William Trevor: Commentary & Quotations

LifeWorksCriticismCommentaryQuotationsReferencesNotes

On this page ....
Commentary

Commentary

Alan Jackson
Tom Adair
Desmond Traynor
Bernard O’Donoghue
Gregory Schirmer
Thomas Kilroy
Paul Gray
James Lasdun
Mary FitzGerald-Hoyt
Declan Kiberd
Eileen Battersby
John Crowley
Margaret Boerner
Joyce Carol Oates
Harry Clifton
Bernard O’Donoghue
James Urquhart
Kirk Weixel
Roy Foster
Lisa Allardice
J. W. Foster
Charles McGrath

Terry Eagleton included Felicia’s Journey among his books of the year and characterised as ‘a sinister new twist’ to the ‘age-old Irish theme of emigration’ (Book Choice, Times Literary Supplement, 2 Dec. 1994).

Alan Jackson, ‘I Have Great Gaps in my Education’, interview with William Trevor, in The Times Saturday Review, 11 Apr 1992, p.46; with photo port.: ‘One of the legacies I have from my parents bad marriage is a fear of quarrelling’; ‘my father was very jolly, one of those men who loved talking to people and telling stories, and whom you couldn’t not like … My mother was an extremely charming person also, but ver different. She was a very capricious, fickle and almost eccentric woman; tiny but also very beautiful. … For all the charm and elegance they didn’t mesh; they passed each other by. and in a rather crude way, you’d ’ut that down to the fact that one was a southerner, and the other a northerner. They were not really a couple and were strange when together. The image I have of them is one of separation. They existed in two different worlds.’ As a pair they were quite elegant people - in an Irish provincial way rather than the Scott Fitzgerald one’; speaks of their respective tastes in cinema; an older sister June and a younger br. Alan; calls the life that of ‘middle-class Gipsies’; educators include a ‘failed Christian Brother’ and a Miss Quirk; household not bookish; Trevor found Dublin a daunting place and, despite having gone on to take his degree at Trinity College, still retains the sense of being a stranger there; ‘I’m very aware of belonging to the Irish provinces, even though it’s not to one particular place … I have a feeling of being at home there even in places I’ve never lived.’

[ top ]

Tom Adair, ‘Just William [... is a spy]’ interview, in Sunday Tribune (28 Aug. 1994); also Tom Adair, ‘An Interview with William Trevor’, Linen Hall Review (Winter 1994), pp.4-8; ‘The Old Boy, Will Trevor, Marianne Hartigan meets the Whitbread winner’, in Books Ireland (May 1995), pp.109-10.

Desmond Traynor, in a confessedly unauthoritative review of Outside Ireland: Selected Stories (1995), in Books Ireland (April 1996, p.91), gives brief summary of the stories ‘The Smoke Trees of San Pietro’; ‘On the Zattere’, ‘The Printmaker’ Coffee’ with Oliver; Lovers of Their Time; ‘Raymond bamber and Mrs Fitch’; ‘Torridge’ and ‘Broken Homes’; ‘Lunch in Winter’.

Bernard O’Donoghue, review of Collected Stories, in Times Literary Supplement (13 Nov. 1992), p.19, cites Greene’s comment that Angel at the Ritz (1975) was ‘one of the best collections, if not the best collection, since Joyce’s Dubliners’; he ends praising ‘Trevor’s greatest skill, the tact and precision with which he manoeuvres between societies and dialects, especially between Ireland and Anglo-Ireland.

[ top ]

Gregory Schirmer, William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction (London: Routledge 1990): ‘And although Trevor’s writing is frequently admired - and rightly so - for its precision of style, its sensitivity to nuance of character and setting, and its subtle sense of comic irony, Trevor has always worked inside the mainstream tradition of fiction written out of strong moral commitments, and it is ultimately the moral dimension of his work, the complex vision of contemporary life generated by both an advocacy of [E. M.] Forster’s principle of compassion and connection and a counterpointing, realistic assessment of contemporary society as alienated and disconnected, that makes him a writer of considerable significance, on both sides of the Irish Sea and on both sides of the Atlantic.’ (p.2.) ‘[the] view of Trevor as chiefly a chronicler of losers, an ironist working out a vision of despair, has unfortunately tended to stick.’ (p.2.) ‘It is, however far too reductive to account for either the range of subject-matter in Trevor’s writing or the breadth and complexity of his moral vision. Trevor has, for example, written at least as much about middle-class life in prosperous London suburbs as about lonely, alienated men and women wasting away in London bed-sitters or provincial Irish towns. He has written extensively about love and marriage, especially among the middle class, and some of his best work has to do with women and the elderly from various strata of society. His work encompasses both Irish and English life, and within the Irish tradition, he has written with equal authority about Protestant Ireland and Catholic Ireland. And he has frequently written out of a commitment to address some of the most pressing political and social issues of his day, especially in his native Ireland.’ (p.2.) ‘Many of the formal qualities of Trevor’s novels, including their frequent use of juxtaposition and parallelism, are particularly suited to the short story, and Trevor’s work in this genre can hardly be overestimated. Falling somewhere between the radical experimentalisrn of high modernist writers and the more or less traditional methods of the realistic short story, Trevor’s stories depend heavily on suggestion, irony, and cinematic juxtaposition.’ (p.7.) [Of the characters:] ‘the mind of the characters. “In thematic terms, they tend to be relatively bleak; characters in them rarely discover the means to overcome their feelings of alienation or the crippling illusions that they rely on to mask their inadequacies, and so there is little promise of moral redemption.’ (p.7.) The most striking of these narrative strategies is the use of multiple centres of consciousness. Trevor’s fiction tends to be constructed of many segments, each of which is associated with one character, or dominated by one character’s perception. The result is a mosaic of different points of view, relying heavily on juxtaposition and parallelism […] Trevor uses multiple centres of consciousness to shift back and forth between an interior view of a character and various exterior views, and therefore to negotiate between sympathy and irony, intimacy and distance, and, in larger terms, affirmation and qualification. (p.9.) ‘Characters in them [the stories] tend to be not only alienated and disconnected, but also rarely able to discover the means to break out of their social and moral estrangement, or to overcome the crippling illusions with which they mask their inadequacies.’ (p.86.) ‘Certainly the characters in Trevor’s stories - from Mr Jeffs to Nancy Simpson, from Malcolmson to Polly Dillard - are well-acquainted with that aspect of human nature [i.e., loneliness], moving as they continue through alienated and alienating worlds, and trailing behind them, as one character in a late story puts it, “such tales of woe.”’ (p.121; the foregoing quoted in Sarah Martin, UG Diss., UUC 2006.)

