Baby The Rain Must Fall
This week, let’s continue looking at After Rain by William Trevor.
During the first scene that shows the protagonist, Harriet, having dinner alone during a vacation that was supposed to be a romantic holiday for two, she berates herself for being, “Unable to keep the men she loves in love with her.”
We have a paragraph break. Then: “She walks through the heat of the morning on the narrow road to the town…” This is a jump in time and space, an expansion of the chronotope of the story, remembering Bahktin’s term for a fictional work’s handling of space and time. It is apparently the next morning, and the space of the story moves beyond the territory of the Pensione Cesarina to include the nearby town, another place Harriet used to go with her family as a child.
Harriet broods over memories of the recent failed love affair. “But weren’t we happy? she hears herself exclaim, a little shrill because she couldn’t help it. Yes, they were happy, he agreed at once, anxious to make that clear. Not happy enough was what he meant, and you could tell; something not quite right. She asked him and he didn’t know, genuine in his bewilderment.” Rain begins to fall; Harriet finds the Cathedral won’t open till two o’clock, and she goes to a familiar trattoria and orders lunch.
“It was in the foyer of the Rembrandt Cinema that he said he didn’t think their love affair was working. It was then that she exclaimed, ‘But weren’t we happy?’ They didn’t quarrel. Not even afterwards, when she asked him why he had told her in a cinema foyer. He didn’t know, he said; it just seemed right in that moment, some fragment of a mood they shared.”
During lunch, she reads the book she's brought along, The Small House at Arlington. I am not familiar with this book, but I don’t think one has to be in order to appreciate its significance to the story, as two passages are quoted, and they deal with an impending marriage.
At this point, I think we can say: Harriet is a lonely person who has serial heterosexual relationships that fit a pattern. They start well, and she feels loved in the same way she felt loved in her family of origin, accepted, valued. But at some later point, the men she’s involved with break off the relationship, but are unable to say why—at least in her memory of things. She is unhappy and is on the edge of confronting her part in the breakups. This most recent one led to her going on a vacation by herself, because the time was already planned—perhaps it’s more than that. She has gone to a place redolent in memory, a hotel in Italy where she used to stay with her parents as a child—before they divorced. But at this point, she has not made a connection between her adult affairs and her childhood trauma—a feeling of betrayal by her parents.
We might also re-visit that first line of the story. “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.” Re-reading this in light of reading the story provides new meaning. Harriet is a solitary diner who sits in an area too small for a table for two. This is exactly her situation.
The chronotope of After Rain is distinctive, best B., as it should be, and this gets us into the issue of style. The story is, as I’ve noted, in simple present tense, as Harriet navigates through her melancholy vacation at the Cesarina. However, she is shown as being pre-occupied with the past, not only with the recent breakup, but with the enormous loss of her childhood family. She is a creature with a deep footprint, perhaps too much so. Perhaps, if she were real, concerned friends might say, “Oh, my dear, get over it.” But the story is about how she cannot get over it till she makes a connection with the past.
As the afternoon continues, after another paragraph break, the space of the story expands once again to include the Cathedral. Harriet enters it and studies a painting of the Annunciation, depicting an angel who appears to the Virgin Mary to tell her she is miraculously pregnant. “There is a soundlessness about the picture, the silence of a mystery: no words are spoken in this captured moment, what’s said between the two has been said already.” Harriet has never seen the painting before or been in the Cathedral. “It isn’t alarm in the Virgin’s eyes, it’s wonderment. In another moment there’ll be serenity.” Harriet leaves the Cathedral and has an epiphany. “…the air is fresher. Too slick and glib, to use her love affairs to restore her faith in love: that thought is there mysteriously. She has cheated in her love affairs: that comes from nowhere too.”
(By the way, the painting that Harriet "sees" is shown on the cover and back cover of this edition).
Of course, this is the narrator’s voice expressing what’s going on inside Harriet.
This is the climax of the story. Perhaps we could say that this scene in the Cathedral is a kind of mise en abyme, no? It presents an actual painting that the protagonist studies wherein a young woman has just been told an important secret, although what’s been said “has been said already.” This situation is the same as in the larger story wherein Harriet has a powerful insight about herself that leads, as we will see, to some melancholy serenity. It’s said that this insight comes from “nowhere,” but I believe we could say that it comes from the story. The circumstances of the story, the failed love affair, the lonely holiday to a place once frequented in a happier time, the conversation with the elderly man about solitude, even the walk to town which culminates in entering the Cathedral, all funnel Harriet into a space where she has a significant thought that provides solace and a direction for the future. Is this like real life? If we think back to our discussion of time and re-reading, the answer is no. It’s a model of life, but real life is almost never so neatly organized. Perhaps we could imagine Mr. Trevor creating a story in which he knew where he was going—Harriet’s epiphany. His challenge was to pick out incidents that would lead her to that moment, after the rain has stopped and the “air is fresher.”
I believe this is a good deal of the charm of a short story, that we can see a character transitioning out of some distress with the guiding events shown. It’s life but punctuated and edited, planned out by God (William Trevor).
Next week, let’s look at how the story ends.