Revisiting the Border
During a Pandemic
A few weeks had passed when, being nearby, I stopped in at her office in cold, brutalist English department building on campus.
“Sit down,” she said. “I enjoyed your story.” The magazine was visible beneath a stack of papers on her desk. “I am proud of you.”
I thanked her. I was proud, too, I said, and grateful to her.
We chatted awhile, enjoying this new thing between us: I was no longer a student. We were simply two writers.
At length, she said, “Have you seen the new Trevor?”
We had spent a year reading the work of Irishman William Trevor, starting with After Rain, The Hill Bachelors, and continuing with his novels: Other People’s Worlds, Death in Summer, Fools of Fortune, Two Lives.
“Take my copy,” she said. “It’s in The New Yorker. You can bring it back in a week.”
What I found when I began reading that weekend was something uncannily like the piece I’d just published: an ill-defined friendship, two middle aged women; a past that one could not share with the other. Or I should say, rather, that a portion of it was uncannily like my own piece, because that relationship, which had for me commanded the full field of vision, existed for Trevor as one bright constellation in a much larger firmament of interconnected lives. There were the women, but there were others as well—a girl in whom the title characters had taken an interest, her teachers and friends, her lovelorn father—and the heat each of these relationships generated, the action each took, ramified amongst others, exerted gravity on them.
I read, as I always read Trevor, with awe. With sheepishness, too, since this small and coincidental resemblance had made too plain the deficiencies of my own imagination.
I said this when I returned in a week. “I can see that I haven’t wondered enough.”
My professor smiled and leaned back in her chair, more proud in that moment, I think, than she had been the week before, toasting success. She said nothing more about it, not having to. She had imparted her lesson.
The story in question that week was called “The Women,” and it would prove to be the last the The New Yorker published before Trevor’s death in 2016. Now it has been released in a volume titled Last Stories, comprising ten previously uncollected works by the author.
A new book by any late, beloved master is naturally cause for both celebration and apprehension. One hopes to see a casual and complete late-career mastery (Picasso drawing with light), but fears the violation of a privacy, or else the sad betrayal of a gift’s diminishment. I had the feeling, cracking the spine of my advance copy, that I was in possession of a genuine treasure, but one that might also be painful to see.
Both intimations were excited by the opening story, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” unpublished in the author’s lifetime and at once blessed and burdened by a title recalling of one of his best-known stories, “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” which opened both his 1996 collection, After Rain, and the second volume of his collected stories. As an overture, it was surely an irresistible choice, but it also serves to announce this new book as one whose pleasures will be tempered by the specter of loss.
The familiar preoccupations are there: A piano tutor recognizes genius in a young, shy student, an unexpected development that brings a new sense of purpose to her solitary life. When she begins to suspect the boy of stealing from her—small trinkets, things of no obvious value—she says nothing, terrified of driving him away, and of what his small betrayal suggest about her past. Thematically, this is Trevor all the way through. But the story, it has to be said, is unfinished. At roughly eight pages, it is short by the author’s standards, and while a frequently stunning economy of language allows it to achieve a pleasing completeness—closing the loop of its own plot, not trailing off or stopping short as does another story here, “Taking Mr. Ravenswood”—it feels ultimately attenuated, miniature. One has the sense that its author could see the whole story, but that perhaps elements of it floated just out of his reach or slipped through his fingers when he clutched them, like sand. Its rewards, then, lie in the tantalizing, melancholy glimpse it may offer of the artist at work, how he viewed his material during the process: we are brought close to him because for us, too, the details seems to hover just out of reach. Its absence is his absence; its loss is the loss of him.
Subsequent stories find Trevor in more vintage form, and remind those in need of reminding that he was indeed a brilliant late-career writer. “The Crippled Man” first appeared in 2009, the same year as his exquisite last novel, Love and Summer. Here, a housebound pensioner engages a pair of migrant workmen to perform home repairs, to the chagrin of his untrusting caretaker. Each of these characters is drawn with tender exactitude: the workmen’s pride in the shanty they’ve built for themselves; the caretaker’s acceptance of a butcher’s crude attentions. In the house, alcoholic, and suffering more in advancing age, the crippled man asks repeatedly that his companion repeat to him the story of the saint for whom she was named. Her blend of exasperation, revulsion, and pity is deeply felt in these moments, even as the reader’s heart breaks for her charge, who is soothed by the story’s repetition as one might be by a prayer, or by worrying the beads of a rosary. These are scenes of astonishing, disquieting intimacy:
When it rained he wouldn’t stop, since she was confined herself... “Tell me.” He would repeat his most regular request, and if it was evening and he was fuddled with drink she wouldn’t answer, but in the daytime he would wheedle...
She was kneeling down in front of him and she could feel him examining her the way he often did. You’d be the better for it, he said when she’d tell about her saint, and you’d feel the consolation of a holiness.
Elsewhere, in “The Unknown Woman,” a widow imagines an innocent love that might have been shared by her son and a woman who has taken her own life. In “At the Caffè Daria,” a woman makes arrangements for the estate of a man who long ago left their marriage for another woman, helping because his widow, her rival once, cannot bear to.