[ top ]

Thomas Kilroy, review of Felicia’s Journey, in Irish Times (20 Aug. 1994), [q.p.]: ‘marvellously achieved portrait of a fat, friendly killer, Mr Hilditch, factory catering manager, scoffs Mars bars […] epicene befriender of lost girls […] England ravaged and demoralised by the hysterical Mrs Thatcher and her handbag […] Gradually [his friendliness] becomes monstrous until the final click in the brain, the inevitable and massive letdown, a reverse orgasm, which always happens to the sexual psychopath. Then Mr Hilditch is obliged to do what he has to do. […] under Mamma’s deathly gaze [photo] ... Mr Hilditch stalks his prey, Felicia, […] with the same courtly concern. Her journey had begun, pregnant in the Irish midlands, across the water in search, fruitlessly, of her Johnny […] fleshed out statistics […] reaches a deep sympathy for the murderer who still has, as an adult, the fragile hands of an abused little boy.’

Paul Gray, review of Felicia’s Journey, in Time Magazine (30 Jan. 1995), p.58. [‘compression and resonant allusiveness do not abandon him over longer haul of a novel […] exemplary guide’].

[ top ]

James Lasdun, ‘A Genius for misery’, review of After Rain, in Times Literary Supplement (27 Sept. 1996), p.23: discusses the art of story-telling in terms of ‘omission, occlusion, cropping; the ability to cultivate a kind of force-field of negative space within a narrative’ and the ‘eerie alchemy’ of juxtaposition and context; ‘Trevor’s prose is serviceable, gravitating in a general way around the idiom of his characters, but it doesn’t have the distilled accuracies of phrasing you find, for instance, in Carver or Alice Munro, or alternatively the richness of suggestion beyond what is being immediately advanced, that a story by Lawrence, or, say, Patrick White offers. Trevor’s scrupulously observant eye will pick up the stains of hair-oil where men have leaned against a ballroom wall, but the observation won’t harness any added keenness or resonance of the language itself. Chekhov, whose plain prose Nabokov lovingly described as possessing “a tint between the colour of an old fence and that of a low cloud”, seems almost lurid by comparison […] but when he does get it right, as in such triumphs as “Access to the Children”, “Mrs Silly”, or “The Ballroom of Romance”, he can be more intimately touching than any short-story writer I can think of’; ‘He may not venture into the more extreme reaches of human experience, but within his range, he is unrivalled.’

[ top ]

Anita Desai, review of Death in Summer (Viking), in NY Review of Books (8 Oct. 1998): ‘[…] Therein lies the shock - to confront not others’ failure but one’s own. / That is what Trevor has kept artfully concealed - so artfully that he has misled his reader again and again into thinking his slender novel oddly anachronistic and irrelevant, only so that the impact of the final disclosure may shatter one as it shatters his characters, with the same blunt force. Here, he says to them, these are the people you need to look at, to look up to; these are the saints, the unlikely saints who could lead you to redemption. / Redemption is, after all, Trevor’s theme, and he has never shrunk from showing that it is not the rich and beautiful who will pass through the eye of the needle but the poor and the plain to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. Deprivation, despair, and suffering and not calm, content, and plenty will pave the way is the message of so much of his work. His manner of preaching this message is so much the opposite of what goes by way of preaching that we may easily overlook his purpose and his theme. The very words sound so blunt and banal that they would embarrass this artist of reticence and subtlety. Our times have grown accustomed to louder voices, cruder terms. That surely does not mean there is no room anymore for, or silence in which to catch. Trevor’s quiet and subdued tone, which conveys infinitely more than it cares to say. [[End.] (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

[ top ]

Mary FitzGerald-Hoyt & Brian Donnelly, ‘two views’ of Dolores MacKenna, William Trevor: The Writer and His Work (1999), in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 2000), in which FitzGerald-Hoyt speaks of MacKenna’s ‘sanitised version of Irish history’; Brian Donnelly lays emphasis on her identification of the ‘ordinariness of evil’ as a major preoccupation of the stories.

[ top ]

Mary FitzGerald-Hoyt, William Trevor: Re-imagining Ireland (Liffey Press 2003): ‘As a young writer living an expatriate life in Enlgand, Trevor wrote primarily about the English, whom he found odd and alien, and his sense of being an outsider lent to his writing about England a satiric edge and a love for the eccentric.’ (p.2; quoted in Sarah Martin, UG Diss., UUC 2006.)

[ top ]

Declan Kiberd, ‘Demented Bachelors’, review of The Hill Bachelors, in London Review of Books (8 March 2001), pp.30-31, writes: ‘In the hands of such writers as Trevor and John McGahern, the short story in Ireland has made an unexpected comeback. Earlier generations - that of Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain and, before them, of George Moore and James Joyce - had established it as the quintessential genre for a society still in the process of inventing itself. If the novel dealt with established societies such as England or France, the theory went, then the short story was better calibrated to societies in the making. In a charming and influential study called The Lonely Voice, O’Connor advanced the argument that the form flourished best among “sub-merged populations groups” who lived in transitional communities alongside larger and more confident onews: the Jews in New York were, he said, a little like the Irish in the so-called British isles, and so on. This was a plausible description of the world out of which “The Dead” and “Guests of the Nation” came, but it began to look increasingly threadbare as Ireland boomed with an economic self-confidence which seemed founded on exactly the sort of social consensus thought likely to produce long, accomplised novels. […]’.

