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The first lines of a William Trevor story often act as a small window on the difficult world within. ” ‘Well at least don’t tell him,’ their mother begged. ‘At least do nothing until he’s gone.’ ” And: ” ‘Do you know why you are doing this?’ he asked, and Katherine hesitated, then shook her head, although she did know.” And: “Jasmin knew he was going to be different, no way he couldn’t be, no way he’d be wearing a baseball cap backwards over a number-one cut, or be gawky like Lukie Giggs, or make the clucking noises that Darren Finn made when he was trying to get a word out.”
The tension in such lines casts a worrying shadow: the angst and likely death in the first, the hesitant and self-protective lie in the second, the implicit disappointment of the third, which suggests that Jasmin’s adolescent certainty is besides the point (the unsuitability of the man she will meet—a pedophile who has been talking to her on a telephone chat line—has little to do with his similarity or dissimilarity to the boys she knows). For a longtime reader of Trevor, that shadow has a very particular three-dimensional feel: It hints at a complex landscape of pain and lucklessness, shot through with moments of clarity and strength. Trevor’s characters often collude in their own unhappiness and look away from what’s painful or confusing. Sooner or later, though, they find the real shape of the world impossible to avoid, and often discover grace in that truth.
In 38 books—13 original collections of stories, 18 novels, five plays, and two books of nonfiction—Trevor has conjured up a world that challenges cherished American ideas. History is relentless, and people seldom get second chances. They often pay profoundly and permanently for small or large transgressions—their own, or those of others. An Irish-born Protestant (he immigrated to London in the mid-1950s and started publishing a few years later), Trevor locates most of his work in the layered complexities of his native land: poverty, social and religious stagnation and upheaval, occasional violence. In the novel Felicia’s Journey (1994), his most widely read book here (made into a movie of the same name by Atom Egoyan), he created a literary thriller that placed a naive and pregnant young Irish girl in the lair of a solicitous serial killer. He offered a similarly dramatic setup in his most recent novel, The Story of Lucy Gault (2002): A young girl is unwittingly abandoned by her parents, who are sure she has drowned. After weeks of searching for her body, grief-stricken, they flee the country, leaving no forwarding address, and she ends up being raised by the caretakers of their property. Despite the inherent drama of these scenarios, there is nothing lurid in his work; such extremity seems to interest him only for the way in which it reveals emotions and dangers that hover closer to all of us, all the time, than we might like to believe.
In his short fiction, Trevor’s plots tend to be more delicate. History and drama happen mostly off-stage, bruising people and shifting their lives, but often only dimly or partially visible to them. It’s the emotions, more than the events, that stir and disturb us. “That was the beginning; there was no end,” he writes in the middle of the first story in his newest collection, Cheating at Canasta—and the line could apply to the great majority of painful twists in his fiction. His people are stuck—in poverty even where there is plenty, in loneliness even with lovers and family, in pain even where there is youth and health and possibility. Increasingly, the 79-year-old Trevor is also concerned with the depredations of age, which force even the most fortunate to struggle with profound loss. Pain reveals people, and Trevor has always used it to illuminate the workings of the world. In two of the finest stories in the new collection, he offers characters who might have been seen—just months before the stories open—to have everything. They no longer do. But what they have lost, and how it lives in them still, gives us—and them, in rare moments—a deep understanding of their places in the world.
The elderly woman in “At Olivehill,” which opens with the first line quoted above, has a beautiful farm, a happy marriage, two young and devoted sons, and grandchildren. Yet at story’s end, she is not only widowed but has come to confine herself to a single dark room, the groves she has walked and loved for decades transformed into a golf course. For the sons, this is simply what’s necessary, and is a boon, really, because it allows them to keep the land in the family; the world has changed around them, and farming is no longer enough. For their mother, it’s an unbearable vulgarity, a loss of what was precious to her in the daily rituals of her life. Both, of course, are right. Ultimately, the mother finds a way to let the storied past of the land (kept in the family only by great diligence and cunning during the anti-Catholic centuries of the penal laws) teach her “how to accept defeat … how best to live restricted lives.” Such an analogy might be considered absurd—she’s comparing the indignity of having a golf course on one’s property to violent religious persecution—but Trevor has great sympathy for her sense of diminishment and her deep connection to the land. To her, the groves are the pleasures and dignity her fiercely loved family has managed to wrest from history; losing them is inextricably bound not only to the loss of her husband and to her own decline, but also to a guilty belief (because she asked the sons not to tell the father, and he might have stopped the process) that she is at fault for being unable to stave off the desecration of her family’s one treasured continuity.
In the title story, Trevor’s interest in the presence of the past has a more intensely personal focus. Turning away from the concerns of history, he delineates the feelings of a man of perhaps late middle age for his wife. Mallory has traveled to Venice because his wife is suffering from early-onset dementia, and in its early stages he had promised her that he would return someday to the place they had so often traveled together. Seated in Harry’s Bar on a Sunday evening, he eavesdrops on a quarrelling young couple as he thinks about her and feels increasingly that it was foolish of him to come. She would neither know nor care, now, if he hadn’t—but Trevor makes it clear to the reader (if not to Mallory) that there’s no emptiness to his keeping of the promise. This faithfulness to her past self is integral to who he is.
“No matter what,” Julia had said, aware then of what was coming, “let’s always play cards.” And they did; for even with her memory gone, a little more of it each day—her children taken, her house, her flowerbeds, belongings, clothes—their games in the communal drawing-room were a reality her affliction still allowed. Not that there was order in their games, not that they were games at all; but still her face lit up when she found a joker or two among her cards, was pleased that she could do what her visitor was doing, even though she couldn’t quite, even though once in a while she didn’t know who he was. … He cheated at Canasta and she won.
At the end of his dinner, in his loneliness, Mallory uncharacteristically contrives to talk to the bickering couple and tell them why he is there alone. He does not tell them that he feels the journey has been futile, but he nearly does, and even this makes him feel ashamed—perhaps because such open display of sorrow and, in a way, of his own honor (since he is there because of a promise no one would know if he broke) is somehow unseemly. It’s too intimate … and that, in a small way, is a betrayal of his wife, who is still deeply present in him, even if she isn’t in the world. Suddenly, in fact, she is vividly there, as he had previously known her. “He watched the couple go, and smiled across the crowded restaurant when they reached the door,” Trevor writes in the last lines of the story. “Shame isn’t bad, her voice from somewhere else insists. Nor the humility that is its gift.”
What could so easily be mawkish in another writer (the way that the character still feels the presence of his wife) or old-fashioned and moralistic (the notion that shame and humility might be a kind of gift) becomes, in Trevor’s hands, both tough-minded and compassionate. His belief in love as an enduring transformative force—as much as his austerity, or his attention to history, or his putative pessimism—may be what makes him feel old-fashioned, but it gives his work a depth and complexity that resonate all the more when we put him down to check e-mail or juggle phone calls. There’s no moral rigidity or nostalgia to his vision, only the keenest and most appreciative attention to human nature; we often hobble ourselves, and the world tends to rob us of what’s precious, but still we manage to stumble into moments of transcendence, all the more powerful for their transience.