Over the past few years I’ve developed a deep love for William Trevor’s short stories. Particularly this past month, regular visitors here have caught wind of this (and hopefully have sought him out if they did not already know his work). But until now, I had never read one of his novels, and he’s written many in his 84 years. I consider him primarily a short story writer, and he himself has said, “The short story is infinitely harder, but it’s infinitely more worthwhile” (here). Obviously, just because his short stories are, in his words, infinitely more worthwhile doesn’t mean that his novels are not incredibly worthwhile. Obviously. I was completely engrossed in Death in Summer (1998), shocked, as usual, at how much Trevor is able to put into even the smallest sentence, how completely he enters into his characters’ heads as we watch them suffer tragedies both large and small.
The first chapter of Death in Summer is a masterpiece in and of itself, and it goes on my shortlist of best first chapters in literature (off the top of my head I’d also place on this list James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Cormac McCarthy’s The Outer Dark — any other ideas?). In this chapter Trevor introduces multiple characters through their individual perspectives, various themes, and even a few different timelines, all to develop the beginnings of a haunting book.
The book begins in the immediate aftermath of a funeral.
All that is over now, and yet is coldly there in the first moment of waking every day: the coffin, the flowers laid out, the bright white surplice of the clergyman, dust to dust, and that seeming an insensitive expression at the time.
Thaddeus’s kind wife Letitia was struck by a car, leaving him, after six years of marriage, alone with their six-month-old daughter, Georgina. He is thinking of their last moments together (as are, in another room, his two servants, Maidment and Zenobia). They’d managed to have a bit of a fight, if it could be called that. When he was a younger, single man, Thaddeus had a fling with a married woman. It’s been nearly twenty years, and suddenly she came back into his life. She sent a letter asking for some money, any, as she was sick and alone. He wanted to ignore it, but Letitia found it and said that she thought he should (she didn’t know any details about the affair). He told her he would, a bit baffled by her.
He wondered if the nature of the relationship had crossed Letitia’s mind, if even for a passing moment it has occurred to her that the woman she wished to see assisted had been his associate in passionate intimacy, that they had deceived a decent man, carelessly gratifying desire.
The only reason Thaddeus has any money, after all, is because he married Letitia. The heir of the great Quincunx House, Thaddeus was a few generations removed from any real wealth that could keep the house from decline, so it was fortuitous indeed that he met Letitia one day on the train. She might have known that this was why he was really interested in her, but she entered marriage committed to making it real. She was kind, loving, caring, and in every way wonderful to him. After her death, we get this:
It was his considerable loss, Thaddeus was every day aware, that he did not love his wife.
But with her gone, what’s now to be done, particularly with the child? Letitia’s mother, Mrs Iveson, has a plan. She will help him to get an advertisement out and then to interview any potential nannies. Unfortunately, none of the three who show up to be interviewed are up to their standards, especially not the last one to come, Pettie, who smells of cigarette smoke and has obviously drafted her own references. It’s bad news, but Mrs Iveson, who knows why her daughter married this strange, quiet man, says she will stay to help with Georgina.
Miraculously, things settle down and this seems to be a great fit. Mrs Iveson and Thaddeus even begin to admire each other. But they are still dealing with their own grief, and Mrs Iveson writes the strangest thing to a friend:
Bereavement brings the truth out, Mrs Iveson wrote ten days ago to a longtime friend in Sussex. Letitia’s innocence seems just a little remarkable now, and I wonder if the good are always innocent.
Whatever she meant by this, we soon become aware that Pettie, that last girl interviewed, has become attached to Thaddeus and is calling and hanging up. She finally gets the courage to speak and says she lost a ring that day, could she come look for it. Naturally, she despises Mrs Iveson, because obviously Thaddeus preferred her: “She wants to tell him what Letitia would, that the baby isn’t properly minded, that the baby isn’t safe.” Worse, she’s allowed her imagination to keep this going, and here’s something she imagines when she visits to look for her ring:
Sorrowing gets to you, he might have said, saying also that he shouldn’t have done that, that he got carried away. No, it’s all right, she had it in mind to reassure him. She knew, she understood.
