William Trevor’s breakthrough book
Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is a masterpiece and his novels ought to be given equal place with his stories, argues Denis Sampson
Readers delight in the “glimpse of truth” of short stories, and such storytelling counters the “meaningless” life that novels illustrate, William Trevor believed. Photograph: Eric Luke
At this time when William Trevor’s reputation may become fixed in a certain light, I was struck by John Banville’s remark in his obituary comments that the stories overshadow the novels, “which is a pity, for at least one of them, Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel, I consider to be a masterpiece, inexplicably neglected.”
Many of his novels have received widespread attention for a time, The Children of Dynmouth, Fools of Fortune, Felicia’s Journey, The Story of Lucy Gault among them, but who other than Banville has such a high opinion of the novels? Or of the novelist as distinct from the writer of stories? In fact, Banville admires both and, of course, his remark opens up the general issue of Trevor’s commitment to storytelling as an artform and a cultural expression.
I was delighted by Banville’s remark for a personal reason. In my recent book, The Found Voice, I have devoted a chapter to William Trevor and in particular to that “inexplicably neglected” novel, Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel. My argument is that the composition of the novel focused energies, literary insights and visions that had been scattered, so that it gave a new direction to his imaginative engagement with his material. His career underwent a radical reorientation, and this freed him to write in a new style, the style that became characteristic of him. It was a breakthrough book that had a lasting effect on stories as well as novels.
Trevor spoke of a novel as a “cathedral”, an architectural construct, in contrast to the story as an intuitive ‘glimpse’, and a similar contrast underlies his allusion to art history, an Italian Renaissance picture and an Impressionist work. There are other, rich meanings in the depiction of O’Neill’s Hotel as an urban doss-house in a neighbourhood of economic and social disintegration, and undoubtedly we are intended to associate the paralysis of this cityscape with Dubliners and, especially, Ulysses. Over the course of the novel, however, it becomes a kind of secular place of belief and worship, a shrine, associated with Renaissance painting and religious vision.
This is largely due to the silent presence of the aged Mrs Sinnott (her name itself being significant in the religious landscape of the fiction) while all about her is moral and psychological squalor. Trevor remarked that his books are religious, although few people recognise this, and he was not a practicing Christian or holder of doctrinal views. Rather, he spoke of a “kind of primitive belief in God” and found this more readily in Ireland where people remain “more naturally religious”.
While the narrative centres on Mrs Eckdorf’s efforts to insert herself into the world of O’Neill’s Hotel, she is an artist figure and there are other artists too, notably Fr Hennessey who is writing a Lives of the Saints. Mrs Eckdorf’s international fame as a photographer has sustained her, and she has assumed a somewhat arrogant status in relation to the subjects of her photography. This is the role she plays when she arrives in Dublin, but circumstances lead her to revise her sense of self. Fr Hennessey is not really a believer in the sainthood of his subjects, he is a demythologiser, but, ironically, the woman he had treated with contempt becomes the one who restores his faith.
The Ballroom of Romance, perhaps Trevor’s most well-known story, was written at exactly the same time as the novel, as well as his first stories set in Ireland. Throughout the sixties, he had written novels set in urban England, and then, after moving from London to the Devon countryside, he suddenly wrote this novel of urban Ireland (the only one set in Dublin) and at the same time began to set stories and novels in provincial Ireland and to insist that he considered himself an Irish writer.
It is a somewhat eccentric set of convictions for someone who grew up in Ireland in the thirties and forties, moved to work in England in his twenties, and remained there for the rest of his life. While he spoke of his kinship with Beckett, he was actually more drawn to writers of earlier generations, Chekhov, Thomas Hardy, Joyce, and when he speaks of Irish writing, he emphasises the oral tradition of story telling and links it to essentialist cultural forms as Frank O’Connor outlined them in The Lonely Voice.
The stylistic distance he made his own in the following decades owed something to a distance in time for it is evident that the Ireland of his literary mythology is an achronological state. Although he made reference directly and in allegory to the Troubles of the seventies and eighties, and was critical of the effects of British imperialism, he was not one who finds explanations in political history for more permanent states of loss and isolation and endurance.
Characteristically, he had little to say about his literary identity or goals, yet his embracing of certain aspects of Irish literature allowed him to become a more universal writer. The decades that followed this breakthrough novel reveal his constant love of Irish landscape and his sympathetic observation of many characters even in their most bleak moments. His vision or narrative voice is always implicit, his characters inheriting a fate that may be observed from a distance, but the narrative voice is closer to the inner life of the characters than to any external analysis or judgement.
The discovery of rural Ireland as an imaginative landscape accompanied a certain rejection of urban Dublin and the vision of Ulysses that is integral to Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel. This narrative of many intertwining lives seems to follow the model of the English novels in which an arbitrarily assembled community reveals eccentric and rather grotesque motivations. Rather than being social satire, the fruit of curiosity and close observation of a new place, this novel reveals a more mature exploration of the nature of fiction, of storytelling as cultural expression, of religious belief and conversion, of the recesses of loneliness.
Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel incorporated everything he learned about writing fiction in his apprenticeship phase in the sixties, and he was now ready to confidently assume his own lasting preoccupations. This is an ambitious book. He spoke of a story as “an explosion of truth . . . It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaningless. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life.” Irish people, he believed, are natural storytellers who have inherited a “receptive nature” for the kind of communication that stories provide. They delight in the “glimpse of truth” of short stories, and such storytelling counters the “meaningless” life that novels illustrate. From this book on, he sought the visionary “explosion of truth” in stories, although, of course, he remained aware of how novels imitate life.
These statements of aesthetic orientation have a clarity which Trevor rarely voiced. Relying on intuition and on the choice of characters who are limited by their fate, Trevor wrote many novels as well as stories, and it may be that it was the tension between the two genres that gave his work its characteristic tone. He might have preferred to write stories, as he said, the novels being something else that he did on the side, but I believe his achievement rests on the more coherent vision that emerged when the meaningless and the truthful were not separated. In this sense, he needed both kinds of storytelling, not only one, or the other, to give expression to his awareness of life.
After Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel, the tone of the earlier fictions assumed new registers of isolation, melancholia and irrationality. This is a deeper, more troubling, more sympathetic and more classical style of literary truth. It is, I believe, why this novel may be considered a masterpiece and why the novels ought to be given equal place with the stories.
Denis Sampson’s latest work is The Found Voice: Writers’ Beginnings (OUP Oxford), which looks at the work of William Trevor, as well as VS Naipaul, JM Coetzee, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant