It was in 1996 when I read a glowing review in the Globe and Mail on what was at the time William Trevor’s latest collection of stories, After Rain. Already a fan of short fiction, I ran out, got the hard cover, and devoured it. That collection, which I still have and still refer to from time to time, contains some of what I consider to be Trevor’s finest stories: “A Friendship,” “Timothy’s Birthday,” “A Bit of Business,” “Gilbert’s Mother,” and “Lost Ground.” Since then I have gone on to read the rest of Trevor’s short fiction (of which there is a prodigious amount), everything he’s written before and since, thus beginning a life-long admiration for a man who, until his death in 2016, was widely considered one of the greatest living short story writers in English. So when I recently learned of the posthumously published Last Stories, I immediately ordered it online.
To my own surprise and disappointment, however, I was not immediately taken with these stories the same way I was with that of his other short fiction. It had been a while since I’d read Trevor, and right away there was the sense of déjà vu. Here we go again, I thought, the same sorts of characters (the divorced, the widowed, only children; all terribly lonely), the invariable third-person omniscient narrator, his frequent use of two intersecting story-lines, his frequent use of the passive voice, his predilection for the colon (which I’ve also adopted), and of course his signature lapidary prose style that, in the case of these stories in particular, struck me here as hackneyed and overwrought. The great master, I started to feel, had started to become a caricature of himself. These stories, at first, left me feeling underwhelmed; there was something soulless about them, even mechanical. But who could blame him? After twelve collections of stories, and a similar number of novels, what more is there to say? To some degree, I still agree with that initial impression. I wouldn’t say, for instance, that any one of these stories is nearly as good or as affecting as what can be found in his earlier collections. And yet, as I progressed through the collection, I actually grew increasingly fascinated with them, with how they were put together, with their architecture. These stories, it occurred to me, seemed to be less about character (which, we are so often told, is the driving force of fiction) than they are puzzles to be figured out, which of course is another, but less emphasized, tenet of fiction: it’s not so much what the story is as how it is told.
I also couldn’t help thinking that, to some degree, what Trevor is doing here goes against much of what of what we (i.e., those of us who are also interested in writing short fiction) are told by our writing mentors and peers in workshops. My own mentor at Humber College continuously emphasized clarity, clarity, clarity. And in workshops I’ve read comments like: I thought this story was going to be about the woman, but it’s not; consider revising. Or: I was confused at this point. Or: I don’t know what you mean here; explain. Or: Jarring transition. Or: You’re being obscure. I had to stop and think. Not that these comments are completely invalid (one standard cannot be applied to all fiction), but as a still-emerging writer of short stories it shows the extent to which the writer must bow down before the reader if the story, especially if it’s is coming from one without much credibility, is going to be considered for publication. But when it comes to William Trevor, because he is the William Trevor, he can afford to be indifferent to whatever apprehensions readers may have, for nearly all of these same comments crossed my own mind while going through this collection.
That’s not to say that these stories are weak, but they are much more exacting than his earlier work ever was. In fact, he does not care to make it easy for his reader. Trevor is so exquisitely subtle here and employs such economy of language (similar to what we saw in an earlier collection, A Bit on the Side) that nearly every sentence contains some vital clue in piecing together the puzzles that these stories are, clues that can’t always be fully understood until we’ve reached the end or, better still, upon rereading; and to be fully appreciated, I would suggest rereading is de rigueur when it comes to this collection. (I was heartened to see two reviews in The Guardian that also mention the need to reread these stories.) And even then, one is sometimes still left with more questions than answers.
This notion of the story as puzzle is most emblematic in the first story, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil.” Although this is the most straightforward of the ten stories in the book, the puzzle here is more metaphorical than structural. An unwed piano teacher takes on a new student whose musical talent she describes as genius, a first of all the students she has ever taught. But every time he leaves, some small item in her sitting room goes missing. But the story is less about trying to puzzle together how he pulls off his deception than it is about her realisation that this is the room in which she had been deceived in other ways, and many times over: her lonely, widowed father—a chocolatier—who had used the fruit of his trade to tempt her to not leave home; a lover, who had deceived his wife, had also deceived her with his promises of one day leaving his marriage in order to marry her. Trevor writes: “She had been the victim of herself, of her careless credulity, her wanting to believe what seemed to be.”
