William Trevor, one of the finest writers of this and the last century, was born William Trevor Cox in 1928 in a small town in County Cork to middle-class Protestant parents. He left Ireland in 1954, lived for much of his life in Devon, loved and often visited Italy. He and his wife, Jane, whom he met when he was a history student at Trinity College, Dublin, were married from 1952 until his death in 2016. Before he started writing he worked as a sculptor in wood, a teacher, and an advertising copywriter. He published his first book in 1958, wrote fourteen novels, some memorable novellas (including the sublime Reading Turgenev), eleven volumes of short stories, and two essay-memoirs. His collected stories, published in 1992, extended to well over a thousand pages. Like Beckett and Joyce, he went far beyond the country that shaped and forged him, returned to it in his life and his writing, and transformed it into the world of his imagination. His Irishness defines and colors his work. He was also a citizen of the world, a true European.
He was hugely admired and recognized, especially as a short-story writer, but often referred to, as though his reputation were something of a secret, as “a writer’s writer.” When he died, there were heartfelt tributes and real mourning in the literary world. Now there is a last volume of ten stories, like a consolatory gift. Some of them have already been published: “Giotto’s Angels” in 2012 in The Sewanee Review; “The Crippled Man” in The New Yorker in 2018 and in a 2011 collection called New Irish Short Stories; “An Idyll in Winter” in The Guardian in 2011; “The Women” in The New Yorker in 2013; “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” left on his desk when he died, in The New Yorker in June 2017. There is no falling off: it is as good a collection as any he published, and it is wonderful and moving to have it.
Penelope Fitzgerald admired Trevor for his mixture of tenderness and detachment, the value he places on innocence, the way he creates “a magical sense of time passing,” and his interest in “the dispossessed,” the “defiantly eccentric, the non-communicators…all who despair but do not care to admit it.” One past master of the craft of evasion recognizing another, she called him “to all appearances the most crystal clear of writers,” but one who maintained, as he himself wrote, “that black and white are densities of more complicated grays.” As usual she is exactly right. He would often say in interviews—and for a private man who did not seek the limelight, he did a lot of interviews—that the short story was “the art of the glimpse” that “tells as little as it dares.” “Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more.”
Anita Brookner, another opaque, stylish, and self-concealing writer, who loved Trevor’s work, understood this very well in him:
He works by indirection, avoiding judgment, his sense of tragedy well concealed by a partiality for unfulfilled lives left free to exist on the page without the author’s intervention…. Certainly his characters lack ardour, but that is the price one sometimes pays for dignity and even a sort of wisdom.
In one of the last stories, one of those dignified, unfulfilled women, her tragedy well concealed, is called Anita.
Dignity, wisdom, innocence, and tenderness are certainly there in his stories. He is one of the most feeling of writers about love. “Only love matters,” says the nun in Reading Turgenev, “in the bits and pieces of a person’s life.” There are heartbreaking lost loves in that novella, in The Story of Lucy Gault, Love and Summer, The Silence in the Garden, and, in Last Stories, in the very beautiful “An Idyll in Winter.” But just as deep, there are the stories of love in old age, the pain of widowhood, and the carefulness between long-lived couples—like the old husband in the story “Timothy’s Birthday,” in the 1996 collection After Rain: “One of them would die first…. He wanted it to be her; he wanted to be the one to suffer the loneliness and the distress.”
In that story, the old couple are humiliated by their vicious son. Trevor is not only a tender writer. He is also ruthlessly unblinking about life’s “unswervable unpleasantnesses” (as his friend the poet Peter Porter noted). His characters are often psychopaths, criminals, fraudsters, obsessives, or sadists. He is very interested in shame and guilt and the relationship between them. He is good at class or sexual envy, jealousy, humiliation, and festering resentment. Cruelty is often his subject.
