Saturday 21 September 2019

Last lessons from a master

Short stories

Last Stories

William Trevor Viking, hardback, 224 pages, €22.99

John Boland on the posthumous release of the last 10 stories of William Trevor, a true master of the short-story genre

Elegiac: Although Trevor wrote 14 novels, his real strength was in the short form. Photo: Eamonn McCabe/Getty Images
Elegiac: Although Trevor wrote 14 novels, his real strength was in the short form. Photo: Eamonn McCabe/Getty Images

William Trevor, who died in November 2016, was the greatest Irish short story writer of the age, and now we have his last 10 stories, published in the week of what would have been his 90th birthday, offering a final reminder, if any were needed, of his mastery.

And that his real strength lay in the short form rather than in longer fiction was recognised by Trevor himself. “I’m a short-story writer who happens to write novels”, he once said, “not the other way around”.

There were 14 of these novels, yet while all of them are distinctive and some enduringly memorable — from The Old Boys in 1964 and Felicia’s Journey in 1994 to The Story of Lucy Gault in 2002 and Love and Summer in 2009 — it’s to the stories that devotees of Trevor constantly return. Indeed, while there isn’t a careless sentence in any of these exquisitely written novels, there’s also the sense in some of them, especially the later ones, that they’re over-extensions of what really should have been short stories.

His gift for the latter had become immediately recognised with the publication of his first collection, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, in 1967, though he was almost 40 by then. In the meantime, this Mitchelstown-born son of a Protestant bank official had graduated from Trinity College Dublin, dabbled in sculpture and worked in London as an advertising copywriter before writing three critically-admired novels.

Crucially, though, he credited his father’s various bank postings throughout the south of Ireland (the family lived in Skibbereen, Youghal and other towns) for giving him the outsider’s eye that was later to serve him so well in his fiction, though his parents’ deeply unhappy marriage was a contributing factor in his sense of detachment, too, and there are many such marriages and failed relationships in his stories.

In the early stories, these are often observed with a very beady eye. There’s ‘Teresa’s Wedding’, where the young groom is told how one of his pals had “a great ride off of” the bride in a field some months earlier. There’s ‘The Grass Widows’, where a young English couple have a catastrophic honeymoon in a West of Ireland hotel that had been recommended by the young man’s former headmaster.

There’s hapless Angela in ‘Office Romances’, who had “a schoolgirl complexion in the real sense, since schoolgirls rather than adults tended to be bothered with pimples” and who is seduced by Mr Spelle, “who had something the matter with his left eye”.

And there’s ‘Lovers of Their Time’, in which a doomed lunchtime affair conducted in a London hotel’s ornate bathroom takes on a defiant grandeur as the man recalls “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”.

These, too, were the years in which Trevor wrote such other great stories as ‘The Ballroom of Romance’, ‘An Evening with John Joe Dempsey’ and ‘Angels at the Ritz’ — stories in which his pitiless eye for the comic absurdities of human behaviour was in remarkable balance with a poignant sense of loneliness and desolated dreams.

As he grew older, the gleeful comedy of these earlier stories became less pronounced and an elegiac strain became more evident, especially when dealing with Ireland, which he and his wife Jane only occasionally visited from their Devon home but which loomed larger in his imagination as the years and decades passed, especially in such novels as Fools of Fortune and The Story of Lucy Gault.

And though the stories in this final collection (most of them published in the New Yorker over the last decade) are mostly in an elegiac vein, Trevor’s sense of the comic never deserted him. In ‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’, we’re drily assured that lonely spinster Miss Nightingale “had known the passion of love”, whereas Miss Keble in ‘The Women’ “had not experienced this aspect of life”.

For her part, middle-aged Anita in ‘At the Caffè Daria’ had been “admired by an older man with charm to burn, and handsome in his way, who in time asked her if she could bear to marry him. She meant it when she said she couldn’t bear not to”.

This was an artistic man who “dabbled with words, but nothing much ever came of that”, while the woman for whom he abandoned her is left reflecting that “the attractions of an attractive man come at a price”.

There are many such women in these stories, and Trevor himself said he was drawn to write about women “because I’m not a woman and I don’t know what it’s like. The excitement about it is to know more about something that I’m not and can’t be”. In fact, he’s not always successful in these final stories, some of these characters seeming to belong to a distant though curiously indeterminate past, as if half-recalled from the author’s own past.

That’s probably a failing of old age, though some of the stories register very strongly, not least ‘The Crippled Man’, set in rural Ireland and concerning two Polish brothers painting a farmhouse and faced with a situation that may be sinister or just none of their business.

And there’s a chill, too, to ‘The Women’, in which two middle-aged women stalk a teenage girl at her boarding school. “Cecilia wondered if the women were unbalanced”, and the reader wonders, too.

Indeed, only one of the stories, ‘Taking Mr Ravenswood’, seems a real failure and that’s because, unusual for Trevor, its basic setup and plotline are so elliptical as to be barely understandable, at least by this reader. 

The Collected Stories was published in 1992 and ran to 1,250 pages, while a deluxe later edition was published in 2010 and ran to 600 pages more. This last collection adds yet another 200 pages.

Throughout his lifetime, Trevor was honoured many times, though never by the Man Booker, even though shortlisted for it on four occasions. And the Nobel Prize, for which he was frequently mentioned, will never now be his.

That’s of no matter.

He is among the greatest of short story writers and will remain so for as long as there are readers who care about such things.

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