Trevor is for me one of the absolute masters of the short story form. His stories always leave me with the feeling of having entered into, or stayed a while staring at, a particular kind of realist painting: where it’s all laid out before you, but the emotions are held just barely, and very neatly in check. This story is absolutely succinct, and so much larger than itself.
First published in The New Yorker, and available to read online here; collected in Last Stories, Viking Penguin, 2018
William Carlos Williams says that the short story, which acts like a flare of a match struck in the dark, is the only real form for describing the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of people’s lives.
If Gogol’s artful rambling was part of the point, William Trevor was the master of the kind of writing in which every word earns its place, pays its taxes and volunteers for good causes on the side. Over 20-odd novels and a dozen story collections, there’s no shortage of broken lives to choose from. In the middle of the first page of ‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’ we find the following paragraph:
Now in her early fifties, slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features, Miss Elizabeth Nightingale considered that she was fortunate in her life. She had inherited a house on the death of her father, and managed without skimping on what she earned as a piano teacher. She had known the passion of love.
How’s that for giving us the briefness, the brokenness and the simultaneous wholeness of someone’s life? For telling us what she believes about the fullness of her life and what she lacks, and how both can be true at once. In less than sixty words.
Published in Last Stories, Penguin, 2019
It was my mother, who was of Irish extraction, who first introduced me to William Trevor’s writing, and to Trevor himself: they both died at the end of last year.‘A Bit On the Side’ is typical downbeat WT, suffused with unshowy regret about chances not taken and lives not lived – the whole watched over with his all-seeing, all-compassionate eye. Two unprepossessing lovers in middle age resolve to part, but agonisingly find they cannot; she has recently divorced, he remains married. ‘She had never asked, she did not know, why he would not leave his marriage. His reason, she supposed, were all the reasons there usually were’. Unfailingly polite to and considerate of each other, there are no Grand Guignol turns here: instead, ‘they would grow old together while never being together’.
(From A Bit On the Side and Other Stories. Penguin, 2005)