William Trevor seems to be a much adored author in the blogosphere, and he has been on my radar of authors to try for a number of years. Before picking up his posthumously published collection, Last Stories, I had only read a Penguin Mini entitled Matilda’s England. I liked this well enough, but it did not push me to pick up any more of Trevor’s work, and I wish it had.
Trevor is described on this particular book’s blurb as an author ‘widely regarded as the greatest writer of short stories in the English language’. This high accolade is matched by John Banville, who calls him ‘at his best the equal of Chekhov’, and Yiyun Li credits him with her entire writing career.
I chose to begin what will hopefully be an exploration of Trevor’s entire oeuvre with his final collection of stories, simply because it was the only volume written by him which my local library had in stock. It is comprised of ten stories, all written towards the end of his life. The blurb of Last Stories declares that Trevor ‘illuminates the lives of ordinary people, and plumbs the depths of the human spirit.’
Largely, Trevor’s stories focus upon normal, everyday occurrences, which could, in theory, affect us all. In ‘At the Caffè Daria’, two women who used to play together as children – ‘Anita round-faced and trusting, Claire beautiful already’ – meet by chance in a London café, and Trevor recollects their complex history. Of single mother Rosanne in the story entitled ‘Taking Mr Ravenswood’, he writes: ‘Sometimes it wasn’t bad, being alone, especially when she was tired it wasn’t, no effort made, none necessary, and the silence when the television was turned off came like a balm. But the silence could be a vacuum too, and often felt like that.’ The protagonist of ‘Giotto’s Angels’ is suffering from amnesia.
There is such a knowing quality to Trevor’s writing, and in consequence, one immediately gets a feel for each of his characters. We are made aware of what is important to them, as well as things that have occurred in their lives which have some impact upon their present selves. He displays such complex human emotion, and dignifies every single one of his characters in Last Stories with motives and realistic feelings. In ‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’, for instance, Trevor writes: ‘All her life, she often thought, was in this room, where her father had cosseted her in infancy, where he had seen her through the storms of adolescence, to which every evening he had brought back for his kitchens another chocolate he had invented for her. It was here that her lover had pressed himself upon her and whispered that she was beautiful, swearing he could not live without her. And now, in this same room, a marvel had occurred.’
Relationships and loneliness are at the core of Last Stories. In ‘The Unknown Girl’, a young woman is killed in a traffic accident, and one of her previous employers, Harriet, is asked if she can give any details about her, for ‘nothing appears to be known about the girl. Little more than her name.’ In the same story, Trevor sets out, in a discerning manner, the relationship between Harriet and her son, Stephen: ‘… this evening, as on other evenings, an undemanding affection one for the other made their relationship more than it might have been. Their closeness came naturally, neither through obligation nor for a reason that was not one of feeling; and it was never said, but only known, that different circumstances, coming naturally also, would change everything. They lived in a time-being, and accepted that.’
Last Stories is an exquisite collection, by a thankfully prolific author. The tales here are thoughtful and perceptive, and I felt pulled into each of them straight away. The stories are all quiet ones, but they and their characters are still rendered highly memorable by the strength of Trevor’s prose, and his insight. There is an element of unpredictability here, and some of the stories certainly surprise.
I feel so lucky that I have Trevor’s entire oeuvre to read my way through, and imagine that the stories which I find will be just as touching and memorable as those collected in Last Stories. I can see him becoming one of my favourite authors, and cannot recommend this collection enough.