William Trevor

b. 1928 – d. 2016

William Trevor was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1976.

William Trevor remembered – by John Walsh

In sixteen novels and twelve collections of stories, William Trevor was a peerless portrayer of lives with holes in them. The vulnerable, the self-deluded, the luckless, the socially excluded, the furtively seductive and the openly malignant throng his pages. The effect on the reader, however, is seldom depressing. His creations’ attempts to conceal their shortcomings behind bluster or politeness can be extremely comic: Evelyn Waugh spotted a fellow craftsman of grotesque humour when he called The Old Boys ‘uncommonly well written, gruesome, funny and original’.

The elderly former schoolmates in that book communicate in discourse that strives unsuccessfully to conceal their mutual loathing; and formality of dialogue is always a strength in Trevor’s work. The empty exchanges between men and women in ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ alternate with reported speech that underlines the wretchedness of their lives (‘“I’m all right, Dano,” she said. “Are you fit yourself? Are the eyes better?” The week before he’d told her that he’d developed a watering of the eyes that must have been some kind of cold or other; it was a new experience, he’d told her, adding that he’d never had a day’s illness or discomfort in his life’). In a later story, a young bride called Rose meets her husband’s friends for the first time, endures their leaden discussion of the construction industry (‘“The trouble,” he said, “is that the lashed scaffold is outmoded”’) and is told, by a sentimental drunk, ‘You’ll always be welcome in Skibbereen, Kitty.’

In a writing career that stretched from A Standard of Behaviour (1956) to Love and Summer (2009) he won a score of prizes, including the Whitbread (three times), the Hawthornden, the David Cohen lifetime achievement prize; he was shortlisted for the Booker five times. He won the American O. Henry Award four times and, had there been a British short-story prize, he’d have won it year after year. He was regarded by many as the best short-storyteller of the twentieth century, influenced by but finally superceding James Joyce.

Trevor once explained his view of the story, as distinct from the larger form: ‘I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.’

He was born William Trevor Cox in Michelstown, County Cork, in 1928. Both his parents, Gertrude and James, worked in banks; both were Protestants in post-Civil War Ireland, the idealised new Republic of De Valera, green pillar boxes and compulsory Irish language teaching in schools. ‘Poor Protestants in Ireland,’ he wrote, ‘are a sliver of people caught between the past – Georgian Ireland with its great houses and all the rest of it – and the new, bustling, Catholic state.’ Growing up there, for him, ‘began the process of becoming an outsider’. Because of his father’s work, the family lived in several regional towns, whose shops and ballrooms, public houses and municipal offices, farmers, landowners, priests, widows and relics became the stuff of his fiction. His outsider’s beady eye missed nothing.

At Trinity College Dublin, where he read history, he met Jane Ryan, whom he married in 1952. Career success eluded him for years. He became a teacher, but when the school went bankrupt they emigrated to England where he became (‘rather like Jude the Obscure’) a church sculptor. In London, he worked at Not-ley’s advertising agency among a band of poets including Peter Porter, Gavin Ewart and Edward Lucie-Smith. With time on his hands, he wrote three novels. The second, The Old Boys (1964), was adapted for radio and television, and Trevor was launched.

His life as an émigré made him a different kind of outsider, a spy in the camp of English snobbery and class-bound malice. His first novels were set in England, especially in boarding houses whose inhabitants reek of loneliness, vainglory and emotional need. Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel (1969) was the first to be set in Ireland: Ivy Eckdorf is a photographer, a ruthless scrutineer of human suffering, who, while trying to investigate the secret lives of a Dublin hotel, descends into madness and a private fantasy world where everything is happy and prosperous.

As the Troubles worsened in Northern Ireland, and internment in Belfast led to bombs on the British mainland, Trevor found a perfect subject in the relations between his homeland and his adopted nation. A deracinated Irishman, living with the suspicious looks of his Devon neighbours, he felt even more of an out-sider. His stories, especially ‘The Distant Past’ (1975) and ‘Beyond the Pale’ (1981), explored the cold grip of history on the present. His novels, from Fools of Fortune (1983) to The Story of Lucy Gault (2002), also considered, with new complexity and heartbreaking tenderness, Ireland’s past as a British colony, through the metaphor of the Big House – the mansions of the Protestant Ascendency, fallen into ruin after Irish independence, but exerting a ghostly grip on survivors.

A tall, kindly, sad-eyed, rumpled-looking man with the face and demeanour of a hill farmer, William Trevor could twine historical and political themes through his work, but his preoccupation was always with people: the resilience of the human heart, its bruising by time and obsession, the space between humans who might save each other. I asked him in 1983 why he portrayed so many characters in emotional disarray. Had he, I asked, a ‘tragic vision’, like Thomas Hardy? ‘No, no, no,’ he said firmly. ‘I just watch people walking towards disaster – their choices, work, marriages – with their eyes wide open.’

Image credit: Frank Miller