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FOR TREVOR, THE STORY IS IN THE TELLING

AFTER RAIN
By William Trevor
Viking
213 pages, $22.95

Michael Dirda, literary critic for the Washington Post, asked recently if William Trevor could be the finest living short story writer. Dirda says he hasn't had enough time to read Trevor sufficiently to know if this is so. Pity. In my view, Trevor is the best short story writer in English since Frank O'Connor -- though their styles are very different.

William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, in 1928. He has written 22 books, including the recent "Felicia's Journey," 1994 winner of the Whitbread Fiction Prize, and "Collected Stories," named one of the best books of 1993 by the New York Times. About his work, the author says, "My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so; I am a storyteller." But an erudite one.

Most of these stories appeared earlier elsewhere -- the majority in the New Yorker, and in Harper's. Initially, one is tempted to think that the shine is off reviewing the 12 stories, including "After Rain," "The Piano Tuner's Wives," "Timothy's Birthday" and "Marrying Damian." But not for long. One quickly succumbs to the spare-telling spell of life's sadness and disappointment by this Anglo-Irish master, whose craggy face looks like a weather vane for worry. The stories, finely crafted detail by detail (almost like the sculpting that Trevor pursued in an earlier career), reward more than one reading.

The title story "After Rain" is a recollective piece built on modulation and gradation. Harriet, a young woman of 30 or so, English one suspects, dines solo, somewhere in small-town Italy, at the Pensione Cesarina. Earlier, she has vacationed in this place for more than two decades with parents, now divorced. Harriet is escaping her latest falling out of love. It isn't her first unhappiness. She looks for an epiphany, but instead "always, when a love affair ended, there had been no exorcism after all." Harriet is lonely and seeks solace among the visitors at the pensione. But she finds none. She thinks of her lost love and wonders why her life is a wreck.

There is no answer to this question. Overcome by her emotional burden, Harriet walks into the town piazza and stops at the church of Santa Fabiola. "The Annunciation in the church of Santa Fabiola is by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi, no one is certain." The weather is the charged symbol of potential change. "Clouds have covered the sun, but the air is as hot as ever. There's still no breeze." The church is closed until later in the afternoon. Harriet finds a place to have a snack. "The rain outside is heavy now."

In the church again, Harriet reflects on the painting of the Annunciation: the look of serenity on the Virgin's face. She accepts a personal revelation that she has "cheated in her love affairs," a recognition that comes to her against her will. She concludes that the "Annunciation was painted after rain. . . . It was after rain that the angel came: Those first cool moments were a chosen time." Thus Trevor enables us to recognize this cleansing moment for Harriet -- "After Rain" -- artfully, adroitly, indirectly.

Wonderful writing from a master.