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And Hearty Hospitality Have Been Dished Up Within The Walls Of The Boarding House At Howwood Since , When The Old Coaching Inn Revived Weary Travellers And Trusty Steeds Mervyn Peake would probably have enjoyed The Boarding House Maybe he did Peake was still alive when it was published William Trevor has constructed his own miniature Gormenghast a petty little surreal kingdom where a bunch of misfit inadequates squabble and bicker, and carve out their own niches.Set in London SW17 in 1964, the boarding house of the title is the type of institution that already as Trevor notes is going out of fashion in favour of the bed sitting room, an arrangement that promotes even deeper isolation and where residents are not required to get along with each other The boarding house is a mixture of the bedsitter where residents have their own rooms, their little fiefdoms where they can stamp their individuality and the BB, where there is a communal living room with TV, and meals are provided by live in staff.However, surely no boarding house was ever like this one Its creator dies at the very beginning of the novel, a William Wagner Bird, who over time has sought out the lonely and the inadequate and found them places in his house At first this might seem to be a benevolent act, the motive of human kindness, but as time passes, and we become privy to his Notes on Residents, we see that Bird is playing some kind of sinister game, pitting distinct types of personalities against each other This becomes most evident when his will is read, and it s discovered to the amazement, consternation and fury of the other residents that he has left the house to the two most opposed residents, whose mutual hatred is never far below the surface The residents play out their frustrations and antipathies, trapped in this new world of its original creator s making, while the tension slowly but inexorably builds to well, I won t give a spoiler.What is Trevor creating in this book The clue I believe is in his use of names The residents and staff Nurse Clock control freak , Studdy petty blackmailer , Major Eele strip club habitu , Mr Scribbin railway recording enthusiast , Venables anxious, with a bad stomach , Mr Obd African full of unrequited love , Miss Clericott will she ever be safe from men , Rose Cave, Mrs Slape and Gallelty, are never referred to other than by these names We never know Nurse Clock s first name, nor Major Eele s, and though we know the Nigerian Mr Obd s first name is Tome , this is only from relayed correspondence, or the memories of Mr Bird s cryptic Alas, Tome Obd whenever the two passed on the stair.Yet the creator is by turns Bird, Mr Bird, William Bird, and William Wagner Bird This, even though he is dead by page 1 So we have a closed world, where the characters the players are restricted to the name they are introduced by, but the creator is privileged to be known by several names One could read into this that the Boarding House is a kind of allegory, a depiction of the modern human condition, where our whole identity is tied into our name and character, and where GodGod of a thousand nameshas died This is perhaps reinforced by Bird s supposed appearance in the kitchen one time after his death, and the vision of Bird appearing to Mr Obd as first a mere mark on the ceiling, then gradually in his mind transforming into a complete heavenly vision of golden throne and celestial trumpets.It s a very good novel But one needs to read below the surface or it might simply be written off as a piece of great eccentricity, enjoyable to read but leaving too many question marks as to what it all means. This is one of Trevor s earliest novels his third 1965 It s almost as if Trevor was still finding his stride I ll call it a black comedy.Eight people live in a run down London rooming house They have been hand picked by the owner because of their loneliness The founder of the boarding house seems genuinely sympathetic to lonely people he has no family himself and he keeps a notebook on them from which we learn about their backgrounds For example, one entry reads I weep when I think of Joseph Scribbin s life, and the emptiness thereof Despite his attempts to provide these folks with the companionship of each other, they are still lonely because in different ways they are seriously damaged people in a psychological sense Every night they sit in the lounge and their conversation never moves beyond talk of the communal meal or what s on the TV They never pry into each other s business they never visit each other s rooms they avoid personal questions and, after 10 or 15 years of acquaintance, still address each other by some title Nurse, Major, Mr, Miss.The black comedy comes in through who these folks are One man who interrupts the TV viewing with his violent coughing fits is dying on his feet because he feared the thought of hospitals A middle aged Nigerian immigrant has been in love with a woman for years simply because she was kind to him at the immigration office He brings her flowers weekly and leaves them at her door while her roommates make excuses about where she is There s a man whose only pastime is listening to recordings of train engines annoying all the other tenants