By Sabina Clarke
Within hours of his death at eighty-eight in 2016 tributes from Irish writers poured in to Ireland’s newspaper The Irish Times expressing just how much William Trevor’s work meant to them.
Called by many the “greatest living English language writer” his books are considered very English yet Trevor considered himself an Irish writer belonging to the Irish tradition. His stated goal was to take Irish provincialism and make it universal.
The picture that emerges is that of a writer whose work encompassed an entire literary tradition residing at the center of Irish literary consciousness yet a writer still on the periphery-- an outsider.
Perhaps this is because the Irish born Trevor who referred to himself as a “lace curtain Protestant” moved to England in the 1950’s because he could not get work in Ireland and then wrote about English society which he admitted both fascinated and perplexed him.
After a variety of jobs as a teacher, a church sculptor and a copywriter in an advertising agency he penned his first two novels and short stories which were set in England. Not until the mid-1970 did his focus shift to Ireland.
In this superb posthumous collection of 10 short stories—9 of which have never been published before—the theme of loneliness prevails.
In The Piano’s Teacher’s Pupil the middle aged spinster Miss Elizabeth Nightingale considers herself fortunate since she inherited a house on the death of her father and was able to live comfortably on her earnings as a piano teacher. The story opens with a piano lesson: ‘The Brahms? she said, ‘Shall we struggle through the Brahms?’ The boy, whose first lesson with Miss Nightingale this was, said nothing. But gazing at the silent metronome, he smiled a little, as if the silence pleased him. Then his fingers touched the piano keys and when the first notes sounded Miss Nightingale knew that she was in the presence of a genius.”
Gradually after each piano lesson Miss Nightingale noticed something missing-“the little snuff-box with someone else’s coat of arms on it ….. a porcelain swab went and then a pot lid with a scene from Great Expectations on it.” She wondered if perhaps the boy helped himself “to what he thought of as a fee for his performance?” But she said nothing fearing he would not come again-- this boy “who sat down at her piano and took her with him into paradise.”
In The Unknown Girl a young woman’s memory is evoked through the reminiscences of her employer Harriet Balfour a wealthy widow whose recently widowed son now lives with her. The story opens with the scene of the young woman’s death: “For hardly longer than a second the people on the pavement’s edge were frozen in perfect stillness. Then a man stepped into the oncoming traffic, both arms raised…… A voice called for an ambulance…. the ambulance doors were softly closed. This life was over.”
As the tale unfolds we learn little about the secret solitary life of Emily Vance the young housekeeper who appears to have no living kin. Not mentioning her housecleaner’s death to her son, Harriet reviews the past when Emily worked for her—obsessively piecing together random words, stolen glances, any nuance or thread that might offer a clue as to why Emily left her employ one day never to return and with no explanation.
Finally, she senses a connection to her son, “Harriet wished she didn’t know. She wished that what she had dreaded had happened instead, ordinary and understandable.” As her regret and remorse about Emily becomes more intense Harriet ceases to take pleasure from her garden “that always delighted her ceased to comfort her...The scarlet tinge of early peonies…. broom’s yellow brightness, pink clematis, rosemary thriving”…... She watched it returning…. even more resplendent….but in a world that was all wrong it seemed to be a mockery.”
In An Idyll in Winter we are introduced to twelve- year-old Mary Bella an only child living on a farm with her parents. A twenty-two- year-old university student named Anthony is hired as her tutor. A mutual fondness develops between pupil and student. When Anthony leaves Mary Bella is reconciled to never seeing him again. Then one day Anthony now married and with children returns alone and stays for hours—“In the morning Anthony knew he shouldn’t have gone back” but he does again and again.
Despite his protestations that all is fine Mary Bella had a “wisp of doubt that flourished now as a premonition. Why did she know? Why did he not? He’d been the teacher once.” She does not want the workmen’s pity. She wishes they knew love will not wither “that there will be no long slow dying or love made ordinary.”
William Trevor saw himself as primarily a short story writer and called it the “art of the glimpse.” His genius is reflected as much in as what is unsaid as in what is said.
He is invisible on the page both subtle and oblique and must be read more than once.