[ top ]

Declan Kiberd, ‘Demented Bachelors’, review of The Hill Bachelors, in London Review of Books (8 March 2001), pp.30-31 - cont.: ‘Trevor believes that Ireland was far from achieving a social consensus and that the poeple about whom novels had once been written - the Anglo-Irish, Protestant ministers - were now sufficiently marginal to be fitting subjects for the short story. A favourite Trevor phrase is “beyond the Pale”, and so most of his characters are. Out on the edge, they see more of the inner workings of society than those at its centre. […] Abstraction is not a flaw which critics have ever found in his stories, which are concrete, clear and utterly representational. (p.30); ‘Trevor says that he still feels at home in a Catholic church as much as in a Protestant church’, and ‘William Trevor recently admitted that he was still a “God-botherer […] one of the six left in the pews listening to the tape-recording”’; quotes Trevor: ‘Out of curiosity I write about what I don’t know.’ (p.30.) Further: ‘As one of the few Protestant children in that confident Catholic world I was treated fondly, and recall neither prejudice nor attempts at religious influence.’ (p.30.) Kiberd concludes: ‘Those who are guilty of cruelty in these stories are maimed by a lack of empathy; those who are capable of unexpected kindness are shown to be possessed of an ability to imagine the world as it is experienced by other people.’ (p.31.)

[ top ]

Eileen Battersby, ‘Beyond the Lace Curtains’, interview with William Trevor, in The Irish Times (18 Nov. 2000) [Weekend Review], quotes: ‘I just write stories […]. Stories are glimpses. I don’t analyse what I write. I just write.’ Battersby remarks, ‘As a “lace-curtain” or “poor Protestant” and one who often found himself attending Catholic schools, Trevor agrees he is most definitely not Anglo-Irish.’; feels comfortable about attending mass but as a Protestant understands the feeling of being in a minority; son of James William Cox, a Roscommon Man ‘who liked to tell stories rather than jokes - stories about people or events that amused him […] drank anything he was offered and had a flair for picking winners, acquired a skill for guessing which farmers to lend money to …’; liked by the townspeople and ‘popular with the country people because he understood them’; attended 13 schools; reached Sandford Park School, Dublin, 1941; Columba’s, 1943; ‘a middle-class gipsy’; didn’t go to America because ‘I didn’t think of going there’; two years’ teaching in Armagh; moved to English midlands, 1953; teaching art for two years; settled Devon as a sculptor; ‘I never think of 47 years of living in England, I never really settled. I never feel I belong here.’ Two grown sons’; Trevor: ‘of all literary forms, the short story belongs most unequivocally to the modern age. Chekhov had been in at the birth, Joyce presided over the years of adolescence, the Americans inherited. By the time Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway reached out for it, the modern form had come to stay.’; for Americans the form is perfect: ‘I see America as being without a past. It is a young country.’ Read Maugham and A. J. Cronin; Greene and V. S. Pritchett. Works mentioned incl. The Old Boys (1964), prize-winning first novel, followed by The Boarding House (1965) and The Love Department (1966), earning him a reputation for Irony in treating English subjects; became fulltime writer on publication of The Ballroom of Romance (1972), his second collection; Elizabeth Alone (1973), brings together four women who meet in a hospital ward and deals with failed love, sexual repression, hopeless marriages, ageing, religious fanaticism, alienation and loneliness; Children of Dynemouth (1976), in which a misfit youth blackmails individuals in a small English seaside town to secure props. for a gruesome one-man show; Fools of Fortune (1983) explores Anglo-Ireland in conflict with England; Felicia’s Journey brings an Irish girl tracking her boyfriend to England where she runs into the sinister but pathetic catering manager Hilditch, whom Battersby calls ‘the most extraordinary of Trevor’s monsters’; Reading Turgenev (1991), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, concerns Mary Louise Dalton, an innocent young woman; O Fat White Women (q.d.) concerns Mrs Digby-Hunter, an eater of chocolates and a reader of historical fiction, ‘her own method of survival’ (Trevor); issued Family Sins and Other Stories (1991); Collected Stories (1992); After Rain (1996), containing “Lost Ground” a story of Northern Ireland (‘it’s about what happens to a family’); Death in Summer (1998), gives an unnerving account of three deaths in the spirit of a thriller; quotes: ‘You mustn’t write about what you know. You must use your imagination. Fictions is an act of the morning at 7. a.m., imagination.’’’ further, ‘Sometimes a character appears and you know that this time, it isn’t right. But they might come again.’ Remarks on ageing. Battersby remarks that Cox wrongly offered as genteel counterpart to rural vision of McGahern; Trevor contrib. intro. to Folio Katherine Mansfield. [Colour photo-port.]

[ top ]

Eileen Battersby, ‘I am a fiction writer. It is what I had to do’, interview with William Trevor, in The Irish Times (16 April 2011), Weekend Review, p.11.‘[...] He has lived with a problem; his head is always busy, full of characters and their stories. “I live with people who don’t exist. I have to write about them and there isn’t enough time. Less and less of it is left.” Sitting beside Trevor, guest of the Dublin Unesco City of Literature, as he holds a white china teacup, puts everything about writing, and much else, into perspective. He says he doesn’t like books that say too much. “Writers really shouldn’t feel obliged to explain. Things should be left to the reader. I think the bond between the writer and the reader is very important. One writes the story; that is the writer’s part done. Then the reader gets to work; reading is his job. I have always enjoyed that connection with the reader I haven’t met but feel I know because of having shared an experience: the story.” / “I know Ireland very well,” he says. His understanding of the underlying cultural nuances came from being a poor Protestant, not Anglo-Irish and obviously not Catholic. “We travelled all over because of my father’s job with the banks. We had barely settled in one place and then were on the move again. I never really got around to education. My brother and I were these loafers, hanging around the streets of various Irish small towns. I disliked learning intensely.” [...] What happened to his sculpting? He explains that he had begun working on increasingly abstract forms and soon realised it was not reflecting him. The absence of people in his sculpture caused him to abandon it in favour of writing. “I am very interested in people; I am curious. I want to know why, how they live. If I see that woman over there, I want to know why she has ended up like this; what happened to her? I am also very suspicious. I think that is a Protestant thing; I listen to something and then I begin to think, Now, that doesn’t quite add up. I have always been told I have beady eyes. It’s probably because I am always looking.”’ [Cont.]

