Appreciation: The Fiction of William Trevor — A Mixture of Compassion and Horror
Reading William Trevor will enrich you in ways you cannot imagine. It will make you more tolerant and thoughtful, as well as give you great pleasure.
By Roberta Silman
William Trevor was one of the great writers of the 20th century and for at least twenty years before his death in November 2016 I kept hoping that he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Here is a link to a list of those awarded since 1901, though not during the Second World War. But, alas, it did not happen, and he joins many other great writers, like Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Isaac Babel, Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova, Elizabeth Bowen and V.S. Pritchett — to name only a few — in a parallel list of those who did not receive the coveted prize but who are probably greater than many of those who did.
He was born William Trevor Cox in County Cork, Ireland in May 1928 of Protestant middle-class parents who had an uneasy marriage, who moved their three children frequently for economic reasons and whose general sourness and subsequent divorce made a lasting impression. The combination of his religion and the atmosphere at home made Trevor an outsider from the beginning, and one of the things he does brilliantly is to evoke the vast loneliness that overcomes so many of us, often in childhood and as people age. He acknowledged that in an interview in The Guardian in 1992, when he said, “I was fortunate that my accident of birth placed me on the edge of things.” And, from that and other clues, you have the feeling that once he realized his place in the world he felt an obligation to give a voice to those who had never had a voice.
But it took some time before he reached the comfortable place of knowing who and what he was. He married Jane Ryan in 1952, two years after graduating from Trinity College in 1950, and the marriage seems to have been a happy one; nevertheless, Trevor floundered. When he married he was a teacher in a preparatory school, then he tried sculpture, which he had loved in secondary school. Still, he wasn’t happy doing something so “remote” from human beings, and later said “all the people who were missing in my sculpture gushed out into the stories.” (Interview with The Times in 1990). To support his family which soon included two sons, he got a job as a copywriter in an advertising agency but wasn’t much of a success. (“I failed to produce one line of usable copy,” he once admitted.)
In the end, though, it was a good move. Surrounded by would-be writers who filled the advertising profession in those years, he tried his hand at fiction, and once he had published The Old Boys in 1964 and won the Hawthornden Prize, he was on his way. He became William Trevor, and soon after that the family moved to Devon in England. As time passed he became well known all over Britain for the outpouring of stories and novels, as well as the radio and tv plays he wrote based on his own work and that of many of his contemporaries. By all accounts, he wore his fame lightly, was a lovely, kind man, generous to his colleagues and peers, and possessed of a wonderful sense of humor, which is evident in photos of him where twinkling, keenly interested eyes peer from a face that grew increasingly wrinkled over the years.
To my surprise, he is not as well-known here in the States. Perhaps he is too quiet a writer. Or perhaps he has become a “writer’s writer.” The New Yorker and The Atlantic loyally published many of his stories, where he became an example to everyone who cared about good writing for his exquisite, yet unassuming, prose and the revolutionary way he did away with some of the rules of the short story. Suddenly, here were stories that included different points of view within a few pages, stories that were open-ended, stories that had silences as important as the words. As a young writer, I learned most from him and Pritchett, and I think he did as much, if not more, than Alice Munro in changing our ideas of what a short story could be. Trevor famously said that “Anything that cannot be stuffed into a story becomes a novel.” His novels, too, bear his stamp of reticence; they have a tightness, a tautness, that make them unique in modern literature.
I hope the young, especially, will get his extraordinary books and read them carefully. The operative word here is “carefully.” While trolling the Internet for this piece I came across some reviews in Goodreads which complained that Trevor was boring. And I suppose his work is boring if all you want is quick turns of plot and lots of action. But if you find yourself wondering about the inner lives of the people you see in the street, or the grocery store, or on your commuter train, you will find no better source than Trevor. His infinite curiosity about his characters and the way he delves beneath the surface yields fiction of a very high order; what is so remarkable about it is that he doesn’t only write about victims or bullies or the outrageous or the meek. He knows them all.
That very wide range and the enormous capacity for compassion are what makes him such a fabulous writer. The early stories sparkle with youthful exuberance and quirky solutions to life’s problems. Yet you never feel that Trevor is judging the people he writes about. When the wife at the end of “Angels at the Ritz” realizes that her husband is heading to an act of infidelity, you find yourself putting righteous indignation to one side and actually understanding her life from her perspective. Although he didn’t seem to acknowledge any debt to the Russians, like Chekhov and Turgenev, his work often seems a continuation of their concerns in a British or Irish setting. In his early and middle period he is writing about hope and innocence and often foolishness and can be very funny; he is also fascinated by sex: wistful sex, sex that cannot lead to a happy ending, adulterous sex, and even sex when it becomes twisted as in pedophilia or rape.
The later stories become darker, more disillusioned, even filled with a kind of subversive terror: how a curse will continue in a family for generations, or how the ravages of the world affect a village. Still, you feel for all his characters, even when they are hardly admirable. Some of those characters become his most memorable, and as you read and remember his work, you realize that when hope and innocence are pitted against evil and lies and deception and betrayal, the harsher values often prevail.
