Cover of book: Last Stories

William Trevor
Last Stories

William Trevor, the Protestant Irishman who died in 2016, was one of the great masters of English prose but he used it, stonily and unflashily, to convey feeling through every possible byway and desolation and transport of what might almost have been called ordinary life. Though the upshot is uncanny, it pierces with sorrow and sings with glimpses of happiness; it has that mysterious ability to encompass worlds that we get in the very greatest short stories, in Turgenev’s The Hunter’s Sketches, say, where apparently plain tales have the swooping precision of lyrical poetry or, yes, in Chekhov, say, where a few pages can concentrate a world of drama.

At first glance, Trevor can seem like a refinement of the kind of thing Joyce did in the stories of Dubliners, with their deliberate “scrupulous meanness”, but, although Trevor is a master of economy and the deft, nearly inaudible tonal variations of high realism, his effects are richer and his manner more relaxed and less ironic than that of the greatest of Irish masters.

A woman gives piano lessons to a boy, clearly a genius, and he steals from her. Much later he comes to see her. A crippled man’s sister sees him die as Polish workers are attending to their house. Will she pay them, they wonder. Yes, they decide. A middle-aged woman with grey streaked hair is visited in a cafe by the woman who stole her husband many years ago and who tells her he is dead. She is unforgiving but then she goes back to the house where the woman had lived, but finds she has now left. She remembers a time when friendship, that lilting thing, came before love.

And so they go on, these poignant, unclassifiable images of truth, realisations of art. A woman watching television is visited by another woman who imagines her husband is with her – wasn’t she the centre of his life? She hopes she is because otherwise he might be dead. No, the woman says, they were never lovers, though he had professed his love, she remembers. And she remembers, too, how she’d taken the military cap of the man who her sister was to marry and stroked it, and how she ached for him.

There is little language for an art as compelling and unassuming as Trevor’s. What can we say about “The Unknown Girl”, in which a vicar comes to see a woman about a girl who seems to have hurled herself into the traffic because she thought life wasn’t worth living? We learn that she’d worked for the woman as a cleaner and then didn’t show up. But, at the vicar’s request, the woman goes to the funeral of the girl and then discusses her with her young doctor son whom she knows will leave her. He says he used to talk to the girl, who liked to learn the names of flowers.

It’s as if Trevor comprehends the totality of the world so he can step into any part of it and the reader gets a sense of something that is not necessarily big enough to be called an epiphany but which feels utterly and refreshingly real nonetheless.

Real and exotic, exotic because real. He can write about anything, though his subjects and treatment always appear small because he makes them seem everyday. But he can write in a story such as “Giotto’s Angels” about a man who has lost his memory but nevertheless continues to work as a restorer of paintings and create in a prostitute who goes with him, chastely, a feeling of awe, though she knows he has the smell of money about him. That’s a discernibly Irish story, you can tell from its idiom and its references, though most of these stories, these late, great stories, are not, or not overtly.

It recalls the Chekhov quote Julian Barnes loves, about what a carrot might signify. Chekhov says, “a carrot is a carrot. Nothing further is known.”

Trevor is grand, there is no other word, at indicating through the exploration of the tacit limits of language what can be known and what cannot. In “Mrs Crasthorpe”, a good-looking, on-the-make woman whose older moneyed husband has died and who has a son she adores, a recidivist crim in jail, offers herself to a refined chap whose wife has died. He backs right away from her, this fellow who reads literary fiction in French. Then one day he learns her body, reeking and whiskey-drenched, was found in a rubbish dump by some garbos. He just wonders at the sorrows he couldn’t see. And so do we.

In the last story, a girl with a melancholic father whose mother disappeared is at a school she dislikes where the headmistress wears variations of russet and red elegant scarves. The school – and this girl in particular – is visited by a couple of apparent spinsters, one tall and a bit shrill, the other portly and more sensible. They home in on the girl. At some point the short stout one says to the girl, “She’s your mother.” She tries to comfort herself with the probable notion that the two are a weird duo who make a habit of focusing on motherless girls.

If you want to you can thematise Trevor in this way. He often writes about loss, about how limited the world is in granting our wishes, how alive sorrow is in the face of the tolerable. Yet he does so with such a sense of how things fit into place that the upshot of his work is not depressing because it accords so much, in Wallace Stevens’ phrase, with the music of things “as they are”.

Stevens was all for the transfigurations of the “Blue Guitar”, the way poetry can abstract into so many modulations of colour and suggestion. For Trevor, the realism of his method has – though he would have thought it portentous, and pretentious to say so – the power of a metaphysic.

You feel reading him that the consummate command of an art which is not Shakespearean or Tolstoyan or panoramic is giving to you the preciousness of a world full of tears and, beyond tears, the truth of things. As you read him, despite the fact that everything about his art is grounded in a sense of the limits of things, you feel writing doesn’t get better than this.  QSS

Viking, 224pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 16, 2018 as "William Trevor, Last Stories".

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Reviewer: QSS

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