This leads to a “second cruelty, drifting out of the summer blue, as the first did.”
To be honest, the plot here is actually very simple. The complexity comes with the multiple characters and the complexity of their feelings and thoughts as chance overtakes them and they have to wonder about whether defilement leaves a trace. And, of course, there is William Trevor’s exquisite atmospheric and insightful prose. Here is Thaddeus, who has sat up through a terrible night of anticipation with Mrs Iveson:
Thaddeus turns off the lamp on the table, and the conservatory is more softly lit by the haze of early morning. He does not want this day, so gently coming. He does not want its minutes and its hours, its afternoon and its evening, its relentless happening.
Trevor and Betsy discuss:
Our post on William Trevor’s “The Women” (here) has become one of the most viewed posts on this site. It is the top post for the past six months, though it’s been up for only a few weeks of those months. It is an exceptional story that delves into many mysteries. In that post, I said I didn’t think Trevor had published anything since late 2008. This was wrong on one front, obviously, since in 2009 he published his novel Love and Summer. I didn’t think much of this error since I was primarily talking about his short stories. But I was wrong there too. The other day I was browsing for anything I could find on Trevor and found that on November 7, 2011, he published a piece in The Guardian (you can click here to read the entire piece — you really should). I printed it out properly and started reading it immediately. If, like me, you missed it, I suggest you do the same thing. Due to the interest in “The Women,” I hope there are plenty of you out there who find this to be excellent news.
I must admit, I wondered how good this story would be. It is my understanding that The New Yorker has a right of first refusal when it comes to Trevor’s stories (if you can find a solid source for this rumor, please let me know). Not that that magazine always gets only the best. They also have a right of first refusal with Alice Munro, but several of her best stories have been published elsewhere. Still, it made me wonder if this was passed over, and if not, if The New Yorker and William Trevor ignored their relationship so he could publish a piece in The Guardian, not known for its fiction. Perhaps it would be a slight piece, something produced for fun. Whatever the case, “An Idyll in Winter” is another masterful work. I have read it a few times since I found it, and in writing this post, in selecting passages, I found it still hit me just as hard, if not harder.
“An Idyll in Winter” is a kind of love story that is forced to deal with enemies of love: time and imagination. Our lovers are Anthony and Mary Bella. The story begins when Mary Bella is twelve. She’s trying to stay up late because her new summer tutor is arriving at their isolated house on the Yorkshire moors. His train is delayed, she falls asleep, but soon the summer begins and her relationship with Anthony, who is twenty-two.
Mary Bella is enraptured by the stories, and, fittingly, they take walks out on the moors where her young love develops, and we know it will never die. But this idyll — as with all idylls — soon ends, though “[h]e said it never would, because remembering wouldn’t let it.” For his part, Anthony doesn’t seem to take advantage:
And that summer, which was warm, with hardly any rain, she developed a fondness for Anthony that he could not dismiss or pretend he didn’t notice and which, when September came, caused him more unease than he admitted to himself.
But is he feeling uneasy because of her love for him? Or is it that, with September, he must leave this twelve-year-old girl who has linked him to the growing world he’s introduced her to. In the next passage, we learn a lot about Anthony’s character.
He left what he thought would be impossible to forget — the sadness Mary Bella had spoken of, and something like desperation in her eyes when the last day came and they said good-bye to one another. But Anthony did forget. He made himself, considering it better that he should.
He makes himself forget. Somehow, he’s able. And this is followed by a short, lovely section that shows us the wonderful life Anthony goes on to live. He becomes a successful cartographer and marries the lovely Nicola. They have two daughters, and Anthony doesn’t like to leave them for his assignments.
Neither wondered how married life might have been if they had married other people, how different their children would be. It was enough to know that being married to one another was what they wanted, that neither wanted more.
