The young outsider who grew up to be a literary master . . .

by John Boland

William Trevor, who was 85 yesterday, has always been sure about his identity. Although the Cork-born author has lived with his wife, Jane, in rural Devon for almost 50 years, he’s never regarded himself as English but rather as “Irish in every vein”.

He’s sure about his literary strengths, too. He has 17 highly praised novels to his name, yet he sees himself as “a short-story writer who happens to write novels, not the other way around”. In fact, though devotees of Alice Munro might disagree, he’s widely regarded as perhaps the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language.

And he’s a prolific one, too – his 1992 Collected Stories run to 1,250 pages, while a 2010 updated edition in two volumes is 600 pages longer. And since then there have been a goodly number of stories published in The New Yorker, with whom he has a contract – most recently The Women, as quietly unsettling as anything he’s written.

Yet he came quite late to fiction. Born William Trevor Cox in Mitchelstown and schooled in the various Irish towns to which his bank-official father was posted, he studied history at Trinity College, where he met his wife, with whom he has two sons – one a barrister in London; the other a television presenter in Boston. After that he tried to make a living as a sculptor in England’s West Country (“rather like Jude the Obscure without the talent”) and then found employment as a copywriter at a London advertising agency.

Disliking his job, he turned to fiction, sufficiently encouraged by the praise for his first novel, The Old Boys (which won the 1964 Hawthornden Prize) to risk becoming a full-time writer.

And he had been writing stories, too – indeed, one of his finest earliest stories, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, clearly drew on his ad agency experience in its gleefully heartless tale of an aimless young London professional trying to have it all and losing the only thing that mattered.

He began writing about Ireland, too, in such masterly stories as The Ballroom of Romance, An Evening with John Joe Dempsey, The Grass Widows and Teresa’s Wedding – stories that are sympathetic to the plight of their characters but that are also beady-eyed in their focus on the cruelly telling detail, as when a pal of Teresa’s husband confides to the groom that he had “a great ride off of” her a few months earlier.

These Irish stories and others from the 1960s and 1970s show Trevor at the height of his powers, their acute and often merciless insights gained, he once told me, less from the detachment of his Protestant upbringing than from the fact that his father’s peripatetic bank job meant the young Trevor always felt like an outsider wherever he found himself.

And in stark contrast to his own happy marriage, he has recalled a childhood living with two parents who “simply didn’t get on – there was no respect”. They finally parted, but he never understood “why these two very attractive people just couldn’t put the thing together”.

This unhappy situation may have deepened a sense of detachment which, along with an innate curiosity, has served him well. And it’s the curiosity, he has said, which has drawn him to write so much about women, “because I’m not a woman and I don’t know what it’s like. The excitement of it is to know more about something that I’m not and can’t be”. And, indeed, women readers will testify to his uncanny insights into their personal and individual selves.

In the last couple of decades his stories have tended more to the wry and the elegiac, though his sardonic and often savage eye hasn’t deserted him.

But there’s a ruefulness and sadness there that weren’t so evident before, especially when he evokes the disappeared or disappearing communities of an Ireland that’s vanishing.

You’ll find these minor-key strains in such novels as The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) and Love and Summer (2009), and while there isn’t a careless sentence in these exquisitely written and affecting books, there’s also the sense of a somewhat lesser writer in these full-length later fictions, as if they’re over-extended – and thus somehow diluted – short stories.

It’s a mastery that has won him many awards and that has seen him nominated five times for the Man Booker prize, and the fact that he’s never won the latter says nothing about his stature but a lot about such supposed honours.

He’s also been mentioned as a worthy candidate for the Nobel Prize, though as a writer with no agenda other than the creation of memorable and enduring fiction, he may well join that long list of outstanding authors who have gone unrecognised by the Swedish academy. But the books are there, and that’s all that matters.

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