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Set in a provincial Irish town against the backdrop of the Second World War, Nights at the Alexandra is a masterpiece of short fiction. Tracing the reminiscences of a ...
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Set in a provincial Irish town against the backdrop of the Second World War, Nights at the Alexandra is a masterpiece of short fiction. Tracing the reminiscences of a fifty-eight-year-old Irish cinema owner named Harry, the story recounts the years during Harry's adolescence when he forges an unlikely friendship with an Èmigré couple recently arrived in his small town. Gently imperious yet strikingly beautiful, Frau Messinger, a young British woman married to a much older German, introduces a measure of color into Harry's otherwise black-and-white existence.
Disappointed by his dull family and his stifling boarding school, Harry soaks up Frau Messinger's stories of her youth and indulges her numerous flights of fancy. When Mr. Messinger announces his plans to build the town's first cinema and asks Harry to work its ticket window, Harry for the first time begins to imagine a life of possibility rather than privation. But the young man's newfound sense of himself comes not without its price, as William Trevor masterfully limns the border between innocence and experience, creating a subtle portrait of an adolescent moment that has the power to shape an entire lifetime.
I am a fifty-eight-year-old provincial. I have no children. I have never married.
"Harry, I have the happiest marriage in the world! Please, when you think of me, remember that."
That is what I hear most often and with the greatest pleasure: Frau Messinger's voice as precisely recalled as memory allows, each quizzical intonation reflected in a glance or gesture. I must have replied something, Heaven knows what: it never mattered because she rarely listened. The war had upset the Messingers' lives, she being an Englishwoman and he German. It brought them to Ireland and to Cloverhill-a sanctuary they most certainly would not otherwise have known. She explained to me that she would not have found life comfortable in Hitler's Germany; and her own country could hardly be a haven for her husband. They had thought of Switzerland, but Herr Messinger believed that Switzerland would be invaded; and the United States did not tempt them. No one but I, at that time an unprepossessing youth of fifteen, ever used their German titles: in the town where I'd been born they were Mr. and Mrs. Messinger, yet it seemed to me-affectation, I daresay-that in this way we should honour the strangers that they were.
When first I heard of the Messingers I had just returned from the Reverend Wauchope's rectory, where I lodged in term-time in order to attend Lisscoe grammar school. My father told me about them. He said the man was twice the woman's age; he imagined they were Jews since they attended no church. A lot of Jews had slipped away from Germany, he ponderously added.
As a matter of principle, I refused to be interested in anything my father related, but a few days later I saw Frau Messinger stepping out of her husband's motor-car in Laffan Street and guessed at once who she was. The motor-car was powered by propane gas, a complicated apparatus being mounted where part of the luggage compartment had been removed: no one had petrol to spare during what in Ireland we called the "Emergency," and energy so ingeniously contrived was rare. A group of loiterers had gathered round the motor-car. Frau Messinger paid them no attention.
"Will you carry something for me?" she said to me, and pointed at the wet battery of a wireless-set on the floor by the passenger seat. "Might I ask you to carry it to the garage, and bring the other back?"
It is odd to think that those were the first words I heard her speak. Other boys had previously undertaken this chore: for some particular reason of her own she chose not to drive into Aldritt's garage and have the used battery replaced there by the one that had been recharged. Vaguely, she referred to that when she returned to the motor-car with her shopping, something about it being less of a nuisance like this. She opened the passenger door and showed me how to wedge the battery to prevent it from toppling over. "I'd really be most awfully lost without the wireless," she said, giving me a threepenny-piece.