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19 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

The poet of ordinary days: William Trevor’s quiet artistry

Trevor was the literary heir of Chekhov, Maupassant and James Joyce: and one of the great contemporary chroniclers of the human condition.

By John Banville

William Trevor was the literary heir of Chekhov, Maupassant and the James Joyce of the short-story collection Dubliners. He was one of the great contemporary chroniclers of the human condition, in all its pathos, comedy and strangeness. As a writer he looked at the world with an always surprised but never scandalised eye, and his writer’s heart was with those awkward and obscurely damaged souls who cannot quite manage the business of everyday life – all of us, that is.

The philosopher John Dewey beautifully designated Ralph Waldo Emerson “the poet of ordinary days”. The same can be said of Trevor. As every maker of fiction knows – and, indeed, as every poet knows, too – the most difficult thing to write about is the so-called ordinary. Emerson himself declared that “a man is a god in ruins”, and although Trevor’s epiphanies are small-scale and even mundane, nevertheless the god is radiantly manifest in all his work. What this wonderful writer shows us is that in fact there is nothing ordinary about the ordinary.

William Trevor – real name William Trevor Cox – was born in 1928, in County Cork, to middle-class Protestant parents. His father was a bank manager, in those more innocent days a position of the utmost respectability that conferred high social standing, but also required numerous domestic displacements. Young William’s early years were peripatetic, the family moving successively to half a dozen small towns in the southern half of Ireland, while he attended boarding school. Something of this disrupted mode of living is present in his fiction: most of his characters seem to feel themselves to be nowhere at home, but bear their rootlessness for the most part uncomplainingly, and with quiet fortitude.

The question as to who is or is not “Irish” has always been a contentious issue for the Irish themselves, and especially so for the Anglo-Irish, who make up a very small percentage of the population of the 26-county Republic, although before independence they occupied almost all the positions of power throughout the island. Mitchelstown, Trevor’s birthplace, a handsome town nestling among County Cork’s rolling hills, is situated in a particularly interesting and politically and socially complicated region of southern Ireland. It was heavily settled, or “planted”, by Elizabeth I – the poet Edmund Spenser was granted a large estate in the area – and to this day it retains strong traces of its Protestant planter heritage.

Ironically, or perhaps not ironically at all, given all that planting and the historical resentment it engendered, Cork was for centuries a stronghold of Catholic resistance to English rule. Michael Collins, one of the leaders of the War of Independence at the beginning of the 1920s, was a Cork man, and in the early years of the latest, 30-year round of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, that finally ended – or so we hope – with the Good Friday Agreement of 1999, many IRA volunteers from Cork went north to join in the tragically wasteful fight against the British army and Protestant loyalists.

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Elizabeth Bowen, that wonderful Anglo-Irish novelist, whose family seat was at Bowen’s Court in Kildorrery, not far from Mitchelstown, used to say that the place where she felt truly at home was an unmarked, and unmarkable, point in the Irish Sea midway between England and Ireland. One suspects that Trevor, who shared something of Bowen’s national, social and literary attitudes, would have said the same of himself. Although he was born in Ireland and educated there, at the stoutly Protestant St Columba’s school and at Trinity College, Dublin, he lived with his wife Jane in Devon for most of his adult life.

None of this matters much. The only thing that really does matter, when we speak of a writer, is the writing. Trevor, like Bowen, and, indeed, like Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, Joyce Cary and Samuel Beckett, forged out of the ambiguities inherent in his Anglo-Irishness a wonderfully subtle literary sensibility that is exquisitely tuned to the nuances of placelessness and deracination. He stands, as EM Forster said of the poet Cavafy, at a slight angle to the world, and from that angle has a view that is at once unique and universal.

He is a marvellous writer, artistically at home in Ireland, in England – and, indeed, in Italy, where for many years he rented a holiday home in Umbria – although ultimately his is a universal voice.

He was highly prolific – it is a surprise to discover from a glance at his bibliography that he produced nearly a score of novels and the same number of short-story collections, half a dozen plays, a children’s book, and two works of non-fiction; he also edited the Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories. He is a perfect embodiment of Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant work ethic.

Last Stories gives a varied if not quite comprehensive overview of his achievement in the short-story form that suited his genius best, and in which he triumphed. “Triumph” may seem an excessive word to apply to this quietest and most unemphatic of writers, but it fits, all the same. If his stories display the restraint, subtlety and transcendent calm of a Giorgio Morandi still life, they also throb with a muted passion that at its most intense both wrings the heart and lifts the spirit in the way that all true art does.

The opening story, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil”, brief and delicate as a verse by Basho, is one of the best things in the book. Miss Nightingale, “in her early fifties, slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features”, lives alone in her late father’s house. “She had known the passion of love,” we are told, but a 16-year affair with a married man came to nothing. One day she takes on a new pupil, and she experiences an excitement that is “fresh and new and intense: not ever before had she sensed genius in a child”. Genius the child possesses, but he also has a flaw in his character that Miss Nightingale must come to terms with. The story ends in resignation: “There was a balance struck: it was enough.”

This is Trevor at his muted best; the little tale is less than nine pages long, but it encompasses a world.

Not all the pieces are to this level of captivating quality, but not one of them is a failure. Some, such as “Giotto’s Angels” and “The Unknown Girl”, are marked by the peculiar numinous gleam that is allowed to show itself more frequently in Trevor’s work than is commonly acknowledged, and that reveals this most earthbound of authors to be a kind of transcendentalist. In the collection’s closing story, “The Women”, Cecilia, motherless and pretty, is brought up short against the fact of her parents’ bitterly broken marriage. The final paragraph, at once lucid and mysterious, is a fitting valediction from a supremely gifted artist:

This flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise crept, unsummoned, into Cecilia’s thoughts and did not go away. Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, its suppositions were vague, inchoate. Yet they were there, and Cecilia reached out for their whisper of consoling doubt. 

John Banville won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for “The Sea”. His latest novel is “Mrs Osmond” (Viking)

Last Stories
William Trevor
Viking, 224pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war