You Looking At Me?
Last time, we looked at the (long) opening scene of William Trevor’s A Bit On the Side. Let’s continue.
A key element to the brilliance of this story, in my opinion, is the way things move back and forth between the protagonists—on more than one level. This creates tension, as the reader wonders what the resolution will be. We begin with the scene discussed last time where the man and woman meet at the “Japanese café.” The narrator does a lot of the work in this scene, describing the setting and the terms of the couple’s relationship. However, particularly since there are just two of them, the scene and its dialogue tend to focus on first one saying or doing something, and then the other. Thus, she says, “All right?” having noticed something different about him. But he responds, “Absolutely,” denying to both of them his disquiet.
This pattern continues with the next section which switches to include only the narrator and the man, who returns to work, wondering what the woman noticed that made her ask, “All right?” He identifies the disquiet he feels but cannot express the cause in language.
Then the next scene is the narrator and the two protagonists together again at lunch, however, it is all from the woman’s perspective. She asks the man if the change in him is due to her getting the divorce, and he says no.
The next scene is the narrator and the man, who, with inner clarity, thinks that his upset is not due to the woman getting a divorce. Yet, again, he cannot, or the narrator will not, reveal to we the readers what the cause is—not yet.
To continue, the next scene includes the narrator, the man and the woman, but is from the woman’s perspective. And then the next section belongs to the man. The narrator handles the end alone.
So, not to be tedious, but if in obsessive fashion, we symbolize the man’s perspective as A, and the woman’s perspective as B, the story has this alternating pattern:
First scene—back and for the between the two, then A, B, A, B, A, and the final scene, courtesy of the narrator. In fact, the first scene, with its back and forth between the two, is an encapsulation of the structure of the whole story—an encapsulation, not really a mise en abyme. (I knew you were going to ask that).
This structure creates an expectation that this back and forth will be resolved. Our intellectual friends would call this a dialectic that demands synthesis.
So what the heck happens?
A long answer:
In almost each section, suspiciously minor characters appear. Almost at the beginning, we have the taxi-driver, “who came in most mornings.” Two of the music students had also arrived.” American tourists— “the regular presence of such visitors from overseas…” A clerk who sold the woman a pair of boots when the couple was together. The “bagwoman” whom they usually encountered each morning as they left the train. The other people in the Paddington Street Gardens where the couple always has lunch together. And the bartender and waitstaff at The Running Footman, a bar where they regularly meet after work.
A cursory reader might conclude that all these minor characters, generally only noted or briefly observed, serve to give the story color and realism, and this is accurate. But there’s more.
At the end of the day, (the real end of the day, not the slang expression) in The Running Footman, the man expresses his problem. It is not the woman’s divorce, which created an unspoken question about whether he would divorce his wife, whom he does not want to divorce.
It’s that he can’t bear the tawdriness of having an affair with someone he loves so much, and this is because he feels all those minor characters judge them.
“It was in people’s eyes, he said.” At all their regular rendezvous, he was aware of people observing them, and, he imagined, thinking: “She was his bit on the side.”
“I can’t bear it that they think that.”
She experiences a rush of love for him, a bloom of desire, and wants to go immediately together to her apartment to be alone. “I don’t mind in the least,” she said, “what people think. Really I don’t.”
But the man says, “My God, I do,” he whispered. “My God, I mind.”
And this, best beloved, is the climax of the story, the revelation of what has led the man to resolving to end the affair. And that’s the function of all those seemingly minor characters who the man is intensely aware of.
Is this fear of the man’s realistic? Well, first of all, this is fiction; Mr. Trevor can write whatever he wants. It’s up to us to decide. Perhaps, there is more than meets the eye. The man does not intend to divorce his wife and leave his children, so in that sense, the affair is doomed; it must end for some reason. But this unease with other people’s perceptions is a way to express the man’s own unease. He really loves the woman but has no intention of marrying her, and so, fears that he’s treating her badly, like, “a bit on the side.” He does “mind,” he can’t treat their affair as a secondary thing and so, ends it.
And, of course this is the significance of the story’s title, an irony in that the woman (or the man) is much more significant than a minor fling but what the couple is doing is regulated by society.
The narrator takes us out:
“In the plate-glass of a department store window, their reflection was arrested while they embraced. They did not see that image recording for an instant a stylishness they would not have claimed as theirs, or guessed that, in their love affair, they had possessed…Nothing of love had been destroyed today: they took that with them as they drew apart and walked away from one another, unaware that the future was less bleak than now it seemed, that in it, there would still be the delicacy of their reticence, and they themselves as love had made them for awhile.”
So the narrator offers wise and knowing commentary, seeing the whole of these people’s lives. Does this mean the story happened long ago? Nah, it means the narrator is a wise one, that’s all.
Love is beautiful and endures past endings; love has its own relevance.
Till next time.