There is deep strangeness in Trevor’s work, and these last stories are no exception. He is fascinated by odd minds and buried pasts, by secrets and regrets and disappointments. His characters are often caught in limbo. They stay on too long in one place (this is an Irish theme), spend their whole lives looking back, are irreparably damaged by one early event. They may be victims of history—often Irish history. “It’s the past has him in its grip,” they say of a deranged old Irishman in Love and Summer. Or they fall in love only once and forever, and spend the rest of their lives thinking of that lost person. Or they feel lifelong guilt for something they can’t forgive themselves for. Many of them can find refuge or consolation only in memory, or reading, or fantasy. They are often solitary, reticent, shy of themselves and their own emotions, and unable to say what they feel. And they often end up sitting alone, like Lucy Gault, watching “the fading of the day.”
In Last Stories, Anita, in “At the Caffè Daria,” who long ago lost her selfish husband, and her house, to a close and treacherous friend she can’t forgive, sits in her favorite café doing her crossword. The answers to the clues are “pause,” “annulled,” “losers.” The words echo slyly through the stories. Characters have had their hopes or their happiness annulled. They live in a state of pause or delay or retrospection, like the companionable mother and grown-up son in “The Unknown Girl,” who “lived in a time-being.” In “Taking Mr Ravenswood,” a vicious, bullying con man calls his girlfriend “a loser.” It’s his favorite term of abuse. These stories are full of losers: the put-upon, the innocents, the mourners, the unforgiving.
Bald plot summaries of the stories show up startling levels of violence and cruelty—startling, as always in Trevor, because the prose feels so well behaved. There is damage everywhere: on the edges of one story, the “cruel landscape of devastation” of postwar Europe, and of another, the “wandering childhood of nameless places” of unhoused refugees. There is a great deal of criminal behavior: a child kleptomaniac, a woman’s murder of a disabled man, a father’s abuse of his daughter, blackmail, prostitution, alcoholism, stalking. These are tragic lives: there is often a sense of “a world that was all wrong” or “a life that hadn’t been worth living.”
But there is often, also, something grotesque or absurd about them. Possibly only in a William Trevor story would you find a son being arrested for exposing himself to his mother as a joke (“Mrs. Crasthorpe”), or an obsessed stalker installing a kitchen exhaust hood for the object of his fantasies (“Making Converation”). Trevor pushes the idea of a grotesquely wasted life to its limits in the brilliant “Mrs. Crasthorpe.” The lonely, self-deluding, garrulous title character, an alcoholic ex-prostitute with a delinquent son and a trail of damaging relationships, who nevertheless has a good opinion of herself and, like many of Trevor’s odd-balls, a robustly consoling fantasy life, ends up in a garbage truck: “She had died while being conveyed to hospital in the refuse men’s enormous vehicle, a reek of whisky emanating from her sodden clothes.”
But waste and cruelty, strangely, are not what the stories seem to be mainly about. Even the loneliest of characters do not exist in isolation; their lives cut across other lives, and create the challenge of how they are to be understood. The structure Trevor favors (and has used before, for instance in Death in Summer) is of parallel, contrasted lives that oddly cross paths. Sometimes the crossing is between classes: a wealthy, safe, well-protected, genteel life will be threatened or tested by an eruption from a less privileged, tougher, more squalid world.
The story of Mrs. Crasthorpe crosses with the story of a man she sees and fancies in a London street, also widowed, the pain and anger of his early loss very poignant (“Why should she not have what mostly people did have, why was she now mere dust?”), but utterly unlike her in every other way. Etheridge is thoughtful, cultured, resourceful, professionally secure. The embarrassing and tiresome Mrs. Crasthorpe barely impinges on his life until, contentedly remarried, he hears of her awful death. Then he finds it hard to forget her. She remains a “mystery”; she also invokes pity. There’s the same odd crossing of lives in the story of a female piano teacher, solitary and orderly, whose one pupil of genius turns out to be stealing her things—a porcelain swan, a little snuffbox. She lets it go on because she doesn’t want to lose him. Long afterward she realizes that she can never understand, but must accept, the mixture of his criminality and his gift: it was a “mystery.”
