Quiet Desperation

Last Stories by William Trevor
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12 June 2019 | Karen Kao

William Trevor is a prolific and wide-ranging writer of essays, short stories, novels, and scripts for television, radio, and film. Most of his writing is set in the country of his birth, Ireland, or his place of long-term residence, England.

After Trevor died in 2016, his son found a collection of short stories fully assembled and publication ready: Last Stories.

An ordinary lot

Trevor writes about ordinary people – a piano teacher, a bank clerk, a restorer of paintings – to offer a glimpse of ordinary sorrows. Many of the tales in Last Stories feature women whose only chance at love has been lost. The piano teacher once had a lover who turned out to be married. The bank clerk has a child with a feckless deadbeat. The ration of happiness in life meted out to these women is so parsimonious that outrage should be the response. Instead, Trevor’s protagonists soldier on.

A random encounter in the street triggers several stories. In “Making Conversation,” Olivia literally trips into the arms of Vinnicombe, causing him to fall in love. Trevor writes of unrequited love, adulterous love, parental love.

He’s a genius at conjuring up a setting, whether it’s a spinster’s parlor or a school for girls. Yet I get little sense of time. These stories are ageless. Trevor is not concerned with the grand sweep of history but rather

private yearnings and small, wayward impulses: stories about siblings scuffling over small-bore inheritances, about lost love, about minor duplicities, and, always, about the press and passage of time.

Marisa Silver, “William Trevor’s Quiet Explosions” in The New Yorker, 23 Nov 2016

Befuddled

Yiyun Li is one of many writers deeply influenced by Trevor’s work. She asserts, on the back flap of Last Stories and elsewhere, that she would never have become a writer but for his work.

His characters appear to ask little from life and are granted even less. Often they go on living stoically with their yearnings, unimportant to the world. Once in a while, an incident — it could be as small as a spoiled dinner at a restaurant or as big as an ill-plotted murder — leads them astray from their chosen paths, but even then they live a dignified if wounded life.

William Trevor Remembered by Yiyun Li – The Sunday Times Short Story Awards, 22 Nov 2016

Trevor himself calls his process: writing out of bewilderment. A gaze at the world without pretension or judgment. Dignity can be hard to maintain in the face of loss and poverty, unrequited love, failures of the heart and mind. Yet, at all times, Trevor remains the compassionate author.

He was a picture-restorer by profession, and often seemed unusual, even strange, to other people, for his erratic memory caused him to rely on conjecture and deduction. When privately he considered his life – as much of it as he knew – it seemed to be a thing of unrelated shreds and blurs, something not unlike the damaged canvases that were brought to him for attention. His name was Constantine Naylor. He had forgotten it was and wondered sometimes why that name came into his head. He liked it and tried to keep it there, but could not.

William Trevor, “Giotto’s Angels”

Home Sweet Home

Many of the tales in Last Stories show an intense attachment to home. There is an inappropriate attachment to the Old Grange and the precocious 13 year old who lives there in “An Idyll in Winter.” We find a longing for lost love embodied by a house in “At the Caffè Daria.” Trevor gives us a third variation on the theme of home as seen through the eyes of the widow Harriet Balfour.

Her attachment to the house had much to do with her devotion to his memory, and she predicted that she would not wish to move away, nor allow whatever ailments time brought to dictate otherwise. No matter what, the past she had known here would never be less than it had been —in the rooms of the house, and in the airy garden where Comice pears loosened every autumn, and lacy hydrangeas decorated faded brick, and blowsy Victorian roses thrived. There would always be the John Piper in the hall, the Minton in the drawing room, and waking to the wisteria of a faded wallpaper she had particularly come to know.

William Trevor, “The Unknown Girl”

Memory is a powerful narrative device. It can be a convenient mechanism to fill in the blanks of the plot or a character’s back story. In lesser hands, it can feel like an authorial trick. Not so for the characters Trevor brings to life.

They do not remember for our reading pleasure. They remember when the suppressed drama and desire of their present moment makes it impossible for them to deny the past.

Marisa Silver, “William Trevor’s Quiet Explosions” in The New Yorker, 23 Nov 2016

Death

Death is another theme in Last Stories. An unexplained suicide, a long illness, a crippled man who disappears from sight. The death of a father or a husband may come as a blow for the survivors though not always.

On the short walk from the churchyard to her car Mrs Crasthorpe was aware of a profound humiliation. A lone mourner at her husband’s funeral, she had sensed it first in the modest country church he had insisted upon for what he had called his obsequies. A woman cleric unknown to Mrs Crasthorpe had conducted a bleak service, had said the necessary words in an accent that appalled Mrs Crasthorpe, and then had scuttled off without so much as a glance in Mrs. Crasthorpe’s direction […] She was wrong, Mrs Crasthorpe knew, to blame Arthur for the arrangements he’d put in hand before he went, but she’d become used to blaming him in his lifetime and couldn’t help doing so still.

William Trevor, “Mrs Crasthorpe”

Trevor can be sly in his depictions of characters. Apparently, he sometimes drew a little too obviously from his network of friends and acquaintances.

They tended to be humorous figures, often with unusual or exaggerated mannerisms. Occasionally, I noticed Mum – in other ways a big fan of Dad’s writing – nervously reading the proof of a new novel or story, worried a barely-disguised acquaintance was about to feature.

Dominic Cox, “William Trevor, my father: ‘Writing was what kept him going’ in The Irish Times, 24 May 2018

Dominic Cox, Trevor’s son, wrote this article upon the publication of Last Stories on 24 May 2018. It was the day Trevor would have turned 90. He will be sorely missed.