Category Archives: Trevor, William

‘Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel’ by William Trevor

I make no apologies for reading and reviewing another William Trevor novel as one of my aims this year is to read as many books by William Trevor, Brian Moore and H.E. Bates as I feel like. I also hope to read at least one book by John Cowper Powys, an author I’ve been meaning to read for years now. I am concentrating on Trevor’s earlier books initially but I am not going to be a slave to chronology. Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel was originally published in 1969, four years after The Boarding House (The Love Department was published inbetween these two) with which it shares some similarities. Although both books centre around a group of characters and a single building each book has a different set of characters and the situations that develop are quite unique.

The novel begins with Mrs Ivy Eckdorf, a professional photographer, originally from England and who now lives in Munich, brazenly and intrusively engage a man in conversation whilst on a flight to Dublin. She explains, despite the fact that the man doesn’t care, about her life:

   ‘The one who was my husband last,’ said Mrs Eckdorf, ‘gave me a taste for cognac. Hans-Otto Eckdorf.’
   ‘Oh yes?’
 ‘Indeed.’ She paused, and then she said: ‘That has been my life. A mother, a father who walked away. And then Miss Tample. And then two German businessmen. The only light in my life is my camera.’
   ‘I see.’
   ‘We are the victims of other people.’
   ‘It’s often so—’

It’s difficult to know where to stop the quotation as the flow of words from Mrs Eckdorf is constant. She intends to visit O’Neill’s Hotel in Thadeus Street, Dublin after hearing about it from a bartender on a ship. O’Neill’s is owned by a deaf ninety-one year-old called Mrs Sinnott who has offered lodging and employment to a number of orphans over the years. The hotel, once grand, has now fallen into disrepair and is suspected of being little more than a brothel. Mrs Eckdorf believes that something terrible happened in the past and that she can help uncover the source of their problems.

There are too many characters, brilliant characters, to cover them all but it is useful to get to know some of them. Mrs Sinnott’s fifty-eight year-old son, Eugene, basically lives off the hotel but does little to help in the running of it, instead he spends his time drinking and gambling. He spends his time analysing his dreams for racing tips. O’Shea is the hotel porter and is mainly responsible for the actual running of the hotel; he dreams of the days when the hotel was elegant and hopes that the current decay can be reversed. When Mrs Eckdorf arrives he mistakenly believes that this elegantly dressed woman intends to purchase the hotel in order to renovate it. He sees himself as Mrs Sinnott’s protector, from all the others, who are trying to take advantage of her. The worst of these people, in O’Shea’s eyes, is Morrissey; he’s a shady character who doesn’t actually live in the hotel but has somehow got a key and sneaks in at night to sleep in the hallway, and occasionally pass water in the backyard. Worse, he uses the hotel to pimp out Agnes Quinn to interested men. I always love a vivid character description, so here’s a description of Morrissey.

Morrissey was singularly small, a man in his mid-thirties who had once been compared to a ferret. He had a thin trap of a mouth and greased black hair that he perpetually attended, directing it back from his forehead with a clogged comb. He was dressed now, as invariably he was, in flannel trousers and the jacket of a blue striped suit over a blue pullover, and a shirt that was buttoned to the neck but did not have a tie in its collar.

Other characters include Eugene’s estranged wife, Philomena, who now lives elsewhere with their son, Timothy John. Timothy John is in love with a girl called Daisy Tulip and he works in an insurance agency under Mr Desmond Gregan, the husband of Enid Gregan, née Sinnott, Eugene’s sister. Desmond Gregan dreams of growing and selling tomatoes for a living instead of working in an insurance agency. If that’s complicated enough we have a travelling cardboard salesman called Mr Smedley who plays a significant part later on, Mrs Dargan a large prostitute who virtually lives at the Excelsior pub along with Eugene and others.

