“Last Stories.” The finality of that title — the finality of last anything — casts an elegiac, wistful pall over William Trevor’s 12th collection. Trevor died in 2016 , at age 88, and these 10 stories, written in his last decade, make you want to scour them for parting words of wisdom about life and death. This book also leads you to wonder: Did Trevor’s preoccupations shift in his late work? Did mortality loom larger?
For more than half a century, writing from his adopted home in Devon, England, Trevor produced a trove of psychologically astute, understated novels and short story collections, including “Felicia’s Journey,” “The Story of Lucy Gault” and “A Bit on the Side.” His abiding subjects encompassed wayward impulses and longing that often led to adultery, duplicity, jealousy, guilt and shame. His fiction was set mostly in his native Ireland among ordinary, frequently marginalized people jockeying for position on the lower rungs of the social ladder. To the end, his characters, often female, ranged in age from teens to elders.
Death casts its shadow in much of Trevor’s work, including these final tales — several of which involve characters who have lost spouses or parents. Yet aging and mortality are still not the central focus. What stands out is the acceptance of loss, reduced circumstances, constraints and even pervasive loneliness. Not just resignation but peaceful acceptance, which is more positive.
These late tales can hardly be said to be cheerful, but the Chekhovian yearning for romance and adventure — more often stymied than fulfilled — is mainly replaced by a measure of calm. With the exception of just a few characters, financial need and conniving no longer play the large role they did in Trevor’s earlier work.
In “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” one of four stories here originally published in the New Yorker, Miss Elizabeth Nightingale is “a quiet beauty” in her early 50s whose long affair with a married man ended years ago with “painful regret.” Ultimately, Trevor writes, she “had borne her lover no ill will, for after all there was the memory of happiness.” When Miss Nightingale finds another source of joy in an extraordinarily gifted pupil’s beautiful playing, she is willing to overlook the boy’s pilfering of her trinkets, having accepted that there are trade-offs in life.
Trevor contrasts the memory of happiness with the messiness of real life in the fable-like love story “An Idyll in Winter.” After a blissful few months with the tutor she first fell in love with as a girl, a young woman recognizes that the cost of their passion is the damage she and her blithe lover have wrought on his wife and daughters, which won’t “politely go away.” She decides that the memory of joy may actually be preferable to a love affair weighted down by guilt and subject to “long slow dying, or love made ordinary.”
“At the Caffè Daria,” one of two previously unpublished stories, takes up the theme of not just lost love but also lost friendship in a narrative about another self-possessed, luckless woman who achieves a measure of equilibrium in solitude. But her peace is disturbed when the friend for whom her husband ditched her reports that he has died. The widow, more lonely than bereft after many years with this selfish philanderer, hopes to mend fences with her former friend. “But we are as we are, not as we were,” the first wife protests. “Death exorcizes nothing.” Trevor doesn’t leave the story on this bitter note; instead, he follows the women to a powerful realization about “all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.”
Partway through this sobering valedictory collection filled with lonely people, the lyrics to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” started playing in my head: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” Loneliness, even more than mortality, may well be the aspect of the human condition that struck Trevor most forcefully in the end.
Heller McAlpin reviews books for The Washington Post, NPR and the Los Angeles Times.
By William Trevor
Viking. 213 pp. $26