Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 11, 2020

Last Stories, by William Trevor (Reading Ireland Month 2020)


It’s Reading Ireland month hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, and I’m getting in a week early with a short story collection because I’m back under the knife tomorrow and who knows how long it will be before I can read properly again after that!

So as not to mess up completely, I’m going to list some of my reviews that fit into Cathy’s ‘weeks’, which are:

  • Monday 2 March – Sunday 8 March– Contemporary Irish Novels
  • Monday 9 March – Sunday 15 March – Classic Irish Novels
  • Monday 16 March – Sunday 22 March – Irish Short Story Collections
  • Monday 23 March – Sunday 29 March– Irish Non-Fiction

So, for last week’s Contemporary Irish novels, let me suggest:

I have reviewed more novels than these four, and you can find the others here.

For Classic Irish Novels, yes, you guessed it:

Irish Non-Fiction? I thought I’d never read anything NF by an Irish author, but I surprised myself:

So, now to my contribution to Short Story Collections Week:

Valda Johnstone at Broadcast House, (ABC Studios) Melbourne

I haven’t had time to read the whole book, so to whet your appetite I’m just going to tell you about the first story ‘The Piano Teacher’s Pupil’.  It features Trevor’s trademark ambiguity, with an unexpected twist.  I think this story engaged me so much because of my own piano teacher Valda Johnstone, who was a child prodigy and a concert pianist, but in some ways had a life not unlike Miss Nightingale.  Like Trevor’s character, Valda’s widowed parent was likewise her lifelong companion, and the other similarities I know about because my curiosity about a composer who dedicated piano pieces to Valda led me to research in the NLA…

Over many weeks in the nursing home where she spent her final years, I interviewed Valda about her remarkable life and turned the interviews into chapters for a memoir covering childhood to retirement.  After her death, as Executor I had to pack up her house, and to transfer her papers and memorabilia to the State Library.  But amongst the concert programmes and photos of famous people, there were her work diaries, which revealed to me for the first time the drudgery of lessons that could only be taught before and after school and trapped her at the weekends; the unpaid pupil accounts including some owed by very wealthy people; and the dreariness of her professional life once her career as a concert pianist was behind her.  She was such a vivacious, cheerful person, I found it chastening to realise that there was a courageous struggle beneath the mask.

She didn’t just conceal the daily grind beneath the love of music that she bequeathed to her pupils.  Valda was mostly frank, but occasionally circumspect about other things too.  Like Miss Nightingale, Valda was contentedly single all her life, but as I discovered in the NLA, she knew what love was.

Now in her early fifties, slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features, Miss Elizabeth Nightingale considered that she was fortunate in her life.  She had inherited a house on the death of her father, and managed without skimping on what she earned as a piano teacher.  She had known the passion of love.

She might have married, but circumstances had not permitted that: for sixteen years she had been visited instead by a man she believed would one day free himself from a wife he was indifferent to.  That hadn’t happened, and when the love affair fell apart there had been painful regret on Miss Nightingale’s side, but since then she had borne her lover no ill will, for after all there was the memory of a happiness.

Miss Nightingale’s father, a chocolatier, being widowed at the time of her birth, had brought his daughter up on his own.  They became companions and remained so until his death, although he’d never been aware of the love affair that had been conducted for so long during his daily absences from the house.  That love and her father’s devotion were recollections that cheered Miss Nightingale’s present solitude and somehow gave shape to her life.  (p.2)

In this story, Miss Nightingale has a new pupil, the kind of pupil that every piano teacher dreams of: from the first notes he plays she sensed genius in a child.  She has other pupils of course, dull Francine, Diana who weeps, the one with a sore finger, Angela who gives up, and Graham who (just like me, I must confess), talked about his pets to delay his unpractised piece.  But this special boy is her delight.

However, something that he does, and does repeatedly, makes her doubt herself.  Her unease makes her wonder whether she has allowed herself to be taken advantage of by the other people in her life.  Maybe her father’s loneliness was a strategy to keep her there instead of letting her live an independent life, maybe the love of her life had been like so many other exploitative men with a mistress.  Has she been a victim of her own credulity?

In his beautiful review at the Guardian, Julian Barnes points out a feature of Trevor’s fiction: his characters lack agency.

Trevor’s characters rarely choose what happens to them; life chooses for them. What they want, or feel they want, does not govern what they get – or only for a brief, illusory time. After that they are delivered back into emotional marginality, glancing non-relationships and the dubious certitudes of memory.

In this respect the stories, it seems to me, owe a debt to Dubliners. Very little happens, but life is very closely observed.  While paralysed uneventfulness and aching loneliness in Joyce’s stories derive from the religion that dominated Irish life in the 20th century, in Trevor’s stories the sense of life is circumscribed by lack of money (‘The Crippled Man’), and lack of opportunity (At the Caffé Daria).