Twelve years pass, and during this time Mary Bella’s parents die and she takes over the home. She does not forget: “She knew she was living in the past, that it would always be here, around her, that she was part of it herself.”
One day, Anthony’s job takes him back to the Yorkshire moors. He decides to wander a bit, allowing himself to remember pieces of that summer twelve years earlier. He finds the old house, sure that Mary Bella must have left by now. They meet and he stays longer than he’d planned.
The remainder of this post is loaded with spoilers. It’s difficult to discuss the themes of this story if they are not revealed. Consider yourself warned.
Anthony and Mary Bella begin an affair, and it’s as if the twelve years they spent apart never happened, as if it was some kind of dream: “Someone else, not he, had lived his other life: that fantasy, in silence, was shared.” At first, Anthony wonders what has happened. How is he now able to disregard the family he loved so much?
Anthony hadn’t made it happen. It had happened because it was part of something else, of what had been impossible and now was not. He told himself that, but it made no difference. He tried to push it all away, to deny that time, only by passing, could contradict so easily and so naturally, but he found he couldn’t.
Mary Bella, as much as she loves Anthony, as much as she wants him there, cannot help but imagine the lives he left to be with her. He doesn’t tell her much about his wife or his children, “[y]et out of so little, images came, and voices spoke.” The easiest thing for Anthony, though, is to do what he did the first time: forget.
But in all this Anthony’s instinct was as it always was: not ever to allow in himself the kind of tribulation that haunted Mary Bella. His way was to suppress, to conceal, to be protected.
They are happy as winter comes and their lives become one. Cutting out periods of time, though, is not as easy as Anthony would like to think.
When he left Mary Bella the first time, the summer they shared felt like a dream. Then, when he comes back, his time with his wife felt like a dream, like the part of life that didn’t quite fit and could be forgotten. Of course, the title of the story gives it away. This time with Mary Bella will also become an idyll, a period of time that feels disconnected from whatever “reality” Anthony begins when he leaves again. He will, again, simply try to forget; Mary Bella will continue to remember.
Many thanks to you, Trevor, for discovering Wm Trevor’s “An Idyll in Winter.” What a wonderful read! Like you, I enjoyed reading it very much. I want to add to your commentary.
Economy has to be the short story writer’s staff and stave. Here, I note the way Wm Trevor creates an observer in the trusted servant of the Grange, Woods. The name alone suggests “many” and “omnipresent,” though quiet — like the rest of the world, like the reader. The reader is reminded by his presence — what is Woods thinking? We don’t know, of course, but we can imagine. We are reminded that even if they are quiet about it, people are watching Anthony and Mary Bella; society is watching.
Another little structural note has to do with Anthony’s thinking about the Grange. “Inaccurate clocks were everywhere.” With that, and with all the references to Bronte and Heathcliff, I think the author is pointing us to something askew in the timing of this story — i.e., not just that this is a 19th century idyll taking place in the 21st, but also that the young male tutor had been tempted by a 12 year old girl. (Of course, he resisted.) He says, years later, after he has returned, “. . . too much had colored too many moments since they had walked again on the moors, since in the kitchen afterwards she had made tea, since in their schoolroom he had wanted her.”
“Since.” Does the author mean since as in earlier in the day? As in “when”? Or does he mean since as in because . . . meaning that extra color was there because he had wanted her even when she was a child in the schoolroom? I think both — all.
I do think the Irish pedophile crisis colors such a story. Anthony is not a pedophile. But he has the “double self” of a pedophile, and the ability to conceal the truth from himself. I think Trevor lures us into this lovely idyll and makes us want, want, want this union, just as Anthony does. But he points out — the “woods” are watching — as if the world, or even, nature — is asking us — what do we see?
In a way, the story reminds me of the way Juliet and Romeo perish. Mary Bella’s parents are not in their right minds when they hire this young man and leave the child alone with him for hours and days on end, just as Juliet’s parents were not in their right minds when they entrusted their daughter to the nurse and the priest. It is not Anthony so much who was at first at fault, but the people who hired him and then abdicated their duty to him. And look at Mary Bella’s parents’ reasoning — to get her into Evelyncourt. (There’s a discussion in that name — court, class, Eve, temptation — what else?)