Ivy Eckdorf knowingly arrives at the hotel on the eve of Mrs Sinnott’s ninety-second birthday and the chaos ensues. If her actions at the beginning of the novel seemed erratic and confrontational then what follows is even more so. She knows how to win over O’Shea by telling him what he wants to hear but Eugene, for all his faults, has a keener eye and suspects something. Mrs Eckdorf wheedles her way into Mrs Sinnott’s room and communicates with her, as all the others do, by writing in one of her notebooks. Trevor allows us periodically into the thoughts of all the characters. Mrs Eckdorf believes it is her mission to uncover and photograph Mrs Sinnott’s birthday party and uncover the truth of past events in O’Neill’s hotel. In fact, we get to know more and more about Mrs Eckdorf’s life and as the novel continues we start to see that her erratic and obviously manipulative behaviour starts to show cracks in her mental wellbeing. She manages to unburden herself to Father Hennessey but he is unable to help her as she jumps from confession to messianic visions to contrition. It’s a glorious book with a host of crazy characters and with a ‘car-crash’ of an ending.

‘Extraordinary things have happened to me in this city,’ said Mrs Eckdorf in the bar of her hotel at half-past one on the morning of August 11th. ‘You would scarce believe,’ she said.

This was read as part of Reading Ireland Month 2018.

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‘The Boarding-House’ by William Trevor

After reading my first book by William Trevor last year (Children of Dynmouth) I have decided to read a few more of his books this year, especially as a few of them are available at my local library. The one that really appealed to me was this one, The Boarding-House, which was first published in 1965. The blurb on the back of the new Penguin edition states: William Wagner Bird filled his boarding-house with people whom society would never miss—if it had ever noticed them at all. Now, doesn’t that just grab your attention?

The novel begins with the landlord of the London boarding-house, Mr Bird, on his death-bed. He is being attended to by one of his tenants, Nurse Clock. Mr Bird had spent the last few decades populating his house with tenants that were lonely lost-souls with neither friends nor family. The house itself had been spared the troubles of decorating or refurbishing for the whole time that Mr Bird had owned the building. It was out-of-date and a little worse for wear just like its owner and tenants.

It turns out that Mr Bird made a study of his tenants; not only did he specifically choose them but he also wrote notes on each one in a notebook titled Notes on Residents. In this book Mr Bird writes:

Well, at least I have done a good thing—I have brought them all together; and though they are solitary spirits, they have seen in my boarding-house that there are others who have been plucked from the same bush. This, I maintain, lends them some trifling solace.

It would seem that Mr Bird’s intentions are purely altruistic and recognising that he is in a position to help others, who are similar in many ways to himself, he does so by allowing them to live their lives as free from outside interference as is possible. But, as the novel progresses, it is not so clear that this was Mr Bird’s intentions at all.

There are many characters in this hugely entertaining novel. We get to know them as Trevor skillfully flits between characters, moving from the present, to the past, and back again, sometimes entering their thoughts, sometimes their dreams or from direct quotes from Mr Bird’s Notes. The novel includes other characters besides the tenants, such as the cook and the maid as well as those that the tenants come into contact with. It would take too long to introduce them all but I will give a quick outline of some of the major participants. Mr Studdy is a petty thief who loves causing mayhem; Mr Bird writes ‘Anyone can see that poor old Studdy never had a friend in his life.’ And of Nurse Clock he says ‘Nurse Clock has morbid interests. She is a woman I would fear were it not for my superior position.’ Venables was the first of Mr Bird’s ‘solitary spirits’, he is a weak, lonely man who suffers from stomach cramps. He arrived after fleeing from a girl he made pregnant and fears that her parents are still seeking him. Miss Clerricot blushes at everything and is extremely self-conscious about her face; Mr Bird finds her ‘adorable’. Major Eele is full of bluster and visits strip clubs but is rather naive; he married a few years before but it only lasted days. Mr Obd came from Africa to study law but didn’t graduate; too embarrassed to return home he works as a clerk; he is deeply in love with a girl called Annabel Tonks but his love is unreciprocated. Mr Scribbin likes listening to records of trains at a thunderous volume. Rose Cave was brought up by her mother after a fling with the wallpaper man; Mr Bird notes that she cries out at night.

