In just a little over a month we learn what author will take home the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though I enjoy the speculation and then looking into the winner’s work, I usually don’t get too worked up about the Nobel. It is, after all, another book prize with an impossible mandate. Not only is it unlikely my choice will win, but so vast is the field of candidates that, if I’ve heard of the author, I’ve usually never read the winner’s work. But this year, spurred by Alice Munro’s recent short story “Amundsen,” I find myself getting worked up to not only make a cheer for “my choice” but also to actually feel some disappointment if my choice doesn’t win. I cheat and have two choices: Alice Munro or William Trevor.
Thinking about this caused me to go back and revisit one of my favorite William Trevor stories: “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” which was first published in the October 30, 1995 issue of The New Yorker and first included in his collection After Rain.
When I started reading William Trevor, I didn’t get him. I felt there was more there, but for some reason I wasn’t accessing it. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I began digging into his work and found that I, for whatever reason, can engage with it. Now I can’t get enough. Now he’s one of my favorite authors, someone worth getting worked up over when others dismiss him. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” was one of my early entrance points.
It is a relatively short story that showcases Trevor’s ability to layer time. When it begins, well, let’s let Trevor’s beginning show how it begins:
Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man; Belle married him when he was old.
There was a little more to it than that, because in choosing Violet to be his wife the piano tuner had rejected Belle, which was something everyone remembered when the second wedding was announced. “Well, she got the ruins of him anyway,” a farmer of the neighborhood remarked, speaking without vindictiveness, stating a fact as he saw it. Others saw it similarly, though most of them would have put it differently.
This opening introduces the two time frames we’ll be dealing with. Owen Dromgould, the piano tuner, married his first wife Violet around forty years ago; now he’s marrying Belle, who, we’ll see, replays that first marriage day often. It doesn’t help that the weddings take place in the same place. As Trevor moves through this wedding, he moves back and forth, sometimes in the same sentence:
“I will,” he responded in the small Protestant church of St. Colman, standing almost exactly as he had stood on that other afternoon. And Belle, in her fifty-ninth year, repeated the words her onetime rival had spoken before this altar also. A decent interval had elapsed; no one in the church considered that the memory of Violet had not been honored, that her passing had not been distressfully mourned. “And with all my earthly goods I thee endow,” the piano tuner stated, while his new wife thought she would like to be standing beside him in white instead of suitable wine-red. She had not attended the first wedding, although she had been invited. She’d kept herself occupied that day, white-washing the chicken shed, but even so she’d wept. And tears or not, she was more beautiful — and younger by almost five years — than the bride who so vividly occupied her thoughts as she battled with her jealousy.
Yes, Belle is certain that she was the more beautiful, but her beauty did her no good due to one fact: the piano tuner was blind. And since he chose the plain Violet, it seemed to Belle “that the punishment of blindness was a punishment for her, too.” Jealous and bitter, Belle never married until this day late in life when she finally got Owen to herself. But time has changed things, even though the past has not gone away. For one, when she was nineteen, she thought her beauty could be a sacrifice: “[a]n act of grace it would have been, her beauty given to a man who did not know that it was there.” But at this late stage, does she have beauty to sacrifice?
The story continues to move back and forth in time but without ever losing its place, fully representing how Belle’s mind is working as she marries and begins her life as the piano tuner’s wife. She should be happy herself, now, but she is “haunted by happiness.” That wedding day forty years earlier continues to occupy her thoughts. The blind piano tuner cannot help but speak Violet’s words as he describes things he never has seen for himself. There is no consolation.
That Belle was the one who was alive, that she was offered all a man’s affection, that she plundered his other woman’s possessions and occupied her bedroom and drove her car, should have been enough. It should have been everything, but as time went on it seemed to Belle to be scarcely anything at all.
These beautiful sentences respect Belle — how truly difficult it must be — even as they show her quietly destroy her marriage. In just a few pages, we see the years layered on years, events from the past still touching the present in complex ways that baffle. After all, as bitter as Belle was, she didn’t marry the piano tuner to retroactively annihilate his first marriage, and she feels guilty when she sees the effects of her actions, but she cannot stop and we dare not judge her.
“The Piano Tuner’s Wives” is a masterpiece.