Tall tales and short stories by the master
Collected Stories by William Trevor (Penguin Viking £60.00)
Published 09/01/2010 | 05:00
The Stories of William Trevor, which comprised his first five collections, was published by Penguin in 1983. Nine years later, Viking published the Collected Stories in a massive, physically unwieldy volume that ran to 1,260 pages and that contained the 87 stories from his first seven collections.
Now we have a new Collected Stories, which takes in every story he's written up to and including 2007's Cheating at Canasta. This runs to 1,827 pages but is divided into two volumes in a cardboard slipcase with the author's name emblazoned in gold on the four-inch-wide spine and with a wallpaper-like illustration on the front and back featuring birds, butterflies, fish, fruit, foliage and old kettles. And on the front covers of the cream-coloured individual volumes are woodcuts of three men in a pub and of a horse in a field with a thatched cottage in the background.
It's as if the publishers are inviting you to place this new collection on a shelf in your rustic kitchen beside the Aga and alongside copies of Country Life, Horse and Hound and the River Cafe cookbook. This is grossly unfair to Trevor, only some of whose stories feature rural life, which he has regarded with a beady and frequently bleak eye that has always been the antithesis of cosiness.
That's not all that's wrong with this new volume. Like its predecessor, it's physically resistant to comfortable reading, its covers are easy to smudge, and astonishingly for such an ambitious (and expensive) undertaking it comes without any biographical or critical apparatus -- no foreword by the author, no introductory appraisal by one of his peers -- nothing.
Luckily, the stories speak for themselves, as they've been doing since Trevor's first collection, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, was published in 1967. That early volume revealed a crueller Trevor than readers of later stories might recognise (its title story is bracingly heartless), and his savage eye was also to the fore in some of the great stories of the 1970s.
In Office Romances, for instance, there's the predatory Mr Spelle, "a tall, sleek man who had something the matter with his left eye", while in the same story hapless-victim Angela has "a schoolgirl complexion in the real sense, since schoolgirls rather than adults tended to be bothered by pimples".
I emphasise this side of Trevor because nowadays he's seen mainly as the creator of wry, rueful, wistful and predominantly poignant fiction, in which the backward look has replaced the sardonic stare.
But Trevor has always been a comic master too, and it's comedy that energises some of his most powerful stories -- An Evening with John Joe Dempsey, Angels at the Ritz, The Grass Widows, Teresa's Wedding, Lovers of Their Time.
In the last paragraph of the last of these, Norman Britt remembers the heroically doomed illicit love affair that had been conducted in the public bathroom of a London hotel: "Sometimes on the Tube he would close his eyes and with the greatest pleasure that remained to him he would recall the delicately veined marble and the great brass taps, and the bath that was big enough for two. And now and again he heard what appeared to be the strum of distant music, and the voices of The Beatles celebrating a bathroom love, as they had celebrated Eleanor Rigby and other people of that time."
This is the prose of a master, the greatest Irish short-story writer of our age, and there are 134 other examples of his greatness in this book. So, never mind how cumbersome it is to hold -- just relish the contents.