For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Becky Shirley, whose story “Poppy” was selected by Garth Greenwell as the winning story for the 2020 Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction Contest, examines Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor.
Nights at the Alexandra was my long-awaited introduction to William Trevor; although I’d heard of him in my studies of Irish literature, I never actually sat down and read his work until I realized that reading short pieces was better suited to my quarantine attention span. The novella runs at a slim fifty-nine pages, but it creates an intricate stratigraphy of memories that solidifies into the single narrative voice of Harry, an aging Irishman, who focuses the story around Frau Messinger, an Englishwoman he knew when he was an adolescent during World War II. At first, Harry is simply an errand boy for Frau Messinger, but soon he is keeping the young wife company in her big, lonely house and listening to her reminisce about her life before she fled to Ireland with her middle-aged German husband at the start of the war. After months of these visits, around the halfway point in the novella, she surprises Harry with a Christmas present:
She gave me a tie-pin, a slender bar of gold. She’d found it years ago, she said, on one of her early-morning strolls about Münster. She’d seen it gleaming on a paving-stone, where someone had lost it the night before. “I used to wonder about that person,” she said, “but I haven’t for a long time now. It’s time I gave this away.”
She showed me how to pin it to my collar, beneath my tie, but on the way home, I took it out in case it should again work itself loose. I have never worn it, fearing its loss, but often I take it from my dressing-table drawer and slip it for a moment into my collar before returning it to safety. Of all I have, it is my most treasured possession.
—William Trevor, Nights at the Alexandra
It’s almost sentimental, the way that Harry and Frau Messinger are both inclined to synthesize life into half-imagined stories and symbolic objects. They both value the pin as a shorthand for a larger story, but while Frau Messinger focuses on the unknown man who dropped it, Harry remains preoccupied with Frau Messinger herself—her past life, as well as her ability to keep a beautiful thing with a made-up meaning for so long. Their different focal points highlight their different positions in life. Frau Messinger—an adult—lingers on the life she’s lost. Once the pin begins to lose its associations with her past, she gives it away to someone who might actually use it. But Harry is a teenager—he has ideas about life but few lived experiences and not enough years behind him to regret and reminisce. He clings to Frau Messinger’s stories as a replacement for experience and sees the pin as symbolic of a life he wants but has no idea how to get.
At the end of the section, the narration moves away from a specific moment in time to a larger, sweeping vision of the pin’s place in Harry’s entire life; with this subtle nudge, Trevor implies that Harry never will get that life he wanted as a teenager. Although Frau Messinger encourages him to use the pin and avoid her overly nostalgic attachment to it, Harry tucks it away for safekeeping and does so for the rest of his life. What started as an indication of a future becomes just the opposite—it’s a symbol of a stunted life, frozen in focus on the past. This story is full of loss, but to me, this is the real tragedy of the book: the smaller, quieter sadness of how easily we could misinterpret how to live and miss our entire life.