Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor
07/07/07, The Times
What remains to be said about William Trevor except the oft-repeated truth that he’s not just a master but the Master of the narrative form? Cheating at Canasta is his eleventh book of short stories; there is not much that a writer needs to be told about his craft at this juncture and true to such maturity and consummate mastery of the short story, the book is suffused with a radiant and effortless majesty, a comprehensive ease of speaking about spaces in the human heart and mind that remains out of reach for most writers. Almost all the stories weigh in at around 20 pages; within that boundary, Trevor catches the infinitely elusive movements of thought and consciousness that lie above or beyond language. Sometimes, they bring Henry James to mind, in their pursuit of the developing consciousness or the thought-in-motion, but there is an august austerity to Trevor’s prose, a kind of chaste sparseness that can only be summed up in one word: wisdom.
Time and again, the stories end not with the clichéd ‘twist in the tail’ but with a widening of a cognitive vista, an illumination that lights up almost endless place for the stories’ truths and revelations to refract and glitter. They grant grace to their reader, and moral knowledge of human nature, too. In ‘Faith’, a brother silently chafes against his overbearing and controlling sister yet keeps from her, during her last days, the painful knowledge of his loss of faith for it is she who has laboured to acquire for him a nearly-abandoned benefice. When the loss of faith occurs, Trevor pins it down as a physical occurrence yet manages somehow to let it remain slippery, even ineffable, in the realms of the mystery that the brother sees at the heart of all faith.
Such fugitive turns and recognitions of the mind, so difficult to fix on the page, yet so transformative of lives, mark almost every story in the collection. The title-story tells of an elderly man at his solitary dinner in Harry’s Bar in Venice, eavesdropping on a young American couple quarelling at a nearby table. He is there to fulfill a request from his wife, now losing herself to dementia, to revisit all the places in which they had travelled together in Italy. Talking to the couple as they leave the restaurant, he comes to such a subtle understanding of his purpose in keeping a request he was prepared to write off as foolishness that you can miss it if you blink. In ‘Folie à Deux’, Wilby’s chance encounter in a brasserie in Paris with his childhood friend, Anthony, whom everyone had taken to be dead, brings back an act of heartbreaking cruelty committed when they were nine-year olds. Marred by the event in a very different degree from his friend, Wilby realises that his assimilation of it has not been as complete as he had understood for it changes his relationship with himself, for a fleeting moment, on a cold November morning, as he prepares to go and buy stamps from the salesrooms at Passy. In ‘A Perfect Relationship’, Chloë walks out on Prosper after two and a half years of a glitchless relationship, leaving him scrambling for reasons, secrets, things withheld, other men. Then Chloë returns, unable to sustain the certainty that she should be on her own. The exquisitely calibrated muddle of reasons that Chloë offers Prosper when she comes back to stay brings to Prosper an ambivalent, bitter knowledge that we know is going to inflect their relationship almost imperceptibly after the final full-stop. The densest story in the book, ‘Old Flame’, tells of a last visit Charles pays Audrey, the woman he almost left his wife for forty years ago. Told almost wholly from the point of view of the wife, Zoë, who has been steaming open letters and listening in on the telephone conversations, unknown to Charles, the quietly shocking element in the tale is the slow unfolding of the role played by Grace, Audrey’s lifelong friend and companion.
Seamus Heaney has written about the moment in great poetry where ‘consciousness is given access to a dimension beyond the frontier where an overbrimming, totally resourceful expressiveness becomes suddenly available’. All these stories cross that line to that state of illumination.