The Collected Stories by William Trevor
Joseph O'Connor salutes the achievement of a master storyteller
his handsome, slip-cased, double-volume set of short stories contains more than 1,000 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.
John McGahern wrote that every storyteller needs first "a way of seeing". 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. It is as though these stories are sheet music and the reader is putting together the song while the author 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. Trevor is Ireland's Chekhov but in tales such as "In at the Birth" the ghost of Poe seems to wander too.
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.
Joseph O'Connor's Ghost Light will be published by Harvill Secker in May.