[ top ]

Eileen Battersby, interview with Trevor, in The Irish Times (16 April 2011) - cont: ‘Disagreeing with the most fundamental advice given to writers, that it is best to write about what one knows, Trevor believes writing comes from the imagination. “There has to be a point; a story needs a point. Even if nothing happens, and I like a story in which nothing happens, but something is happening, all the time. There has to be a point, and sometimes that doesn’t become clear until the last few sentences, the final words. If you come to the end of writing a story and you don’t seem to have a point, you must ask yourself why there isn’t one. It’s because the story simply isn’t finished.” Recently Trevor wrote an introduction to a Folio edition of stories by V. S. Pritchett, another shrewd observer of human nature. “Pritchett was very good on the point of a story.” Trevor has always re-read. “You always go back to the best books.”’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

[ top ]

John Crowley, review of William Trevor, The Hill Bachelors (Viking), in Washington Post (10-16 Dec. 2000), p.14, writes: ‘we feel that Trevor himself is unlimited, able to share the consciousness of an ageing Church of Ireland priest, an Irish labourer in England suborned by the IRA, an Oxbridge don who is the butt of a revealing joke, and numbers of subsidiary characters glimpsed only for a moment, but almost never caricatures or mere place-holders.’; adds the following comment: ‘Trevor in fact often violates or ignores the canons of taste and propriety that have collected around the craft of the story in this century and that grew more strict in the years of minimalism. Rather than a single point of view, Trevor’s stories often let us into a variety of minds and hearts in a story, sometimes only for a sentence. He speaks to us directly, commenting on his characters, passing judgements. He tells and doesn’t show. Indeed, when anyone says such-and-such a thing can’t or shouldn’t be done in short fiction, you can pick up a volume of Trevor’s stories and show how he got away with just that.’ Concludes, ‘he points us to where their hearts are engaged, where their dangers lie. We rarely notice how great his art is as he does this, and so it should be.’

[ top ]

Margaret Boerner, ‘Irish Tales: William Trevor defines the stories by which we understand ourselves’, in The Weekly Standard [US] (Dec. 2000), pp.30-31, writes: ‘Quite why Trevor’s fiction has not found the same level of popularity in the United States that it enjoys in England and Ireland remains a mystery. It may have something to do with his decidedly ambiguous slant on life. But it probably has more to do with the interesting plotlessness of his stories.’; quotes Trevor’s definition of the short story in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories, as ‘the distillation of an essence. It may be laid down that it has to have a point, that it must be going somewhere, that it dare not be vague. But art has its own way of defying both definitions and rules.’ (p.31); quotes unspecified interview in which he is asked if he believes in ‘grace in people’s lives’, to which: ‘I’m a God-botherer. Most of my fiction seems to do with that. I’m definitely on the side of the Christians. … Life can be melancholy, but that is not the same as depressing. If life were depressing, it would be intolerable. [It may be that] no storyteller of any worth can be happy [but] no story of any worth can afford to be given over to gloom’; further, ‘I don’t think one has any sort of feeling of controlling one’s destiny.’

[ top ]

Joyce Carol Oates, ‘On Small Farms from Cork to Cavan’, reviewing of The Hill Bachelors (Viking) [find sources], writes: ‘twelve stories in a distinctly elegiac, meditative mode, set mostly in Ireland; if the two recent novesls are cinematic in pacing and tone and the earlier stories have been more vigorously imagined, these stories have the shimmering and elusive quality of watercolours executed by a master artist, for whom understatement and ellipsis have become second nature’. “Events at Drimaghleen” concerns a rural family who unwittingly expose their murdered daughter to milification in the Sunday papers; quotes, ‘The scene of the mystery is repeated all over rural Ireland. From Cork to Cavan, from Roscommon to Rosslare you will come across small, tucked-away farms like the Butlers’ and the McDowds’ .. these simple farm folk of Europe’s most western island form limited rural communities that all too often turn in upon themselves.’; further quotes voice of priest in that story: ‘There was confusion now in Drimaghleen, in Kilmona and Mountcroe; and confusion, Father Sallins believed, was insidious. people have been separated from their instinct, and other newspaper articles would follow upon this one. More strangers would come. Father Sallins imagined a filme being made about Maureen McDowd, and the mystery that had been created becoming a legend … For every until they died her mother and her father would blame themselves for taking the money their poverty had been unable to turn away.’ Also cites “Of the Cloth”, on a Protestant clergyman; “The Mourning”, in which a 23-year old labouurer is reluctantly drawn into an IRA bomb plot; “The Virgin’s Gift” dealing with the visions of a mystic, Michael; quotes from same: ‘There was elation in their faces, joy such as Mihcael had never seen in faces anywhere else. The years fell back from them, their eyes were lit again with vigour in their happiness’, and further quotes the ending: ‘Their land would not again be tilled; he was not there for that … No choirs sang, there was no sudden splendour, only limbs racked by toil in a smokey hovel, a hand that blindly searched the air. Yet angels surely held the cobweb of this mercy, the gift of a son given again.’ Oates wonders if this ‘rhetorical flourish’ is not imposed on the experience of a mystic for whom language itself would have been lost, and calls it ‘a deadpan-pious version of …The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs. further cites “Death of a Professor”, concerning the premature obituary of Professor Ormston, and “Against the Odds”, dealing with a confidence-woman who finds widower victims in Northern Irish towns; also “The Telephone Game”, in which a young woman discovers her fiancé’s secret too late; also “Low Sunday, 1950”, “A Friend in the Trade”, “Three People”, “Le Visiteur” (‘underimagined and underwritten’), and the title story, called ‘the strongest in the collection’ [‘Enduring, enchanging, the hills waited for him, claiming one of their own’]. Oates calls the collection Trevor’s most Dubliners-influence stories.