But in the end, what we see, in fact, is that Anthony is a man who, no matter that he resisted seducing the child (although he did, so to speak) has now committed a very different sin — the betrayal of his family — which of course we take very lightly nowadays . . . another way the clocks are all out of whack.
Anorexia overtakes the oldest daughter — but it is clear that it is not the disease so much as the betrayal that is killing the girl. There is such a huge debate about the seeds of anorexia. But it is interesting that it is in England where a common sense philosophy regarding anorexia appeared — that you should eat with your anorexic (and not relinquish her to the hospital.) What Wm Trevor is suggesting, I think, is that it is unnatural for a parent to abandon their child. And the English ideal treatment for anorexia blames no one, but makes the parents the center of the treatment, in their home, thus strengthening and validating the family (where Americans have been somewhat dedicated to hospitalization). And to decide you are going to eat with your anorexic is no light decision — it can take every minute of the day, at first, as Laura Collins, “American author of Eating with Your Anorexic “ could tell you.
Hannah Arendt talked to us about the banality of evil, and how easy it is for us to fall in with it. I think Wm Trevor does as well, showing us, as he does, how casually Anthony can abandon his family, see his daughter dying, and convince himself that “that would pass.”
We want to believe it, too. That it would be that easy. It takes Mary Bella to convince him otherwise. But, in fact, this idyll in winter is so alluring, having as it does every beautiful fantasy — servants, vast tracts of land, horses, and primroses, not to mention the living in the past — that we fall in with it, too, seduced bystanders. But not Mary Bella.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). William Trevor’s “The Women” was originally published in the January 14, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
It was a beautiful thing to find a new William Trevor story in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. To my knowledge William Trevor has not published anything anywhere in the last four years. I assumed that, at age 84, he was done, as much as I hoped this day would arrive. I was not disappointed in the slightest.
“The Women” is, in part, about quiet sadness, the type that doesn’t go away as we age even though those who know us best may not even know what caused it. They just see it on our faces. We tell each other and ourselves lies and find consolation in anything that lends doubt to the cause of the sadness. We are first introduced to the sadness of Mr. Normanton. In most ways, Mr. Normanton has it all together. He brushes his gray hair “carefully every day so that it was as he wished it to be.”
Only Mr. Normanton’s profound melancholy was entirely his own. It was said by people who knew him well that melancholy had not always been his governing possession, that once upon a time he had been carefree and a little wild, that the loss of his wife — not to the cruelty of an early death but to her preference for another man — had left him wounded in a way that was irreparable.
Mr. Normanton is the father of our central character, Cecilia, she who makes the strange connection between melancholy and happiness in Mr. Normanton and some other characters we meet soon. Cecilia never knew her mother. In fact, much as we might have assumed when we read” the loss of his wife” meant Mr. Normanton’s wife had died, Cecilia thinks this as well. The truth is humiliating, and he still loves his ex-wife, so Mr. Normanton has never really brought it up. Trying to do his best by Cecilia, Mr. Normanton eventually sends her to boarding school when she turns fourteen. After all, she has no friends at her home on Buckingham Street. He’s been advised that Cecilia would “benefit and be happy as a girl among other girls.”
Of course, at first it is dreadful, and Cecilia begs to be brought back home: “Cecilia disliked the place intensely, felt lonelier and more on her own than she ever had in Buckingham Street.” But this kind of sadness and longing often drifts away, especially among the young. As much as she misses her father, she finds she’s settling in at her school.
All is going well until she begins to spy two strange, retired women. She sees them first at a couple of hockey games, and, though she cannot figure out why, they seem to pay particularly close attention to Cecilia. After one of the matches they “stood about as if they had a reason to, and Cecilia avoided looking in their direction.”
