Last Stories—William Trevor

[I decided to read a few of these at a time, and wrote about each group of stories before reading on.]

26 June 2019
The first four stories
Could there be an algorithm for writing William Trevor stories? So far, we’ve had glimpses into the lives of three unfulfilled middle-aged women, and an unfulfilled younger woman. Trevor doesn’t necessarily stay with these women’s points of view throughout, although he does in the first and fourth, so other lives are touched on. But, even with the main female characters, the touch is very light, less being described than is left unspoken. And it’s as though each of the stories is bookended by silence, or emptiness. We know no more about what is to happen next than what happened before.

Do I sound unenthusiastic? In a lot of ways, Trevor never puts a foot wrong, creating—what? I was going to say worlds, except these aren’t worlds. He creates lonely little corners which could almost be anytime, any place. He seems to want us to believe that they are set in the 21st Century—Polish migrant workers are mentioned in the second story, and computers in the fourth—but I don’t believe it. Aside from such details, these stories are really set in an earlier, pre-technological age, not long after the grey 1950s. It’s kind of OK… except, for me, it isn’t really. The best short stories, for me, really do imply a world outside the little corner of it we’re glimpsing. However William Trevor might want to insist on the unbridgeable separation between people, and he does this all the time, human beings are nonetheless born of families and societies. His characters live in bubbles, in which the main contact appears to be through almost chance encounters and unsatisfactory sex. Otherwise, the world might as well not exist, and I find this too big a void.

James Joyce’s characters in Dubliners or Katherine Mansfield’s in her stories also live in bubbles—it’s a feature of the short story genre—but there’s always a very real society making its presence felt, one that often comes crashing in. In Trevor’s stories… no. We are told that Rosanne in the fourth story works in an office, rides on the Tube, hears snippets of news she’s heard earlier. I don’t believe it because none of the details actually matter. Which means these stories don’t feel like a microcosm of the wider world, because there is no wider world.

So what is there? That algorithm I talked about, for a start. The unfulfilled woman in the first story is a piano teacher with only one pupil she likes, who plays sublimely for her and pilfers her knickknacks. (I’m not making it up.) Is this symbolic of relationships in Trevor-land? She had once had, or thinks she had, a loving relationship with a man, and her father used to buy her chocolates, but it’s thin stuff and she suspects her father was just buying her approval. The boy gets through teachers very fast, and she can’t decide what to do. Will she, won’t she complain to the boy’s parents, like all his previous teachers must have done, and lose the joy of his playing? She decides not, and if he’s pilfering something on every visit she must have had a very big knickknack collection. He stays until ‘the seasons changed again, and then again’—that’ll be two years then—and then stops coming. Once, as an awkward adolescent, he turns up again, and the sex—sorry, the piano-playing—is as good as ever. It’s been worth it, she decides. ‘There was a balance struck; it was enough.’ Who needs knickknacks anyway?

The second story, like the first, takes its title from the male character. ‘The Crippled Man’ is a relative of the woman who looks after him, and the story opens with him negotiating a paint job on the outside of his house with some migrant workers who sleep in their van. She’s vaguely annoyed when she gets home, assumes he’s been cheated, goes along with it anyway. The unsatisfactory sex for her is with the butcher, who doesn’t charge her for her meat order when she lets him fumble with her in the back room. He’s past it now, so the meat money she used to put away in a little tin isn’t being added to. As it happens, the foreign workers—not Polish, but they say they are if it gets them work—are honest. They worry when, after a few rainy days away doing other work, they return to find the crippled man no longer there. But there’s a newly-planted flower bed, and Trevor has already let us know that people in the village assume the man to be long dead anyway. She’ll still get his pension… and, it’s just struck me, Trevor seems to be making a point of having the only concern for the man expressed by foreign workers who only met him a few days before.

There’s no concern, no compassion in the third story either… until there is. ‘At the Caffè Daria’ focuses on Anita, a middle-aged woman who used to have a life. She’s comfortable enough now, in her low-key way, doing her crosswords and reading for a publisher in the café she’s been coming to for years. Then, unexpectedly one day, along comes the better-looking woman who had been her friend… until she wasn’t. They had both been in the same nationally-known TV dance troupe—and the other woman stole her man, the only man Anita had ever loved, or could love. OK, he was a shit then, and was a shit until the day he died—as the other woman tries to tell her—but that isn’t going to make her anything but resentful.

