“The Piano Teacher’s Pupil”
by William Trevor
from the June 26, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

William Trevor died last November at the age of 88 (see my brief thoughts on his death here). Ever since The New Yorker published his wonderful “The Women” in early 2013 (our lengthy thread on that story here), I’d been hoping against hope that we’d get at least one more story from him, and every week I’d watch the New Yorker’s twitter feed just hoping they would say that the next story was from William Trevor. My hope was dim, and of course when he died I gave it up entirely. But here we are! I even stayed up well past my bed time, refreshing the New Yorker website to get the story and post here as soon as possible. Usually the new magazine and its contents are up at midnight in New York. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen this time, and I eventually had to go to bed. So, I haven’t read the story yet, but I’ve printed it and am off to work with it in my bag.

I’m not yet sure about when this was written (see my update just belowThe New Yorker has given some details; see my update below the update — a commenter below has had this story since 2001!). I have a list of what I think are all of Trevor’s works, and this is not on it, so I believe it has never been seen before. And if it is new, how long ago did Trevor write it, or stop writing it? Did he finish it to his satisfaction? Is there an editorial reason we aren’t seeing it until several months after his death? I’d like to know the answers if anyone has any insight.

I love Trevor’s work. It has changed me for the better. I cannot guarantee that will happen to everyone who encounters him, but I’d still be willing to recommend his work to you if you haven’t read him yet.


Uupdate 1

I reached out to The New Yorker via Twitter and they provided a great response:

And even better, after I asked if more were coming:


Update 2

In the comments below, Sean McElwee noted that this story was published in the September 2001 issue of BBC Music Magazine. All of our questions about whether Trevor finished it, what he would have done had he lived, etc., are moot. Trevor did publish this story. I’m fascinated that this seems to have slipped past the editors at The New Yorker, in particular because it has been my understanding that William Trevor, like Alice Munro, had a contract granting the magazine the right of first refusal on stories. Maybe that lapsed in 2001? Maybe it was for pieces exceeding a number of words? Maybe it has never existed? Or maybe the magazine declined to publish this piece back when Trevor originally submitted it for publication in 2001 or earlier? I don’t know. We’ll probably never know. But, hey, I’m still glad I came across this story when I did. And now I’m very curious if there are other uncollected Trevor stories that I haven’t found yet.

By | 2017-07-12T11:40:48+00:00 June 19th, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, William Trevor|Tags: |36 Comments

36 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett June 19, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” simply by its title, immediately calls to mind my favorite William Trevor story (at least, one of my favorites) “The Piano Tuner’s Wives.” Also connecting the dots are lovely passages here about the idylls of youth, regret, sudden disorienting feelings that one’s life is not as one initially thought.

    It was lovely to be back in Trevor’s prose. I’m like the Piano Teacher: just put Trevor here and I’ll patiently sit and watch — he can steal my things on his way out. I’ll take the mockery, I’ll be that subservient, just to have the gift of his work. Especially this unexpected gift.

    However, while the themes are nicely in place, and I’ll read this one again and again because of some of the beautiful passages, it feels like this was a work in progress that, sadly, was never fully fleshed out to be the luxury it was meant to be. It’s brief and I miss those extended moments of quiet where I feel I’m just sitting with his character.

    Still, such a pleasure.

  2. David June 19, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    Trevor, this is only the second William Trevor story I have read (so far) – the first being “An Idyll in Winter”, which I read just after he died and enjoyed immensely. When I saw the title of this one I momentarily thought it might be an older story because of the similarity in title to “The Piano Tuner’s Wives.” It would be surprising if he titled this one as he did and did not intend readers to make some connection between the stories, but not having read that one (yet) I cannot say what that might be.
    .
    I share both your enthusiasm for the story and the belief that it was more a work in progress than a finished story. A few paragraphs, especially early on, read a little more like detailed notes for how he wanted to develop the story than a final version, but there is still enough there to make this worthy of publication. Last month The Paris Review published an article that discussed the virtues and vices of reading newly discovered works by Walt Whitman. I was reminded of it when seeing this story appear. It is hard to know when we should leave an artist’s oeuvre alone and when it is ok to posthumously add to it. Even if this is lesser William Trevor (or just unfinished William Trevor) it is still better than a lot of work being published today. I’m glad The New Yorker decided to publish it.

  3. Trevor Berrett June 20, 2017 at 11:44 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed it too, David. I reread it again last night, and, as often happens with his work, I’m seeing so much hidden just below the surface. I still feel like he’d have added some more texture, but it’s remarkable how much he did here.

