When William Trevor died in November 2016, an obituary in the Guardian noted that across the globe, his name was “synonymous with good fiction.” The only question, according to the British newspaper, was whether he’d be remembered more for his novels or his short stories.
“Last Stories,” his final collection, doesn’t settle the matter, of course. Nor does it seem destined to supplant “The Story of Lucy Gault” or “A Bit on the Side” atop the list of Trevor’s finest work. Nonetheless, this is a typically gratifying effort, a volume of faultless prose and contemplative characters, and a fitting testament to his storytelling prowess.
Trevor always had a weakness for lovelorn protagonists, and each of these 10 stories features characters who are in some way heartbroken or bereft.
The best of the lot, “Giotto’s Angels,” is about Constantine, an amnesiac art restorer, and a prostitute named Denise. They meet on several occasions, but because of his condition, she’s always a new face. Denise is tender with him, but she also sees an opportunity, and when Constantine falls asleep, she steals some of his money. Later, as she recalls watching him work, she’s struck with guilt: “He was skilful with the brush and the paint, like a man brought back from the dead as soon as he had them by him.”
In “At the Caffè Daria,” Trevor focuses on two women who loved the same recently deceased man. Anita and Claire were once close, but an effort to rekindle the friendship proves fruitless. “The past is too far off,” Trevor writes, “its laughter does not echo.” The story is unpredictable, and the final scene, just a few paragraphs long, contains a transgression and a small but meaningful act of kindness.
The main character in “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” has spent most of her whole life “in this room, where her father had cosseted her in infancy.” Now middle-aged and grieving the collapse of a long affair, she can’t figure out why a gifted student is stealing trinkets from her home. Hoping to avoid a confrontation that might chase him away, she “often did not look to see what was no longer there.”
“An Idyll in Winter” centers on a man who leaves his family for another woman. His daughter reacts by nearly starving herself. Although she recovers, everyone involved senses that the harm is permanent. “The damaged do not politely go away,” Trevor writes, but “instead release their demons.”
Last year Yiyun Li, a talented novelist, published a memoir that attributed some of her success to Trevor’s mentorship. In a letter to Li, he counseled, “You may be less confused than you imagined. Stories are a hope, and often they obligingly answer questions.”
Trevor’s fiction isn’t always teeming with hope, but I think he means something else here. The fact that we tell them at all — that’s the hopeful bit. His stories are suffused with longing and pain, beauty and humanity, and, as promised, they’re full of answers to timeless questions.
Kevin Canfield is a New York-based writer and critic.
By: William Trevor.
Publisher: Viking, 213 pages, $26.