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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Thoughts on what may be William Trevor's last story

Moving and sad to see in this week's New Yorker what will probably be the last William Trevor story, a pretty short 2-pager that he must have left behind unpublished on his death. Trevor was w/out doubt one of the great English-language short-story writers; his only peers during his later years were Munro and Updike - only Munro still alive and seemingly retired from writing. This story, The Piano Teacher's Pupil, shows us some of the beauty, tone, and unusual narrative voice for which Trevor is justly remembered: In a short span he covers the breadth of the Piano Teacher's life - her years teaching piano at her home; her devotion to her elderly father, a chocolatier; the affair she was engaged in with a married man whom she hoped would leave is wife for her but who never did - in short the sad missed connections of a life quiet on the exterior and inside full of tormoil - like so many lives! In such a short space, inevitably this story feels more like an outline than a fully developed narrative; we can imagine that had he been younger and in better health he would have built out this story. The essence is that for the first time in her life the teacher recognizes the one pupil is a prodigy; she nourishes this relationship - throughout the story the pupil never says a word - even though it appears that at each lesson the pupil steals something from her home. At the end, the pupil drifts away, as most do, but years later returns for another lesson or at least a visit. Then Trevor, as was his wont, adds a final paragraph, a coda, summing up the teacher's thoughts and emotions: in this case she seems to feel blessed by working with this one (potentially) great pianist, after all. No knock on Trevor to say that most readers will find this conclusions insufficient: there was so much mystery in the story - the silence of the pupil, his apparent hostility and kleptomania - that I think we expect more of a recognition at the end, and maybe a more melancholy conclusion as well: Is she really satisfied to have worked with the ingrate? Doesn't she feel a bit of a fool? But in a grander sense, maybe Trevor is saying something about his own career: each book, each story, was like something lifted from his psyche, released from his memory, in return for his creation of great art. The theft may be painful and humiliating, but in the end, when his memory is dry and skills are depleted, the touch of greatness was enough.

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