We Go to William Trevor's Works to Look for Ourselves and to Understand Others

Posthumous collection Last Stories proves that Trevor, as a short story writer, was a master in command of his craft and will remain in a class of his own.

Last Stories
William Trevor

Penguin Books

May 2018


William Trevor was that rare one: popular with readers and a writer's writer. When he passed away in late 2016, lengthy tributes from well-known literati flooded in and they seem to never have stopped. With the release of this posthumous collection of his last short stories, there has been, and rightly so, another surge in appreciation.

With 13 short story collections, two novellas, and 14 novels, he was one of the few writers who did well with both the short and long forms. Having come to full-time writing later in life — after a career as a professional sculptor and an advertising copywriter — his obsessive, disciplined writing practice ensured more than half a century's worth of stories as his enduring legacy.

He is most appreciated for, among many things, his empathetic and realistic portrayals of women. At a time when the literary world is scrutinizing how male writers write about women (read Talia Lavin's essay in Village Voice), Trevor's reputation has remained unsullied. His consistent explanation to the frequent question of how he did that was to say that he was simply curious about and wanted to understand women better (listen to the BBC Radio 4 Book Club podcast.)

Whatever questions Trevor sought to understand better — with all his characters, not just women — he often returned to explore them in different ways. In this, he was much like the 19th-century playwright, Ibsen (see Georg Brandes' critical study of Henrik Ibsen.) That said, Trevor was not looking for answers necessarily. Mostly, he was aiming to frame the questions better each time in order to, as Chekhov famously wrote (see his October 27, 1888 letter to A S Suvorin), correctly state the issues rather than solve them.

Like Ibsen, Trevor left his own country to gain distance so he could write about it better. An Irish Protestant, Trevor made England his home for several decades. When pushed to claim a nationality, he always said he was an Irish expat. Still, he approached all his writing with that angled perspective of the perennial outsider, saying in a telephone interview with The New York Times:

As a writer one doesn't belong anywhere. Fiction writers, I think, are even more outside the pale, necessarily on the edge of society. Because society and people are our meat, one really doesn't belong in the midst of society. The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local, the parochial. And to do that, one needs distance.

This sense of placelessness and isolation underpins all his short stories too. Yet, for a writer who wrote marginalized characters with so much understanding, it's surprising that his stories have rarely included people of other races or ethnicities, even as minor characters — especially those set in London. But we do not go to a Trevor story to look for ourselves. We go to a Trevor story to understand other people. As we must with this last set.

Photo credit: The Irish Times (courtesy of Penguin Books)

There are ten stories in this collection. The recurring themes of loneliness, death, betrayal, delusion, and loss might make them sound rather bleak but his spare prose and concise narratives avoid melodrama or repetition. All the main characters struggle with and never conquer their yearnings, which are challenged or thwarted through singular moments of quiet drama. And, despite there being no radical or titillating action, what lingers in the reader's mind long after reading feels like reverberations of aftershocks.

One particularity that animates several of these stories is how two unlikely characters come together: a middle-aged caretaker and strange European workmen; an amnesiac picture-restorer and a street prostitute; a widow and a widower from different social strata.

The lonely, older woman of the shabby, genteel kind is a recognizable Trevor archetype here. As ever, though, Trevor's unfailing compassion and understated humor serve as reliable anchors to prevent the pathos-filled narratives from sinking into sentimentality.

The first and last stories are the strongest. With 'The Piano Tutor's Daughter', a single, middle-aged piano tutor finds her best pupil is stealing from her. The way Trevor unfolds how the awareness comes upon her and how she responds to it is so masterful because, in that short narrative space, we also get a sense of the woman's entire life and her major disappointments — all of which make the ending so bittersweet. With 'The Women' (read in The New Yorker), the two older women are retired friends living together but lonely in their own ways. The story is really about a young schoolgirl they are trying to become friends with and Trevor captures her confusion and desolation, especially at the end, in a pitch-perfect manner.