The other woman has sought her out to let her know that he’s dead, that he’s left her all his debts, and that therefore his house will have to be sold. (Money and the value of stuff. That’s another part of the algorithm.) Does she care? No. But she keeps going down the street to see if the house she used to live in has been sold yet. It hasn’t. And then, once, she sees that the front door is open a crack. She goes in, doesn’t find the other woman inside… and never sees her again. Should she have shown her more feeling? How does it go at the end? The other woman ‘cherishes in her lonely solitude [as Anita imagines it] what Anita too late embraces now: all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.’ She’s a sadder and wiser Anita after that little lesson.

And then there’s ‘Taking Mr Ravenswood.’ This is the one with computers and Tube rides, and a younger woman. She’s has a child with an uncaring shit—at least the shit in the previous story hadn’t fathered children on either woman—and her life is unfulfilled. Sometimes the shit lives with her, sometimes he doesn’t—and once, after he’s left for a while again, she’s asked out by a customer at the bank where she works, an older man with, she knows, a little money. After she tells the shit about her evening, and how she ended up in the older man’s flat, he comes up with a plan. It’s never clear what the plan is, but it must involve her in gaining the trust of ‘Mr Ravenswood’ and, somehow, the money that will set the shit up in a decent job instead of the delivery driving he’s forced to do.

Where will it go? Do we care? She goes to Mr Ravenswood’s house during the day, remembers the night she’d been there, and what he’d told her then. She realises he’s just a lonely, guilty widower—his wife died in a car crash that was his fault—and whatever plan she might have had is now completely irrelevant. She’d drunk too much that night, had fallen asleep, and he had laid his coat over her. It had slipped off, and was on the floor when she woke up. The only comment the shit could come up when she told him about the coat afterwards had been, ‘Well, there you are.’ But that was then. On this visit, in her lunch break from the office, she’s learnt something about both the men in her life. Another one who’s sadder and wiser.

4 July
The fifth, sixth and seventh stories
There’s a particular aesthetic governing this kind of short story collection—i.e. stories by one author written, I assume, in the sort of time it would take to write a novel. As with a novel, the author builds a world—I’ve already been talking about Trevor-land—but the insights that he or she reveals come about differently. Anything that we, or the characters, come to understand arrives by way of an epiphany, or the turn of a phrase. These can bring the reader up short, or not, but whichever it is, we’re often left with a sense of having learnt something. I was satirical about a couple of the first stories when I described the characters as becoming sadder and wiser. It’s a favourite phrase of the Rev W Awdry in his Thomas the Tank Engine books, and I suppose I’m implying that the learning experience can seem a little bit trite. My favourite fictions are the long novels of the 19th Century, so maybe it’s going to be hard for a pattern of set-up/insight, set-up/insight to work for me. Whilst there are plenty of short stories in existence that I love, I’m coming to realise that I’m not usually a fan of this kind of collection.

I’m speaking in general terms, but in fact Trevor moves some things on in these middle stories of the collection. They are longer than most of the earlier ones, and all of them contain versions of other people’s lives that characters in the stories present, either to themselves or to other people. ‘Mrs Crasthorpe’—the character herself remarks on the ugliness of the name, preferring to refer to her old-family maiden name as a marker of her identity. She pretends to be younger than she is following the death of the husband who provided her with security in her middle age and beyond, but little else. Her self-promotion is a complete failure. Some of the story is narrated from the point of view of a widower she’s eyeing up, who is younger than she pretends to be and sees her as a slightly overweight bore. He has no idea she’s after him—her corny old ‘Do you know such-and-such a street?’ routine catches him out—and avoids her when he realises.