Each of these ten stories has been written in the third person. Almost all of Trevor’s greatest work was (the novella Nights at the Alexandra comes to mind as an exception). He spoke sometimes of the need for a certain detachment, a distance from his subject, often in the context of his expatriate status (Trevor spent his adult life in England). One wonders also whether he might have felt some aversion to the word I; whether, like his friend and admirer Yiyun Li (who has called it “a melodramatic word”), he didn’t find the implied self-reference distasteful.
In interviews given throughout his life, Trevor insisted that he took almost no interest at all in himself. “I am interested in other people,” he told the Welsh writer and television host Mavis Nicholson in an early interview. “I am a curious chap,” he added, charmingly, nearly forty years later. “That is the main characteristic in me as a person and as a writer.” I do not think this was merely evasion. One senses in Trevor’s work an abiding reticence, as if he wrote not to display what he knew, but to investigate all that he did not. (“Even at this great age,” he said at eighty-five, “I don’t know enough.”) And because the observer’s presence is necessarily corrupting, this investigation must involve a kind of self-erasure. There remains an authorial presence at work, but it is one oriented entirely toward the characters.
It is a generosity his characters rarely extend to themselves. His books are populated largely by those unable to conceive of themselves as central figures in their own stories. (Often, this is what makes them dangerous, the agents of unwitting harm.) It is the role then of the book’s second consciousness, the authorial one, to restore the agency (and thus the dignity) they cannot imagine for themselves. This fissure between the story’s view of its characters, and those characters’ view of themselves creates a powerful and peculiarly Trevor-ian irony—one that elevates its subject without sentimentalizing them.
The last story in the collection is, fittingly, “The Women,” which, I am pleased to report, remains as fine and as richly drawn as I remembered, and even more intricately tangled. The titular pair, companions for many decades of life, nonetheless harbor a distinct malice:
“How little I would be, alone,” Miss Cotell had a way of saying, and Miss Keble loved to hear it. Accepting her lesser role, she knew that it was she, in the end, who ordered their lives and wielded power.
When at last they confront the young boarding school student whom they have conspired to meet, and have clumsily brought the brief acquaintance to an end, the girl watches their heartbroken row, unsettled, a secret from her own life laid suddenly bare.
Born in County Cork, in 1928, Trevor was an aesthetic, as well as an ethnic heir to Joyce, and so it is perhaps appropriate that his career should be closed with something resembling epiphany for this girl, but one that is (in his typical fashion) circumspect, tenuous, a deepening rather than a resolution of her doubt. We leave her, as we have so many of his characters, clinging to what she must know is delusion because the small sliver of doubt it casts on an unpleasant truth is enough: a foundation upon which to construct a reality she can endure.
Among the great story writers who have worked in or been widely translated into English, Trevor stands somewhat apart. His stories rarely sprawl or make audacious leaps across time like those of, say, Alice Munro. Nor do they possess the restless, buoyant energy of Katherine Mansfield’s, or the billowing fecundity of Edward P. Jones’s. They are not experimental or avant garde; the humor, when present, is deadpan and sly. Their expansiveness is of a different kind, the result of a far-reaching, promiscuous compassion that seems to extend beyond the borders of the page. (I’d argue that several of his most compelling creations are characters who never step to the center of action: the cantankerous widow Mrs. Fennerty in “In Love With Ariadne”; the kind and diffident Dano Ryan in “The Ballroom of Romance”.) Ownership of the story is always up for grabs, sometimes right up until the last line. It might be noted, for instance, that “The Crippled Man” was originally published in near-identical form as “The Woman of the House,” a title that referred instead to Martina; it might equally have been named for the workmen. Likewise, the title characters in “The Women” remain largely peripheral; they enter the story only some pages in, and exit again some pages before the end; one feels almost that Trevor has granted them the title as a sort of a gift, as though it might restore something they had otherwise lost.
In this way, and others, Trevor was gentle. Not protective, exactly, nor squeamish in his attention to darkest emotional terrain, but caring, deeply reverent of the effort with which living is managed. It is a quality that runs counter to a good deal of contemporary fiction, where a strain of harshness, even cruelty presides. Though his work was rarely overtly political—even on the subject of Ireland’s past—and though his style never strayed far from an old-fashioned realism that recalled the 19th and early 20th centuries, there is nevertheless something almost radical in this age of incuriosity and narcissism about his self-effacing concern for the other. If, in the course of this approach, we are invited to empathize with those who have done wrong—with petty thieves, with voyeurs, even killers—this represents not a blithe amorality (not author as impassive mirror to the world), but the most rigorous moral standard imaginable: a wholly democratic curiosity, an insistence that none be excluded from the book’s sphere of compassion, that none be placed beneath contemplation.
Aurhor Author is the author of Other People’s Love Affairs: Stories (Algonquin Books). His fiction and essays have appeared in A Public Space, The American Scholar, Literary Hub, and The Threepenny Review, where he was formerly Deputy Editor.