Belonging Nowhere, Seeing Everywhere: William Trevor and the Art of Distance

By Core, George | Hollins Critic, October 1993 | Go to article overview

Belonging Nowhere, Seeing Everywhere: William Trevor and the Art of Distance


Core, George, Hollins Critic


   As a writer one doesn't belong anywhere.
   Fiction writers, I think, are even more
   outside the pale. Because society and
   people are our meat, one doesn't really
   belong in the midst of society. The great
   challenge in writing is always to find
   the universal in the local, the parochial.
   And to do that, one needs distance.

   --William Trevor

  No one has had a closer vision, or a hand
  at once more ironic and more tender, for the
  individual figure. He sees it with all its
  minutest signs and tricks--all its heredity
  of idiosyncrasies, all its particulars
  of weakness and strength, of ugliness and
  beauty, of oddity and charm; and yet it is
  of his essence that he sees it in the general
  flood of life, steeped in its relations and
  contacts, struggling or submerged.

  --Henry James, "Turgenev" (1897)

AT the age of sixty-five William Trevor has written some twenty books of fiction that for range of effect--philosophical density, exactness of style and idiom, variety of character, comic depth, and tragic intensity--have been unequalled among contemporary writers of English fiction since the death of Patrick White. Trevor is a precise workman, as befits the sculptor that he was in early life; his fiction does not sprawl and heave and occasionally founder as does that of, say, White or Faulkner; and because he does not take huge risks and gamble his literary capital on big, ambitious, and complicated novels such as Riders in the Chariot and Absalom, Absalom!, he probably won't win a Nobel prize despite the considerable measure of his achievement. Trevor has earned continuing recognition in Ireland and England, including a C.B.E.; but he remains relatively neglected in the United States, despite having been awarded a Bennett prize by the Hudson Review in 1990 and having regularly appeared in the New Yorker and Harper's for some years.

In the thirty years of his publishing career Trevor has never lacked an audience. The Old Boys (1964), his first novel, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and it won the Hawthornden prize in England. The ensuing years have brought more honors and a growing critical recognition, but it puzzles me that Trevor's star is not in a still greater ascendant. One reason is that he isn't a flashy writer, nor a self-promoter. And he hasn't reached his proper audience in this country partly because the English dramatizations of his fiction have seldom, if ever, been broadcast on PBS.

Trevor's second collected stories (1992) did make a great impression in the U.S. The Times Book Review ran a long and brilliant piece by Reynolds Price in February 1993. This big book, which contains about ninety stories, deserves a place on the same shelf of short fiction with Frank O'Connor and Elizabeth Bowen, Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty, A. E. Coppard and V. S. Pritchett. Now that Miss Welty and Sir Victor have quit publishing fiction, Trevor stands as the best writer of short fiction in the English language. ("The modern short story deals in moments and subtleties and shadows of grey," he has written. "It tells as little as it dares.")

No one in his right mind would argue that, say, John Updike is William Trevor's equal; and his countryman John McGahern, who has occasionally rivalled Trevor in such superb stories as "The Country Funeral," is much more uneven in his short fiction, which hiccoughs from sketches and anecdotes to fully realized stories. McGahern's collected stories (1992) include only a dozen or so works that measure up to Trevor's consistently higher standard and achievement.

This brings us to the matter of William Trevor's nationality. There would be little question of where his real sympathies lie, even had he not settled the matter. "I am Irish absolutely to the last vein in my body." Ireland, he continues, is "the country you put first, the country you feel strongest about, the country that you actually love. …

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Belonging Nowhere, Seeing Everywhere: William Trevor and the Art of Distance
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