with the noise A woman clerk approaching middle age has never even had a man make a pass at her A small time con artist flimflams clerks and waitresses to get extra change back but he s also a black mailer and a stalker There s a nurse who seems to delight in giving old people shots and a former military officer who attends live porn shows In the first chapter, the founder of what he calls his institution dies In his will leaves the boarding house jointly to two of the most unlikely characters Was this a cruel joke on his part or did he have something else in mind Trevor gives us good writing The drizzle freshened the short grass of the graveyard and toned down the lime of new headstones the clergyman blinked, finding it difficult to respond with words there was a seediness about his clothes and about his face he had not led a dissolute life, one would have guessed, but somewhere in his life something had gone wrong Her face had lines, not many, but clearly the precursors of many Not a great Trevor but it kept my interest and I thought it was a good read.Top photo from lostwomynsspace.comBottom photo from whatpub.com A collection of oddballs and misfits in a mid 20th century boarding house might bring Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont or At the Jerusalem to mind, but whereas Ms Taylor can let rip a bit of flatulence and expose quietly cruel social s, Mr Trevor s world is disturbing in aexistential way For William Wagner Bird appears as a limping daemonic demiurge, a Prometheus who has called forth this set of preposterous creatures, created them for his own rather suspect pleasure, and then, having decided that the whole idea was a terrible mistake, gifts his creation to two lesser gods in order to guarantee its destruction Studdy is a scandalous wannabe conman, and Nurse Clock is no less of a ruthless schemer even if she believes herself to be caring and tender Neither of them are serviceable as Lord and Lady of this domain, and in combination they are toxic Fire comes as a blessed release.And the whole thing is absolutely hilarious. I spent the entirety of the reading of this book wondering whoor whatis Mr Bird Mr Bird is the owner of the Boarding House of the title, who greets us immediately on page one with this I am dying He does not mean sometime down the road No, Mr Bird dies then and there, from the feet up he tells the nurse But that is not quite the end of Mr Bird, who leaves a will two of the residents of the Boarding House will inherit it comically disparate enough to move the plot forward, entertainingly the rest of the residents may be tenants for life, their exodus only voluntary 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.Interlude Note the precision of the time of laughing just above a minute or a minute and a quarter Trevor does this a specificity of time all through the novel one resident must face the officer of punctuality every morning entering his work another character times barmen to the second after ordering drinks Hell, one character is named Nurse Clock No, I don t know what that all means I add it here as a public service, hoping someone smarter than me a large enough pool can figure it out End InterludeMr Bird very carefully, very intentionally, selected the residents Without itemizing here, let s just say they are all just a bit off Individual peccadilloes aside, though, what links them is their solitary nature Yet they are not solitary in the Boarding House.Mr Bird continues to be a presence in the execution of his will in somewhat spectral appearances in truly delightful quick biographies he penned of the residents and in flashbacks, such as his greeting to new kitchen help, a woman who entered the Boarding House in a rush to pee You must stay here, you will like it In this old boarding house no one had told the unvarnished truth for the last fifteen years.One resident, confused, identifies Mr Bird as the founder of heaven and hell on earth Another says that he is a man of infinite, subtle cruelty So if Mr Bird is a god you could see where I was going he is not a benevolent one I built that I might destroy, he is alleged to have said But he is not a terrible, frightful god, I don t think It doesn t matter if I m wrong, because I m the reader and I see Mr Bird as a fractious god, a stinker, a god Gary Larsen might have drawn, back in the day Postlude I first found William Trevor s writings fourteen years ago and I ve been reading him ever since but mostly his later works Just because they ve beenreadily at hand But I found this just recently in a used bookstore in Seattle, a mere twenty minute walk from my granddaughter It was hiding darkly on a bottom shelf indeed, it took two trips for me to see it It was remaindered, a few nicks to the cover, but it has turned out to be everything I love about a book it made me laugh it made me think it entertained the hell out of me it has a rarity about it it is brilliantly imagined it made me hide for pockets of time it lies in my hands like a gift from an old man who just died it will edge itself out of the space I put it in on the shelf, or I will think so it makes me think I could do something similar it will linger, teaching me otherwise and, serendipitously, I read it with a friend End Postlude.