A barely-there genius with a beady eye: Irish writers on William Trevor
John Banville, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Joseph O’Connor, Kevin Barry, Roddy Doyle and more pay tribute to the late author
William Trevor in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Through my now lengthy reading lifetime, there is a small number of Irish writers (or any writers) whose every new book I awaited with impatient eagerness. From The Old Boys in the nineteen-sixties onwards, William Trevor was at the head of them, both his short stories and novels. I read The Children of Dynmouth - a book in the great tradition of dark masterpieces masquerading as a story about children - on the Cork-Swansea ferry; I read The Distant Past on holiday in Italy, with its desolate tracing of how political conflict puts a strain on communal relations. Derek Mahon’s genteel Widow of Kinsale wants to ‘re-read for ever / the novels of William Trevor / that lovely man’. Trevor felt the pulse of every sector in Irish life, from the Anglo-Irish to the dancehall-goers, exploited servant-girls, hill bachelors and commercial travellers. Was it just coincidence that he grew up in County Cork, the home territory of the great exponents of the Irish short story, O’Connor and O’Faolain? The strength of all his writing was an unshowy perfection of style, through which he expressed his unerring instinct for fairness. His total lack of self-importance allowed him to express what was important in the world around him. He was one of the greatest writers about justice and suffering, disguised as an ordinary person.
Bernard O’Donoghue is a poet and Oxford academic. His latest collection is The Seasons of Cullen Church
William Trevor was celebrated as the laureate of bits of left-over Ireland, but he also conjured up with equal authority and eloquence the world of dusty lounge bars in seedy parts of central London, and the underbelly of life out-of-season towns on England’s south coast. Like his fellow Cork writer Elizabeth Bowen, he exoticised strange parts of middle England; like her, he had an equal mastery of the short story and novel forms. For all his affinity with the great Russians, his vision had a larky, surreal, often menacing quality, leaning towards the sinister and grand guignol.:evident in novels such as The Children of Dynmouth and Miss Gomez and the Brethren no less than the stories in Angels at the Ritz. And in ‘Attracta’ he wrote one of the most harrowing reflections of the Northern troubles. I was on the jury that awarded him the 1998 David Cohen Prize for lifetime achievement in writing; receiving it, he was as subtle, charming, modest and mischievous as you would expect, But he knew his worth and his lifetime’s achievement was indeed matchless.
The first time I met him for lunch in Durrant’s Hotel in Marylebone where he stayed when he came to London we sat for quite a long time in the same lounge at the same time quietly and anxiously waiting for each other. He is one of the few Irish prose writers who seems to have a point after Joyce - John McGahern and Nuala O’Faolain are among the happy few, and he is often coupled with Chekhov; but since I read Ballroom of Romance over thirty years ago for me he has been no-one but himself. This seemingly modest writer is full of subdued violence about the pain of what happens. In the course of a quiet narrative his prose can blow the heart open. His stories are compelling, tragic and often comic, and are related with oblique instructive symmetry that reveals more than first meets the eye. He once called the short story the art of the glimpse but it’s a remark typical of his sometimes sly subtlety- his glimpse is often a profound stare into a tectonic fault, as in Auden’s line the crack in the tea-cup opens a lane to the land of the dead. He walked those lanes and I’m grieved he has walked his last one now.
I have a treasured signed copy of ‘Cheating at Canasta’ that William Trevor sent me in 2012. Not only was he an astoundingly brilliant writer, he was also generous in his support of emerging writers and sponsored the prize money for the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition which I was fortunate enough to win that year. The award meant a lot to me as a writer just starting out and I’m deeply grateful to William Trevor and saddened to learn of his passing. I read and adored ‘Love and Summer’, but it’s his short stories that I’m more familiar with. They are truly magnificent, and I don’t know that I can describe them in a way that does them justice, except maybe to say that there’s immense grace and fluidity and precision in Trevor’s writing, his characters are exquisitely nuanced, the storytelling pure genius.
William Trevor’s deference as a writer was his greatest attribute. His presence on the page was so tactful that he was barely there. Yet the worlds he created, particularly but not confined to his short fiction, were claustrophobically complete, his characters forensically observed and their atmosphere ─ tender, serene, bleak or comic ─ gently persistent. I admire his English stories, in particular, where he turned that beady eye of his on the polite rhythms of the suburbs.
