Tuesday 25 June 2019

A posthumous collection from peerless Irish master of the short form

Last Stories: William Trevor, Viking, €17.50

Last Stories by William Trevor
Last Stories by William Trevor

Ronan Farren

From the publication of The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967) to Cheating at Canasta in 2007, with eight volumes in between - a tidy 40-year span - William Trevor produced some of the greatest stories in the language. Each collection contained 12 stories: always attentive to the reader, he was determined to give value for money, and despite decades living in Devon many of them had Irish themes and settings. He was forever a Corkman who fondly remembered his years in Dublin.

So that's a total of 120 stories, plus four that appeared only in The Collected Stories. Including this last book, of 10 stories, that is a formidable total of 134 stories - rivalling Henry James or Scott Fitzgerald or Frank O'Connor; but with Trevor we can truthfully say there isn't a potboiler among them.

There is also a fine 60-page novella, Nights at the Alexandra, published by Hutchinson with Paul Hogarth illustrations, perhaps now something of a collector's item.

Where does William Trevor Cox (to give him his full name) fit in the pantheon of illustrious Irish story writers? He is certainly an important part of the Great Tradition that began with George Moore and James Joyce and continued with many more.

Trevor was also a formidable novelist, starting in 1958 with A Standard of Behaviour, which he subsequently excluded from lists of his work and going on to classics like The Old Boys and The Children of Dynmouth.

Now, with Last Stories, published two years after his death, we see William Trevor at his meticulous and penetrating best. Elegiac, at times enigmatic, he looks at human foibles and aspirations with his customary mixture of affection and amusement, giving his characters the kind of life that can only be bestowed by the non-judgemental.

And we do get one final story set in Ireland, in Dublin. Giotto's Angels opens with a strange man, "between Truman's Corner and Buswell's Hotel," asking a giggling child for directions. The man is partly dysfunctional, suffering from an amnesiac abnormality, who had been found bewildered on a park bench not able to provide his name to medics. His memory remains erratic but he manages to make a living as a picture restorer. There's an encounter with a prostitute but even that tentative relationship fades away. His fumbling half-life goes on.

The first piece, under 2,000 words, is The Piano Teacher's Pupil, a Joycean epiphany in which Elizabeth Nightingale believes her silent boy student is a genius; he somehow compensates for her past sorrows. He steals small items from her house, though she never catches him, never mentions it, judging his gift outweighs small acts of defiance.

In At the Caffe Daria, Anita, a regular customer, has an encounter with a former friend, Claire, who tells Anita that the man who had left her for Claire has died. Anita feels little. She was less affected by news of the death "than she was by his saying they had made a mistake in marrying", all those years ago.

As a last farewell from the peerless William Trevor, it is a pleasure, with a tinge of sadness, to salute his achievement: this is a coda without a weak note.

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