William Trevor: “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”

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, tough 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; the piano tuner is 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 bittern, Belle never married until this day late in life when she finally gets Owen to herself. Is her beauty still there to be sacrifice? After all, when she was nineteen, “[a]n act of grace it would have been, her beauty given to a man who did not know that it was there.”

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 with the piano teacher. 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 start to 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, 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.

7 thoughts on “William Trevor: “The Piano Tuner’s Wives””

  1. Lee Monks says:

    I agree with virtually everything you say here. Although, slightly differently: when I first read Trevor I thought he was brilliant; then I went off him for some inexplicable reason (over exposure?); now having just read this I want to re-read a load of his stories. So thanks.

  2. Shelley says:

    Lord, a beautiful cover!

    But I’m tiring of so many books titled “X’s Wife” or “X’s Daughter.”

  3. Jon says:

    Nice overview of this story and Trevor’s talents.

    To pick up on something Trevor the blogger and/or Charles May said in discussion on Munro, I think this Trevor is somewhat like Munro in that each story creates an evocative mood and provides an emotional insight while at the same time demonstrating the ambiguity or unknowlableness of many aspects of our experience.

    I remember this story as giving me a deep sense of the complexities of human relationships. If I remember correctly, there’s an aspect where the second wife deliberately misrepresents things to the piano tuner that the first wife described to him in a certain way and the piano tuner has a sense she’s doing this and just accommodates it. That’s a great insight into how loving relationships always have layers of complexity that aren’t reflected in the kind of simpler stories we all grow up with.

  4. Trevor says:

    Yes, Jon, your recollection is correct. I find Belle’s actions reprehensible and understandable, and while I think that the piano tuner knows what she’s doing, surely he doesn’t know for sure; thus, she casts a shadow over his first marriage while creating one for her own marriage. I love that she feels guilty for this but simply cannot stop herself, so troubled has she been for an entire lifetime.

    I also wanted to point out how well Trevor takes a seemingly inconsequential and boring relationship and pulls one aspect out to create a great, insightful story. He once said in an interview I listened to that while other people look around a restaurant and see a bunch of boring people, he thinks about just how fascinating those peoples’ lives, with all their unknowable terror and tenderness, must be. His sensitivity to the subtle stuff we usually cannot even recognize in our own lives and relationships is showcased in this story here.

  5. Gina says:

    Back in the day when there was still a Border’s, a friend and I walked around the store in an attempt to collect as many books as we could with a title that was structured “The (choose a profession that will be held my a male)’s (wife, daughter).

    Oh my. The Heretic, Bloodletter, Bonesetter, Rockstar, the Tutor and their daughters. The Shoemaker, Tiger, Runaway Pastor (?), Soldier, and their wives. (Amazon just helped me refresh the list).

    One question…why these these books about women and their facticity?

  6. Trevor says:

    There certainly are plenty of book titles that follow that formula. I enjoy following the YA market in part to see what trendy title formulation is on now.

    To be fair to Trevor, this story was published well before most you reference above, and this is one of hundreds of short stories he had written. But, more, this story truly is about the two wives of the piano tuner. I cannot think of a better title for this short piece because this one gets to it succinctly (as do the first sentences), and that isn’t the case for the few others I’ve read from the list you have.

    Ah, titles. Regardless, you should read the story!

  7. Gina says:

    I certainly will! Thanks

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