Charles McGrath, ‘Built to Last’, review of Selected Stories by William Trevor, in The New York Times (26 Nov. 2010), Sunday Book Review.

[ Bibliographical note: available online - accessed 23.02.2011; see also excerpt from Selected Stories, online.]

The title of this hefty volume is a little misleading. It doesn’t select anything, strictly speaking, but merely assembles the stories from William Trevor’s last four collections, so that in effect it’s a sequel to the huge edition of his collected stories that came out in 1992. Together the two books add up to almost 2,000 pages of short fiction - an enormous, Kiplingesque quantity of work - and they are more than ample proof that Trevor is one of the two greatest short-story writers working in English right now. The other is Alice Munro, and no one else is even close.

What’s unusual about Trevor’s work is that, unlike Munro’s, it hasn’t evolved much. It’s hard to distinguish early Trevor from late, and you could shuffle the contents of the two volumes without most readers even noticing. The reason for this consistency may be that Trevor was a late bloomer. He was born in County Cork in 1928, not long after the Irish Civil War, and grew up an outsider of sorts: a member not of the Anglo-Irish gentry but of the Protestant middle class. After an indifferent career at Trinity College, Dublin, he tried to be a sculptor (a period sweetly reflected in the story “Sacred Statues,” about a woodcarver who can’t find work) and then went into the advertising business in London. He didn’t begin writing seriously until he was in his mid-30’s, but he found his style almost immediately and he has stuck with it ever since.

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. His great story “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” a sophisticated exploration of what it means to make things up, begins almost like a folk tale: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old. There was a little more to it than that, because in choosing Violet to be his wife the piano tuner had rejected Belle, which was something everyone remembered when the second wedding was announced.”

Roughly half of Trevor’s stories are set in Ireland; the others are set in England, where he has lived since the 1950s, or else in some Continental holiday spot. The English stories - which take place in boarding houses, rundown hotels and cheerless cafes and depict bungled love affairs, lonely bachelors and spinsters, married couples going through the motions - sometimes resemble those of another master, V. S. Pritchett, but without Pritchett’s warm embrace of eccentricity. Trevor’s is a drabber world, occasionally interrupted by exciting disorder in the form of housebreakers, say, or con men - people who seem to be sneaking in from another part of the fictional universe entirely.

The Irish stories often revolve around weddings or funerals or other reminders of time’s passage. And yet in Trevor’s Ireland - and his England, too, for that matter - the present is consumed by the past and very little seems to change. The Troubles, or their memory, lurk behind a few of the stories. In one, a man’s wife and daughter are killed by a bomb planted in the wrong car by mistake. You would know from the lovely story “Of the Cloth,” about a visit by a Roman Catholic priest to his Church of Ireland counterpart, that the Catholic Church in Ireland had experienced a pedophilia crisis. But you would have to read very carefully in this volume to catch a hint of the Celtic Tiger, of the building boom in Ireland in the ’90’s and of the economic downturn that has again emptied the countryside. The past exerts a powerful, backward-tugging force here, trapping people in ancient, pre-­determined patterns and identities. The title characters of “The Hill Bachelors” are Irish farmers who can’t find wives because the young women all want to live in town. And yet, stubborn and forlorn, these men are unable to leave the family farms, tied to the hardscrabble hillsides, to an inheritance of guilt and obligation.

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. A mention of Madonna in the story “The Dressmaker’s Child” is so surprising that you have to read the sentence twice to be sure it’s not the other Madonna, the one in all the paintings. And in the absence of such little clues it’s often hard to say when exactly a story is taking place. 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.

But the stories are melancholy rather than gloomy, and they’re warmed with radiant little moments of grace or acceptance. In the beautiful, heartrending “A Bit on the Side,” a married man breaks up with his mistress because he suddenly sees other people looking at them and can tell from their eyes that they know she’s what the title says - his bit on the side - and he doesn’t want to shame her. The story ends by predicting a future less bleak than they imagine, brightened by “the delicacy of their reticence” and by “they themselves as love had made them for a while.” “Of the Cloth,” the story about the two clergymen, ends with the older man standing alone in his garden and thinking about the visit. “Small gestures mattered now,” the last sentence reads, “and statements in the dark were a way to keep the faith, as the monks had kept it in an Ireland that was different too.”

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.

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