7 Writers Share Their Favorite William Trevor Story
Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li, Norman Rush and More on the Master of Short Fiction
In honor of the publication of William Trevor’s new, posthumous collection, Last Stories (Viking), we asked seven writers about their favorite story.
Read a story from the collection here.
One of his stories that has always spoken to me is “A Choice of Butchers.” Reading it again, I prepared myself in advance for the emotional impact it would have on me, only to experience its tragic force more acutely. He handles the intersection of childhood with the adult world so beautifully. To me this is a story both about the loss of innocence and, at the same time, the ongoing state of innocence that can betray us when we are young.
I cherish the dreary details of the house, the oatmeal wallpaper, the way he describes domestic spaces and habits, and people’s physical traits. And that uncommon, perfect word at the end to describe the father: “rumbustiousness.” The story is layered and ambiguous, elegiac, brilliantly understated, impossible not to read in one sitting. It articulates the terrifying resentment, disappointment, and anger we can feel towards our parents, and the confusion and distress evoked by those very feelings.
William Trevor said he was driven by a curiosity with the unfamiliar. This happens in all his stories. He reaches into the anonymous corners and somehow reconstitutes the dust. If I were to pick a favorite—which is like choosing a child—I would tend towards the political-driven classic “Attracta” which I read in my early 20’s when I was just beginning to try to write fiction. It certainly helped constitute the dust in me.
Like many of Trevor’s reader, I imagine, I’m especially fond of “Reading Turgenev,” because it’s so beautifully written, its characters so delicately drawn, and it’s so thoroughly suffused with what he writes about so well: heartbreak and hopeless romantic yearning. On the other hand, the story I most often taught was “Access to the Children,” because it’s very moving and written in a way that makes it possible to show students how Trevor is giving us tons of information without appearing to give us any information at all.
It is impossible for me to name a favorite William Trevor story. Can one pick up a favorite tree in a forest, when all the trees, with their secret joy and suffering, gaze at our meagre existence with sympathy? I can, however, name twenty or thirty stories I return to regularly. One of these stories is “After Rain,” the title story of the collection After Rain. In the story a woman travels alone to recover from a love that has ended too abruptly, but the wish that solitude could exorcise loneliness is as faulty as the wish that love could exorcise disappointment of love. The story is to me like mental Visine. It doesn’t offer a resolution to life’s muddiness, but it keeps my mind clear when clarity is essential.
‘Honeymoon In Tramore’ is archetypal William Trevor terrain—the odd contours of a new marriage are delineated against the soul-sapping dreariness of a grim Irish resort town. It’s the late 40s in provincial Ireland, an era of great repression, and when passion erupts it does so mercilessly, its very sweetness a burden. How mean the measures of love and joy that are portioned out to a life sometimes, Trevor seems to say, but even the merest flicker of light against the long dark is transcendent, a kindness mysteriously bestowed, almost a miracle.
William Trevor’s last published story, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” is a lovely valediction, and a coda to his best work (even the title recalls The Piano Tuner’s Wives). It is less than 2,000 words and in its brevity you almost feel Trevor foregoing the slow play of narrative for a kind of thematic directness, as if mortality had made him impatient: Look, this is what it means. In the end, when a humble piano teacher accepts the paradox of a brilliant student also being a thief, you are left thinking about the author, whose mysterious genius “was a marvel in itself.
There are some writers whose work one likes so much that, consciously or not, an impulse develops to not read all there is of it that’s available. My son, when he was a boy, invented the word ‘mising,’ to characterize the business of actively treasuring things of value you’ve managed to collect. He derived it from ‘miser,’ of course. I felt that way about William Trevor’s short stories, and the arrival of his Last Tales will permit me to push on through the final quarter of his big 2009 Collected Stories in a more relaxed state.
I’m not sure what it is that affects me about certain works, certain sensibilities, certain habits of art. I do know that it particularly happens with masterly short stories. (I’m halfway through Benedict Kiely’s 2003 Collected), and I remember my adolescent sorrow when I realized that I’d read all the Chekhov there would ever be.