He wasn’t a joiner and he actively shunned the limelight. “I like to hang about the shadows of the world as a writer and as a person,” he said. The centre of things, he added, was a place to watch, not something to be involved in.
Mary Morrissy’s latest collection of stories is Prosperity Drive
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
The great Irish short story writers of the 20th century fall into surprisingly neat generational groups. Sean O Faolain, Frank O’Connor, and Mary Lavin were born around the start of the century. A generation on, came William Trevor, John McGahern, and Edna O’Brien, who were all born around 1930. Does the writing of these co-evals, one of whom died yesterday, have anything in common? Yes. Of course. Their subject matter is the lives of Irish country people, of individuals in their communities, in their landscapes. And, each in their own unique voice, write a lyrical alluring prose which is as accessible as it is profound.
William Trevor created his own country. Trevorland. We know this territory: we think we have lived in it, but where we have lived is in the world William Trevor constructed: a market town which has seen more prosperous days somewhere in North Cork or the south Tipperary. A draper’s shop stocked with the lisle stockings and flannel nighties, a comfortable hotel on Main Street, with red roses round the door and the smell of roast beef floating into the street. A picture house, of course – the symbol of delight, and escape, and the great wide world. Trevorland is populated with philistine bankers and solicitors and petty merchants - and, always, lost among them, a wistful romantic girl, a young man with the soul of an artist, a woman with a past. These outsiders struggle to breathe in the stifling boredom and conservatism of it all. Usually, the quiet attempt of the dreamer to escape from the clutches of the town, or to find fulfilment even in the smothering soft rain end in failure. There is no escape. The community, like the soft insidious blankets of rain, smother romance and dreams.
William Trevor wrote the most perfect short stories. His prose is clear as glass, elegant as a swaying silver birch on the edge of a mirror lake. His characters live on the page, as alive as anyone we encounter in ‘real life’. We hear their hearts beating; we see the hope in their eyes. Trevor always had a story to tell and he told it simply, without fuss – the greatest art is often simple, and does not need to draw attention to its beauty, its depth.
He was one of our greatest writers.
William Trevor was one of the great short-story writers, at his best the equal of Chekhov and Babel. But we should also celebrate his novels, in particular Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel, an inexplicably neglected twentieth-century masterpiece. His prose style was so subtle as to seem hardly a style at all, and his sympathy for, an empathy with, life’s wounded ones was sincere and affecting. His death is a heavy loss to Irish letters and to world literature.
John Banville’s latest work is Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir
William Trevor was a complete gentleman and full of mischief: at least that is how I thought of him when we met some years ago. I found him to be an irresistible mix of good manners and badness, in the Irish sense of the word – there was little that escaped him. His stories are formally beautiful and, at the same time, interested in the smallness of human lives. He was, as a writer, watchful, unsentimental, alert to frailty and malice. A master craftsman, he was, above all, interested in loneliness, particularly the loneliness found between social classes. In the Irish stories especially, he caught the last of a fading ascendancy and set it, in a kind of twilight, on the page.
Anne Enright is the Laureate of Irish Fiction
William Trevor is stranger than we think - he has somehow developed a reputation as a kind of domestic realist but in fact he just as often writes in the gothic tradition, and he is at his best when he’s at his eeriest. I have a particular regard for some of the very strange, very slender novels of the early 1970s; The Children of Dynmouth, in particular, has a very creepy waft to it, and it was very prescient in describing the odd atmospheric energies that were starting to develop around small English towns and suburbs.
And of course I admire any writer who persists in making short fictions throughout his career. It’s not always the most glamorous or most rewarding sector, but it is one of the most difficult and impenetrable forms: it takes a lifetime’s work to get close to its mysteries, and he gave it that. Also, he always carried himself with immense dignity, and thus was an example to the rest of us.
Kevin Barry’s latest novel is Beatlebone
In recent years we’ve seen a welcome resurgence of interest in writing and reading short stories but William Trevor was the constant and most elegant master of the form over an astounding five decades of writing. The elegiac beauty of his novels such as The Silence in the Garden and The Story of Lucy Gault - sometimes ‘boxed’ into the category of ‘Big House’ fiction - will, for their tender and nuanced portraits of communities in decline, be recommended from reader to reader for generations to come. And Trevor was also a wonderfully astute literary commentator. A personal favourite comes from a Paris Review interview when asked to define the short story: ‘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.’