The review by Kim at Reading Matters is what prompted me to buy the book in the first place.  Kim has reviewed countless Irish novels, so do visit her blog to discover more.

Author: William Trevor
Title: Last Stories
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2019
Cover design: not named, but the photo is by Jaques Henri Lartigue by permission of the Ministry of Culture in France.
ISBN: 9780241337783, pbk., 213 pages
Source: personal copy.

Available from Fishpond:Last Stories

 


Responses

  1. So glad you enjoyed these – he’s a lovely writer. Thanks so much for taking part!

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    • Thanks for the prompt. I read two more of the stories last night, the man was a genius…

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  2. I usually avoid collections with titles like “Last Stories” because they remind me too much of leftovers. However in the case of William Trevor he was such a good writer that I might make an exception.

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    • I know what you mean. Everyone needs to know when to retire, and for an author I think that time comes when frailty makes it hard to get out and about and eavesdrop on what’s happening in the world. But Trevor has done himself proud with this last collection, I promise you.

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  3. Kim’s review piqued my interest too – this is on my radar! :D

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    • *wink* Oh she’s a terror, that one… I can’t tell you how many books there are on my TBR because of her!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have read a few William Trevor novels but not his short stories, you have definitely whetted my appetite though.

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    • Have you reviewed any of them on your blog? I read most of them before I started blogging, and I love to read reviews of books I read a while ago, it brings back the pleasure of reading them.
      Lucy Gault… totally unforgettable.

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      • I have reviewed a couple, the most recent one a couple of years ago I wasn’t mad about. But I also reviewed Of Love and Summer which I loved. I read a couple of other novels pre blog which I also really enjoyed.

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        • That’s the thing, isn’t it? Some of our best loved books are pre-blog…

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  5. Best of luck with the surgery!

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  6. It’s a marvellous collection – from a magnificent writer.
    (Stay brave and well, Lisa.)

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    • Thank you, Carmel. There’s been quite an improvement in my vision since I replied to Karen four hours ago. But the mega does of codeine has worn off, alas…
      Swings and roundabouts… we’ll see what tomorrow brings.

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  7. Even if you were a naughty pupil your teacher clearly thought highly of you by giving you the content for a memoir and then making you executor.
    I’Ive never read William Trevor and though I’m not a fan of short stories you’ve convinced me to try his other work. Any recommendations on where to begin?

    Hope all goes well with the surgery and it brings an end to those headaches you mentioned on another occasion.

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    • Thanks, Karen…
      The memoir came about because I heard someone talking about the needs of elderly people in aged care. They said that often visits degenerate into the resident complaining and that results in visitors not wanting to come. They suggested that elderly people need 3 things: someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. This last one is often hard to achieve, but then I got the idea of doing this memoir, and she loved it. I’d go along with my voice recorder and my Qs, then the following week I’d bring back the transcript for her to check, the week after that I’d bring my draft for feedback, and then the following week I’d bring it back with the corrections and additions done. Then we’d start again. So she always had something to look forward to, and I enjoyed my visits as well.
      re my eyes: it’s just on 24 hours now since they did the 2nd one, and the blurring is starting to clear, so fingers crossed!

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      • I’m going to make a note of that trio: someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. I think it will helpful in respect of my own parents. My mum especially needs to have something to look forward to….

        I’m deeply interested in that memoir process you used. I’ve been toying with an idea (not really formulated at the moment) about asking a local hospice if they had patients who might be interested in doing something like this. It isn’t going to happen soon because the last thing a hospice wants right now is additional visitors but its something I can at least start exploring with them.

        Good news about the eyes – every day should bring a little improvement

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        • That ‘trio’ is burned into my brain. We all need it, but when we are frail and old, we can’t take steps to achieve it for ourselves, we need someone else to help out. Aged care places have activity programs these days, and they do a great job, but I know Valda liked it when I simply sent her a card, with a scrap of mundane news and letting her know that I was coming to see her. I was going to see her every week, and she knew that too, but the card helped to heighten the sense of anticipation.
          The cook in her place also did a very simple thing: he went round the wards telling people that they were having their favourite for dinner that night.
          Re your hospice idea, I think it’s a good one. We visited a friend in palliative care last week, and because I was thinking of writing his obituary, I had planned out some questions that didn’t allude to the impending reason for asking them. He loved talking about how he got started in various enterprises, and once he got going there was no stopping him. It was wonderful, and The Spouse who has known this man for decades, learned things about him that he did not know, and so did his siblings who were there too. The trick is to ask open ended questions, and to listen carefully so that you can pick up on something that leads to another question. Don’t take notes, it makes it too formal. Just use the voice recorder, (and you will also find that you improve your own technique by listening to yourself as well.

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  8. […] Lisa over at ANZ LitLovers posted about William Trevor’s Last Stories […]

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