William Trevor's Cheating at Canasta.

All about fiction.
Nov. 1 2007 7:36 AM

No Second Chances

The bracing vision of William Trevor.

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In the title story, Trevor's interest in the presence of the past has a more intensely personal focus. Turning away from the concerns of history, he delineates the feelings of a man of perhaps late middle age for his wife. Mallory has traveled to Venice because his wife is suffering from early-onset dementia, and in its early stages he had promised her that he would return someday to the place they had so often traveled together. Seated in Harry's Bar on a Sunday evening, he eavesdrops on a quarrelling young couple as he thinks about her and feels increasingly that it was foolish of him to come. She would neither know nor care, now, if he hadn't—but Trevor makes it clear to the reader (if not to Mallory) that there's no emptiness to his keeping of the promise. This faithfulness to her past self is integral to who he is.

"No matter what," Julia had said, aware then of what was coming, "let's always play cards." And they did; for even with her memory gone, a little more of it each day—her children taken, her house, her flowerbeds, belongings, clothes—their games in the communal drawing-room were a reality her affliction still allowed. Not that there was order in their games, not that they were games at all; but still her face lit up when she found a joker or two among her cards, was pleased that she could do what her visitor was doing, even though she couldn't quite, even though once in a while she didn't know who he was. … He cheated at Canasta and she won.

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At the end of his dinner, in his loneliness, Mallory uncharacteristically contrives to talk to the bickering couple and tell them why he is there alone. He does not tell them that he feels the journey has been futile, but he nearly does, and even this makes him feel ashamed—perhaps because such open display of sorrow and, in a way, of his own honor (since he is there because of a promise no one would know if he broke) is somehow unseemly. It's too intimate … and that, in a small way, is a betrayal of his wife, who is still deeply present in him, even if she isn't in the world. Suddenly, in fact, she is vividly there, as he had previously known her. "He watched the couple go, and smiled across the crowded restaurant when they reached the door," Trevor writes in the last lines of the story. "Shame isn't bad, her voice from somewhere else insists. Nor the humility that is its gift."

What could so easily be mawkish in another writer (the way that the character still feels the presence of his wife) or old-fashioned and moralistic (the notion that shame and humility might be a kind of gift) becomes, in Trevor's hands, both tough-minded and compassionate. His belief in love as an enduring transformative force—as much as his austerity, or his attention to history, or his putative pessimism—may be what makes him feel old-fashioned, but it gives his work a depth and complexity that resonate all the more when we put him down to check e-mail or juggle phone calls. There's no moral rigidity or nostalgia to his vision, only the keenest and most appreciative attention to human nature; we often hobble ourselves, and the world tends to rob us of what's precious, but still we manage to stumble into moments of transcendence, all the more powerful for their transience.

Emily Johnston is a writer living in Seattle.