Margaret Kelleher is chair of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama, University College Dublin
A few years ago, my then partner gave me a beautiful two-volume hardback and slip-cased edition of William Trevor’s Collected Stories for Christmas. It’s one (or two) of the most beautiful books that I own and stands beside a dozen other William Trevor volumes on my shelves. Writers often get asked which authors they return to again and again, their comfort books if you will, the ones that make them remember why fiction matters. William Trevor, I have answered on countless occasions. His stories. Any of them.
John Boyne's latest novel is The Boy at the Top of the Mountain
William Trevor’s great stories well up from the deep in an unending seam that taps into personal memory and a greater consciousness so that when you read them, you feel that these things are real, they have happened. There is nothing forced, no whiff of research. He has said that his sense of tragedy came from childhood which along with dreams is the source of all poetry according to Rilke. He drank from that well for decades and miraculously, it never ran dry. Graham Greene has spoken of the compost of memory from which writers create. I imagine Trevor’s compost pile as big as County Cork where he spent his formative years and where his best most charged writing is set although I may be biased.
Martina Evans’ latest collection is Windows of Graceland. She is from Co Cork
What sad news. My sister got cross with me once for not reading enough of his work. You have to, she said, you just have to, and she was right. He was as good as a writer can be: he seemed to live a creative life dedicated to the understanding of individual truths and the nature of difference, to the stories concealed by silence. His work was often hilariously funny and deeply moving. I loved the lofty, didactic, completely dishonest voices he sometimes used, and the comedy he revealed in the tensions created by differences real and perceived. He never stopped feeling that most essential thing to writers: wonder. He never stopped asking, How would that person see the world?
Donal Ryan’s latest novel is All We Shall Know
William Trevor was a gentle and courteous man, a peerless writer, a laureate of the settled sadness of so many Irish lives. In his beautiful novel, Love and Summer, he writes: “Although they were more than brother and sister, having been born in the same few minutes, they had never shared a resemblance. In childhood they had been close companions but often now did not communicate with one another for weeks on end, though less through not being on speaking terms than having nothing to say.”
His prose gave a voice to the people who have nothing to say, who live in the rainstorms of emotion but don’t have a language to express it. An assiduous stylist as well as a clear-eyed and humane storyteller, he never wasted a word or deployed a flashy metaphor. His prose doesn’t try to wow you. It stirs deeper recognitions. He has a way of not describing but incarnating characters on the page, often through silence, the realities he opts not to reveal. So alive with a kind of underground water of heart and empathy, yet so understated and layered, too, his short stories and novels will always be valued by people who love fiction.
Joseph O’Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick
Almost 40 years ago I edited, with Andrew Carpenter, a book called The Writers (O’Brien, 1980) which presented new work by writers we’d invited to take part in a series of readings in London as part of A Sense of Ireland. William Trevor contributed his characteristically elegant, lucid prose in a story called Autumn Sunshine set in a rectory near Enniscorthy. As so often, he remembered and recreated Ireland from his home in Devon.
We met at the Poetry Society in Earl’s Court when, after his reading, I commended him and then thought to add, But you must be an old hand at this. And he responded, I’ve never been asked to do this before. This is the first reading I’ve ever given. He was 52.
I won’t pretend I knew him well but I was happy to attend when he and the marvelous Edna O’Brien were conferred with the torcs of Saoithe and I’m happy now to acknowledge the consummate art of a courteous man. Despite the regularity of his output its standard never dipped.
Peter Fallon’s recent collection, Strong, My Love appeared in 2014. He has recently completed Deeds and Their Days (after Hesiod)
William Trevor was a master craftsman whose restrained and subtle probing into the heart of the human condition I grew to admire ever more deeply over the years, as I came to a greater understanding of how deftly he unlocked the most secretive of emotions, in a unobtrusive turn of phrase or delicately understated shift of tone. This meant that, having seemingly presented you with the familiar, he then adroitly pitched you into the unknown: into layers of disappointment, resignation or unspoken love lodged so deeply in his characters’ hearts that they were barely aware of it. It was not so much that Trevor had no time for pyrotechnics, as that he had no need for them – being blessed with an uncanny ability to blast his way to the heart of things in quiet, restrained and yet emotionally devastating short stories and novels.
