A master of the short story who was a true great of the world of literature

by John Boland

Devotees of Alice Munro might disagree, but for many readers William Trevor was the greatest short story writer of our time in the English language.

Indeed, although he was the author of 17 novels, many of them memorable, it was in the short form that he felt most at home, describing himself as “a short story writer who happens to write novels, not the other way around”.

A very prolific one, too – his 1992 ‘Collected Stories’ ran to 1,250 pages, a 2010 updated edition was 600 pages longer, while subsequent stories ran in ‘The New Yorker’ until the infirmities of old age ended his prodigious output.

Yet Mitchelstown-born William Trevor Cox came relatively late to fiction, having first tried to make a living as a sculptor and then working as a copywriter at a London advertising agency.

Disliking this job, he began to write fiction, and the modest success enjoyed by his award-winning novel ‘The Old Boys’ in 1964 encouraged him to risk becoming a full-time writer.

His talent was obvious from the outset and the 1967 story collection ‘The Day We Got Drunk on Cake’ immediately confirmed him as a master of the short form – the gleefully heartless title story drawing on his ad agency experiences.

And though voluntarily exiled (mainly in rural Devon with his wife Jane), he soon began writing about his native Ireland, in such classic stories as ‘The Ballroom of Romance’, ‘An Evening with John Joe Dempsey’, ‘The Grass Widows’ and ‘Teresa’s Wedding’. These are stories that are sympathetic to the plight of their often self-deceiving characters but that are also beady-eyed in their focus on the cruelly telling detail – as when a pal of Teresa’s young spouse boasts to him at the nuptials that he had “a great ride off of” her a few months earlier.

These stories from the 1970s are full of such merciless observations, and in later decades his sardonic eye was still as sharp as ever.

As he grew older, though, he tended more to the wry and the elegiac, especially when evoking the disappearing communities of a changing and increasingly urbanised Ireland.

You’ll encounter these minor-key strains in such late novels as ‘The Story of Lucy Gault’ (2002) and ‘Love and Summer’ (2009), both of them exquisitely written and quietly affecting.

But it’s in the stories that Trevor reveals his true mastery, a mastery that won him a multitude of readers and many awards.

And the fact that he was shortlisted five times for the Man Booker without ever winning it says nothing about his stature but a lot about such honours.

He was also occasionally mentioned as a worthy candidate for the Nobel prize, though as a writer with no agenda other than to create memorable fiction about ordinary people and their extraordinary lives, he was probably deemed by the Swedish Academy not to have the right credentials for such an honour.

In 2015, Trevor was elected Saoi of Aosdána, an honour which has previously been bestowed on writers such as Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney.

President Michael D Higgins led tributes to the revered author yesterday as news broke of his death.

He said: “The work of William Trevor was widely regarded by his peers and critics as being among the finest literary works produced in Ireland.

“His loss will be felt most by his wife Jane and their two sons, Patrick and Dominic, to whom Sabina and I send our condolences.”

Chair of the Arts Council, Sheila Pratschke, said: “William Trevor was a writer of extraordinary gifts.

“A novelist, playwright and, perhaps most famously, a short story writer, Trevor was a true master of his craft, and has profoundly influenced a generation of writers, in Ireland and abroad. He was a writer of sensitivity, grace and insight, and leaves behind a deep legacy of work.”

Those who know Trevor’s books will honour one of the finest writers of the age and lament his passing.

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