It’s worse than that. Mrs Crasthorpe is a type, snobbish and self-centred, and the most important thing in her life is to present a respectable front. But it’s hard when there’s a son she never talks about, although she visits him regularly, some kind of serial offender who tells her he likes prison life. Much later, after the younger widower has found a new life and hasn’t seen her for some time, he sees her being accosted by a young man, who is immediately arrested for what he’s done—and later hears that it was her son. It appears he is a sex offender, although Trevor doesn’t quite spell it out, and… and what? We don’t know. By now she’s disappeared from the story except when the widower hears about her, which he only does once more. She’s been found dead by the binmen, stinking of whiskey. Reader, what is it about her life that she couldn’t cope with? You’ll have to make your own mind up, because wily old William Trevor isn’t telling us.

Next, ‘The Lost Girl.’ This being Trevor-land, the girl is a fully-grown woman, and she’s not lost, she’s dead. But the title is fair enough, because the story that is pieced together by the public-spirited middle-class woman whose point of view we follow—the woman who volunteers at charity shops and reads improving books with prisoners—eventually finds out that when the woman was a girl she just had to leave home. Something else gets pieced together, as the public-spirited woman talks it over with her public-spirited son, the one who is about to start postgraduate medical training after having spent, apparently, a year or so living back at home. The younger woman had been their cleaner, until she suddenly stopped coming some months before. And no, the son tells her, they didn’t have an affair (as the mother had innocently suspected), because the woman didn’t seem to have enough feeling for him, or anything else, for such a thing to be a possibility. There are other characters who have enough fellow-feeling to care about the death of this woman, a priest and the woman’s former landlords. But none of them can work out what went so wrong in her life that she would step out into the path of a vehicle when the pedestrian light was on red.

Life, eh? What’s it all about? The main character does her good works, hopes her son will do well, sympathises with the priest who seems like a version of Father McKenzie in ‘Eleanor Rigby’. But, as she looks out into the garden that’s starting to look beautiful as the seasons change, the tears distort her vision: ‘in a world that was all wrong it seemed this morning to be a mockery.’ The end.

Finally, for now, ‘Making Conversation’. I wrote earlier about what I called the unbridgeable separation between people that William Trevor seems to insist upon. We’ve just seen it in ‘The Lost Girl’—nobody has a clue about what drove her to her death—and we see it in a different way in this one. The conversation is between a woman and the wife of the man whose husband moved out two days before, and who firmly believes he is with the woman. She insists to the wife that she’s got it wrong about him being there. There is a man there, who she’s been with for months, and he’s taking a bath and listening to Mahler. (That detail might be a clue. I’ll come back to it.) The husband, she assures the wife, definitely is not. Anything he’s told her is nonsense—the only time he ever came to the flat was to install a piece of kitchen equipment for her.

We know about this, because it’s been a part of the back-story the narrative has covered. And if there is any doubt about the woman’s sincerity, it becomes clearer that she isn’t lying. If it had been up to the woman, she would never have seen him again, but the man had been very persistent in pursuing her. He tells her he fell in love with her the moment he helped her in the street after she’d slipped, and she is amazed. He holds no attraction at all for her when the incident takes place. But she had been ‘between love affairs’ at the moment—who else but William Trevor would use a phrase like that in the 21st Century?—and the man’s persistence finally gets her to agree to having a meal with him. It’s awful, in a terrible café he seems to think is OK, and… we don’t know how she might have ended it. Trevor doesn’t tell us and, for me, there is just enough ambiguity about it—he loves these ambiguities—for us to wonder whether she actually did have a relationship with the man. But no. She likes men who like Mahler, not second-rate food franchises.

The poor wife, astonished by what has happened—to him, an affair with the woman had clearly always been a real possibility—pours out her anguish. He has always been such a loving father, has always looked after them, but now—what? He’s told her he’s never loved anybody before, including her, and now he’s simply moved out of the marital home, taking nothing with him. The accused woman begins to speculate. Not only has she been brought face-to-face a bereft wife with two sons to bring up, she wonders what might have happened to the poor loser and his hopeless crush on her.

In the last couple of pages, Trevor introduces another element: the woman had once contemplated suicide, on the day her sister married the man she herself had fantasised about. And he complicates the narrative as she imagines the wife on the train, wondering whether she’s thinking about the same possibility…. ‘The balance of the mind,’ she thinks, another woman thinking about suicide brought about by love. And again it’s suicide contemplated but not carried out, her husband’s. She imagines how his little romantic fantasy will come back down to them patching up the family life he temporarily ‘spoilt.’ You need courage to kill yourself, ‘but courage is ridiculous when the other person doesn’t want to know.’ The end.