It is soon announced that Mr Bird, having no kin of his own, has left the house to two of the residents, Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy, but with the proviso that no changes should be made to the house and that none of the tenants should be made to leave. Just prior to the reading of the will we have witnessesed Studdy trying to wheedle a drink for nothing out of a barman at his local pub, con an old bedridden woman out of some money and write an anonymous blackmail letter to the meals-on-wheels lady. It turns out that Nurse Clock likes caring for old people, especially when they’re over ninety, but it becomes clear that it’s the power that she can exert over them that appeals to her. In short, Studdy is a petty thief and swindler whilst Nurse Clock is a bully. As the novel continues Nurse Clock decides that she wants to turn the house into a nursing home for the elderly and Studdy goes along with her plans, especially as it involves more disruption and chaos but they are a totally incompatible couple; Clock just wants to boss everyone about and is frustrated when others have ideas of their own whilst Studdy has no intention to help her with her plans, instead he has to fight the overwhelming urge to stick a pin into her arm.

So, given that Mr Bird knew about these characteristics, as is apparent from his Notes on Residents, why did he leave the house to these two people? Was it his intention to cause chaos amongst his residents after his death? Or was he just naive? Trevor hints of possible malice in Mr Bird’s decisions:

When Mr Bird had written his will and had read it over he became aware that he was laughing. He heard the sound for some time, a minute or a minute and a quarter, and then he recognized its source and wondered why he was laughing like that, such a quiet, slurping sound, like the lapping of water.

But Trevor points out that Mr Bird had similarly smiled whilst writing about his residents but had murmured an apology when he had realised he was being mean, which isn’t really the action of a malicious person.

This is a brilliant book, full of grotesque but strangely likeable characters, by which I mean likeable as characters in a novel, they’d be a right pain in real life. The novel reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont but surpassed even that superb book in my opinion. I am certainly attracted to books set within a closed environment such as hotel, boarding-house, ship etc. especially if there are many characters. Trevor’s Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel looks quite similar and may well be my next book by the author.

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Messrs. Chips & Polly et al.

The film of Goodbye, Mr Chips was always on TV when I was a child but I don’t think I ever got round to watching it; even so, I knew it was about a teacher at a public school. I just happened to see this book in the library yesterday and picked it up with the intention of reading it if I felt the urge for such a book; well, I had the urge today and I was glad that I read this charming little book. We get to hear Mr Chipping’s (the children call him Mr Chips) reminiscences about his forty or so years of teaching from about 1870 to his retirement in 1913 and beyond. At first he is unsure of himself and tends to be quite stern with the students but over the years as he gains experience he allows himself to relax a little. His marriage, at forty-eight, to a beautiful and modern twenty-five year old, called Katherine, is a short but enlightening experience for Mr Chips; naturally conservative Mr Chips is not so close-minded that he can’t learn from his younger and more adventurous wife. He is a mild man who realises before long that he isn’t going to achieve ‘great things’ or make a name for himself so instead he dedicates his time to the school and the boys that pass through from year to year. As he ages he gets a reputation for having a sense of humour which makes him beloved by his students, past and present. Of course, the First World War is looming and many of his old boys go off to fight, not to return. Goodbye, Mr Chips is a rather quaint, sweet, story of a mild-mannered teacher; I would probably have disliked it when I was younger but these days, well, I can find room for these more gentle books. I dread to think what a modern version of this book would be like.