    I love his explorations of quiet dread and self-doubt. I love that he keeps things ambiguous, while we focus on the atmosphere of the piano teacher’s one room (we never leave it) and all of the men that have affected that private space: her father, her lover, and now this piano student. And I love that, even if she’s wrong, she’s shedding the scales from her eyes to see that her memories may have been delusions. I find it hard to believe that her father really was selfishly bribing her to stay, but that’s not important; it’s important that she now wonders. The student has made her question her most treasured memories. Where she once say love and gifts, she now sees selfishness and her own captivity.

    I also love that the piece seems to end happy, with an epiphany, but it could be its opposite. Rather than seeing clearly, the piano teacher could be retreating again into delusion:

    And, looking at him, Miss Nightingale realized what she had not before: that mystery was a marvel in itself. She had no rights in this. She had sought too much in trying to understand human frailty connected with love or with the beauty that the gifted brought. There was a balance struck: it was enough.

    I’m anxious to see how others take the ending of this story.

  4. Trevor Berrett June 20, 2017 at 11:47 am

    Please see my addendum above in the main post. The New Yorker responded to my inquiry via Twitter to say that the piece was one of a few unpublished pieces Trevor had on his desk when he died. They don’t know if he was done with it or if he would have returned to it. I agree with them, though: it’s great as it is.

    More importantly, when I asked if some of those other few would be coming, they said “at least one.”

  5. David June 20, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Her questioning those past relationships is a bit of a mystery. I agree with you that I don’t see any reason to question her father’s motivations, so the fact she does says something about her. With the married lover, I like how we are told about the end of that affair: “there had been painful regret on Miss Nightingale’s side, but, since then, she had borne her lover no ill will, for, after all, there was the memory of a happiness.” We are not told what her regret consists in. Regret for the deception of the man’s wife? Regret for deluding herself that he would ever leave his wife? Regret for wasting time and ending up unmarried? We never find out. (Miss Nightingale reminds me of Mary Jo in Alice Munro’s “Eskimo” and her long term relationship with a supposedly unhappily married man.)
    .
    The idea that the stolen knick-knacks might just be a price she has to pay and pays willingly for the privilege of getting to observe the boy play the piano every week serves nicely as a metaphor for how she views the other two relationships with men, especially the lover. Each time she saw him it cost her a little something personally, but she decided it was a fair price for what she got in return. As for her father, if the chocolates she got from him were bribes, is she bribing the pupil with knick-knacks? She never tries to get any of them back or to hide them so he won’t take more. Perhaps her father knew she was stealing the chocolates and allowed it, as she does, because for him it was a price worth paying as well.
    .
    I really should get around to reading “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”. As I understand it, the two wives of the title are from different generations, just as the three men (well, “males” anyway) here are from three different generations and represent three very different kinds of love in her life. I’m even more curious now to see how deep some of the parallels between these two stories might go.

  6. Trevor Berrett June 20, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    Yes, you do need to get around to “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”! I’d even recommend listening to Trevor read it himself once you’ve read it, because he’s an exceptional reader of his sometimes syntactically strange (but wonderfully so) prose. It starts at the 23:05 mark here:

    “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old. . . .”

  7. Trevor Berrett June 20, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    By the way, I find that reading Trevor aloud is worthwhile. I don’t read aloud to my wife very often, but I have read her a few William Trevor stories. I just love the sounds, the depths the words convey. They generally hold such compassion even when they’re being used to strip away someone’s pretensions, delusions, hopes.

  8. David June 21, 2017 at 11:33 am

    The first story William Trevor reads in that video is “Teresa’s Wedding”. Since Google books lets you read the text of it in full, I decided to listen to him read it and read along. It is an incredibly good story. It reminded me of James Joyce’s Dubliners, one of my favourite short story collections. Hearing him read only made it better. Marvelous stuff!
    .
    Interestingly, the version he read and the print version of the story I had were not the same. He made a number of small revisions in a few places. It reminded me that with short stories the fact that a work is published is never an indication that the author has finished writing it. Just that it is good enough for now and might get some more alterations when anthologized or re-published. So no matter how close to finished “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” might have been, I am fairly sure he might have taken at least one more look at it and found things to make better.

  9. Dennis Lang June 21, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Trevor, I can’t imagine any admiration for a writer’s work more compelling than your line above: “It has changed me for the better.”
    Having just been introduced to William Trevor here at the Mookse, and had the opportunity now to read a number of his stories, including this one, there is a rare magic happening. i don’t know exactly–compassion, empathy, acceptance, dignity…–all so beautifully expressed in mood and atmosphere. It becomes palpable. We are enriched by the experience.

  10. Trevor June 21, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    I’m heartened to hear that you both are enjoying Trevor’s work! Enjoying but also seeing some of the same qualities I am. It’s a delight to hear and share this kind of admiration!

  11. avataram June 21, 2017 at 7:58 pm

    Trevor’s comments really helped me appreciate the story better – “….while we focus on the atmosphere of the piano teacher’s one room (we never leave it) and all of the men that have affected that private space: her father, her lover, and now this piano student.”