[ top ]

Harry Clifton, reviewing William Trevor, The Hill Bachelors (Viking), in The Irish Times (14 Oct. 2000), quotes Elizabeth Bowen’s saying that the short story is located just below an altitude line with only poetry above; 12 stories in which the author is apparently absent; cites ‘The Virgin’s Gift’; ‘;Three People’; ‘The Telephone Game’; ‘A Friend in the Trade:; ‘Against the Odds’; ‘The Mourning’; reviewer regrets an occasional ‘irritating reaching after period detail’ but remarks of‘The Hill Bachelors’, final story: ‘it is a quintessential mix of land and family elements adding up to a checkmate in a remote mountain valley for a bachelor left looking after his mother […] The slightly dated sociology, with time and fate at work in and through it, is of a piece with the rest of the stories, but there is something more. The poetry has been left in. Call it weather or mountain space, but the extra dimension is there, standing like an amphitheatre behind the cramped little family drama, elevating it almost perceptibly to the level of tragedy.’

[ top ]

Bernard O’Donoghue, review of The Story of Lucy Gault, in Times Literary Supplement (30 Aug. 2002), pp.3-4: ‘[…] The Story of Lucy Gault, Trevor’s thirteenth novel in a large corpus that also includes over pages of short stories, is a “Big House” novel set in the Youghal area. It returns to earlier concerns and settings of his, with an action that starts, like many Anglo-Irish novels by Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, J. G. Farrell, Molly Keane and others, in the Irish Troubles around 1920. What Trevor does better any of the members of this formidable group is to represent Catholic Ireland as accurately and as sympathetically as England and Anglo-lreland. Alone among them he is entirely innocent of any disdain or patronage in evoking the new South of Ireland - as can be seen in “The Ballroom of Romance”, story and film. Perhaps this freedom from a sense of superiority is attributable to his moving around in childooh or to the tension between his greatly loved parents (the other crucial essay in Excursions for an understanding of Trevor’s incomparable steadiness of sympathy is the account of his parents’ unhappy marriage, “Field of Battle”). Whatever the explanation, he constantly employs the detached eye of the outsider, at once shrewd and unjaundiced - employing “the lonely voece” which Frank O’Connor ascribes to the short story. Like many previous Trevor central characters, but even more insistently, Lucy Gault wishes to be part of the rural society to which she is marginal and, in theory, socially superior. She is in the line of the Middletons of “The Distant Past”, the unforgettable and important story in which Trevor scrupulously outlines the social divisions that followed the revived troubles of the 1970s. […] The question that the novel more obliquely raises is: a punishment for what? The Middletons in “The Distant Past” were punished for living on to an era when they were, once again, the wrong social grouping: the Anglo-Irish in a troubled period (what Yeats called West Britons). As in Bowen’s The Last September, relationships between the various social groupings are presented as morally unclear. But Trevor’s version of these is much softer than Bowen’s; Lucy Gault ends with a full cast of hapless people who are punished by fate and nothing else. Nothing is anybody’s fault.’ Further remarks on Trevor’s ‘eloquent plainstyle’, and the lack for formal experimentalism in this novel, as well as being ‘the first book of Trevor’s that is not richly salted with humour.’ Gives a general account of Trevor’s prose and the Irish “Big House” novel. (See full text, infra.)

[ top ]

James Urquhart, ‘Is That A smirk on the Face of the Old Master?’ [ review of William Trevor, A Bit on the Side] in Independent [UK] (23 May 2004): […] on top of over a dozen novels, William Trevor has clocked up his eleventh volume of stories. It is as strong and fresh as one might expect from an old master of the craft. A Bit on the Side retains the same sense of strained intimacies and emotional compromises found in Family Sins, his seventh volume published back in 1990, but - as the title suggests - these stories cluster more around the habits of adultery and sexual engagements. Eight are set in Ireland’s rural poverty, permeated with the ancient habits of Catholicism, but Trevor’s interest, explored with delicate humility, is in the stoic fragility of relationships. The remaining four, set in London, are detached from any religious concern or ambience, toying with the impact and debris of affairs and ill-judged attachments. […] Poignance, resisting bleakness; few do this better than Trevor. Nuances glimpsed in the mundane café or street seismically alter the geography of affairs, and Trevor captures their significance with quiet, penetrating wisdom.’ Also describes stories, “Big Bucks”, “Graillis’s Legacy”, “An Evening Out”, “Traditions” and “Solitude”. (For full text, see infra.)

[ top ]

Kirk Weixel (St. Francis Univ., Loretto, PA), review of A Bit on the Side, in Pittsburg Post-Gazette (Sunday, 3 October 2004): ‘In “Sacred Statues”, for instance, a pregnant wife in rural Ireland considers selling her baby so that her husband can continue to carve religious statues. The local Catholic pastor has no money to buy the figures, and the artist’s only benefactor, a Protestant woman who appreciates the beauty of the sculptures, has fallen on hard times herself. [….] / In “Sitting with the Dead”, a widow talks with the two women trying to comfort her and realises that her husband’s death is her release from a life stunted by fear. In “Solitude”, a woman who as a child attacked her mother’s lover tells her story to strangers, believing that someone will eventually listen and not be horrified. / [..] In “The Dancing-Master’s Music”, Brigid, a house servant, has her world transformed when she is allowed into the drawing room to hear a traveling musician’s recital [quotes]: “[The music] scurried and hurried, softened, was calm, was slow. It danced over the scarlet walls and the gaze of the portrait people. ... Brigid closed her eyes and the dancing-master’s music crept about her darkness, its tunes slipping away, recalled, made different. ... The silence was different when the music stopped, as if the music had changed it’ - and compares the effect of the stories to this.’ Also mentions ‘small things [which] ‘resonate’ such as ‘an ashtray decorated with a goldfinch in “Graillis’s Legacy”, or the linen suit and green shirt of the lover in “Rose Wept” or something as simple as a lipstick smudge that echoes through several stories like a leitmotif.’ [See full version, online.]