The History of Mr Polly, a 1910 novel by H.G. Wells, is a book that I’ve been meaning to read since I was at school and so, as I’m trying to read books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and books that I physically own, I felt that it was high time I got round to reading it. I knew that it was about a man that becomes so tired with life that he decides to set fire to his shop and kill himself. But I’d thought that that happened near the beginning of the book, instead it appears quite late in the novel. Mr Polly is a brilliantly humorous character by Wells, a character who blunders through life, with no real aim or ambition. He has a limited education, but he enjoys reading even if he feels he doesn’t grasp everything but he enjoys playing with words and ends up making up words of his own, much to the confusion of others. There are some great comic moments, my favourite is probably where he accidently marries the wrong girl but is too timid to extricate himself from the mistake. Standing at the altar he ponders matters:

At the back of his mind he was speculating whether flight at this eleventh hour would be criminal or merely reprehensible bad taste. A murmur from the nudgers announced the arrival of the bridal party.

Needless to say that his marriage is not a happy one. He is unsatisfied with his little haberdashery shop and ends up making enemies of all his neighbours. This is when he decides to burn down his shop with himself inside, but even this he bungles and instead becomes a bit of a local hero. I won’t say much about the end but I was impressed with how the story developed from this point, Wells really surprised me with how he continued this story. Near the end of the book Mr Polly becomes quite reflective and tries to explain his life to another character:

“I often wonder about life,” he said weakly.
   He tried again. “One seems to start in life,” he said, “expecting something. And it doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t matter. One starts with ideas that things are good and things are bad—and it hasn’t much relation to what is good and what is bad. I’ve always been the skeptaceous sort, and it’s always seemed rot to me to pretend we know good from evil. It’s just what I’ve never done. No Adam’s apple stuck in my throat, ma’am. I don’t own to it.”
   He reflected.
   “I set fire to a house—once.”

Image source: scan of personal copy

I have had an excellent run of great books just lately and one of the best of this group of books is William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth. This is another one of the books off of my TBR pile that I’ve decided to attack this year. It is also my first book by William Trevor, although I have seen the excellent film (and no doubt the book is just as good) of Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey. I still hope to write a lengthier post on this book but as time drifts away I realise that I may never get round to it. But it was an astounding novel right from the first page. The main character is a fifteen year-old boy called Timothy Gedge, who is, well, a little strange. He’s mostly given up on school, preferring to watch TV instead, and he’s left on his own as his mother and sister are out at work during the day and socialising during the evening—his father left home years ago. He spends most of his time ‘observing’ the inhabitants of the small seaside town and as such he knows all their secrets. He likes making jokes, jokes that most people don’t ‘get’, and so he gets it into his head to participate in an upcoming talent contest with a rather macabre comedy skit based on a serial killer. The only problem is that he has no money and he needs some props; he then embarks on a series of blackmail attempts to get what he wants. Gedge is at times quite a menacing character but also rather pathetic as he doesn’t really know the ramifications of his actions—he just wants his props for his amazing comedy skit. I loved Trevor’s ending of this novel; it wasn’t what I was expecting.

Image source: GoodReads

Michael Frayn’s book Headlong is about an academic (a philosopher called Martin Clay) who, when visiting his country retreat, believes that his neighbour has an unknown Bruegel painting, amongst others, that he is intending to sell. He believes it is the sixth painting in Bruegel’s ‘Months of the Year’ cycle of paintings, a series which includes the famous The Hunters in the Snow. Much of the novel is taken up with his research on Bruegel’s life and times and the rest of the novel consists in Martin trying to get access to the painting to verify whether it is a Bruegel or not. Martin offers to help to sell his neighbour’s paintings with the intention of getting the Bruegel for himself. In trying to get to see the painting again he inadvertently gets mixed up with the neighbour’s wife. The novel is part art history and part farce and didn’t quite work for me though it was an ok read overall. I see that some reviewers call it a comedy, which I can sort of see, but it’s not a label I would automatically pin on it. The only other book I’ve read by Frayn is Spies which I much preferred to this one.

I’m trying to decide what to read next. It may be time for some more non-fiction, maybe some more books on the Russian Revolution, especially as it’s the centenary year.

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