Andrew Mckie

Strictness and susceptibility

William Trevor’s collected short stories were published in 1992 and brought together seven collections.

Strictness and susceptibility
Text settings

Collected Stories, Volumes I & II

William Trevor

Penguin, pp. , £

William Trevor’s collected short stories were published in 1992 and brought together seven collections.

William Trevor’s collected short stories were published in 1992 and brought together seven collections. But since reaching the standard age for retirement, Trevor has produced four further volumes, and now Penguin has brought out a handsome new edition, in two slipcased volumes.

The industry is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the quality. Trevor is routinely described as the world’s greatest living writer of short stories (I suppose the competition is Alice Munro), which makes the reviewer’s task a little tricky. It boils down to this: is he?

Those already familiar with Trevor’s stories know the answer already, and need not bother with the rest of this piece: you will be better employed simply spending the book tokens you got for Christmas on this collection. You may not want to spend several days reading 133 stories, spread over 1,800 or so pages, at a stretch (though I have seldom enjoyed a job so much), but you won’t be doing that. You will be putting them on your bedside table, where they will become as permanent a fixture as the lamp, and where they will keep you company for the rest of your life.

How should I go about justifying these extravagant claims to those who have not read Trevor’s short stories? What is arresting, seeing them gathered together, is the remarkable consistency in quality and tone which has been present from the first, ‘A Meeting in Middle Age’, in which the brash, frightful Mrs da Tanka meets a shy, cautious bachelor who has been paid to fabricate grounds for her divorce, to the last, ‘Folie à Deux’, in which two middle-aged men encounter one another for the first time since a boyhood incident in which they drowned a dog.

Both touch on some of Trevor’s most common themes: a sense of possibilities that have passed the protagonists by, and which will not come again; their impulse to examine their position, but a reluctance to act to change it; a pervasive sense of regret allied with an acceptance of their character and the necessity of continuing to endure their circumstances. Wilby, in the last story, ‘knows where he is with all this; he knows what he’s about, as he does in other aspects of his tidy life. And yet this morning he likes himself less than he likes his friend.’ Mrs da Tanka’s would-be co-respondent, too — though ‘anticipation was not in Mr Mileson’s life’ — will carry on, in his lonely room with the unwashed plates and forks with egg on the prongs.

If Trevor is a realist, building up a searingly honest picture of life from its apparently unimportant minutiae, so are the people about whom he writes. They understand, as their author does (unfashionably for modern sentiments) that what you are is determined not by a cheery self-assessment of the ‘real you’, still less by what you want for yourself, but by what you have done. General Suffolk in ‘The General’s Day’, which finishes with him being carried home by his ghastly daily, Mrs Hinch, has been undone by drink and lust, and weeps as he thinks he may live another 20 years. But if Trevor’s characters resign themselves to enduring what they have become, and do not quite give up, they are nonetheless often prepared to give things up.

In ‘The Ballroom of Romance’, Bridie, watching the awful example of Maggie Dowding, decides to give up the visits to the dance-hall which she loves before she becomes absurd. Miss Ivygale, in ‘Office Romances’, has ‘wasted half a lifetime on hopeless love’ for a married man in the office and can see that the plain, 26-year-old Angela is about to make the same mistake. But though aware of having been used, she says nothing to the younger woman: ‘Self-esteem and memories were better than knowing that, no matter how falsely they came’.

Trevor shares an unflinching gaze with his fellow-countryman Samuel Beckett, but he offers greater consolations than the dictum: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ In one of the later stories, ‘Cheating at Canasta’, he offers a recent widower’s reflections on a quarrel he overhears between a married couple in Harry’s Bar — ‘My God, Mallory thought, what they are wasting!’ As the couple leave, he speaks to them, and the moment of consolation which is offered in the conclusion of the story is sparked by their embarrassment and shame.

Shame is the dominant feeling, too, in ‘Mrs Silly’, about a boy at boarding school embarrassed by his mother’s behaviour, and of both the headmaster and his former star pupil at an Irish hotel in ‘The Grass Widows’. Trevor is marvellous on childhood, but though ‘Mrs Silly’ is an extraordinary, skilfully manipulative tale, he can be bluntly condemnatory, too, as in ‘Broken Homes’, and deeply sinister: ‘The Raising of Elvira Tremlett’ is a rationalist ghost story, but the atmosphere is as Gothic as Shirley Jackson. ‘The Hotel of the Idle Moon’ is not only sinister but almost gleefully nasty in its study of wickedness, and the probability that it will triumph.

Much is always made of Trevor’s Irishness, but I don’t see that it is of primary importance. Indeed, evocative though the stories set there are, some of those which deal most directly with the country and the Troubles, such as ‘Another Christmas’, are set in England.

What may be more important is that Trevor comes from an Irish Protestant background, and the blend of strictness and susceptibility in his work may owe something to that. There is a virtue, he insists, in examining one’s life minutely, in accepting honestly its limitations and accepting responsibility for what you have done and what you have made of your life. There is a virtue, too, in quietly continuing, taking small steps, and accepting the imperfectability of things. For more than four decades Trevor has been quietly building, truthfully and with great attention to detail, a monument to those lives in elegiac yet muscular prose. The result is these two volumes, each about the size of Chambers Dictionary or the Oxford Companion to English Literature. They will be as indispensable, and give as much pleasure, as those to anyone who cares about words, or what can be made with them.