This handsome, slip-cased, double-volume set of short stories contains more than a thousand pages of William Trevor’s prose, superseding his Collected Stories published in 1992. Admirers of his persuasive and scrupulously understated writing will have read many of these stories before, but the power of this unforgettably impressive gathering is in the breadth and consistency of his achievement.
From early masterpieces such as ‘Access to the Children’, ‘The General's Day’, ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ and ‘Matilda's England’ to the well-wrought wonders contained in his last four books, the characterisation is skilful and subtle. There is sometimes a scene of brilliantly spine-tingling unease, as disconcerting as anything in Kafka or Pinter, but generally his characters have been the ordinary lonely, lost people trying to make sense of their fate.
Whether the old curate in ‘Justina's Priest’, the unhappy lovers in ‘Office Romances’ and ‘The Forty-Seventh Saturday’, or the middle-aged blind-daters who endure a mortifying encounter in ‘An Evening Out’, his people are recognisable strugglers. His genius is that everything they do is wholly believable, even when it is bizarre or out of character. And the hard-won compression of his careful style charges his depictions with an immense power. His ironies are sparing, organised with masterful timing, often directed at marriage or courtship. The story ‘Graillis's Legacy’ reveals more about the demands of fidelity than does many an epic novel. And ‘The Penthouse Apartment’, a wonderful story, builds an atmosphere of almost dizzying panic.
What is remarkable about this collection is how it reveals the extent to which the touchstones of Trevor's aesthetic were there from the very earliest stories: the crafted sparseness of description, the luminous sense of place, the extraordinarily profound insight into the depths concealed by social conversations. Each story proceeds at a kind of internal rhythm, the clarity of cadence and gracious austerity of the writing achieving an exactitude few living writers could match.
And his sense of eloquent tact animates every paragraph. He never crowds his characters or smothers them with adjectives, but allows them to incarnate themselves on the page. There is a wise, forgiving kindliness in his curiosity about human foibles, but it's an effective strategy too, for it coaxes the reader into the story so irresistibly. He dares to leave enormous questions about his people unanswered, leaving you riveted while he slips unnoticed from the building.
A good number of these miniatures are quietly charged with the unquestioning, stoical, intoxicating sadness of so many rural Irish lives of the past. But his bleak English suburbs are conjured as evocatively, as are his hot tourist destinations from Jerusalem to Cap Ferat, and the denizens of his wrecked aristocratic mansions. He is wonderful on roads not taken, on responsibilities ducked, on guilty secrets and stunted compromises. Buildings and gardens come to life as he describes them. And he is brilliant on marriage, the tacit détentes and unasked questions that lock spouses together as powerfully as do love and fondness. He writes of one wife that something in her ‘had been smashed to pieces’. There is never a moment of false lyricism. Many of his women live in a world of choking passivity, where events can only be controlled at a price. He writes of another character. ‘She had once been Mrs Horace Spire and was not likely to forget it.’ We don't forget it either.
Compassionate, poignant, clear-eyed, often heart-rending, these stories build into a sustained meditation on the problems that have long preoccupied their author: love lost, marital infidelity, duties of decency shirked, ageing, loyalty, self-caused loneliness. His characters become progressively more disrupted by politics as you move through the collection, but even in the stories that allude to Ireland's sectarianism the emphasis is on people, not the slogans they live by, or die by. It is surprising to see how often imagery of childlessness surfaces in the stories, and how eerie some of the early pieces are. In tales such as ‘In at the Birth’ the ghost of Poe can be felt. Trevor is capable of seriously scaring you.
The prose is clear as water, but with so many eddying undercurrents of meaning that second and third readings yield startling new insights, and this is the greatest pleasure of this immensely enjoyable collection. What is extraordinary, looking back now at five decades of his work, is not just the restricted range of his linguistic palette – there is scarcely a metaphor anywhere in the book – but the truthfulness and scope he achieves with it.
The simplicity and authority of the writing is haunting and finally moving. Joyce is always present as an influence, not the linguistic pyrotechnician of Ulysses, but the modest and punctilious voice of Dubliners. (One story, ‘Two More Gallants’, engages directly with Joyce's collection.) In Trevor's work, plainness is everything, a kind of grammar as well as a worldview. It is hard to think of any writer who is better at silences, the subtle ways in which they articulate affection or power. ‘Her lipstick had left a trace on the rim of the teacup and Norah drew her attention to it with a gesture. Kathleen wiped it off.’ This moment from the strange story, ‘Sitting with the Dead’, is typical of his focused attentiveness. He mines whole histories from the unspoken, the denied. A widow remembers how her furious husband ruled by threats. ‘The time she began to paint the scullery, it frightened her when he stood in the doorway, before he even said a thing.’ And then there is the sheer grace of his sentences, the joy of recognition they bring. An eavesdropper ‘was skilled at breaking into privacies without the knowledge of the person observed; he prided himself on that, but twice, or even three times, he suddenly had to drop his scrutiny, taken unawares by having his gaze returned’.