Yet his characters adjust and often accept their lots with remarkable resilience, just as the people around us do when faced with the unspeakable. He is comfortable writing from both male and female points of view, his settings are small villages in Ireland, Dublin, the English countryside, London, and vacation spots in Europe — most often Italy — where many of his characters get the distance to sort out their lives. This is what people used to call, somewhat dismissively, domestic fiction, the kind exemplified beautifully by writers like Alice Munro and John Cheever and William Maxwell and Grace Paley. When compared to them he is especially good on “what might have been,” the dreams of the young which persist into middle age and are never quite realized, as in “On the Zattere” or “In Isfahan.” But he goes beyond all those writers, which is why I was so hopeful that he would be recognized by the Nobel committee. He has terrific grasp of how history impinges on individual destiny, as in his greatest story, “The News from Ireland,” and knows about the devastating effects of war and violence, as in some of his most powerful works like “Attracta,” “Matilda’s England,” in the marvelous novella, Nights at the Alexandra, and the novels Fools of Fortune, The Silence in the Garden, and My House in Umbria.
Here is an exchange from “The News From Ireland” in which class seems erased. The English governess Anna Heddoe and the Irish butler Fogarty are talking about the family estate in Ireland, reclaimed by the English Pulvertafts at the time of the Great Hunger:
‘. . .There is wickedness here: I thought you sensed it, miss.’
‘I cannot have you speaking to me like this, Fogarty.’
‘Because I am a servant? Well, you are right, of course. In the evenings, miss, I have always indulged myself with port: that has always been my way. I have enjoyed our conversations, but I am disappointed now.’
‘You have been reading my diary.’
‘I have, miss, I have been reading your diary and your letters, and I have been observing you. Since they came here I have observed the Pulvertafts of Ipswich also, and Mr Erskine . . . I have listened when I could.’
‘You had no right to read what was private. If I mentioned this to Mr Pulvertaft — ’
‘If you did, miss, my sister and I would be sent packing. Mr Pulvertaft is a fair and decent man and it is only just that disloyal servants should be dismissed. But you would have it on your conscience. I had hoped we might keep a secret between us.’
‘I have no wish to share secrets with you, Fogarty.’
‘A blind eye was turned, miss, you know that. The hunger was a plague: what use a few spoonfuls of soup, and a road that leads nowhere and only insults the pride of the men who built it? The hunger might have been halted, miss, you know that. The people were allowed to die: you said that to yourself. . . .
‘ . . . I should be grateful, Fogarty, if you left me now.’
‘If the estate had continued in its honest decline, if these Pulvertafts had not arrived, the people outside the walls would have travelled here from miles around. They would have eaten the wild raspberries and the apples from the trees, the peaches that still thrived on the brick-lined walls, the grapes and plums and greengages, the blackberries and mulberries. They would have fished the lake and snared the rabbits on bright Purple Hill. There is pheasant and woodcock grown tame in the old man’s time. There was his little herd of cows they might have had. I am not putting forth an argument, miss; I am not a humanitarian; I am only telling you.’
‘You are taking liberties, Fogarty. If you do not go now . . .”
It is all there, the tension between the two as they wrestle with their sorrow and face the horrible truth about the tragedy of which it was said, Nature caused the blight, but the English caused the famine. No preaching, just a terrible moment in history immortalized by great fiction.
But Trevor’s most amazing talent, especially as he aged, may be writing about the disenfranchised, the possibly mad, or those who are manipulated by society — like the heroine of Reading Turgenev — or those who become unhinged or paralyzed by fate, like Justin Condon in “Music” or Malcomsen in the heart-breaking story, “Access to the Children,” or Felicia, in Felicia’s Journey, which one critic described as “the depiction of a severe and terrible personality disorder, and the question of whether one so afflicted might find, if not redemption, at least a scrap of saving grace.”
Trevor’s own take on that book and what he was doing and had been doing for fifty years is also worth quoting from a piece by Laurel Graeber:
“I think the book is about goodness . . . And the strange discovery of what goodness is comes about through the appalling closeness of what we call evil.”
And here is another view of his work, this time by Stephen Schiff in a 1992 piece in The New Yorker:
He just slips us inside the characters, and we come to know our way around so quickly and in such detail that when they do something completely unexpected or shocking, as they always do, we understand perfectly — even when their behavior seems misguided, even when it seems evil. Here is the source of Trevor’s real greatness: not some moist, world-embracing sympathy but something more profound—the mixture of compassion and horror which comes of knowing his characters from within, of knowing so much about them that passing judgment on their actions, or deriving a “message” from them, comes to seem simpleminded, beside the point.
It is that “something more profound” that separates a superb writer from his sometimes very talented peers. This is fiction that is “mysterious but of value,” the phrase that an editor of mine once said about Patrick White, and it is applicable here. Occasionally Trevor misses the mark, as when he tries an update of James Joyce’s story, “Two Gallants” — my least favorite Joyce story — or when he dwells too much on those who have been widowed and you think, Haven’t I already read all there is to say about this? However, his missteps are very few in a huge body of work.
Reading Trevor will enrich you in ways you cannot imagine. It will make you more tolerant and thoughtful, as well as give you great pleasure. My only caveat is that if you embark on a Trevor marathon, buy the stories in their original collections — my favorites are listed below — because The Collected Stories at almost 1300 pages is simply too heavy to hold if you like to read in bed.
But read him. Here is a writer we need in these troubled times, who understood the infinite aspects of what it means to be human and who wrote about them with rare strength and persistence and nobility. Who gave us work that will endure.
Favorite William Trevor
Short Story Collections:
Angels at the Ritz
Lovers of Their Time
Beyond the Pale
The News From Ireland
Cheating at Canasta
Fools of Fortune
The Silence in the Garden
Nights at the Alexandra
My House in Umbria
— Roberta Silman
Three Early Novels:
The Old Boys, The Boarding-House, The Love Department
— Bill Marx
Roberta Silman‘s three novels—Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again—have been distributed by Open Road as ebooks, books on demand, and are now on audible.com. She has also written the short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.