This notion of believing what seemed to be (the difference between appearances and so-called reality) is a thread that runs throughout the book, adding to the notion of the story as a puzzle to be figured out. In the second story, “The Crippled Man,” for example, a wheelchair-bound man in Ireland is visited by a pair of itinerant foreign workers offering to paint the house. The titular man, a truculent alcoholic, believes them to be Polish and ipso facto trusts them to be “good Catholic boys.” But we immediately sense that there is something perfidious about these men, for right off the top the narrator informs us that they are actually not Polish, that that is what they allow people to believe, depending on the circumstance. Switch suddenly to Martina (jarring transition, is the dumb comment that comes back to mind). She’s on her way home from the butcher’s, a man she once had relations with and whose refusal of the money she offered him is something she now stashes away in a tin can. Bit by bit we learn that Martina lives with the crippled man; that they are distant cousins; that because he is house-bound many people already assume he is dead. We learn that the two men had been paid in advance for their work, had in fact been told by the crippled man, unable to do it himself, to reach into the drawer where all his savings are to take what was owed them. Naturally, Martina is alarmed to learn of this information. We further learn that the two “Polish” men are in fact gypsies, used to secretly crossing borders, that they are not even painters, have never even painted a house before. And in the same way that they are believed to be Polish, they in turn believe Martina and the crippled man to be husband and wife. Each has a false view of the other, but who the real perfidious party is in this story is not what our initial impressions have led us to believe.
This subversion of expectations as an integral part of the puzzle is something Trevor continues to play with in the other stories. “At the Caffè Daria” begins with the story of an Italian man whose wife, during World War II, left him for a handsome poet. He is not bitter but decides to sell off everything he owns to begin a new life in post-war London where he starts an Italian café named in honour of his estranged wife. This introductory anecdote becomes a metaphor for what happens in the rest of the story. The café is where Anita, a publisher’s reader, does most of her work. One day a woman, Claire, walks in. There is antagonism between the two women. Claire informs Anita that Gervaise is dead and the house will have to be sold off as there are debts to be paid off. Soon, it becomes clear that the two women used to be close friends, that Gervaise was once, briefly, Anita’s husband but left her in favour of Claire, the more beautiful of the two. Gervaise, we slowly learn, was a selfish, childish man who “lived as he wished to live.” Anita has never remarried and begins taking walks, late at night, passing by the old house she had once shared with Gervaise, a house that held the memory of that marriage. “It’s that that remains,” Trevor writes. It’s a common refrain in all these stories: the memory of a former happiness as something that undeniable, almost tangible, and the only thing that many of these characters are left with. But when Claire finally loses Gervaise, she too feels cast adrift and walks away from the house, experiencing for the first time the loneliness that Anita has long grown comfortable with. But instead of the sense of vindication we expect Anita would feel (given her former desire to see Claire’s beautiful face “maimed”), she comes to the surprisingly startling and beautiful realization that their friendship—the thing that had come before love interrupted everything—was in fact the better thing. But it’s too late to go back to now.
At least that’s how I see it. Because many these stories are fraught with ambiguity. In “Taking Mr. Ravenswood”, for example, a young bank teller, during one of the caesuras she and her sordid boyfriend routinely go through, is taken out to dinner by one of her customers, a rich, widowed, older gentleman. When things resume with her boyfriend, he encourages her to continue relations with the older gentleman, to “tap” him for money. And yet, though it’s not entirely clear, there seems to be something dubious, maybe even more nefarious, about the older gentleman than her boyfriend (consider his name, after all); that she just might be victimized by two men, though again it’s ambiguous.
“The Unknown Girl” also a puzzle, both for the characters and the reader. We start off at the scene of a traffic accident: a pedestrian has been struck and killed by a passing vehicle; suicide is mooted. We learn that the victim was a young woman, the former housecleaner of a well-heeled woman, Mrs. Balfour, in London. But who exactly was this young woman is a mystery. Her former employer becomes increasingly obsessed with learning all she can about the victim who had suddenly stopped coming to work for her. Little, though, can be established. Gradually it dawns on her, after once witnessing the “unknown girl” smile when Mrs. Balfour’s son happened to pass by, that she had fallen in love with her son. But just as one reviewer in The Guardian admitted, I too was what to make of the ending, even after two readings.
“Making Conversation” also presents itself as a puzzle full of subverted expectations. Olivia is watching a movie at home with a man she lives with but has chosen not to marry when she is visited by a woman asking if her husband, Mr. Vinnicombe, is there. The story flashbacks to when Olivia first met Vinnicombe on the street—he’d assisted her when she fell down a set of stairs. Vinnicombe is immediately attracted to Oliva, “accidentally” runs into her here and there; he does some installation work in her apartment; and although she emphasizes that she’s not interested in him, she does cave in to have a drink with him once or twice. Back to the present: Mrs. Vinnicombe is in the apartment now, accusing Olivia of having stolen her husband. She is completely aware how her husband had fallen in love with her, that he’s been missing for days now, that he often brought back treats for the children. Meanwhile, the man she lives with is having a bath. Naturally we are tempted to believe that this unseen man is Mr. Vinnicombe. But as it turns out, it really isn’t. Mr. Vinnicombe really had disappeared—here too suicide is suggested—and that Mrs. Vinnicombe has come, as the title implies, to make conversation, to talk out her troubles, not knowing where else to go or whom else to talk to.
