The William Trevor Reader: “On the Zattere”

March 14, 2023 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

The turn in this story is a classic—maybe the classic, the warhorse of turns, the kind of thing that Kafka described as the ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us. It’s the turn of surprising connection, unexpected depth of feeling. A character who seems numb or cruel turns out to be kinder than the reader expected. Because it’s so popular, it’s easy for a turn like this to go wrong and seem unearned or sentimental, even repetitive. It’s a challenge for an author to make it feel fresh and surprising, and I’m truly undecided on whether Trevor succeeds with this story

The layout of “On the Zattere”: two characters, a father and a daughter, go to Venice together after the death of his wife, her mother. The POV is close third with the daughter, Verity, and a more distant third for her father, Mr. Unwill, until the final paragraphs. Even with the close third trained on Verity’s POV, the story is slow to reveal the central fact of her life: she’s going to Venice with her embarrassing dad because she’s leaving her married boyfriend. She endures her father’s slobbering attempts to talk to anyone and everyone at the hotel and she finds it disturbing how little he seems to be mourning her mother, the wife who had been with him for all his previous trips to Venice. The story hints and then tells—she has been to Venice with a partner before too—this married man, and it was in Venice that she understood that he would not leave his wife for her. She has spent 16 years of her youth and beauty on this man and is determined not to give him any more of her time, but she is still grieving for him as well as for her mother. 

When the turn comes, the story shows that Verity is wrong about Mr. Unwill—he isn’t embarrassingly social with the strangers in Venice because he doesn’t care about his wife’s death, but rather because he is so overcome with grief that he can’t stop himself from reaching toward anyone who could give him a moment’s distraction. Verity has not understood this behavior as an expression of sorrow, but the turn is not just the depth of Mr. Unwill’s feeling for his wife, but the empathy he has for his child–he thinks that Verity’s grief for her ex-boyfriend may be worse than his because his partner is only dead, while hers has betrayed her. She has had to harden herself, where he can still be open to other people.

The characters themselves have no revelation or epiphany, only the reader is taken from a perspective closer to the less empathetic daughter’s to the more empathetic father’s. The story shows us that we were wrong about these people, or it has misled us. They are both who they were at the start of the story, but a little farther along—the daughter has become harder and less hopeful, the father lonelier. This is frozen-sea-axing material: people feeling more deeply than they seem to, seeing one another with more kindness, asking the reader to wish for them to connect. Does it work? 

At the very end of the story, the characters are in their separate rooms, he in bed and she at the window, enshrouded in fog—they do not connect with one another though we know it would have been possible. There are layers to the revelations of the ending, Mr. Unwill’s kindness toward his daughter is mixed with pity and resentment—he bristles at being asked to consider her married ex “a remarkable man,” and considers the depth of his grief for his wife a surprise given how much of marriage was “two people rubbing along, forgiving each other for this and that.” Though Mr. Unwill does see Verity clearly, he sees her as a child who has been degraded by her adult experiences. There isn’t a simple way he could communicate the depth of his feeling clearly, the ending has a sense of missed opportunity but it has a heavy, grown-up sense of the real difficulty of connection rather than something that could be bridged simply with an honest conversation. That’s masterful on Trevor’s part

If it doesn’t work it’s because you think Verity having her own apartment in London as a single woman just past her most attractive years is not an encased-in-mist kind of fate. Verity is suffering, and her father thinks she is to be pitied, but it’s not clear if the story does. Do we, as readers? 

The story came out in the New Yorker in 1984, and Trevor was born in 1928, so it’s not impossible that his first ideas of how a beautiful woman styles her hair were formed in the 1930s. (The description “Her hair, clinging smoothly around the contours of classically high cheekbones” suggests a 1930s hairstyle.) The trip to Venice itself seems more Henry James-era, the amount these people speak to the other people at the hotel seems old-fashioned, but in the world of the story, it’s also a sign that Mr. Unwill is being uncouth. When Verity is no longer bothering to change her clothes for dinner, she is wearing an orange suit–late 1970s? 

It matters because it’s not clear how much of Verity’s life and prospects have really passed her by. How much is this a sorrow of the heart and how much is it a material quandary? Even very lovelorn, being in your thirties and independent in London toward the end of the twentieth century makes despair seem like a character’s idiosyncrasy rather than a sad truth about society. To make my point more clearly, changing another variable–if Verity were in high school in the 1980s, an ending that suggests she will never ever get over the pain of a breakup would be obviously unserious, and the story would clearly not be siding with a parent who thinks Verity’s life is permanently scarred by her suffering. If she were 39 and unchaste in the late nineteenth century, despair could be realistic.

It’s not clear to me from the story if Trevor is indicating something about Verity’s character with this ending or if he is grandfathering in some older ideas about the lives of single women in their thirties. The father’s attitude is loving, but also condescending, suggesting that Verity’s experiences make her worse, colder and more judgmental without any balancing increase in sophistication or clarity—her father believes this, but does the story? If the story were told on Reddit, this woman would be at the beginning of the good part of her life, having dumped the man who was holding her back. The sex with the married lover wasn’t even good!

Can the pain of love be permanent? It’s not in fashion to think so at the moment, where blocking his number and hitting the gym are more popular alternatives, but looking at all the literature of the world, it also seems naive to think that no one’s heart is ever really broken, and every reasonable person must eventually fight their way out of the fog of love. 

is the host of Lit Hub's Lit Century podcast, and her writing has appeared in Jezebel, Aeon and Lit Hub among other places. She lives in Brooklyn.