William Trevor’s Last Stories is an exquisite collection of tales featuring lonely lives, individuals resigned to a quiet existence, love not panning out as desired, and finding contentment in small things.
As tends to be the case with any short story collection, some of the stories were very strong, while others failed to hit the mark. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on the ones that made an impression on me because in a sense they also form the essence of the whole collection.
One of my favourite stories, At the Caffé Daria, is a tale of two women – Anita and Claire – good friends once upon a time but no longer. Anita is now a publisher’s reader and frequently visits Caffé Daria as part of her daily routine. On one of these visits, she runs into Claire who informs her that her husband recently died. The death of Claire’s husband brings back a flood of painful memories, as Anita recalls a past tarnished by betrayal. The reader is made aware of Anita and Claire’s friendship when they were dancers in a troupe called Fireflies. During this period, Anita agrees to marry an older man, who declares his undying love for her, and chooses to settle down. But while she is content with married life, her husband abandons her for Claire, leading to a rift in their friendship. When the man dies, in a fit of loneliness, Claire seeks out Anita, but will the latter find it in her heart to let be bygones be bygones? This is a brilliant piece on how betrayal can tilt the delicate balance of friendship, on how loneliness and anger afflict the two women as they cope with abandonment.
Claire cherishes in her lonely solitude what Anita, in hers, too late embraces now: all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.
What is the price one is willing to pay to harness talent? At the heart of The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, is our protagonist Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, a woman in her early fifties, “slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features.” Miss Nightingale, now all by herself, gives music lessons in the same rooms where she spent most of her childhood and also carried out her secret love affair with a married man. Her parents are now no more, and the affair fizzles out, but Miss Nightingale is not a bitter woman, for “after all there was the memory of a happiness.” When a child prodigy begins to take piano lessons from her she is dazzled by his talent, until, she realizes he is equally adept at stealing objects from her room.
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.
In Mrs Crasthorpe, the titular character feels profoundly humiliated because she is the sole mourner at her husband’s bleak funeral, in a village he requested, though she does not know why. But, Mrs Crasthorpe is a woman of secrets herself, and believes that although she married her husband for money and was blessed with a comfortable life, she couldn’t really blossom in their union. Thus, she perceives his death as an opportunity for her to rise in life.
“I shall relish my widowhood. I shall make something of it.“
Her journey through grief and attempting to forge a new life is contrasted with that of another character called Etheridge. Etheridge has also experienced tragedy with the death of his wife, who he loved dearly, but he finds solace in work, reinventing himself and somehow moving on.
Etheridge’s path occasionally crosses with Mrs Crasthorpe’s, though he wishes it didn’t, and this uneasiness is also mirrored in the reader. This is an excellent, nuanced tale of two people, who grapple with a major upheaval in their personal life, and yet what fate eventually has in store for them is diametrically opposite.
In An Idyll in Winter, a teenage girl, Mary Bella, living in a big house surrounded by a farm, finds her imagination fired up by her tutor, Anthony, an older man. An attraction that does not play out then, Anthony alters his career path to become a cartographer, marries and settles down with two daughters. A chance visit to the farm, several years later, kindles the romance between Mary Bella and Anthony, and the latter proceeds to end his marriage. Fear grips both the women in the story as they are bound to a man, who despite his best intentions, ends up equally hurting them.
With that simplicity a loneliness began for Mary Bella that was more than loneliness had ever been before. Belittling the solitude she had so often known, it was mysterious too, coming as it did while she still had the companionship she valued more than any other.
The story Two Women, begins thus: “Cecelia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all.” Cecelia is aware of her mother’s absence during her childhood, but is plagued with doubt whether she is dead. This feeling of uncertainty persists, and her father is reluctant to make things clear. Meanwhile, a new life beckons for Cecelia. Once she is ensconced in a boarding school, where she begins to blossom after initial hiccups, Cecelia notices two women who are possibly stalking her – they are always present at her hockey matches and other events. Who are these two women and will they shed some modicum of light on Cecilia’s origins?
This flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise crept, unsummoned, into Cecelia’s thoughts and did not go away. Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, its suppositions were vague, inchoate. Yet they were there, and Cecelia reached out for their whisper of consoling doubt.
Last Stories proves that Trevor is truly a master of the short form. His writing is brilliantly understated and nuanced, the stories abound with sensitively portrayed characters. He crafts his sentences with care, and every piece crackles with aching poignancy.
Not all the people in his stories are lonely though. They are certainly alone, but some find peace in routine and the life they have shaped for themselves. Others are lonely creatures not only because they have no one that matters, but also when they are in relationships. Some are marginal people, on the fringes of life, like the dead woman in The Unknown Girl, whose life is summed up in a sentence – “Between the childhood and the death there was a life that hadn’t been worth living.” Others like Mary Bella are beset by persistent dread of losing the love they possess.
What is also remarkable about these stories is how unpredictable they are. A story will coast along in a certain direction, and the reader might form some assumptions, only to realize that it has shaped up in completely unexpected ways. A tincture of melancholia seeps into each of these tales, punctuated by ambiguities and moments of creeping doubts. Last Stories, then, is a fitting finale to Trevor’s illustrious writing career.