[ top ]

Roy Foster, ‘The evil, the mad, the sad’, review of William Trevor, Short Stories: Cheating at Canasta, in The Irish Times (4 Aug. 2007), Weekend Review: ‘You will always remember where you were when you read “The Dressmaker’s Child”, just as when you read Attracta or The News from Ireland. And as with those stories, the reading, and the memory, brings a shiver down the spine. / A shy, introverted boy working in his father’s garage in the west of Ireland drives two Spanish tourists to see a supposedly miraculous statue, provoking an accident that will change his life. / In 22 pages, the focus swings radically from the visitors to the boy’s relationship with the village outcast, like a movie camera slicing shots into an unexpected montage. Yet there is no question of unevenness or uncertainty. The 11 subsequent stories inevitably vary in weight and heft, but the deftness and economy never falter. How does he do it? / Partly, perhaps, because he possesses the art of writing a wide range of consummate novels as well as short stories. In this he resembles Elizabeth Bowen rather than other masters of the short story such as V. S. Pritchett, Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor or Sean O’Faolain. Like Bowen, too, Trevor goes for the eccentric and farouche; his oeuvre is full of bizarre characters at pub counters, ghostly voices down the telephone, people who suddenly address strangers in public places, like the lonely husband on his Venice holiday in the title story. / Like Bowen, too, Trevor moves easily between Ireland and elsewhere; monosyllabic midlands farmers and frugal Irish Protestants are drawn with the same authority as the maimed products of minor English public schools, or angry Mitteleuropean inhabitants of London mansion flats. [..., &c.’; for full text, see Ricorso, Library, “Criticism / Reviews”, infra.)

[ top ]

Lisa Allardice, interview with William Trevor, in The Guardian, [Saturday] 5 Sept. 2009. ‘[...] “They’re not all sad, not all sad from start to finish. My new novel is not particularly sad. But the answer to the question is I just don’t know. It doesn’t come from an inner pain of my own.” Love and Summer, Trevor’s 14th novel, as brief and captivating as its simple title suggests, is on the long list for this year’s Booker prize which, despite having been shortlisted several times – “along with Beryl [Bainbridge]; she’s one or two ahead of me” – he’s never won. / While not, perhaps, as devastating as Lucy Gault or Felicia’s Journey, Love and Summer contains all the vintage Trevor hallmarks: past shame; secrets; sacrifice; and, finally, redemption – or consolation, at least. “If you take away the sadness from life itself,” he muses, “then you are taking away a big and a good thing, because to be sad is rather like to be guilty. They both have a very bad press, but in point of fact, guilt is not as terrible a position as it is made out to be. People should feel guilty sometimes. I’ve written a lot about guilt. I think that it can be something that really renews people.”’ (For full text, see RICORSO, Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.)

[ top ]

John Wilson Foster, ‘Stretching the Imagination: Some Trevor Novels’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture, Dublin: IAP 2009) [formerly given as at “William Trevor at 80” (TCD Symposium, April 2008): ‘[...] even Trevor’s novels, and particularly, perhaps, his Irish novels, could be thought of as justifying [the] impression of Trevor as a relatively private, even shadowy, figure, a reliable producer of texts - for which “William Trevor” is a kind of shorthand - rather than awriter imposing thorugh force of personality his view of the world on his readers [...; 57] Admittedely, when we read critics on, say, Fools of Fortune (1983), or The Story of Lucy Gault (2002), we almost invarioably are offered enlightening affinities to Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929) [57] and J. G. Farrell’s Troubles (1970), but even this gesture is towards what is habitually seen as a lean tradition of Irish fiction, one which concerns itself, after all, with a minority and increasingly self-effacing population, the Anglo-Irish, fading in importance and numbers and thought to inhabit the growingly irrelevant verges of Irish history and society. Irrespective of characters’ or narrators’ viewpoints in these novels (and even irrespective of some dreadful events that are recounted), there is an overlying (or underlying) courteousness of narrative voice that implies a hesitancy to claim allegiance to either a tradition or a population. This may derive from the fact that the author is actually of the Irish middle class rather than gentry, with something of the discreet presence of the Irish country-town bank-manager, which is what Trevor’s father was. But it may also be a kind of ventriloquism appropriate to a national minority. The loneliness of the short story-writer is duplicated by the loneliness of the Anglo-Irish. / I would like both to amend this reading of Trevor as a one-of-a-kind Irish writer and to second a reading of him as indeed a writer who has uniquely imagined his own troubled, and troubling, world. It was when I read his – to me highly disturbing – novel, Other People’s Worlds (1980), that I realized that beneath or behind the kindly, dependable voice of “William Trevor” was hearing another, truly distinctive, perhaps even mercifully lonely voice that prophesies something much darker than another reliably good read.’ (p.57-58.) [Cont.]

[ top ]

John Wilson Foster (‘Stretching the Imagination: Some Trevor Novels’, in Between Shadows, 2009) - cont. [under the heading ‘History and Trauma’]: ‘What, then, that is different does William Trevor bring to the Irish country-house novel? His distinctive narrative style, of course, that combination of unhurried yet relentless plot progression with its deferred increments of exposition and the carefully scheduled pay-outs of resolution (making his novels oddly seem much longer than they are); a deceptive warmth of narrative voice (whether third person or not); restrained indirect wit; and more lodgements of somehow muffled but nevertheless appalling occurrences than his predecessors - all these demanded by what reads like a paramount attention to storytelling. / But there is, I think, an unusual, perhaps unique, vision and version of history conducted by the storytelling. History may be an unseemly procession - in Fools of Fortune, for example, it begins in 1598 and is waymarked by 1602, the Famine, 1914-18, 1916, 1922-23, 1939, 1971 and 1983, - but it is disturbingly circular or spiral and repeats [59] itself in odd an uncanny ways. History as Trevor’s chief characters see it is chiefly deception, treachery and atrocity; the assassinated Pentecostal missionaries in Other People’s Worlds might be let stand as one of the most graphic examples of the four novels under discussuion. This view of history is not Trevor’s unique perception - for Wilde history was a record of crime, for Joyce a nightmare - but what is unique, I think, at least in its patterns of recurence, is Trevor’s demonstration of the mechanisms and agencies by which a terrible event can traumatize, transmit itself, and be inherited across the generations.’ (pp.59-60.) Ensuing sections are headed ‘Trauma and Imagination’ [‘Lucy Gault is essentially a story of love starved by the indirect force of Irish history, of terrible events relived purgatorially ... Trevor’s characters lives their own lives less than they do their ancestors’ lives’; p.62], ‘The Treachery of Imagination’ [‘imaginings are transmittable, constituting an alternative, virtual reality. Hovering here is the true nightmare of the shared, the mutual or even communal, fantasy’; p.67], ‘Stories and Darkness’ [‘The imaginations that spin the stories grow more obsessive as they pursue their goal of total fiction, exclusive fantasy, complete deception. They corrupt the less deceived and entangle them in their widening nets’; p.69.].