Trevor moves us away from Cecilia and drops us right into the lives of the two women, who happened to be named Miss Keble and Miss Cotell. At fifty-five, they’re retired now, having worked together for thirty years. They live together now in a comfortable friendship, though there is acute pain in Miss Cotell’s past, and, due to their intimacy, Miss Keble feels it too.
The characters don’t want to relive their pasts, but naturally pieces of it find their way into consciousness every once in a while, and it’s in such small pieces that Trevor brings this story together. More than anything else, it’s this careful style that brings us so close to the source of pain and the desire to turn away from it that makes this such a powerful story. It’s not particularly hard to figure out what’s going on, and indeed it doesn’t stay a secret for too long. But it’s the secret pain that these people feel they cannot share, so carefully rendered, that makes this story come to life.
In the end, Cecilia knows what’s going on too, though she’s not 100% certain. In fact, she’s just uncertain enough that she can foster some kind of doubt that allows her to avoid the painful truth she’ll now have to deal with for the rest of her life, especially if she never faces it. It’s one powerful last paragraph:’
Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, this flimsy exercise in supposition was tenuous and vague. But Cecilia knew it would not go away and reached out for its whisper of consoling doubt.
This is a remarkable story, only the second of the year, yet it’s hard for me to imagine another coming along to top it.
In “The Women,” William Trevor lays out a fine mystery in a cool voice, revealing the cold truth, such as it might be, in a cobweb of the slightest of hints. It is this narrative style of slight, interrupted, skewed, slowly revealed information (plus the tart observation) that engages the reader. Cecilia Normanton, Trevor’s main character, wonders what is true and what is not (as does the reader), and she thinks: “Fragments made a whole.” Or a hole. One thing is sure: uncertainties and bad actors prevail.
Who are William Trevor’s “Two Women”? That’s a cool question to be sure. One has the pair of elderly companions, Keble and Cotell; Normanton’s pair of wives – his ex-wife and his possibly “dead” wife; and Cecilia’s pair of possible mothers – her father’s ex-wife or one of the elderly women. Finally, one has Cecilia as she would be if she ever gets free of her father and/or Cecilia as she will be if she remains in his possession.
The multiple explanations for Trevor’s seemingly simple title underlie his point: confusion abounds in our perception of life. In addition, confusion is multiplied when people take their opportunities to “wield power” over one another but call it something else: love, friendship, parenthood, priesthood, truth.
For one, people use class distinctions to keep other people in their place. Early on in the story, a little student-villain named Elizabeth Statham raises the question of class. She sees a pair of tatty old ladies trailing Cecilia, and, sensing weakness, Statham pointedly inquires, “Are they poor relations?” Even Elizabeth’s name suggests that there is a kind of powerful social “state” that rules the little villages of life.
The perks of class may influence Cecilia’s ultimate decision to “doubt” the truth – that her father is unreliable. In the end, she consciously chooses to believe that there could be an alternate story – a “Shadowland” – that casts doubt on the possibility that her father could have lied, or lied by omission, or worse.
Another tactic for surviving uncertainty is to simply seize power. Father Humphrey is the man whom Cotell seeks out when she is pregnant; we know he is not to be trusted when we read that his handmaiden is a “slatternly woman with a bucket and mop.” We distrust him even more when we hear how, years later, Cotell has recurring nightmares of the day she gave the priest a heavy envelope, he having said, “All done.” We slowly gather that the priest has collected a handsome fee for placing her illegitimate child. Later, when we see Mr. Normanton being fawned upon by the headmistress of Cecilia’s school, we think money, and it dawns on us how Cecilia may have been acquired. Why she was acquired is less clear. (There is the coolest hint of abuse here, by the father, by the priest, or both, in collusion.)
Trevor makes a point of the power relationship between the two little old ladies. Keble is able to goad the once-pregnant Cotell into tracking down her child’s identity, and Keble also is able to convince Cotell to stalk the 14-year-old girl who is probably, but not certainly, her daughter. Trevor makes clear how Keble “wielded power” over her companion. But, “given to exaggeration,” Keble completely misjudges what is possible, and Keble’s mis-use of her power leads to disaster and betrayal.
