Last Stories by William Trevor
When William Trevor passed away in 2016, it felt as if he was unanimously memorialized as a master of the short story. To many, Trevor was the essence of Irish literature, born from the tightly-crafted and quietly finessed homegrown prose of Joyce’s Dubliners. But it was with a Chekhovian introspection that Trevor found his voice, telling stories about the lives, loves, and deaths of everyday people.
Last Stories collects Trevor’s final works, about half of which were originally published in The New Yorker. A sense of solitude and mortality permeates these stories (understandably so considering they were penned by writer in his late-80s), and they all address themes of not simply death but also reconciling with the length and potential loneliness of life.
This is not to say Last Stories is all a gloomy memento mori: these stories balance their heavy themes with an understanding that life goes on, for better or for worse, elsewhere in the world. In one standout work, “Mrs Crasthorpe,” Trevor jumps between two complementary threads: a socially flailing widow and a widower whose path she finds her own repeatedly crossing. Trevor sets his two characters up for a connection of rosy-eyed, golden-years kismet, but pulls away at the story’s finish. The man, it turns out, finds Mrs Crasthorpe’s actions insufferable and desires no sort of happy ending with her. “It was hard to believe that this pushy, over-lively woman might possess qualities more appealing than her manner,” the man thinks. “Crowded out by his continuing anger at the careless greed of death, her attentions were hardly noticed. Mrs Crasthrope would fade away to nothing, as she had been before she asked him for directions.”
“The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” is an exceptionally efficient work about a wunderkind piano student whose excellence reignites the narrator’s teacherly passion and reminds her why she ever took students in the first place. But, after every lesson, she notices something missing in her house; her pupil was stealing from her. The story moves quickly forward, losing any pressures of resolution in the name of time marching onward: “the seasons changed again, and then again, until, one day, the boy did not return. He had outgrown these music lessons and his school, and now was somewhere else.” The teacher discovers that “mystery was a marvel in itself:” “she had sought too much in trying to understand how human frailty connected with love or with the beauty that the gifted brought. There was a balance struck: it was enough.”
“The Unknown Girl” is about the tragic death of a woman’s former housekeeper. Harriet is haunted by her old employee’s death, but only while she’s out in the world and trying to be an engaged member of society. When she’s alone, she finds the loss eerily meaningless. “Nor was the spectre of Emily Vance anywhere,” she notices, “neither in the house nor in the garden…. Emily Vance was not in dreams and came back only with the light of dawn, alive in Harriet’s memory as yesterday returned.”
“Giotto’s Angels,” “An Idyll in Winter,” and “The Women” are also standouts, each addressing how love and memory intertwine and the potential these two themes have to twist the other into something unrecognizable.
As a whole, Last Stories feels like a pristine museum’s collection of Old Master paintings. The works are all technically perfect: Trevor’s pacing and sentence structure are so finely-tuned that those readers interested in writing will find plenty of opportunities to stop and marvel at his craft. But, the stories also feel at times too familiar and have the potential to blur together like a series of still-lifes or domestic townscapes: specific details quickly fade from memory between stories but the complexities of their situations linger. The strength of these works lies in their delicate composition, their execution, and message, and their subtlety and nuance risk appearing unremarkable. But for those thoughtful readers who dare to lean a little closer, Last Stories can be found, painted like a skull, shadowed behind a bowl of fruit.