But it’s the last story, “The Women,” that, for me, left the greatest impression, mostly because it is so mysterious, that there are no pat solutions, and again I have more questions than answers. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to discuss the story in explicit detail.) It’s also a story that’s steeped in sexual deviance, both subtle and not so subtle.
The story begins: “Cecilia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all.” Mr. Normanton, we are told, loved his wife, but, like many of Trevor’s characters, left her spouse for someone else; or, as Trevor puts it, she had a “preference for another man.” (The emphasis is mine; you’ll see why shortly.) Like Anita in “At the Caffè Daria,” Mr. Normanton has neither remarried nor really recovered from the loss of his spouse. His melancholy is such that he has never spoken of it, leaving Cecilia, who feels she can’t speak of it, with the impression that her mother has died. There also doesn’t appear to be any evidence about the house of her mother, except for a set of photos stuffed into the back of a drawer of a young woman she supposes to be her mother and her father as a young man, photos that she turns to from time to time. We learn that until the age of 14, Cecilia is home-schooled and that she and her father have a very close relationship. There is the very subtle suggestion (more apparent maybe on the second read) that Cecilia is confined to the house, like a prisoner, even if a willing one. To make up for her loneliness, Mr. Normanton sometimes takes her out on weekend trips, booking “two rooms at a small hotel in Suffolk, usually at Hintlesham or Orford.” It’s an unusually close relationship for a father and daughter to have that again, upon later reflection, almost carries with it a whiff on incest.
But when Cecilia is 14, she goes to an all-girls boarding school called Amhurst, “to be a girl among other girls.” Unlike any of the other students, however, she has the privilege of being the only one to whom the schoolmistress gives her an empty flowerbed to grow her own garden. (This detail is reminiscent of another Trevor story, “Kathleen’s Field,” in which a loamy, coveted field becomes charged with sexual imagery, a place where a man will want to sow his seed, as it were). In addition, the flowerbed is in a walled-in area, and Old Trigol, an old man in his seventies, is the school gardener, “a dear person when you got to know him.” (Like that other story, “Taking Mr. Ravenswood,” are these details meant to reinforce the kind of relationship that exists between father and daughter? That of a dirty old man chasing a young girl? Hard to say.)
Naturally Cecilia initially hates the school, and so her father visits frequently to take her, and later both Cecilia and the friends she eventually makes, to hotels or tearooms for lunch or tea. (Upon first reading we naturally interpret “tearoom” literally, but it’s notable that, upon later reflection, that “tearoom” is also a euphemism for public washrooms where gay men have sex; the significance of this will become apparent shortly.)
But it is during a couple of hockey matches (a traditionally male-dominated sport) that Cecilia notices a pair of middle-aged women in the crowd who seem to be watching her with interest. The story switches point of view, as it often does in a Trevor story, now to the women’s. We learn they are Miss Cotell (a name that’s orthographically close to hotel) and Miss Keble. We are immediately led to believe that Miss Cotell (the one who has the keener interest in Cecilia) is the mother, and that the “humiliation” that Mr. Normanton suffered was not because his wife left him for another man but for a woman; for here too, just like father and daughter, the unusual closeness of the two women suggests a relationship that implies more than just friendship, even though Trevor only ever uses the word “friend” to describe it. And that benign word glossed over at the beginning of the story—“preference”—now takes on an ironic quality, redolent of that somewhat dated phrase, “sexual preference.” We further learn that Cotell and Keble, retired now, worked in a government office (“Benefits (Family)”), and generally refer to each other by last name (a very masculine, even militaristic form of address: the influence of their former work environment). They have since tried, unsuccessfully, to find other work, but only with the unusual stipulation that they not be separated. That they also live together, vacation together, make all decisions together, suggest a relationship that hints at more than just friendship.
The women return to the school, “accidentally” run into Cecilia (much like Mr. Vinnicombe in “Making Conversation”) and offer her flowers. They even try taking her picture. Cecilia is naturally alarmed by these strangers; and a classmate, who has witnessed the encounter, haughtily asks, “Poor relations, are they?”
