Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor #williamtrevor23

Fate has made me the ghost of an interlude; once in a while I say that in the town, trying to explain.

William Trevor’s Nights at the Alexandra could be classed as a long short story, or a short novella. It is epic yet small, and contains the multitudes of life within under 100 pages. The economy of language on display is paired with a surfeit of emotion, giving this slim book the heft and depth of the longest novel.

Elegiac is an overused descriptor, but it perfectly sums up the intricate layering of memories that crystallises into the story of Harry, single Irishman, approaching sixty, who recalls his adolescence during World War II. About to leave grammar school and destined for a job in his father’s timber yard, Harry’s trajectory is changed forever when he is asked to run an errand for Mrs Messinger, the young and beautiful English wife of a much older German man, who live in a large house outside the town.

At first, Harry simply runs errands for the couple, but soon he finds himself spending more and more time with them, keeping Mrs Messinger company in her large country house. He listens to her reminisce and learns about the couple’s unlikely marriage, their flight from Germany and the family that Herr Messinger has left behind. She writes to him while he is at boarding school, to the amazement of his girl-obsessed friends. As his affection for the pair grows, he faces incredulity from his friends, who view Mrs Messinger as a clichéd attractive older married woman, and from his family, who view the couple with suspicion because of their perceived Jewish background.

Harry resists all opinions to the contrary and remains steadfast in his devotion to the couple. When Herr Messinger decides to build an elegant and opulent picture house in the town square, called The Alexandra after his wife, Harry accepts a job there to the dismay of his family and ties his life to the Messinger’s forever.

There is so much to admire in Nights at the Alexandra – the beautiful prose, perfect pacing and plotting and subtle characterisation – but what I most admired was how Trevor never takes the story where you think it will naturally go. This could easily have been the tale of a young boy smitten with a slightly older woman, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, but the relationship between Harry and Mrs Messinger transcends mere romance and the boy’s affection clearly stretches to Herr Messinger as well. The relationship between Harry and Mrs Messinger is charged, but it is also chaste and there is never any suggestion of impropriety on either part.

As a Protestant boy in a mainly Catholic country, he sees something of himself in the pair, all three of them outsiders in a contained and constrained country during a time of turmoil. The cinema offers them all a way of leaving something to remember.

Trevor is drawn to characters who remember their past in great and vivid detail and make of it their story, and both Harry and Mrs Messinger are great examples of this. They conjure pictures in their minds, of their own past and of each other’s past, images becoming so vivid as to feel like real experiences. Possibly this is why they are all drawn to the idea of the picture house, with its wide-screen fictions that are an ode to storytelling and capture the imagination of the whole town.

Frau Messinger had claimed me from the moment she stepped from her husband’s car that day in Laffan Street; and she had held me to her with the story of her life.

Trevor is a master of melancholy and nostalgia and both are evocatively captured in a poetic prose that never cloys but immerses the reader in Harry’s life and thought processes. Dedicating his life to the Messinger’s may well have been a mistake, and Trevor doesn’t judge either way, but Harry has no regrets.

“We can live without anything but love, Harry. Always remember that.”

Nights at the Alexandra is a work of commanding quiet – a beautiful ode to memory, to youth and to lost opportunities – and as such is a perfect showcase for Trevor’s unparalleled skill.

Jacqui and Kim have also reviewed Nights at the Alexandra and been as impressed as I was.

a year with william trevor Irish Literature The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

16 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Fab review, Cathy. I have very fond memories of this one. You’re so right that Trevor refrains from taking this story where you might expect it to go … and it’s all the better for it.


  2. This is a Trevor I haven’t come across before. I did a quick duck, duck, go and see that it was one of the Harper Short Novel (US)/Hutchinson Novella (UK/AUST) series. I believe the authors were commissioned to write something for the series.


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