With endings, an abiding hallmark of a Trevor story is how he opens up various possibilities for a character's arc early on and yet, when the ending arrives, it is satisfyingly inevitable. That said, some of the endings in this collection are left vague, almost framed as potential new beginnings for the next momentous life event that readers can contemplate what-ifs about. In 'Taking Mr Ravenswood' (read in The Lit Hub), we are left conjecturing about what transpired between the bank clerk and her rich customer back at his house after a dinner date. In 'The Unknown Girl', we never get an understanding of what drove the cleaning woman to her death in the beginning even with the sort-of-revelation from the protagonist's son at the end. In 'Mrs Crasthorpe' (read in The New Yorker), flashes of the newly-widowed woman untold past interlace with difficult moments of her present and, while this helps us see her pain and neediness, we never know exactly what sends her to her unfortunate end. In 'Making Conversation', we never find out whether the protagonist's stalker has disappeared for good or whether he will return to his wife; 'Caffe Daria' has another disappearing act at its close — this time, the protagonist's ex-friend, who had stolen her lover.

Such ambiguity is deliberate. Trevor has avoided pat explanations of how people are and given readers the space to see and understand for ourselves. To allow readers to engage in this manner with a short story that is compressed to its minimum is very difficult. Beyond writerly skill and confidence, it also demonstrates a graceful respect for the reader's intellectual abilities.

Speaking of reader engagement, a Trevor story is best read (or reread) closely for the precise details and clues that lead to the only closure (or lack thereof) feasible. One such example in this collection is 'An Idyll in Winter' (read in The Guardian). It's about a cartographer who meets the woman he tutored when she was a child and he was a young man. Leaving his happy (until then, anyway) family, he moves in with the former pupil. Reading close enough, from the very start and at almost every step, we can see there will be a romance. But we cannot predict, till near the end, its final shape. Incidentally, this story is also the only hope-filled one in this collection. Consider these last lines about how love goes on even when a relationship does not:

Mary Bella senses an anxiety, and pity perhaps. She doesn't try to smile any of that away, only wishes the men could know that love, unchanged, is as it was, is there for him among her shadows, for her in rooms and places as familiar to him as they are to her. She wishes they could know it will not wither, that there'll be no long slow dying, or love made ordinary.

If we have paid attention, we can see how that echoes these two simple lines from earlier:

It made her sad that the summer had to end. He said it never would, because remembering wouldn't let it.

There are many such earned rewards from a slow, close reading of a Trevor story. This is why he is a writer's writer. Each of his stories can reveal clever tricks of the trade. Each can be a mini masterclass in the art of the form because he compels us to slow down, stop, and observe carefully the quotidian, everyday moments that we mostly rush past in real life. We emerge from a Trevor story rubbing our eyes and seeing the world around us more clearly. Aughor Yiyun Li describes it as "mental Visine". Mostly, he enables this through an economy of language but also by rationing out just the necessary details at the appropriate times.

That language, though, will sometimes sound anachronistic, especially to younger readers today. Descriptors like "mobile telephone" and characters writing with fountain pens rather than using text/email might feel strange to some. This is small price to pay, surely, for the experience of inhabiting the varied worlds of Trevor's stories — worlds that are filled with "explosions of truth" and "total exclusion of meaninglessness", as he said in his definition of the short story in this Paris Review interview.

Julian Barnes' insightful The Guardian essay ends with the second-best description of a Trevor short story (and, perhaps, the best one of the writer himself):

Automatically, we predict where the story might be going. But it doesn't go where we predict, because, in a way we sense rather than observe, it has ceased to be a story. It has become life, and life wrongfoots us in stranger ways than fiction can. We submit to the deep, essential truth to life that Trevor has presented. And yet, at the same time, we realize it is still "only" a story.

None but those with a complete mastery of fiction can walk this line. William Trevor was not "an Irish Chekhov" or even "the Irish Chekhov". He was and will remain the Irish William Trevor.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.