Flannery O'Connor famously wrote that the short-story form is all about the point not understood at once, the thing half-glimpsed in a corner. It has been William Trevor's achievement over nearly to 50 years as a writer to have shone light into those spaces with such unerring steadiness that you hardly even notice he is doing it. This is a magnificent collection, astonishing in its pleasures. The lack of an introduction is its only flaw.
It might overburden the Booker Prize- nominated Love and Summer to characterise it as Trevor's finest novel to date, indeed as one of his greatest literary achievements, but the book is so persuasive and beautifully achieved that one is tempted to reach for superlatives. All the hallmarks of Trevor's scrupulous style are deployed: the crafted sparseness of description, the photographically vivid sense of place, the extraordinarily profound insight into the business of being human. His awe-inspiring ability to express the most complex of realities in sentences of clarity and shimmering plainness has never been more admirable.
What I would describe as his sense of eloquent tact is present on every page. Trevor is a master at standing back from his characters. He never crowds them with his own cleverness or gets in their way but allows them to incarnate themselves on the page. There is a sort of wise kindliness in his curiosity about people and their foibles, but it's a marvellously effective strategy too, for it draws the reader in so powerfully. He leaves questions about his people unanswered; it's the reader who forms the picture.
The story is set in the Irish village of Rathmoye, some time in the middle of the 20th Century. A poignant figure, Orpen, a local Protestant who is not quite all there, is minded and tolerated by his neighbours in the town, as he wanders the streets, displaying pages from the archive he believes he is protecting for posterity. Summer beautifies the landscape, as much as it can, and nothing much is happening besides small-town gossip and grocery shopping.
A funeral opens the proceedings but it has a disquieting element: a stranger is noticed surreptitiously photographing the mourners. The daughter of the deceased woman, Mrs Connulty, becomes curious about the interloper, Florian, in the process becoming witness to events that will have far-reaching consequences.
The ensuing narrative is so masterfully clever and involving that it is hard not to reveal it. Suffice it to say that a deeply surprising love story is about to commence, a tale of passions kept secret even as they grow ever more reckless and the colder days of autumn approach.The book, like much of Trevor's work, is absolutely wonderful on the subject of marriage, the evasions and tacit agreements that hold people together, as powerfully as do love and fondness.
A farmer, Dillahan, lives in a world of brokenness and grief, the guilt that he was responsible for the tragic deaths of his child and first wife as real as the fields he drifts through. Now remarried to a younger woman who came to his home as a housekeeper, he talks like a man with nothing left to say. And yet the pleasant platitudes exchanged between husband and wife, the remarks about the farm and the tasks of the household, become a sort of shorthand for much deeper emotions you suspect are always close to the surface. When those emotions do spill over, the result is a scene of spine-tingling unease.
In the work of a less skilful and subtle writer, this relationship would not be even faintly credible. Trevor makes it not only believable but achingly real and inevitable, somehow a meditation on all marriages of that era, and perhaps of subsequent eras too. No Irish writer of either gender has ever written more empathetically about women, as his previous novels Felicia's Journey and The Story of Lucy Gault made clear. But Love and Summer has an unflagging power and quiet control of the material that Trevor has more usually achieved only in the best of his short stories.
His people live in a world of suffocating passivity, where things happen to you and can only rarely be controlled. Indeed, it's an interesting hallmark of his dialogue and description that it is so often framed in the passive. A woman ‘had bread to get’ in the shops. A telephone call ‘was made’. These are characters who truly feel they can not affect the world, and the heartbreaking tragedy of the novel's conclusion is brought about when one of them tries to. In a closing that brings to mind the transformative sadness of Joyce's short story Eveline, it is accepted that the world will always do what it will, and most of us will fall into line in the end.
Quibblers will feel that the novel is almost too reticent. And it is notable that in this narrative of crazily passionate love, there is no description of lovemaking or sexuality or even desire. In my own view, this works magnificently, for as Patrick Kavanagh's poem Advent has it: ‘Through a chink too wide comes in wonder.’ We form the love scenes in this novel ourselves, perhaps projecting on to them our own memories or wishes, rather than being browbeaten by those of the author.
Indeed, this is one of the book's most interesting themes: how what we seek in a lover or partner is sometimes a version of someone we have lost, and how falling in love and the making of fiction are deeply related activities. But Trevor is too supple a storyteller to engage in lectures or agendas. If this novel has themes, they emerge with the delicacy and fragility of wildflowers in a summer meadow. And like those beautiful blossoms that linger in memory, this masterpiece lives fragrantly and hauntingly.