Power is the currency. The name Normanto(w)n suggests a medieval environment where entitled, violent men own other people – serfs and women among others. In this milieu, the father can tell Cecilia that a “jeu blanc” is a “love game” without telling her that in tennis, love is a zero. Cecilia never realizes that the kind of love her father is offering makes a zero – zero match. Cecilia reminds the reader of Nabokov’s Lolita, the girl enslaved by Humbert Humbert. But where Lolita separates from Humbert when she declares he has stolen her childhood, Cecilia seems to have chosen to stay with her lying cad of a rich father, despite the hints of the real truth, despite the “fragments [that] made a whole.” She, after all, is comforted by the doubt her imagination can envision.
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.
I have always wanted to like William Trevor’s stories more than I actually like them. After all, Trevor is venerated as one of the greatest short story writers of all time – or perhaps I want to like him more because of the charming, wise smile on his now 82-year-old face; he just looks like someone I should listen to. Sadly, much of my experience with him has left me, probably rightly, feeling rather dumb. For me, his stories have tended to be so subtle as to appear pointless. Don’t worry, Trevor lovers, I’ve always considered myself at fault. And, notwithstanding my misgivings, something must have emanated from the stories, or I hoped to suddenly become more perceptive, because I am still attracted to his work and have high expectations that someday his writing and I will develop a strong relationship. Cheating at Canasta (2008) certainly helped.
This collection of twelve stories had the subtle style I expected, but I must have been paying closer attention because time and again I was seduced by Trevor’s quiet insights. His style certainly isn’t showy, but one can see the hand of a master molding a thought to its simplest shape without reducing the detailed textures. It is in the textures that these stories excel. Indeed, if you miss the texture, you might miss the story itself, as I’m sure has been my problem time and again. The premises for many of the stories in this collection aren’t interesting on their face but were, rather, touching or devestating glimpses at human beings chased down by circumstance or by their own, usually innocent, folly.
“The Dressmaker’s Child,” the first story of the collection, really grabbed hold of me. Cahal, a young man who works as a mechanic with his father, is one day solicited to escort a newly married tourist couple to a religious statue which, it is said, cries. The statue is not much of a shrine for the locals; after all, it’s just the rain collecting there. The initial buildup is slow and contemplative. It takes quite a bit of the story before we actualy see the titular character, a little girl in a ragged white dress, who plays on the side of the road. It’s actually worse than it sounds. The little girl’s sport is to run into cars as they go by.
When Cahal hits something on the drive back home, just as he’s passing the dressmaker’s home, and the couple in the back don’t notice, he’s able to discount his own impression that he might have hit — actually, might have killed – the little girl. The story becomes incredibly strange and incredibly interesting when the dressmaker herself starts popping up wherever Cahal is. There’s a mixture of vengence and sexuality in her gaze, and I’d never considered that combination before nor the effects it might have on the young man. The story starts us in one place and then suddenly we realize we’ve been reading an entirely different story. This is not always the case with Trevor’s stories, but it certainly was a nice opening to this collection.
This strange story had me paying close attention to the rest of the stories. It was so strange, and the close attention to the gestures and to what was not being said paid off. Consequently, the following opening to “The Room,” which has the subtle style I’d been accustomed to when I read Trevor, became quite a dazzling piece of writing; there is so much detail in each clause.
‘My marriage is breaking up,’ the man who’d made love to her in his temporary accomodation had confided when, as strangers, they had danced together. ‘And yours?’ he’d asked, and she’d hesitated and then said no, not breaking up. There’d never been talk of that. And when they danced the second time, after they’d had a drink together and then a few more, he asked her if she had children and she said she hadn’t. That she was not able to had been known before the marriage and then become part of it — as her employment at the Charterhouse Institute had been until six weeks ago, when the Institute had decided to close down.
