William Trevor

by John Boland

William Trevor is Ireland’s greatest living writer of fiction and one of the world’s finest short story writers. He is also very prolific. The Collected Stories, which runs to almost 1,300 pages, was published in 1992 and since then there have been four more volumes, and he has also published nineteen novels.

The latter are much admired, though it’s in the short form that he truly excels and what’s astonishing reading back through the stories is how few of them are less than memorable. Indeed, those that might be thought lacking in some way are not so because of failures of plot or character or structure but  because of an occasional and uncustomary contrivance – they’re a little too neat for their own good, as if the writer had ordained their end from the outset, sidestepping the possibility of the characters taking him in a more uncomfortable direction.

These, though, are the exceptions and for anyone who’s been reading him since he published The Day We Got Drunk on Cake in 1967, what’s most striking is not just how entertaining a writer he is – there isn’t a moment of tedium anywhere and there’s much gleeful comedy – but also how many of the stories resonate in the imagination as only true masterpieces can.

He was born in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, and educated at St Columba’s and Trinity College, yet though much of his fiction is set in Ireland he’s not easily categorisable as an Irish writer, just as Elizabeth Bowen (also of Mitchelstown) can’t be so neatly pigeonholed, either. Indeed, it’s a sense of not quite belonging, allied to his extraordinary observational gifts, that has made him such an unflinching and telling chronicler of Irish life – here is a man who in his youth kept his eyes and ears wide open to the behaviour of his neighbours, both Catholic and Protestant, and perceived essential truths about their lives.

He himself has always seen this as having less to do with his Protestant background and upbringing than with the fact that his father was a bank official whose work required the family to keep moving around Ireland – to Youghal, Skibbereen, Tipperary, Enniscorthy, Portlaoise and finally Galway. It was this, he told me when I interviewed him in the 1980s, that gave him the sense of being an outsider. “We were really middle-class gypsies,” he said, adding that “this footloose thing is very good for a writer, and if you don’t have it you have to invent it for yourself. I come over to Ireland quite a lot from Devon [where he still lives] and I’ve occasionally thought of living here, but I think I’d find it claustrophobic. Not that I feel at home in England, either.”

“It’s curiosity that makes you write,” he said on the same occasion, “curiosity about what you don’t know, and in a country town you can’t escape observing and noticing things.” It’s a curiosity that has served both him and his readers well. In Teresa’s Wedding, for instance, a pal of the young groom confides that he had “a great ride off of” the groom’s pregnant teenage bride some months earlier in a field. The husband confronts Teresa with this unwelcome information and she dully acknowledges it to be true. Then they depart on their honeymoon. That’s it in terms of story though not of substance because in these few pages Trevor evokes not just a whole community of parents, friends and priests but also the stifling conventions and frustrations of small-town Ireland.

Or there’s An Evening with John Joe Dempsey, which says more – and very funnily – about rural adolescence and sexual yearning than most full-length novels manage. Or The Grass Widows, where a nightmarish West of Ireland holiday begins for a posh English guest when he’s greeted by “a hotel proprietor who held in his right hand a half-plucked chicken and whose clothes had feathers on them.” Or The Ballroom of Romance in which the  hapless Bridie faces up to the looming desolation of her future life.

Indeed, the desolation of dreams is one of  Trevor’s main preoccupations, though occasionally the yearnings of his characters take on a defiant grandeur, as in Lovers of Their Time, where a  heroically doomed illicit affair is conducted in a London hotel’s otherwise unused ornate bathroom to which the couple repair during their lunch breaks. When it’s all over, the man only has his memories to console him, and the story concludes:

“Sometimes on the Tube he would close his eyes and with the greatest pleasure that remained to him he would recall the delicately veined marble and the great brass taps, and the bath that was big enough for two. And now and again he heard what appeared to be the strum of distant music, and the voices of the Beatles celebrating a bathroom love, as they had celebrated Eleanor Rigby and other people of that time.” 

Or there’s Offices Romances, in which the unfortunate and all too easily seduceable Angela is described with a beady-eyed accuracy that’s almost cruel: “And of course there was her complexion, which was a schoolgirl complexion in the real sense, since schoolgirls rather than adults tended to be bothered with pimples.” Not that her seducer, the repellent Mr Spelle, fares any better under the author’s  unflinching gaze: “He was a tall, sleek man who had something the matter with his left eye, a kind of droop in the upper lid and a glazed look in the eye itself, a suggestion of blindness.” But such is Trevor’s mastery that you feel for these people even as you’re laughing at their foolish naivete or absurd pretensions.

These exhilarating stories were written in the 1960s and 1970s and they have the kind of narrative energy and observational panache that are unmistakeable signs of a writer at the height of his powers. His stories in the last decade or so tend more to the wry and the elegiac, though his eye for the telling indicators of modern life hasn’t deserted him – he’s a wizard at using brand names to summon up a time and place, and in a recent story called Bravado he gets inside the minds of vicious Dublin thugs with a persuasiveness that’s wholly compelling and quite unnerving.

But overall the glance has become more rueful than wry, more sad than sardonic, and more backward also as he evokes a vanished Ireland and its disappeared classes and communities in such novels as The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) and the forthcoming Love and Summer. There isn’t a careless sentence in these books and they’re unfailingly absorbing, even for those of us who feel that he’s a lesser writer when he turns to full-length fiction – the novels sometimes seeming to be over-extended stories, as if his rigorous attentiveness hasn’t been fully engaged and as if the writer isn’t entirely at ease with the structural and psychological demands of novel writing.

And some of the recent stories have a slightness to them that borders on the thin, understandable in a writer who’s now in his 81st year. But then for more than five decades William Trevor has enriched all our lives with so many memorably realised characters and situations that all we can do is be thankful both to him and for him. And the fact that he’s never yet won the Booker Prize says nothing at all about him but quite a lot about such awards.

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