Viking, £16 99

A Bit on the Side, by William Trevor

Elegiac stories of dignity and renunciation

William Trevor is a master of the nuanced episode and the fraught encounter. Since his first collection of stories,
The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967), he has perfected a narrative manner in which gravity and decorum coexist with sometimes shocking occurrences, and a faintly comic undertone enlivens the grimmest details.

William Trevor is a master of the nuanced episode and the fraught encounter. Since his first collection of stories, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967), he has perfected a narrative manner in which gravity and decorum coexist with sometimes shocking occurrences, and a faintly comic undertone enlivens the grimmest details.

This is true of his novels no less than his stories; but the shorter fiction, you might say, makes an even more felicitous outlet for Trevor's elliptical virtuosity. This new collection has 12 luminous stories, each distinctive in atmosphere and resonant in implication.

In a 1988 interview, Trevor ruefully attributed his celebrity in Ireland to a single story, "The Ballroom of Romance", in which an ageing country girl decides to settle for what's available: marriage to an uncouth bachelor rather than unending spinsterhood. A Bit on the Side begins with "Sitting With the Dead", in which the ending of a similar alliance is envisaged: bleak years, then a death in a farmhouse bedroom, after which comes an incursion by a couple of well-meaning Catholic women whose self-appointed task is to comfort the dying and the bereaved.

Some truths are enunciated during the dispensing of tea and barmbrack, and a measure of dignity retained. That quality, indeed, has become a powerful concern of Trevor's: the wresting of dignity, of sustaining composure, from the most unpromising of circumstances.

In these stories, as in their predecessors, the emphasis tends to fall on the beneficial effects of restraint and renunciation: the refusal of a legacy, the non-fulfillment of a purpose, the ending of an affair. In the title story, a man in the throes of a romantic liaison cannot bear the vulgar slant he watches others impose on it.

West-of-Ireland Fina, in "Big Bucks", gradually relinquishes the figment of a future for herself and John Michael, a one-time fisherman, in an imaginary America. Throughout this collection, you get a sense of disruption of one sort or another, mellowed by a reconditioning consciousness.

The action of "Traditions" takes place in a boys' school and concerns the clandestine service performed each year for a chosen pupil by a serving maid. In "The Dancing Master's Music", a "big house" story, the lowest scullery maid proves unusually susceptible to the power of music. Again, time passes. Nothing happens, except the erosion of a way of life, change and decay.

To an extent, the comic element which was such a feature of Trevor's earlier work has given way to an elegiac overtone, although an idiosyncrasy of diction keeps things buoyant. Six of these 12 stories are set in Ireland, a country that can claim William Trevor, even though most of his life has been passed elsewhere. Irish or English, it makes no odds, as he goes on quietly and enticingly extending the range of the genre.

Patricia Craig's life of Brian Moore is published in Bloomsbury paperback

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