The syntax is, at times, confusing. I had to read “That she was not able to had been known . . .” a few times before it made sense (in fact, when I typed it above, and then later when reviewing my review, I had to read it a couple of times again — I think I’ve smoothed it over in my mind by now). Still, there’s something in that tangle that relates to the story. I like that it is tangled yet the story still moves on quite quickly, making the reader (at least this reader) do double-takes, which became more and more enjoyable the more I delved into Trevor’s stories. There’s almost always – if not always – many things — if not everything — going on underneath.
A couple of my favorites stories in the collection were two that dealt with relationships, in particular with the not-so-showy aspects of relationships, those stable elements, which aren’t actually that stable but upon which one might make assumptions sufficiently strong to build a relationship upon.
“Cheating at Canasta” is a touching story where a man, Mallory, sits and eats in a restaurant in an Italian city. He’s getting no real pleasure, though; he’s only there because he promised his recently deceased wife, with whom he’d frequented the restaurant during their marriage, that he’d go back again after she died. He didn’t want to go and deal with the memories, and it seemed even more foolish considering she made him make the promise when she herself was losing her memory. It was a momentary whim. Somehow she remembered these trips, extracted the promise, and then forgot the trips and the promise the next moment.
At the restaurant Mallory thinks back on her dying days when they’d play canasta in her hospital room. Since she had no idea what was going on, he’d often cheat to let her win. During those games he would think about what was already lost; and why satisfy her demand to visit this restaurant when in the very moment she made it she forgot it?
In the depths of her darkening twilight, if there still were places they belonged in a childhood he had not known, among shadows that were hers, not his, not theirs. In all that was forgotten how could it matter if a whim, forgotten too, was put aside, as the playing cards fell from her hand were?
While in the restaurant, Mallory eavesdrops on a young couple:
‘I keep not hearing what you’re saying.’
‘I said I wasn’t tired.’
Mallory didn’t believe she hadn’t been heard: her husband was closer to her than he was and he’d heard the ‘Not really’ himself. The scratchy irritation nurtured malevolence unpredictably in both of them, making her not say why she had cried and causing him to lie. My God, Mallory thought, what they are wasting!
This story, while full of sentiment, is not sentimental. I thought its reflection on relationships and their destruction, the times built up and then lost, was remarkably acute.
Another touching story with a simple premise and simple (seemingly) characters was “A Perfect Relationship.” Here we go into an empty apartment with Prosper, an older man who has just lost his much younger girlfriend. They never fought. There was no bitterness. All seemed to be well:
The affection in their relationship had been the pleasure of both their lives: that had not been said before in this room, nor even very often that they were fortunate.
Nevertheless, one day she simply leaves, and he just cannot comprehend it:
He sat where she had left him, thinking he had never known her, for what else made sense?
It is sad to see how much this absences affects him, how much it has shaken a foundation he felt was securely in place and that he believed he needed in order to function. There’s an excellent passage that shows this. Prosper is drinking wine alone in a public house.
He sipped the chilled win, glancing about at the men on their own. Any one of them might be waiting for her. That wasn’t impossible, although it would have been once.
I’ve read quite a few short stories in the past few months. Some are very conventional, written by people who seem to be following a learned formula for writing a short story. Some have been masterful. These certainly fall into the latter category. Trevor is not afraid to take us wherever the story demands to go. A story that begins with a car ride to see a crying statue, that devotes a bit of time to introspection and place, can move on to become one with a vengeful, hypersexual mother menacing a young man. Yet it all felt natural and exciting, something those conventional stories lack.
Thankfully, Trevor isn’t the only one writing wonderful short fiction these days. We’ve got him at 82, Alice Munro at 79, Tobias Wolff at 65, George Saunders at 51, Chris Adrian at 40, Maile Meloy at 38, and Karen Russell at 29. Those names and ages were just the ones off the top of my head. The short story is still a thriving field, and here is a book by one of its chief sowers and harvesters.