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Summer Books

Humor, melancholy lurk in Irish writer's stories

By William Trevor
Viking, 222 pages, $22.95 hardback


When The Collected Stories of William Trevor came out five years ago, it seemed definitive -- the summing up of a long, masterly career in what we have long been told is a dying form. It had the heft of a monument: nearly 1,300 pages of prose that was itself sort of heavy, dense in its concision.

As a kind of bonus, then, comes After Rain, a collection of 12 new stories that revisit familiar Trevor territory: the suburbs of London, where people tend to create all kinds of emotional trouble by their sophisticated suppression of emotion; the holiday spots of Italy, which are not far enough away for travelers to escape the complications of home, so that the interiors of the stories are still suburban London; the author's native Ireland, where life may seem more simply lived but is no day at the beach either.

Trevor is still in his 60s, so I suppose there was no good reason to think he wouldn't be productive for a long time to come. What is truly noteworthy -- and the real bonus -- is that some of these stories can be counted among his most imaginatively crafted and most satisfying in their very craftsmanship.

To borrow Virginia Woolf's line on Jane Austen, Trevor is a writer difficult to catch in the act of being great. It is difficult though not impossible to find passages of self-contained beauty; the beauty of his work is usually revealed when we see the completion of his designs. Trevor is a sometime sculptor and has spoken of the importance of shape in his writing. Shape can be translated into a more blocky architectural term, structure, and yet this is the element of fiction that can move us most delicately.

The collection itself is revealed to us as a carefully constructed whole. The Annunciation scene on the dust jacket, we discover, illustrates the title story, in which a similar picture in an Italian church inspires a sort of self-annunciation. This story sets a theme of annunciation for the book or rather lends the word annunciation to any unbidden arrival of insight in the other stories.

"There is a soundlessness about the picture, the silence of a mystery," thinks the English tourist, Harriet, in "After Rain." She has come into the church during a storm, and leaves when it ends. The clear, fresh look of the streets seems familiar to her, and then she realizes that the same atmosphere was captured by the artist, in the wilderness behind the Virgin and the angel. Walking through the transitory coolness, she begins to find answers to a question that has long been perplexing her. As she moves farther from the church, she begins to wonder about the source of this new clarity. It becomes a new mystery to her; the story makes a very graceful arch, and we get a little aesthetic thrill from this alone.

Trevor's annunciations function like James Joyce's famous epiphanies in Dubliners, but here there seems less room between the human and the idea of the divine for interpretations of irony, even though we have in the book what appears to be an actual miracle to contrast with everything earthly.

In "Lost Ground," a Protestant boy in rural Northern Ireland is visited in his father's apple orchard by a ghostly woman who calls herself St. Rosa. She tells him, "There is too much fear," and kisses him just as cryptically. His father is a leading Orangeman in the village, his brother is a "volunteer" in Belfast, and his uncle and brother-in-law are low-church ministers. He takes up the family tradition of preaching, but preaches his papist St. Rosa's message, which he has taken to be one of forgiveness.

At this point, our attention is pulled away from this quite compelling mystery. The boy's family must silence him, and we follow the heart mysteries of how they will go about pretending the whole thing never happened.

We find this sort of thing often in Trevor. We wait for the twist in the plot, and the twist comes when characters turn inward, away from the plot. We can't blame them, of course. What is meat to a storyteller -- conflict and crisis -- is what most of us scatter from like any defenseless animals.

But story triumphs over characters, in fiction as in truth. Struggle though they will, Trevor's people get caught in situations that force them to see "damage done to something as fragile as a dream."

In the story where that line occurs, "The Piano Tuner's Wives," the dashed dream is just an old man's comfort in the provisions of love left by his departed first wife. In "Widows," it is just an old woman's petty wish that her sister be as lonely as she. In "Timothy's Birthday," it is an old couple's humble assumption that their son likes them. Throughout the book, the homeliest human desires are elevated, one might say, by disproportionate disappointment.

The melancholy of this is leavened by a humor that contains the best of both worlds, English dryness and Irish sweetness. But the humor must also pull against an inherent melancholy here. One of Trevor's specialties is the story that attempts to digest a whole life, without the novel's space for the unimportant stretches of time where much of happiness lies. Reading Trevor can be somewhat like skimming a biography to see how it ends, and biographies do not end happily.

Stephen Binns is a freelance writer who lives in Kansas City and whose work has appeared, among other places, in The Atlantic Monthly.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997