“Giotto’s Angels”
by William Trevor
from Last Stories

William Trevor Last StoriesI have reached the end now. For nearly a year I’ve been putting off reading “Giotto’s Angels” because it is the last “new” William Trevor story I will ever have. Yes, it’s true, the story was published in 2012 in the Sewanee Review, so it’s not “new.” And yes, I still have many of Trevor’s past stories to read. But there is something about getting to the end of William Trevor’s final collection of stories.

Sadly, though I found some nice things in “Giotto’s Angels,” it is not among my favorites of this exquisite collection. As is often the case in a William Trevor story, I may be overlooking the key to the story, so I hope some of you might be able to help with that. I see plenty of reviews calling it, for example, “one of this volume’s most moving stories” (see here), so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to access more of it with time.

This is the story of a man who is diagnosed with an “amnesiac abnormality.”

He was a man of forty-one with finely chiselled features, red-brown hair and Wedgwood-blue eyes that had once been alert but were not now. They hadn’t been since a bright May morning in 2001 when he found himself on a seat in one of the city parks feeling as if he had just woken up.

He doesn’t even remember his name; at least, not that it is his name:

His name was Constantine Naylor. He had forgotten that it was and wondered sometimes why that name came into his head. He liked it and tried to keep it there, but could not.

Constantine is a picture-restorer, and Trevor ties his profession of bringing clarity back to a painting to his memory of his own life.

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.

For the first several paragraphs, the man is single-mindedly searching for St. Ardo’s. He asks passers-by, but none help him. He sees street signs. It does almost feel like he’s searching a muddled painting for one clear starting point.

On his meandering journey, he runs into a prostitute named Denise. She awkwardly leads him to somewhere private, and he has no real idea what is going on. All he knows at that point is that he has a key in his pocket, and he doesn’t know what it opens. Soon, though, they come to his place, a room in a warehouse where he both works and sleeps.

Denise herself has lost a part of her past. Denise isn’t even the name she was born with — “A terrible name they give me” — but beyond that, she has ventured far from her past. Time has muddled things, as happens with a painting:

Fifteen years ago she’d lost touch with the husband she’d married when she was young. She was older than she looked.

I like how Trevor puts this — she lost touch. He doesn’t tell us exactly what happened here, but it feels almost as if they drifted apart without realizing it. I’m not sure that’s really how it happened, but to Denise perhaps that is how it now feels, fifteen hard years later.

At the warehouse, the man is working on a restoration of a painting and uses Giotto’s Lamentation as a reference for the angels. The painting of angels sits, lit brightly in the shadowy room. He works on it for a time, apparently forgetting that he’s been accompanied home, and then finds the woman asleep.

The reason I’m not too certain how to approach this story is that I don’t know how to view the man. The woman, realizing he might have money, robs him in the middle of the night, but the man doesn’t know this. Trevor focuses on the woman, on her feelings that it wasn’t a theft — the money probably would have been lost for good — and her eventual feelings that she should return it and perhaps see if she can maintain a longer relationship with the forgetful man. What is the man’s role, then? He restores the paintings, but it’s only by accident that he has anything to do with this woman’s life and well-being. He doesn’t remember her. If she comes back — which is doubtful — he will continually forget her. I’m just not sure where the characters are left when the story comes to a close.

To be sure, the tone is perfectly modulated. Trevor is always masterful, even when the story isn’t as fully developed as, say, “An Idyll in Winter,” the next story in the collection. While I don’t feel I know where the characters are going, and quite how they fit into any of the larger themes of the story, I do feel like I know the characters and where they’ve been, which, as usual, helps me feel some compassion toward them, some softness toward my neighbors. I just don’t quite know how this story comes together, so any help would be appreciated.

In the meantime, I need to pull out my large two-volume collection of Trevor’s stories and figure out how best to read each and every one I have remaining.

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