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Years ago, when I was in my early 20s and before I started writing, I was killing time in Hodges Figges when I overheard a conversation between a man selling books for Penguin and a man who worked there.
‘Talk to me about William Trevor,’ said the Hodges Figges man.
‘Big houses – angst,’ said the Penguin rep.
I waited for more. But there was no more.
I eventually read William Trevor – I think I’ve read all of his novels and published stories – and I know now that there was a lot more. The man – the work - was brilliant, elegant, surprising, reliable, precise, stark, often sad, sometimes funny, shocking and even frightening. His big houses were great; his small ones were wonderful too. The angst was bang-on, and so were all the other emotions and states. Every word mattered, every sentence was its own big house.
I met him once, very briefly. He smiled and told me he’d liked The Van, and left me feeling very special.
Roddy Doyle's latest novel is The Guts
In his short story At Olivehill, from the collection Cheating at Canasta (2007), William Trevor focuses on a once well-to-do Irish Catholic family. They had kept their land with cunning through the penal times: but now, in Celtic Tiger Ireland, they must turn their fields and woods into a golf course in order to survive financially.
Trevor challenges us to empathise: after all, this family is of a certain stripe in Ireland; its members still own their lands, their house has a maid. Yet we do empathise: the grief of the family matriarch Mollie as the diggers turn meadow and bluebell wood into sterile fairway and green is all too recognisable; at story’s end, she draws her curtains and confines herself to one room. And she understands the present and the past: ‘Persecution had become an ugly twist of circumstance, more suited to the times. Merciless and unrelenting, what was visited on the family could be borne, as before it had been.’
‘At Olivehill’ connects to a deep past, but is rooted in a modern milieu, in environmental concerns, in the loss of a collective history in the name of progress. It exemplifies Trevor’s work in being both specific and universal: we are offered the merest glimpse of a life – and in that glimpse, we find everything.
Neil Hegarty's debut novel, Inch Levels, was published earlier this year
Katherine A Powers
William Trevor was peerless among writers of short stories and in the first rank of novelists. Though he left Ireland in the 1950s, his writing continued to portray, both chillingly and compassionately, the human condition as it manifested itself in the drear, guilt-laden land of his birth and youth, a country “drained of its energy by centuries of disaffection” (as he once put it). His writing had the quiet force of absolute precision in describing loss, loneliness, estrangement, betrayal, endurance, and expiation. Somehow all this brought joy, as did his mordant wit. I hope that readers' sensibilities remain finely calibrated enough in the years to come to continue to appreciate this great writer's genius.
Katherine A Powers is on the Board of the (U.S.) National Book Critics Circle and is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life – The Letters of JF Powers, 1942-1963
We salute a great writer, elegiast and chronicler of those in-between worlds of Irish and English psyches, like his contemporary Jennifer Johnston. Devon-based like Sean O'Casey for most of his working life, where he tuned in to RTE Radio One every day, he truly merits that over-burdened adjective Chekhovian. Lilliput laments his passing.
Antony Farrell is the publisher of Lilliput Press
For many reasons, William Trevor will be reckoned as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth and twenty first century but I think his work as the gifted inheritor of the Big House novel tradition will be seen as one of his greatest achievements. In his sparse, beautifully judged, elegiac novel, the Story of Lucy Gault, ( 2002), Trevor extended the range of a powerful literary mode, continuing on with the writings of Edgeworth, Moore, Somerville and Ross and his most significant predecessor, Elizabeth Bowen and bringing the story of the beleaguered Anglo-Irish family, the lost child and the abandoned house right up to this century. Also, for anyone who writes novels, or teaches creative writing, Reading Turgenev is simply a perfect novel to contemplate, apparently artless but achieving a sharpness and an intensity of emotion and loss in the clear lines of the developing narrative. And in both novels, the inner life of books, the way in which his characters live though the life of the imagination is captured as few other writers can. I remember the pleasure in buying a new William Trevor collection of short stories, and am grateful for the feeling of anticipation of each new book brought, knowing that they would never disappoint. And they never did.
