MAY 15, 2018
DESPERATION PERMEATES each of the 10 impeccable stories in Irish writer William Trevor’s posthumous new collection Last Stories (he died in 2016 at age 88), yet these fictions of seemingly lost lives are neither bleak nor distressing. Fate dominates the marginalized characters — children, the elderly, single middle-aged men and women — who are struggling with what Trevor referred to in a 1989 Paris Review interview as life’s “meaninglessness.” But his humanistic storytelling redeems each of these lives without judgment.
In that same interview, Trevor disclosed what he believed to be the key descriptors of the short story format. The primary element lies in the “art of the glimpse”: the strength of the narrative is as much built on what it leaves out as what it puts in. Comparing the “intricate Renaissance painting” of a novel to the Impressionist nature of a short story, Trevor declared the latter “an explosion of truth.” And explode these slices of life do.
Trevor’s short fiction tenets are embodied in the opening story, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil.” Its pitch-perfect prose focuses on the lonely life of Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, a piano teacher in her early 50s who has been “cosseted” since infancy by her widowed father, a chocolatier. She believes she is “in the presence of genius” when one of her pupils plays Brahms, and she feels an overwhelming passion whenever the boy’s fingers “took her with him into paradise.”
It’s not as though Miss Nightingale has never known passionate love, but it came with abandonment: her broken love affair with a married man left her only with “the memory of happiness.” The boy, on the other hand, leaves her with a memory of loss. Each time he departs after his lesson something new seems to be missing from her house. First it’s a snuff box, then a porcelain swan, a “pot lid with a scene from Great Expectations on it,” an earring, a scarf, and two Staffordshire soldier figurines.
Miss Nightingale is reluctant to mention the thievery because she worries the boy will quit his lessons and she will lose contact with his passion for music. She feels she has already been deceived by her father, who used chocolates as an “inducement to remain with him,” and her lover, whose “deception was a part of him, lies scattered through the passion,” and she does not want to become the “victim” of the boy. She believes her silence will ensure “the beauty that the gifted brought.”
Deception plays an even larger role in “The Crippled Man.” In this story of a domestic arrangement between distant cousins, Trevor, as he often does, relies on an overlapping structure of several points of view. Two brothers agree to paint the farmhouse that the title character shares with his relative Martina — the latter two have lived desolate lives and now support each other emotionally, physically, and financially — and for a brief moment they are a makeshift blended family of four who touch but never connect. The brothers assume the couple is married, though they wonder about the woman whose “history was not theirs to know” even as they become “part of it themselves.” Martina, who has survived a “careless marriage,” does not correct their misconceptions. Her focus is on the pension she expects to receive when her cousin seems to disappear.
Being alone is a chronic condition for many of Trevor’s characters. In “At the Caffè Daria,” a “lonely solitude” pervades the lives of once close but now estranged friends Anita and Claire. At 19 years old, Anita married 34-year-old Gervaise, but he left her to live with Claire. When he dies, Claire appears at the titular London cafe to inform Anita because “death is not something for the telephone,” but Anita, feeling “twice betrayed,” is not ready for reconciliation.
Trevor drips out seemingly insignificant details like an IV. In 1949, after his wife Daria leaves him for a poet, Andrea Cavelli departs from Italy to travel the “shattered countries of a Europe that reflected his melancholy” and finally settles in the “broken streets of London,” where he opens the restaurant and with ironic flair names it after his lost wife. The story behind the name of the cafe parallels the story of Anita and Claire. In the 1970s, the young women were part of a popular TV dance group called the Fireflies until Anita’s romance with Gervaise broke up the circle of friends. Years later, when Claire walks into the cafe, Anita recognizes a “desperation in the sunken features, the careless make-up and neglected hair.” Anita returns to the house she once shared with Gervaise (the house in which Claire now lives), and it reflects the barrenness of their lives. She roams through empty rooms wondering, “[w]hat happens […] to people when they walk away?” Ultimately, she thinks, “before love came […] friendship was the better thing.”
In “Taking Mr Ravenswood,” friendship stymies a bank clerk, Roseanne, when her ne’er-do-well boyfriend urges her to bilk the titular customer, a wealthy widower “lonely in his old age.” When Ravenswood invites her back to his home, offers her wine, and plays her a Brahms recording, she can’t do what she has come to do. Guilt, which “tells you about yourself,” overwhelms her. The 59-year-old title character of “Mrs Crasthorpe” is the lone mourner at her 72-year-old husband’s funeral. Riddled with loss and grief, an imprisoned son, and an alcohol addiction — a “reek of whisky emanating from her sodden clothes” — she encounters an attractive stranger who rattles her life.
“The Unknown Girl” is most indicative of Trevor’s style and subject matter. When cleaning woman Emily Vance steps in front of a delivery van her life is snuffed out, but Trevor, as he does in “The Crippled Man,” reconstructs the layers of her “unknown” life through the perceptions of other characters. One of Emily’s clients, the widowed Harriet Balfour, visits the foreign couple from whom Emily rented a flat for four years and discovers that she had “no visitors, had not once used the telephone, received no letters.” Harriet’s son Stephen, with whom Emily may have had a clandestine relationship, reveals that when Emily “tried to love she could not love, and when she tried to hope she could not hope.” Her quiet house was loud with memories, but “between the childhood and the death there was a life that hadn’t been worth living.” At Emily’s sparsely attended funeral, the reverend deems her life “too slight. Too empty.” But Trevor embroiders it with specific details that turn it into something worth reckoning with.
Odd and unexpected relationships define many of the stories in the collection, often as love languishes somewhere in the narrative equation. In “Making Conversation,” a woman takes in her fantasy-obsessed stalker, a married man and father whose forlorn wife one day comes to retrieve him. “Giotti’s Angels” features a 41-year-old picture restorer at the onset of Alzheimer’s who attempts to patch together the “unrelated shreds and blurs” of his fractured life by picking up a dressmaker-turned-prostitute.
“The past holds on” in “An Idyll in Winter” when a 22-year-old tutor and his preteen student begin an unconsummated romance on the Yorkshire moors that blooms into a life-long infatuation with unintended consequences. Fourteen-year-old Cecilia Normanton, the protagonist of “Two Women,” is praised for her beauty but “lonely, and friendless,” living with uncertainty about what happened to her mother. Her single father sends her to boarding school where she thrives, until two mysterious women in their 50s begin hovering around the hockey fields and appearing at school events.
Trevor’s half-century’s worth of masterful short fiction is justifiably admired. He is often mentioned in the same class as Chekhov, Joyce, and du Maupassant. Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, and Jhumpa Lahiri, among others, owe debts to his influence. He won the Whitbread Award three times (for novels), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize four times, and was frequently whispered to be in the running for the Nobel Prize in Literature. These exemplary Last Stories underscore that well-earned praise.
Robert Allen Papinchak’s literary criticism has been published in The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Journal of Books, and others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.