    Is the story complete? Did Trevor intend to expand on it? In the presence of such beauty, such an unexpected, wonderful little story, these questions are like the lost knick knacks of the Piano teacher. They dont matter. It is wonderful that it was found on his desk, unpublished. Very grateful that it is TNY’s story of the week.

    I am also relishing the coincidence of Trevor the author and Trevor of Mookse! I have to say I enjoy reading both Trevors.

  12. Trevor Berrett June 22, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    I like the relationship! Told my wife that our last son should be William Trevor. He’s Simon Trevor instead, but I will have to tell him he was named after the great writer and not me :-)

  13. Dennis Lang June 22, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Hah!

    Great name: Simon Trevor Berrett. Definitely Presidential–or renowned 21st century novelist!

    Going to keep an eye on this kid!

  14. Arleen McCallum June 25, 2017 at 11:35 am

    I also am a big Wm. Trevor fan, and I enjoyed this story very much until the final paragraph. The last paragraph seems to end the story, but not finish it. I do imagine Trevor would have worked on this story more.

    The boy’s stealing throws into question everything Miss. Nightingale holds dear. She finds his deception very troubling but does not question him. This we know is how she has acted in the past; she does not seem willing or able to change her passive, accepting response. I do fear she is retreating into delusion.

    I am surprised no one has commented on the piano teacher’s name, Miss Nightingale. The nightingale is a symbol for love and loss and mystery. Perhaps it is significant in another way?

  15. Dennis Lang June 25, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Very neat take on the story Arleen!
    I wonder though if the passive acceptance of the student’s action depriving her of this memorabilia, the markers of her life as it were, isn’t somehow a virtue, or at least in some way a symbol of a life of quiet sacrifice, sublimating herself to others. She was clearly in awe of this student’s talent. In fact there isn’t really a story if she’s predictable and becomes confrontational.
    “Love, loss and mystery” I think sums it up perfectly! Also justifies the apparent suddenness of the ending leaving a good deal to contemplate.

  16. Trevor Berrett June 26, 2017 at 2:35 pm

    I wonder though if the passive acceptance of the student’s action depriving her of this memorabilia, the markers of her life as it were, isn’t somehow a virtue, or at least in some way a symbol of a life of quiet sacrifice, sublimating herself to others.

    I think the heart of Ms. Nightingale’s struggle is to determine if her passivity and sublimation are virtues or significant weaknesses. At the end, she seems to do what most of us would do — consider it a virtue, and even to think she’s been fully compensated by what she received in return. However, we do not have to accept that, and I, for one, was alarmed by the final paragraph. She seems to give in!

  17. Dennis Lang June 26, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    Interesting Trevor. But if the character doesn’t feel depleted by the loss of these items, doesn’t have her self-respect dependent on their physical presence, why hasn’t she won in the end by accepting their absence and the violation that caused it? To have acted any other way–anger? resentment? bitterness?– would have been to “give in” and she would have lost. She was morally above it.
    Just rambling….

  18. Greg June 29, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    Thanks everybody for making this unexpected treat from William Trevor even more special for me!

    And Dennis, I especially loved your description of William’s work:

    “…there is a rare magic happening. I don’t know exactly–compassion, empathy, acceptance, dignity…–all so beautifully expressed in mood and atmosphere. It becomes palpable. We are enriched by the experience.”

  19. Arleen McCallum June 29, 2017 at 11:48 pm

    Think Trevor is curious, intrigued by characters like the piano teacher. So many others like her appear in his work –obsequious, self-denying….She is a bit of a sweet sponge. Trevor’s question could be “Why do talented, educated women behave this way?”

  20. Dennis Lang June 30, 2017 at 9:34 am

    Then again, Ms. Nightingale’s adoration of this pupil’s gift is so pure and unassailable, nothing, no transgression can possibly blemish it. Blind obeisance? Like a religious faith, subjugation freely chosen.

  21. Greg June 30, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    Interesting mystery Arleen and Dennis….interesting…….and I like the term “sweet sponge”!

  22. Sean McElwee July 9, 2017 at 11:32 pm

    Just thought I’d let everyone know that this story was originally published in the September 2001 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

  23. Trevor Berrett July 11, 2017 at 2:18 pm

    Can you show your source, Sean? The New Yorker fiction folks themselves confirmed to me that it was “new,” at least in the sense of being a story he had on his desk when he died. They’re pretty good at fact checking. I’m pretty sure they’ve had a right of first refusal to publish any of his stories since long before 2001, also, so I’m doubtful this would slip their notice. It’s also not a story I’d ever come across before in my relatively extensive search to find everything Trevor wrote.

    Happy to be wrong, here, and I’d love to have the source. If there are more hidden Trevor stories out there in relatively obscure magazines, I’d love to find them.

