I have been away from computers and newspapers for a week, far from the madding crowd, celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday with my family in a mountain cabin. I was therefore saddened to learn on my return home when I read the Sunday Los Angeles Times that one of my very favorite short story writers, William Trevor, had died on Nov. 20, at the age of 88.
Author Scott Bradfield wrote a perceptive tribute to Trevor for the LA Times, noting quite rightly that Trevor's temperament was better suited to the short story than to the novel, quoting Trevor's remark, "I'm a short story writer, really, who happens to write novels. Not the other way around."
Bradfield says that for Trevor each short story is an experiment in form, and requires far more concentration than any "shaggy, Pulitzer-worthy novel; this is because each story is not an analysis or explanation of our world but rather only a perfect expression of itself." Bradfield quoted Trevor, who told The Paris Review:
"If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionistic painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion on meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art."
I have written about Trevor's stories several times on this blog, for which you can search if you are of a mind to, but here are a few additional comments on one of his last collections, A Bit on the Side.
Trevor’s twelve stories here, seven of which appeared in The New Yorker, reaffirm that he always had a profound understanding of the complexity of what makes people do what they do and an unerring ability to use language to suggest that intimate intricacy.
For example, in the title story, a mature couple who has been having an affair reaches that moment of terrible relief when it must end. Explanations are exchanged, excuses made, and it all seems so apparent. But it isn’t.
As in all great short stories, from Chekhov to Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevor—secrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd.
“Big Bucks” seems like a traditional Irish emigration story. The young man goes to America to get work, while the young woman waits for him to send for her. As usual, work is hard to find, communication is difficult, and it seems the man has forgotten. But it’s not that conventional. She begins to realizes that what held them together was not love, whatever that is, but the shared goal of going to America.
In “Sitting with the Dead,” a woman whose cold and uncaring husband has just died, must entertain two professional comforters, to whom she spills her secret hatred for the man. But, it is not that straightforward, and they know that the dead they have been sitting with is she.
In “Sacred Statues,” a woman whose husband has some artistic talent but must get by as a simple laborer can’t understand why she, who has children easily, cannot sell her unborn baby to a childless neighbor to give her husband a chance. And although the reason seems obvious, as usual in Trevor’s stories, it is not.
These are not cultural examinations of either the old Ireland of legend or the new Ireland of the European Union, but rather profoundly wise explorations of individual, yet universal, secrets and mysteries of the heart.
Even when Trevor writes a story with a social or historical context, it is levered on the personal. In “Justina’s Priest,” the loosening hold of the Catholic Church on modern Ireland is revealed in one old priest’s clinging to the simple-minded devotion of one young woman. And in “The Dancing-Master’s Music,” the whole history of peasant Ireland’s dreadful dependence on England’s Big House mastery is suggested by one young scullery maid’s romantic memory of distant music.
In Trevor’s stories, what deeply matters cannot be openly articulated. In “Traditions,” a long standing secret at a boy’s school is fueled by mutual fantasy. In “An Evening Out,” a couple on an arranged date fulfills each other’s needs in sly, unsavory ways. In “Solitude,” a secret not meant to be seen and a tragedy not meant to take place haunts a woman all her life in Ancient Mariner fashion.
These are luminous, restrained stories. Every one of them deserves to be read and reread, their motivations marveled at, their sentences savored. They fill the reader with awe at the complexity of the human experience and the genius of William Trevor.
We will miss him.