There’s something pleasantly old-fashioned about William Trevor’s short fiction. The fact that he harks back to traditional forms should come as no great surprise – Trevor is, after all, fast-approaching his eightieth birthday – but it does provide an unexpected and refreshing antidote to the angry young men of English and American literature. There are no fancy devices here, no quirky narrative voices, no Gen X disaffection. These are stories firmly in the vein of Joyce’s Dubliners, and in Cheating At Canasta Trevor shows himself to be a modern master of the form.
The title story is the poignant tale of a widower returning to Harry’s Bar in Venice having made a promise to his wife on her deathbed, and the curious way in which he engages with an arguing couple at a nearby table. It’s a delicate study of grieving and loss, flavoured with some astute observations and to-the-point dialogue, and it sets the tone for the rest of the collection.
In ‘At Olivehill’ we encounter another death, although this time a widow is sidelined as her children renovate her estate in an attempt to bring it into the twentieth century. Her sorrows spring not only from the change in circumstances, but from her own complicity in keeping the planned renovations from her husband. In the way in which it engages simultaneously with both the past and the present it’s a typical William Trevor short story, and its lack of resolution again harks back to Joyce’s short fiction.
Not all these stories are about death and dying, however, although most deal with loss and regret in one of their many forms. ‘Folie เ Deux’ retains some of the Gothic atmosphere of his early work, as the story unravels a moment of childish cruelty from the narrator’s past, and gradually reveals his regret at the loss of a deeply-felt friendship. ‘Men Of Ireland’ catalogues another kind of loss – that of a life wasted and spent in vagrancy – and asks us questions about the nature of mercy and charity. There are no simple solutions to be had here, but Trevor is never shy of asking complex questions.
If you’ve already read any of his short stories then you’ll know that William Trevor is one of the few living masters of the form, unveiling intricate emotions in deceptively simple prose. It’s no hollow claim to compare his work with Joyce’s Dubliners, and in Cheating At Canasta he’s proved once again that there are few who can come close to him in terms of subtle nuances of feeling and understated epiphanies.
In a world that’s increasingly obsessed with quick thrills and roller coaster storytelling, it’s good to see that there’s still room for a genuine master with a delicate touch.