A BIT ON THE SIDE

By William Trevor. Viking. 245 pp. $24.95 William Trevor has never wanted for admirers. After all, he's been regularly acclaimed the greatest living writer of short stories in English. Unfortunately, such vague praise doesn't mean a whole lot any more. Tomorrow some 26-year-old kid who publishes his work only on the Internet will be compared to Chekhov, to the latter's disadvantage. Words are not only cheap, they're really easy to use.

I knew that people spoke highly of Trevor's fiction, that he'd published a dozen novels and nearly as many collections of stories, that he was Irish and lived in England, and that he was well into his seventies. That was about it. Only now, after turning each page of A Bit on the Side with increasing awe and gratitude, do I realize that William Trevor actually does merit comparison with Chekhov. Just on the basis of these dozen stories, I know that here is a writer after my own heart, and perhaps after yours too.

If one were to pick a single word to characterize A Bit on the Side, it would be forlorn. Trevor's characters -- shabby genteel, for the most part -- have settled into routines of emptiness or of stoic acceptance; emotional pain has passed into a mild hopelessness, and they no longer expect much from the world. What little happiness they occasionally do feel depends largely on memories. Without quite giving in to despair, they nonetheless recognize that, somehow, they have ended up living a half-life. Perhaps, Trevor implies, this is what late middle age usually means -- to dwell in the shadow of lost possibilities and to recall, with a pang, the light of other days. We soldier on, nonetheless, as best we can.

In "An Evening Out," an attractive woman of 51 aches for someone to talk to. "What she sought was companionship. Sometimes when she made her way to the Downs or the coast she experienced the weight of solitude; often in the cinema or the theatre she would have liked to turn to someone else to say what she'd thought of this interpretation or that." So Evelyn employs the Bryanston Square Introduction Bureau, and in a theater bar waits for, then finally meets, her "date," a photographer who is there mainly to cadge a meal and possibly borrow her car. Neither is what the other is looking for. Still Evelyn listens to the man rattle on about camera equipment, while gradually finishing her third gin and tonic:

"His world was very different from hers," she tells him, "knowing she must not go on about hers, that it would be tedious to mention all sorts of things. Why should anyone be interested in her rejection more than twenty years ago of someone she had loved? Why should anyone be interested in knowing that she had done so, it seemed now, for no good reason beyond the shadow of doubt there'd been? A stranger would not see the face that she still saw, or hear the voice she heard; or understand why, afterwards, she had wanted no one else; or hear what, afterwards, had seemed to be a truth -- that doubt played tricks in love's confusion. And who could expect a stranger to want to hear about the circumstances of a mother's lingering illness and the mercy of her death in a suburban house? You put it all together and it made a life; you lived in its aftermath, but that, too, was best kept back. She smiled at her companion through these reflections, for there was no reason not to."

Trevor's prose relies principally on declarative sentences, precise diction and striking visual images. When a 7-year-old girl secretly observes her mother's adultery, all she says is this: "My mother's dress was crumpled on the floor and I could see it when I peeped out, her necklace thrown down too. Afterwards, she said they should have locked the door." Could anything be simpler? Or in so few words suggest the reckless hunger of illicit passion?

Trevor knows that "love's mysteries in souls do grow" and he also knows that "the body is its book." A woman marries a mean-spirited loner -- and remains with him all his life because she realizes that he couldn't manage without her. A young girl learns that her tutor's wife is meeting with a lover during her weekly lesson. Two serious readers, one married, discuss their favorite books and are gradually drawn to each other. One man ends an affair out of love; another stalks his ex-wife. Trevor views all these characters with tenderness, with unmaudlin sympathy for their lonely, broken lives.

In a few of his stories, it takes a page or two before the reader has figured out quite what's going on. Sometimes Trevor can be overly elliptical or enigmatic; he also likes to alternate two different points of view that eventually overlap. But, above all, he unfolds the real sorrows of real people, people who stand at counters in shops selling postcards, or work as maids and servants, or go off to America to seek their fortune. Most make a mistake and end up paying for it with a stunted but just bearable existence. "It would not have seemed unusual to speak about his marriage, about love's transformation within it, about his grief when it was no longer there, about the moments and occasions it had since become." In the end, the characters often do snag some tiny scrap of solace -- the memory of a piano concert that brightens an entire life, eventual forgiveness of parental misjudgments, a greater self-understanding. Sometimes, too, the future may in fact be brighter than it looks, even when two adulterous lovers, utterly brokenhearted, are quietly parting for the last time:

"In the plate-glass of a department store window their reflection was arrested while they embraced. They did not see that image recording for an instant a stylishness they would not have claimed as theirs, or guessed that, in their love affair, they had possessed. Unspoken, understood, their rules of love had not been broken in the distress of ending what was not ended and never would be. Nothing of love had been destroyed today: they took that with them as they drew apart and walked away from one another, unaware that the future was less bleak than now it seemed, that in it there still would be the delicacy of their reticence, and they themselves as love had made them for a while."

Before such a passage -- and it is, of course, even more moving in context -- one can only bow one's head and fight back tears. "The distress of ending what was not ended and never would be. . . . And they themselves as love had made them for a while." A Bit on the Side is a wonderful book and, for me at least, William Trevor really is the best short story writer alive. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His weekly discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.