another crowded room…her name on his lips. ‘I love you, Harriet,’ he says.”
From this experience of the past, time jumps in an unobtrusive way. “Upstairs, in the room where the bookcases are, Harriet wonders if this solitude is how her life will be. Has she returned to this childhood place to seek whatever comfort a happy past can offer?” The narrator comments: “Her thoughts are always in a muddle when a love affair ends, the truth befogged; the truth not there at all, it often seems. Love failed her was what she felt when another relationship crumbled into nothing; love has a way of doing that. And since wondering is company for the companionless, she wonders why it should be so. This is the first time that a holiday has been cancelled, that she has come away alone.”
(Please notice the beautiful writing).
Harriet (and the story’s) attention returns to observing and eavesdropping on her fellow guests. Then, an interruption. Another guest speaks to her, an elderly Englishman. They have a polite, proper, conversation that is “intercut” with Harriet’s memories of her parents and the failed love affair.
“This love affair had once, like the other affairs before it, felt like the exorcism of the disappointment that so drearily colored her life when her parents went their separate ways.” This scene continues to be told from the perspectives of Harriet and the narrator only. The narrator observes about the elderly Englishman, that, “He himself had been on his own for many years and has discovered consolation in that very circumstance, which is an irony of a kind, he supposes.” Obviously, this is not something Harriet knows. However, the scene confronts Harriet with someone who is alone—her condition. “Lonely in old age, she suddenly realizes…Lonely in spite of all he claims for solitude.”
The scene ends with the elderly man saying goodnight, and Harriet realizing (I think) how she’s been mixing up the past and present. This, like the whole section, develops meaning as we read on.
Next time, we’ll continue our study of After Rain.