Eibhear Walshe lectures in English at University College Cork
William Trevor was one of the most courteous writers I ever met. He told me that he had no roots at all, he never knew where to say he came from: his father moved from town to town all over Ireland while working his way up from bank clerk to manager. Perhaps this is why so many of his stories, among the greatest in Irish literature, feature characters who were conditioned by where they came from: Trevor seemed to experience through them an imagined sense place of his own.
Ciaran Carty is editor of Hennessy New Irish Writing. William Trevor with Elizabeth Bowen was the first judge of the Hennessy Literary Awards in 1971
William Trevor is of a different generation to me. As a teenager what I read of him was of rural towns and of older men and women. It was in theory very different to a Dublin southside teenager’s upbringing. But I read and reread him because he knew how it was, how people felt. As Bridie put it in A Ballroom of Romance ‘One way or another it wasn’t difficult to be a figure of fun in the ballroom’. In that single short story he captured the awkwardness, the hope and the fears of dating and being out and about in the world. And the crushing disappointments of banal life.
On behalf of Publishing Ireland I’d like to salute him for his major contribution to literature and his influence on film and theatre and give my condolences to his family.
Ruth Hegarty, Publishing Ireland
One of the first things that I associate with William Trevor is self-effacement. His pen-name itself suggests it, and the plainness of his prose, with its typically unobtrusive gradations of tone and viewpoint, are – paradoxically – expressions of it as well. It’s as if he keeps at a respectful distance from his characters, allowing them to have the full run of their natures, wherever that may take them. More often than not, it takes them into unwelcome places, finds them more exposed to the consequences of their fallen selves, than they’ve been before. And even so, the author’s detachment remains the same. This constancy isn’t just writerly professionalism, although it might be related to the sense of obligation and responsibility that professionalism implies. It’s a kind of disciplined tolerance, a way of saying that Trevor himself can live with his creations. And in this tolerance a case is made, in however oblique and understated a manner, for acceptance, fellow-feeling, reconciliation and similar humane values that his work gently insists must never quite go out of style.
George O'Brien is professor of English at Georgetown University in Washington
William Trevor is a major influence for me. I learned writing—and writing in English—by reading him. In fact, I would not have become a writer at all had I not discovered his work.
In September 2008 I traveled to East Sussex, England, to listen to William Trevor give a rare public reading at Small Wonder, a short-story festival. Later, at Lewes station, waiting for the train to London, Trevor told his wife Jane and me about an old man at the end of the long book-signing queue. The man had come not for Trevor’s signature, but to thank him. His wife had loved Trevor’s stories, and when she had become sick, he had read to her. It was a Trevor story he had been reading to her as she was dying. “I was about to cry when he told me this,” Trevor said, his blue eyes misty with a tender sadness. “Now that,” he said to me, “is a good reason to write stories.”
Writers seem to belong to two kinds. There are those who insist on taking center stage. These writers may be brilliant, or didactic, or eccentric, or arrogant, but in any case a reader is told to take a seat: his job is to be dazzled, to be awed, even to be intimidated or bullied into passive acceptance. And then there are those rare writers - Chekhov, for instance, and William Trevor - whose egolessness makes us forget that we are reading a master’s creation; rather, it’s more like living through the story along with the characters, whose pains, flaws, follies and predicaments are ours, too.
William Trevor is a beautiful writer - and a beautiful reader, too, as one can hear from this recording. But what is extraordinary, above all, is his kindness - to his characters, whom, he told me once, he couldn’t forget even years after creating them; to his readers, including the old man and his dying wife; to his and Jane’s garden, which he often writes about with bemused pride; and to a young writer like me, who’s forever indebted to him.
A few years ago, I visited Trevor at his home in Devon. It was early spring- February, though warm and sunny - and a few flowers in the garden had begun to blossom. At lunch time, Trevor placed me on the side of the table facing the window, so that I could see the flowers outside. He sat down and arose again, pulling the curtain ever so slightly. This way, he explained to me, I could enjoy the garden without the sun shining into my eyes.
This is an edited version of an essay by the author, published with her permisison. Read the full version here