[ top ]

Charles McGrath, ‘Built to Last’, review of Selected Stories by William Trevor, in The New York Times (26 Nov. 2010), Sunday Book Review: ‘[...] Trevor’s is a style that could be called old-fashioned or even Edwardian except that he has stripped it of mustiness and excess decoration. He is a master at leaving things out, even more than of putting them in, and an eloquent evoker of silences. He is not a clever or metaphorical writer. Nothing in a Trevor story is “like” something else; things are what they are. He almost never writes in the first person or even in the free indirect style of the third person. His voice, wise and omniscient, sometimes sounds like the ancient voice of storytelling itself. [...] There are references to pop culture - to movies and songs - in these stories but only very occasionally, and they sometimes feel a little awkward, as if Trevor were forcing himself to notice these things. [...] The stories written in the 1970’s are practically interchangeable with the ones written in the ’90’s. Most of them take place in a world that, while clearly our own, also evokes a much older world, stripped of accidentals, that is the eternal present of legends, fables and tales. / Trevor has a long view, and, again unlike Munro, who is acutely aware of generational conflict and of how people sometimes break away and redefine themselves, he is less interested in the way things change than in the way they don’t. For him the present is always being consumed by the past. The default condition in his stories is loss and disappointment. Lovers are always breaking up, or on the verge of it. When they’re not dying off, people in families are always wounding and betraying one another. [...] Trevor’s prose has a precise, well-made solidness that is itself a kind of protest against change. These are stories that wear well and will never go out of fashion because they were never entirely fashionable to begin with. The critic Fintan O’Toole once remarked that Trevor wrote as if literature ended with Dubliners, with no hint of a Ulysses or a Finnegans Wake. Trevor even has a story, “Death of a Professor,” that implicitly makes fun of stream of consciousness. And yet, perhaps owing to his earlier history, there is about Trevor’s stories something honed and sculptural, verging at times on abstraction. They’re not modernist, but neither are they antique. They’re almost literally timeless.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

[ top ]

Quotations

Quotations
Irish Short Stories
On Irish history
Minority report
The Anglo-Irish
His schooling
His own parents
People & fiction
The Troubles
Mitchelstown

“In the age that we live in,” William Trevor once observed, “we all tend to be pigeonholed, because there are things called images and we all have these images and I don’t believe them. I don’t believe in the black and white; I believe in the grey shadows and the murkiness: in the fact that you shouldn’t ever say ‘old spinster’ or ‘dirty old man’. In a way, I suppose, I write to prove that theory.”
 
—Quoted in Tim Adams, ‘William Trevor: The Keen-eyed Chronicler’, in The Observer (2 Aug. 2009) - available online; accessed 02.08.2011.

The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories (Oxford: OUP 1989), Introduction [extract]: ‘It is occasionally argued that the Irish genius for the short story is related to the fact that when the novel reared its head Ireland wasn’t ready for it. This is certainly true. In England, for instance, the great Victorian novel had been fed by the architecture of a rich, stratified society in which complacency and hypocrisy, accompanied by the ill-treatment of the unfortunate and the poor, provided both fictional material and grounds for protest. Wealth had purchased leisure and a veneer of sophistication for the up-and-coming middle classes; stability at home was the jewel in the imperial crown. In Ireland there was disaffection, repressed religion, the confusion of two languages, and the spectre of famine. The civilised bookishness of writing novels, and reading them, was as alien in an uneasy, still largely peasant society as timeless afternoons of village cricket still are in the busy, aspiring Ireland of the late twentieth century. While in England readers waited impatiently for another episode of The Old Curiosity Shop or David Copperfield, in Ireland the cleverness of a story, or the manner of its telling, still persisted as a talking point. The roots of the antique tale continued to grow, and with hindsight they did so to the advantage of the modern art. In the stories of George Moore, and certainly in those of Somerville and Ross, there are cunningly preserved traces of the old tradition. Seumas O’Kelly’s classic, “The Weaver’s Grave”, is an example of the antique form in the process of drifting into modernism. But far more important for the new generation of writers was the heritage of an audience for whom fiction of brief duration – irrespective of how it was offered-was the established thing. The receptive nature of this audience – a willingness to believe rather than find instant virtues in scepticism allowed the modern story to thrive, as the old-fashioned tale had. Stories, far more than novels, cast spells, and spells have been nurtured in Ireland for as long as imperial greed has been attempting to hammer its people into a subject class. The Irish short story has come to appeal to audiences far beyond its home one, but the confidence born of instinct and familiarity has encouraged the art of the spell to continue. The understanding of a mode of communication is not easily abandoned. The Irish delight in stories, of whatever kind, because their telling and their reception are by now instinctive. [... / ...] To this day, the novel has not flourished in the same way. Novels are widely and eagerly read – the Irish are among the world’s most voracious readers – but certain short stories are as highly regarded as anything in the longer form. English fiction writers tend to state that their short stories are leavings from their novels. In Ireland I have heard it put the other way around. [... […] &c.].’ (pp.ix-xvi.)

[ top ]

Irish history: ‘History is unfinished in this island ... People starved or died while other people watched. A language was lost, a faith forbidden. Famine followed revolt, plantation followed that. But it was people who were stuck into the soil of other people’s land, not forests of new tress; and it was greed and treachery that spread as a disease among them all. No wonder unease clings to these shreds of history and shots ring out in answer to the mockery of drums.’ (“Beyond the Pale”, in Stories of William Trevor, Penguin 1983 p.704.; quoted in Tom McAlindon, ‘Tragedy, History, and Myth: William Trevor’s Fools of Fortune’, Irish University Review, Autumn/Winter 2003, p.293.) McAlindon infers that Trevor had shortly earlier read David Thomson’s Woodbrook (974), the story of an Anglo-Irish family interspliced with a colonial history of Ireland.

