Although he currently lives in England, William Trevor haunts his native Ireland like a ghost, quietly and solemnly returning to its land in his many short stories and novels. His work, however, is less concerned with the identity of a nation than the lonely individuals who pass their time inside its borders. Originally published in his early collection The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories, “An Evening with John Joe Dempsey” stands as a testament to Trevor’s talent for rendering solitude universal. The story is a brief portrait of a young Irish boy, aimless and melancholy on his birthday, and in their fusion of majesty and abandonment, the final lines are classic Trevor: “In his bed he entered a paradise: it was grand being alone.” Trevor’s work has long been marked by his ability to merge bleakness and grandeur, to find an aching loveliness in the desolate and the isolated.
The stories in A Bit on the Side, Trevor’s new collection, are no exception. Every one of these twelve stories is a study in solitude, each one a portrait of a vast landscape of loneliness. In precise, direct sentences, Trevor illustrates varying shades of sadness—there is the middle-aged priest who watches the slow death of his parish, the old woman who recounts the death of her mother’s lover, the man and woman who meet through a dating service—but each character in Trevor’s work experiences an epiphany, a moment in which they come to know the whole, empty lonesomeness of their lives.
In “An Evening Out,” the story of the blind date, Trevor places this moment of understanding almost precisely at the center of story. Evelyn and Jeffrey find each other through the Bryanston Square Bureau, a matchmaking company. Jeffrey, a photographer, seeks someone with a car to drive him to locations, and perhaps a free meal, and Evelyn, Trevor suggests, desires only to talk, to touch words with another human being. This, then, is the loneliness of the present: not only have our efforts to seek out companionship been aborted, but the will to find the connections has wavered.
The terrible strength of Trevor’s work, however, comes from his archeological designs: the sadness of his stories is never a temporary, surface-level sadness. In order to understand ourselves, Trevor suggests, we must excavate our own histories and trace the tradition of our isolation. In the middle of her third gin and tonic, Evelyn realizes that:
“... she felt pleasantly warm, happy enough to be here, although she knew by now that none of this was any good ... Why would anyone be interested in her rejection more than twenty years ago of someone she had loved? ... And who could expect a stranger to want to hear about the circumstances of a mother’s lingering illness and the mercy of her death in a suburban house? You put it all together and it made a life; you lived in its aftermath, but that, too, was best kept back.”
In this sparse, refined prose, Trevor suggests that Evelyn’s life, like the lives of all his characters, is the sum of her losses. What Evelyn realizes is what unites all of Trevor’s men and women: what we lose we cannot regain, and what we lose can be understood by no one else.
In what is perhaps the most moving story of the collection, “Rose Wept,” Trevor turns his eye towards the pale, bleak promise of the future, the sense that our present betrayals are only blueprints for the crimes we will inevitably commit. In “Rose Wept,” a family invites their daughter Rose’s tutor, Mr. Bouverie, to dinner. During the tutoring sessions, Mrs. Bouverie had met with her lover while Mr. Bouverie taught Rose downstairs. As he is retiring, Mr. Bouverie will no longer be occupied during the afternoons and thus, Rose believes, this evening is the last opportunity for his wife to meet her lover. Trevor maps the characters’ frailty with a precision that is at once tender and scientific. When Trevor describes the physical details of a character or scene, it is if one is looking into a cloudy pond: the shadows one can see on the surface lead our minds to wonder at what lies beneath. In describing Rose, Trevor writes:
Her guilt, this evening, silenced her, and her smile came fleetingly and not often. When it did, her lower lip lost its bee-sting look and for an instant her white, irregular teeth appeared. She felt awkward and unpretty at the dinner table, sick of herself.
This passage exemplifies one of Trevor’s many gifts, as he is able to weld the visible world with the invisible, linking the common grit of our daily lives with the immeasurable, unknowable thoughts that stir inside us.
The guilt that Trevor describes in Rose’s smile is, in part, a product of her status as a reporter on the betrayal, a part of the hurtful spectacle rather than a blameless spectator. Each week, at a café, Rose tells her friends of the affair conducted right before Mr. Bouverie’s eyes, “the nature of the creaking stairs and closing doors, the light tap of footsteps not his wife’s, the snatch of music hushed.” Looking at Mr. Bouverie across the dinner table, Rose, only 19, feels the ache of shame and isolation that haunts not only Mr. Bouverie but all of Trevor’s characters: “‘I’m sorry,’ she had wanted to say, and did not know why she would have given anything not to have blurted out so much in the Box Tree Café. She had longed to share his confidences with him, but had betrayed him even before he offered them.” Trevor’s trademark epiphany comes in the final moments, when Mr. Bouverie’s hesitation to leave causes Rose to cry. In that halting movement, she sees what Mr. Bouverie has lost, what his wife is losing, and the beautiful cruelty of every small crime. “She wept for all her young life before her, and other glimpses and other betrayals,” Trevor writes, and this sentence, in its truth, is perhaps the most horrible in all of A Bit on the Side, for it is in these words that Trevor captures the icy, irrefutable sense that sadness is not a choice but an inheritance.
In the title story—placed at the conclusion of the collection—Trevor writes of the last day of a love affair, the final meeting between a woman and her married lover. In all the characters’ movements, the day is like any other. They meet at the same café in the morning; they take their lunch as they always do. The way we move across this earth, Trevor suggests, does not always give us insight into the way our selves move: some secrets are not visible to the eyes. There are stories we share only with ourselves, or with a few others, and Trevor finds tenderness in this knowledge.
In most of the stories in A Bit on the Side, Trevor examines those men and women who have already lost, who are continuing to exist without what they believed was necessary to their existence, like the middle-aged widow in the first story, “Sitting with the Dead,” or the aging woman who recalls her family’s secrets in “Solitude.” The characters in Trevor’s collection are like guests at a wake, talking nervously over cocktails, talking themselves through the spaces of their lives. “A Bit On the Side,” however, is a snapshot of the last moment before loss, and in capturing this day Trevor reminds us there is a grace to our sadness. There is defeat, and there is loneliness, but there are also our memories, the stories we tell ourselves of better times. As the lovers leave each other, Trevor reflects that:
Nothing of their love had been destroyed today: they took that with them as they drew apart and walked away from one another, unaware that the future was less bleak than it now seemed, that in it there still would be the delicacy of their reticence, and they themselves as love had made them for awhile.
Loss is inevitable, Trevor suggests, but loss unites us, and loss makes us men. Trevor’s ability to capture, with reserve and humanity, our inevitable loss and our equally inevitable perseverance through this sadness, calls to mind the words of fellow Irish writer Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”