And yet, contradicting the evidence of their intimacy, the two women do not appear sleep together (they certainly don’t when they later stay at a bed-and-breakfast and talk to each other from separate beds). Moreover, Cotell, before she falls asleep one night, fantasizes about a man named “Broughton”, while Miss Keble, who “had not experienced this aspect of life,” seems to fantasize about Cecilia. The switch in point of view is indicated by a section break, which subtly implies—though it’s just my reading of it—a physical barrier, a wall, between the two women, that they are in separate bedrooms, alone with their own thoughts. We also learn that Keble, the taller one, is the one who truly wields the power in this relationship, in spite of “her lesser role.” And while Cotell’s interest in Cecilia may arise from a maternal desire for a mother to reconnect with her daughter, Keble’s seems to lie in a sexual fantasy. Trevor writes: “She closed her own [eyes] and saw the unspoilt features still a child’s, the dark, dark hair, the blue-and-red blazer, the pleated grey skirt […] and the joy that should have been her friend’s became her own.”
One evening, the two women watch a play put on at Amhurst in which Cecilia stars as Thisbe (a story of illicit love, the lovers separated by a wall; is this a subtle hint at the unusual closeness between father and daughter, or is it a reference to the two women? Again, it’s unclear.) Oddly, while at the play, it is Keble who answers a query from an audience member that the man seated next to the headmistress is Mr. Normanton. That Cotell is not the one to “recognize” the father seems to suggest she was never his wife. That night Cotell dreams of a certain Father Humphrey and her passing him an envelope, a bribe, implying the priest’s role in secretly placing an unwanted child in an orphanage.
Again, the two women appear on the school grounds, but this time they offer Cecilia chocolate (redolent of “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil”) and a silver bracelet. Cecilia is alarmed by these two women and sets the gifts aside. They urge her to visit them; they tell her about the room they have prepared for her, how much she would like the house, their cat named Raggles (suggestive of rags? poverty?). But most puzzling is when Cotell mentions the priest: “‘You’ll have heard of Father Humphrey?’” she asks, followed by the look of surprise that passes across Cecilia’s face. It is this sentence that, to me, is most confounding in the story: how would Cecilia know of the priest who handled her own adoption? And then Keble slips this one solid piece of evidence that the reader can at last be sure of: “‘My dear, Miss Cotell is your mother.’”
Or is she? One would think there might be have been some subtle sense of recognition or an ineffable air of familiarity on Cecilia’s part, but in fact she repeatedly describes Cotell as “dumpy.” She runs to class and tells no one about the incident.
The term ends and again Cecilia and her father go away on vacation together, this time to the south of France. Inadvertently, Cecilia mentions the odd women to her father but only allusively; she withholds the question of paternity. “‘They wanted money?’” is Mr. Normanton’s immediate response. Cecilia dismisses the suggestion and only says only that they were “peculiar.” And yet, given the repeated imputation of poverty (“poor relations”), it’s difficult to dismiss money as yet another possible motive.
Cecilia never asks her father the direct the truth about the past; “she did not want to know,” we are told. But she does understand that the “photographs were lies, the marriage […] fell apart. No child was born; they’d hoped one would be”; and that she was “a child who, by chance belonging nowhere, now belonged to him.” On the train back to Paris she imagines this was something the women did from time to time, seeking out “girls without a mother, befriending them in order themselves to be befriended.” But it’s implied in the next paragraph that she’s kidding herself, that this is a “flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise.” Instead Cecilia waits for her father to tell her everything, already having forgiven him for keeping this secret, knowing that in mourning the loss of his wife he had tried to make up for it by having an unusually close relationship with his (adopted?) daughter. And in the same way he finds consolation in his melancholy, Cecilia, at the very end, finds consolation in doubt.
It’s a story that’s extremely ambiguous. Just like Cotell’s being “of two minds” in regards to her furtive undertaking, I too am ambivalent, not just about this story but of several in this last collection. While on the one hand, I admire Trevor for his shrewdness for subverting expectations (if I had attempted such a story I would have unwisely had Cecilia confront her father), for choosing endings that are very open-ended (I have a predilection for tidy resolutions), and for his slow dispersion of information. Yet I can’t help but wonder if too much is left unanswered, especially in this story, for the effect to be truly satisfying. “Fragments make up a whole,” Cecilia reflects, but what that whole is remains incomplete and puzzling, but instead if more of a hole, to use a well-worn cliché. As a result, “The Women,” like many of the others in this collection, starts to come across as a display of both cleverness (all those literary allusions! Cecilia, Bleak House, Thisbe, The Moon and Sixpence, The Constant Nymph, Virginibus Puerisque, etc., etc.) and an exercise testing the limits of story structure; that instead of being entertaining (after all, that’s why we read), many of these stories, and this one in particular, start to become taxing—homework!—like reading Milton, or John Donne, or Shelley, or someone else I once had to study and was told how brilliant he (it was usually a he) was; that instead of being captivated primarily by character, these stories comes across as possibly too conscious of themselves as artifice.
And yet—more paradox!—I continue to ponder these stories, fascinated by both their construction and the choices Trevor made in telling them. Though much of his earlier work continues to remain my favourite, Last Stories is undoubtedly an influential collection.