  24. David July 11, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Trevor, I just did a google search and found a copy of BBC Music Magazine from September 2001 for sale on eBay. The seller provides a picture of the cover of the magazine and, indeed, it says “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil – A new short story by William Trevor”. Looks like it was a finished piece after all. Weird.

  25. David July 11, 2017 at 4:16 pm
  26. David July 11, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    One more thought: Re-reading the comment The New Yorker made to you about the story, Trevor, (“It’s one of a few unpublished stories he left on his desk. Perhaps he wanted to go back to it; no one knows.”) I wonder if they didn’t know it had been published, found what might only be an earlier draft of the story, and published that. Someone needs to check the BBC Music Magazine version of the story to find out if it is the same as the one The New Yorker published. For $15.99 US (plush shipping cost) you could be that person, Trevor! The one on eBay is still available.

  27. Trevor Berrett July 11, 2017 at 7:29 pm

    Ha! I’m interested, for sure. I’d love to compare them!

  28. Trevor Berrett July 11, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    And thanks for the extra sleuthing, David. I will let folks know if any more information comes to light, and I hope you’ll all do the same!

  29. Sean McElwee July 11, 2017 at 8:35 pm

    It’s the exact same story. I’m attaching a scan of the first page from that 2001 issue.

    file:///Users/maccurtin1/Downloads/Scan%20Jul%2011,%202017,%208.21%20PM%20(1).pdf

  30. Trevor Berrett July 11, 2017 at 11:31 pm

    This is very strange, and I believe you. However, I cannot see the file, I’m afraid. I think you’ve attached a link to the file on your own computer but not to a site we can access on the web. I’d love the scan!

  31. Arleen McCallum July 11, 2017 at 11:42 pm

    Wow – This is big! Are the stars aligned? Who profits most – to be really cruel? Way too political for this group, sorry, yr humble Canadian, a

  32. Trevor Berrett July 12, 2017 at 11:33 am

    I’m very curious what happened here, and I thank Sean for bringing it to our attention. I reached out to The New Yorker, but I’m not sure I’ll get a response. We might never know just what happened. At least many (but not all!) of us got to read a William Trevor story we didn’t know existed!

    Sean, do you know of others that have not found their way into his Collected Stories? The only other uncollected Trevor stories I’m aware of are “An Idyll in Winter” and the last two published in The New Yorker before his death, “The Woman of the House” and “The Women.” The absence of “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” from all of this makes me hope I’m missing others (so long as I can find them)!

  33. Sean McElwee July 13, 2017 at 12:29 am

    I’m not aware of any other uncollected stories … just the ones you’ve listed above. I suppose we’ll find out sometime soon if The New Yorker is indeed holding on to at least one more.

  34. David July 13, 2017 at 9:48 am

    Now that we have an accurate date of publication for this story, which suggests when it might have been written, I have two additional thoughts. (1) The similarity to the title of “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” was previously discussed. That story was originally published in 1995, so this one comes six years after that. That they were published so closely together suggests to me he did intend some connection between the stories to be observed. (2) In May 2001, four months before this story was first published, a film called The Piano Teacher won several major prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, adapted from a 1983 novel by future Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, is about an older female piano teacher and her younger male student. The similarities seem to end there, but it would be odd if, when the story was published, Trevor had not been aware of the film and not aware that the title of his story was similar. It makes me wonder if the Trevor story might even have been inspired by the film (or novel) and thinking of a different sort of teacher-pupil relationship.

  35. Trevor Berrett July 13, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Hmm, I hadn’t connected The Piano Teacher to this. It doesn’t seem like the kind of book or film Trevor would have much interest in, but that is all based on my assumption he likes the kind of books and stories he writes and would find Jelinek and Haneke a bit tough to take — they’re certainly not sympathetic to their characters!

  36. Trevor Berrett July 17, 2017 at 11:35 am

    Hopefully I’ve stopped the problem of these threads closing! Frustrating for me to come here and not be able to leave a comment, and frustrating to wonder what discussions have been curtailed by this setting that kept reverting! Anyhow, this is open again, and I have news.

    Deborah Treisman wrote me a message to say that The New Yorker was not aware that this story had been published. William Trevor’s agent from that period died some time ago and didn’t leave that record. Trevor’s subsequent agent didn’t have record of it either. It looks like Treisman and the agent spoke about this, and even Trevor’s family seemed unaware! Thanks to Sean for bringing it up!

    I was glad that Deborah closed her message by saying that, regardless, as we are glad, they too are glad they’ve published it to bring it to a wider audience since the original is, obviously, a bit difficult to track down!

    So thanks again to Sean for pointing this out. The republication doesn’t seem to have brought any trouble to the magazine (I hope not), and it’s a fascinating bit of Trevor Trivia! I’m just glad we got to read it!

Comments are closed.