[ top ]

Monority report: ‘I was born into a minority that all my life has seemed in danger of withering away.’; ‘’Whenever I come back to England, I think of its great traditions. The Tower. Buckingham Palace. Westminster, the Mother of Parliments. What a past! But when I step our at Dublin Airport I think - this place will be very interesting in thirty years’ time.’; ‘’of all literary forms the short story belongs most unequivocally to the modern age.’ (From transcript 1987 BBC documentary; quoted inDeclan Kiberd, ‘Demented Bachelors’, review of The Hill Bachelors, in London Review of Books, 8 March 2001, pp.30-31.)

[ top ]

The Anglo-Irish: review of Julian Moynahan, Anglo-Irish (Princeton 1990), in Spectator (8 April 1995), pp.38-39: ‘[Moynihan] is not entirely satisfied with the generally accepted view that the Anglo-Irish families in their hey-day were usually those families with a preference for the English language and the protestant religion, who were of, or connected with, the landowning class. Nor is he satisfied with Daniel Corkery’s promulgation of more than 60 years ago that “by Anglo-Irish literature we mean literature written in English by Irishmen – while by Irish literature we mean the literature written in the Irish language and that alone”. I sympathise with Prof. Moynahan, since the latter places Joyce and Frank O’Connor in the Anglo-Irish camp as writers, although neither of them – with hundreds of other Irish writers who have expressed themselves in English – can be said to be of Ango-Irish stock. Naturally, something more precise is desirable; but there is also the consideration that in Ireland precise definitions are a snare. There has been too much historical muddle – colonies within colonies, plantations within plantations, a long tradition of outsiders becoming “more Irish than the Irish”, an equally vigorous minority who did no such this. Among the Anglo-Irish there has been, and still is, a degree of individualism that hinders academic efforts to pin them down. […] In fact it is this very untidiness, so liberally strewn with contradictions and uncertainties, that gives the Anglo-Irish world its distinctive character [... &c.’]. Trevor goes on to discuss the “big house” theme which ‘gives such value’ in Irish writing but demurs over the inclusion of William Carleton and questions a comparison made between Thady Quirk [Castle Rackrent] and Beckett’s Watt [Watt]. (Note the apparent misquotation of Corkery in Moynahan.)

[ top ]

Schooling: ‘I was taught by the Loreto nuns in Youghal and they were particularly kind to me .. I was also taught for a short time by the Christian Brothers […] Often my family arrived in a town six weeks or so before the end of term and my mother would feel it was not worth while sending me to school, so she would go out into the country and look for someone to teach me as one would look for a maid. I was taught by a lady who had been going to be a nun and had failed and by a man who had been sacked by the Christian Brothers. Of course there are a great in my education, but that’s a good thing for a writer. It is good for him to have an untidy mind because is his creating order out of confusion.’ (Dolores MacKenna, personal interview, 20 Jan. 1983; quoted in MacKenna, ‘William Trevor’, in Rüdiger Imhof, ed., Contemporary Irish Novelists, Tübingen 1990, p.107.)

[ top ]

His parents: ‘They were victims of their innocence when chance threw them together and passion beguiled them, leaving them to live with a mistake and to watch their field of battle expanding with each day that passed. They gave their love to their children and were loved in return, fiercely, unwaveringly. But not for a moment could that heal the wounds they carried to their graves.’ (Excursions in the Real World, p.24; quoted in Sarah Martin, UG Diss., UUC 2006.)

[ top ]

People & fiction: ‘You can walk into a room that seems to be a country, a whole land[,] and it will be layered with the relationships of people, it will be complex, and you know that you’re in a novel. In another way you might meet someone in a pub and start talking and know straight away that you are in a story.’ (Hugh Herbert, ‘Just William’, interview in Manchester Guardian, 3 Nov. 1970, p.10; MacKenna, op. cit., 1983, p.112.)

[ top ]

The Troubles (1): ‘What interests me is people, and if one is interested in people one cannot be disinterested in the mentality that can, on a pretext, wipe them out […] how do we understand the people who pulled the trigger, who plant the bomb? Just as the bomber has to avoid looking at the humanity in his victims, we have to seek the humanity in the bomber. We don’t have to be sympathetic with the bombers, but unless we find a way to see them as ourselves, the whole thing makes no sense.’ (Clare Boylan, ‘Trevor’s Troubles’, interview with William Trevor, Sunday Press, 24 April 1983; quoted in MacKenna, op cit., 1983, p.118.)

[ top ]

The Troubles (2), ‘As an Irishman I feel that what is happening in Ireland now is one of the great horrors of my lifetime, and I find it difficult to comprehend the mentality, whether Irish or British, that pretends it will somehow all blow over. It will not. There will be more death, more cruelty, more fear, more waste. The nightmare will go on […] Compassion is thrown to the winds, distortion rules. No Irish writer today can remain unaffected.’ (Not Quite Among Friends [?broadcast; n.d.]; cited in MacKenna, 1990, p.121.)

[ top ]

Mitchelstown: speaking at the unveiling of a sculpture by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery erected in his honour at Mitchelstown in 2004, Trevor said of his early departure from the town: ‘Still in all our wanderings, Mitchelstown persisted - all through my childhood because every Christmas a Mitchelstown farmer called Ned Quinn sent us a turkey wrapped in brown paper, tightly tied with good strong string, it never failed to arrive - my father had lent him money to buy a field and he never forgot it [... ]. I said to my father once, “Isn’t it kind of Ned Quinn to send us a turkey?”, and he said: “Ah, that’s Mitchelstown for you”. And someone driving through Mitchelstown may see what you’ve put up in my honour and maybe he’ll say to me, “Did you see what they did for you in Mitchelstown - isn’t it good of them?” And I’ll be able to say: “Ah, that’s Mitchelstown for you - that’s Mitchelstown people all over”.’ Thomas McCarthy [q.v.] spoke at the unveiling. (See The Irish Times, 26 Aug. 2004.)

 

[ top ]