In one especially dark story, “The Crippled Man,” the only one of these set in Trevor’s old terrain of rural Ireland, two immigrant Eastern European travelers, surviving on odd jobs, start to paint an old, isolated farmhouse where “the crippled man” lives with a woman relative in miserable tedium and animosity. When the travelers come back, he’s nowhere to be seen—she has killed him, they think, and is going to go on claiming his pension. The immigrants, fellow survivors, “guessed and wondered, supposed, surmised.” They accept what they can’t understand, and move on. In “The Unknown Girl,” Harriet, an elegant, self-possessed middle-class woman with a nice house and garden, finds that Emily, the girl who cleaned for her, has (probably) killed herself, because of a history of abuse. She feels a window opening onto a dark world. An acceptance of the mystery of others’ lives, and some form of unlikely recognition or sympathy, are often what come from these crossed paths.
The subtle mystery of others’ lives is reflected in the glancing, side-on subtlety of Trevor’s prose. Clues to the truth are often muted and opaque. You have to pay attention. In “The Unknown Girl,” for instance, this is how Harriet hears, from her son, about Emily’s past: “A child ran off from fear. A father promised. An acquiescent mother promised too. But still the child ran off, to search for strength in her concealment of herself, not ever to return, not ever to be found.” Another of Trevor’s many vulnerable children, in “The Women,” is stalked at her boarding school by two peculiar women, one of whom claims to be her mother. She has never been told by her father what happened to her mother; she never finds out whether she was adopted or not. Perhaps the women are fantasists. She constructs the rest of her life on a “whisper of consoling doubt.”
Whispers, shadows, doubts, unknowns haunt the last pages of this great artist. At the same time he can be caustic, severe, and devastating. To the last, he has a Swiftian sharpness that is often grimly funny: “She liked the look of herself, and always had”; “Anita is less affected by her husband’s death than she was by his saying they had made a mistake in marrying”; “The damaged do not politely go away, instead release their demons.” I particularly relished this small detail from Harriet’s well-kept house: “No mice crept about, for what mice there were had eaten unwisely all that had been left out for them and were no longer alive.”
There are consolations here, though not for the mice. That heart-wrenching lyricism of his, where Trevor reads like Turgenev, is on full display in the most characteristic of these stories, “An Idyll in Winter,” which feels like a long novel inside a few pages. Time is brilliantly fluid, speeded up and then opened out. Mary Bella, a young girl in a Yorkshire farmhouse, falls in love with her summer tutor. He goes away, becomes a cartographer (reflecting his precise, reserved temperament), marries a nice woman, and has two daughters. Mary Bella’s parents die, and she stays on at the farm, like Lucy Gault. Almost by chance, he comes back, and they are reunited. He leaves his family to live with her. But in a shocking turn, one of his daughters, in protest, starts to starve herself. Mary Bella is left alone again. Every detail—the landscape, the traveling, their reading, their talk—is luminous with attention. Every character in the story, however glancingly, is exact, from the men on the farm to the desperate little daughter. It’s a story of loss and damage, in which memory and love are consoling: “She knew she was living in the past, that the past would always be there, around her, that she was part of it herself.”
Consolation comes in odd forms in these stories, and is almost indistinguishable from pain. Sometimes it’s a belated recognition of what one might or should have done—forgive a friend, understand a need. Nobody prays, or believes in miracles, or thinks about the afterlife. But there’s a kind of grace and sustenance in love, memory, books, and art. In “Giotto’s Angels,” a damaged, amnesiac restorer of paintings (the analogy between job and life is, as often, very close) falls victim to a prostitute who steals from him: “She took the money, leaving none.” We hear her, see her, and understand her through that supple, free-indirect prose with which Trevor so cunningly inhabits all his characters, without distaste or judgment. The artist is restoring a copy of Giotto’s Lamentation, from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua—one of Trevor’s beloved places. In attitudes of grief and concern, ten angels hang in the pale blue air, “floating in the sky above mountain-side rocks,” over the grieving human group around the dead body of Christ. The sad, bleak story ends gently, as the painter cleans his brushes and turns out the lights: “He slept and waited still, but he knew in dreams that only angels were his solace.”
July 19, 2018
Tipping the Scales
A Work of Art