Trevor’s sense of the comic never de­serted him

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Wil­liam Trevor, who died in Novem­ber 2016, was the great­est Ir­ish short story writer of the age, and now we have his last 10 sto­ries, pub­lished in the week of what would have been his 90th birth­day, of­fer­ing a fi­nal re­minder, if any were needed, of his mas­tery.

And that his real strength lay in the short form rather than in longer fic­tion was recog­nised by Trevor him­self. “I’m a short-story writer who hap­pens to write nov­els”, he once said, “not the other way around”.

There were 14 of these nov­els, yet while all of them are dis­tinc­tive and some en­dur­ingly mem­o­rable — from The Old Boys in 1964 and Feli­cia’s Jour­ney in 1994 to The Story of Lucy Gault in 2002 and Love and Sum­mer in 2009 — it’s to the sto­ries that devo­tees of Trevor con­stantly re­turn. In­deed, while there isn’t a care­less sen­tence in any of these exquisitely writ­ten nov­els, there’s also the sense in some of them, es­pe­cially the later ones, that they’re over-ex­ten­sions of what re­ally should have been short sto­ries.

His gift for the lat­ter had be­come im­me­di­ately recog­nised with the pub­li­ca­tion of his first col­lec­tion, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, in 1967, though he was al­most 40 by then. In the mean­time, this Mitchel­stown-born son of a Protes­tant bank of­fi­cial had grad­u­ated from Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, dab­bled in sculp­ture and worked in Lon­don as an ad­ver­tis­ing copy­writer be­fore writ­ing three crit­i­cally-ad­mired nov­els.

Cru­cially, though, he cred­ited his fa­ther’s var­i­ous bank post­ings through­out the south of Ire­land (the fam­ily lived in Sk­ib­bereen, Youghal and other towns) for giv­ing him the out­sider’s eye that was later to serve him so well in his fic­tion, though his par­ents’ deeply un­happy mar­riage was a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in his sense of de­tach­ment, too, and there are many such mar­riages and failed re­la­tion­ships in his sto­ries.

In the early sto­ries, these are of­ten ob­served with a very beady eye. There’s ‘Teresa’s Wed­ding’, where the young groom is told how one of his pals had “a great ride off of ” the bride in a field some months ear­lier. There’s ‘The Grass Wid­ows’, where a young English cou­ple have a cat­a­strophic hon­ey­moon in a West of Ire­land ho­tel that had been rec­om­mended by the young man’s for­mer head­mas­ter.

There’s hap­less An­gela in ‘Of­fice Ro­mances’, who had “a school­girl com­plex­ion in the real sense, since school­girls rather than adults tended to be both­ered with pim­ples” and who is se­duced by Mr Spelle, “who had some­thing the mat­ter with his left eye”.

And there’s ‘Lovers of Their Time’, in which a doomed lunchtime af­fair con­ducted in a Lon­don ho­tel’s or­nate bath­room takes on a de­fi­ant grandeur as the man re­calls “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”.

These, too, were the years in which Trevor wrote such other great sto­ries as ‘The Ball­room of Ro­mance’, ‘An Evening with John Joe Dempsey’ and ‘An­gels at the Ritz’ — sto­ries in which his piti­less eye for the comic ab­sur­di­ties of hu­man be­hav­iour was in re­mark­able bal­ance with a poignant sense of lone­li­ness and des­o­lated dreams.

As he grew older, the glee­ful com­edy of these ear­lier sto­ries be­came less pro­nounced and an ele­giac strain be­came more ev­i­dent, es­pe­cially when deal­ing with Ire­land, which he and his wife Jane only oc­ca­sion­ally vis­ited from their Devon home but which loomed larger in his imag­i­na­tion as the years and decades passed, es­pe­cially in such nov­els as Fools of For­tune and The Story of Lucy Gault.

And though the sto­ries in this fi­nal col­lec­tion (most of them pub­lished in the New Yorker over the last decade) are mostly in an ele­giac vein, Trevor’s sense of the comic never de­serted him. In ‘The Pi­ano Teacher’s Pupil’, we’re drily as­sured that lonely spin­ster Miss Nightin­gale “had known the pas­sion of love”, whereas Miss Ke­ble in ‘The Women’ “had not ex­pe­ri­enced this as­pect of life”.

For her part, mid­dle-aged Anita in ‘At the Caffè Daria’ had been “ad­mired by an older man with charm to burn, and hand­some in his way, who in time asked her if she could bear to marry him. She meant it when she said she couldn’t bear not to”.

This was an artis­tic man who “dab­bled with words, but noth­ing much ever came of that”, while the wo­man for whom he aban­doned her is left re­flect­ing that “the at­trac­tions of an at­trac­tive man come at a price”.

There are many such women in these sto­ries, and Trevor him­self said he was drawn to write about women “be­cause I’m not a wo­man and I don’t know what it’s like. The ex­cite­ment about it is to know more about some­thing that I’m not and can’t be”. In fact, he’s not al­ways suc­cess­ful in these fi­nal sto­ries, some of these char­ac­ters seem­ing to be­long to a dis­tant though cu­ri­ously in­de­ter­mi­nate past, as if half-re­called from the author’s own past.

That’s prob­a­bly a fail­ing of old age, though some of the sto­ries regis­ter very strongly, not least ‘The Crip­pled Man’, set in ru­ral Ire­land and con­cern­ing two Pol­ish brothers paint­ing a farm­house and faced with a sit­u­a­tion that may be sin­is­ter or just none of their busi­ness.

And there’s a chill, too, to ‘The Women’, in which two mid­dle-aged women stalk a teenage girl at her board­ing school. “Ce­cilia won­dered if the women were un­bal­anced”, and the reader won­ders, too.

In­deed, only one of the sto­ries, ‘Tak­ing Mr Ravenswood’, seems a real fail­ure and that’s be­cause, un­usual for Trevor, its ba­sic setup and plot­line are so el­lip­ti­cal as to be barely un­der­stand­able, at least by this reader.

The Col­lected Sto­ries was pub­lished in 1992 and ran to 1,250 pages, while a deluxe later edi­tion was pub­lished in 2010 and ran to 600 pages more. This last col­lec­tion adds yet an­other 200 pages.

Through­out his life­time, Trevor was hon­oured many times, though never by the Man Booker, even though short­listed for it on four oc­ca­sions. And the No­bel Prize, for which he was fre­quently men­tioned, will never now be his. That’s of no mat­ter. He is among the great­est of short story writ­ers and will re­main so for as long as there are read­ers who care about such things.

Ele­giac: Although Trevor wrote 14 nov­els, his real strength was in the short form

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.