Trevor likes to take his characters to some very bleak places. Nobody knows whether the sad little scenario playing out in her head will ever become real, and we’ve no idea where the man might be, the rain falling on him wherever he is. And, as usual, not the tiniest bit of it can be shared with anybody else in the world. I’m wondering if the final three stories will be more variations on this same theme. I’ll be surprised if they aren’t.

10 July
The final three stories…
… and I can’t pretend I’m sad they’re over. It isn’t to do with the bleakness—the nearest thing to a happy ending is when a character, by not telling what another knows to be the whole truth, allows the other to pretend something more palatable. (It isn’t as complicated as that sounds: evasions, like Trevor’s own ellipses, are all part of the algorithm. That particular story, the last one, is full of both.) No, what I’ve had enough of is Trevor-land. Or Trevor-never-land. I don’t know why I should be irritated that his stories are set in a kind of timeless London, or occasionally Ireland, which bears no relation to any reality I recognise. Maybe it just feels lazy to me when, for instance, through a description of a Saturday or Sunday spent on a ‘deserted’ Strand and Ludgate Hill—not, as he implies, part of the City that really does close down on these days—we are in a place that never existed.

Worse, the kind of lives he describes have never existed either. I’ll stick with the last story to show what I mean, because that’s the one I’ve been referring to. A father has been left with a daughter after his attractive wife walks out after only two years—although we notice from the start that all the descriptions of the marriage are second-hand, ‘Remembered by those who had known it….’ And what he does is not so much implausible as utterly beyond belief. The daughter, for fourteen years, never, ever has the company of other children. She is educated at home by a retired teacher, there are married housekeepers who don’t really talk to her, and her only outings are with the father around the deserted streets of a London that never was, or foreign holidays with him. And then, presumably for the first time in his whole life, he seeks advice and sends her to a boarding school. Which she hates. And then she’s OK with it, making friends as though she isn’t meeting other girls for the first time in her life.

Trevor tries to make this work by way of one of his convenient ellipses. If this were a novel, the reader would expect a lot of explanation, and a lot of insights into what had been going on in the girl’s mind for all those years. Fourteen years. Think about it. Or don’t, as Trevor would have it, just accept, as the poor abused girl—never described as that—has to accept. And accept that the father never explains to her that her mother is alive, and not dead as the child assumes. And other stuff, that either does or doesn’t come out in the end, depending on whether you can be bothered to unpack the evasions.

Because at the school, two mysterious women, both aged 58 (not that the girl knows this), watch her from afar a couple of times. And then they approach her, offering her first a posy of wild flowers, and then presents. She’s bemused at first, then scared—are they mentally ill? And then one of them tells her that the other one is her mother. This is a few pages from the end of a 30-odd page story, and in the meantime we’ve been inside the heads of both women, spinsters who live together but who appear not to have a sexual relationship. (The only hint otherwise is when one of them gets into bed, imagining very vividly indeed that she’s sharing it with a certain Mr somebody. Is he entirely imaginary, or a displacement fantasy as her body is ‘warmed’ by another in the bed? We don’t know, because—and it’s a phrase I’ve used before—Trevor isn’t telling us.)

Where was I? Near the end of the story as, urged on by his daughter, the father is going to tell her the truth. No, her mother didn’t die—and we might or might not be inside the girl’s thought-stream as a scenario is worked out. Her parents couldn’t have children, so they made other arrangements—her father had reacted when she mentions a priest who, if this is the real story, arranged a quiet adoption—and the father was left with ‘a child who, by chance belonging nowhere, now belonged to him.’ They are on holiday, the father in a far more relaxed mood than usual, and they’ve talked more. All the signs are that he will tell her everything. But instead, he starts talking about the lunch they’ll have on the journey home, and…

…she’s OK with this. She is able to create a different story for herself, in which the women ‘sought out girls without a mother, befriending them in order to be themselves befriended.’ Fine. But even our narrator, usually so neutral, tells us it isn’t good enough. It’s a ‘flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise. … Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, its suppositions were vague, inchoate.’ But, in the two words that end the story (and the collection), what this scenario offers is ‘consoling doubt’—she doesn’t have to consider herself both fatherless and the daughter of an ageing, unattractive spinster. Not sadder and wiser, then. But getting by as best she can, like everybody else.

Like another girl, in fact, in the previous story, now grown up. She lives in a Wuthering Heights-esque farm (actually, it’s like the more genteel Thrushcross Grange) and, aged twelve, she has a tutor for the summer. She has a crush on him, just down from university, and he knows it. The summer is formative for her, but he has to go. Which he does, and makes a life for himself. He marries, has two daughters, everything is fine. But he’s a cartographer now, and his job takes him to Bronte Country and fond memories of the ‘Heathcliffean’ walks he used to take with the girl. He knows she can’t possibly still live there—but, reader, she does. Her parents are dead, she is now in her early 20s, and he stays all day. Fast forward. The story is titled ‘An Idyll of Winter,’ and that’s what they have. He’s told his wife he’s changed his mind, that he’s rediscovered his first love. But one of his daughters is starving herself, so he returns to the family home until she recovers. Which she does, so he goes back to Yorkshire… and gets another text—sorry, letter written in blue fountain pen—from his wife. Their daughter’s starving herself again.

What do you think? He makes another woman unhappy, that’s what. He goes back to the family he should never have left, who are perfectly happy to have him, and Emily or Charlotte or whatever she’s called is stoical. How does it end? As she thinks about the farm-workers who have seen him come—ten years on from the first time—and go again after a few months, she wishes that ‘they could know [her love] will not wither, that there’ll be no long slow dying, or love made ordinary.’ So that’s all right. Do you believe any of it? In these cipher-like women who behave according to a psychology nobody has ever encountered in real life? You’ll have to make your own mind up.

Which leaves the story before that, ‘Giotto’s Angels.’ This is set in a town, and it’s about a man who is found to be suffering from amnesia. Offstage, it becomes clear he’s a skilled picture-restorer, and Trevor doesn’t waste any time worrying about how someone with his permanent mental problems might be able to kick-start a new career and have somewhere to lay his head. One night, he’s picked up by a prostitute, who’s a rough diamond who seems to want to look after him. Except she isn’t, she’s a thief. She knows he’s a bit gone in the head, has had nothing to do because he carries on with his work while she falls asleep in his bed…. Next morning, as he sleeps on, she decides to add to the generous payment he’s already made. She searches for the money she knows must be somewhere in his room—you’ll never guess where, but that loose floorboard is a clue—and takes it. She feels bad about it later, decides she’ll find his room and take it back to him… but she’s tired, it’s a long way to walk—she’s not as good on her feet as she used to be—and this is Trevor-land.

Who’s sadder and wiser this time? Me. I know never to read a collection of William Trevor stories ever again. I talked about cipher-like women, and I think that’s one of my main problems with the whole collection. Not that it’s only women who can feel one-dimensional or who, take it or leave it, make decisions that seem quite heartless. (Off the top of my head: living off the pension of a cousin who has either died naturally or been helped on his way; happily letting a man with children leave his wife for the chance to restore a childhood fantasy; stealing all the money a man has hidden in his house….) Men can be one-dimensional as well, with psychologies that hint at no hidden depths whatsoever. The reverse, in fact: shallows that aren’t hidden at all.

Read the reviews and you’ll be told what a wonderful writer Trevor is, how well-crafted his fictions are. Fine. People like well-crafted, finely written. But, for me, those things are secondary to what I recognise as truth. Not only some kind of identifiable mise-en-scene, but psychological truth instead of an incomprehensible set of behaviours that sometimes have no similarity to actual persons, living or dead. Some of these stories tell us nothing—the characters might be wiser following their little epiphanies, but I know I’m not. Aside from maybe two which hint at some degree of fellow-feeling—the one in the cafe, and the one with in which the deserted wife thinks she knows where her husband is—I wouldn’t recommend these stories at all.