Study Guide

William Trevor

by William Trevor Cox

William Trevor Essay - Trevor, William (Pseudonym of William Trevor Cox) (Vol. 7)

Trevor, William (Pseudonym of William Trevor Cox) (Vol. 7)

Trevor, William (Pseudonym of William Trevor Cox) 1928–

Trevor is an Irish-born novelist, short story writer, and playwright now living in England. His special talent is displayed in his precisely styled studies of character. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

William Trevor is one of the most accomplished of those recent British writers who see life as a "farce in a vale of tears."…

The originality of The Old Boys is tonal. Based on the paradox that old people, instead of losing their grasp, become childlike but desperately knowledgeable about those things which matter—power, hatred, loneliness, the failure of love—it registers sharp impressions through fastidious understatement….

There is no fat on The Old Boys…. Within its carefully articulated limits, Trevor's novel is a morbid comedy of manners, gaiety mixed with dread in exact proportions. Then, too, it may well be the last word in the argument about English public schools running from Nicholas Nickleby past Evelyn Waugh. (p. 35)

Similar originality is evident in The Boarding House (1965). The owner, William Wagner Bird, dies gradually from the feet up on the second page of the novel and leaves his property to two lodgers, Mr. Studdy and Nurse Clock…. With minds obsessed by plans for profit, Studdy and Nurse Clock begin to cast out the lonely people Mr. Bird had so carefully brought together. As the story unfolds, Bird emerges as a mysterious, slightly sinister divinity, who had collected these solitaries so he might study the symptoms of their isolation and perhaps "kindle some comfort in their hearts." One of Trevor's most effective narrative devices is to quote occasionally from Bird's cryptic journal, "Notes on Residents," to provide a detached ironical view of the action. (pp. 35-6)

As in The Old Boys, Trevor skillfully catches the wayward humor in undisguised forms of egoism and vulnerability. The boarding house becomes, in the words of one of his admirers, "Castle Heartrent," and the inhabitants are memorable studies in the comic grotesque. Despite the large cast of freakish characters, each of the earlier novels is unified by the imaginative fitness of its central idea. The people in The Old Boys replay, at 70, the conflicts which joined them in early adolescence. In The Boarding House, the misfits have their place in Bird's peculiar design, and their complex interrelationships amplify his intentions and Trevor's theme.

Unfortunately, The Love Department is weakened by a controlling idea of limited force which fails to unite the novel's disparate elements…. Much of the action … is a variation rather than a development of the basic idea, and the fantasy—rarely bold enough to work on a surrealistic level—degenerates into whimsy. The vulgarity of contemporary conceptions of love and marriage is a time-honored theme for a novelist, but Trevor fails to get very far with it. Instead of probing the characters of [the protagonists], or the meaning of their choices, he spends untold time with daft barflies and vindictive charwomen, vagrant residents of The Boarding House. Since many of the most promising moments in The Love Department are short-circuited, often dropped in the pursuit of anything mildly odd, the novel is at bottom evasive. Trevor throughout has been so poised, so careful to refine the dryness of the farce and to screen the characters from complex emotions, that he seems finally to be toying with the large subjects on which the book so obviously rests. In the earlier novels, the fastidious style matched the modesty of the subject matter; now the crowded canvas and the tools of the miniaturist are incompatible. (pp. 36-7)

Lawrence Graver, "Daftness Falls from the Air," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1967 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 4, 1967, pp. 35-7.

[The stories in The Day We Got Drunk on Cake] are studies in the … essential absurdity of human existence. Some of them, like "The Table," have a Pinteresque kind of nonsensicality that is very effective, but most are stuck in a suburban, middle-class milieu that is so matter-of-fact and down-to-lino that I found myself becoming cumulatively depressed.

The typical figure of Mr. Trevor's very English stories is an aging, lonely man, a bachelor who has either refused to commit himself to life or who has finished with it. Both the figure and the language in which he is described are irresistibly reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's Prufrock.

It seems that, in his youth, Trevor had a big dose of the poetry of the laureate of middle age, cauchemar and frustration. The most typical story in this collection is "Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch," in which the Prufrockian character is caught by a vulgar, drunken woman at a party, trapped in a corner, almost assaulted, and then told a few home truths about himself, including his latent homosexuality. He refuses to recognize the accuracy of any of her remarks, putting them down to her drunkenness, and retreats into his fantasy world again.

So go most of the stories: a moment of light which leads to no illumination. When, occasionally, truth does result in action, it is generally violent and horrible; the thin cover of convention and habit is ripped off and the abyss of anarchy revealed beneath….

These clever, meticulously-written, brittle tales almost all lead the reader into a blind alley, where it seems that the best, if not the only, thing to do, is accept the limitations life has inexorably imposed. In William Trevor's world, when illusion and liquor do not free him, man's lot is isolation, just as Eliot described it in "The Waste Land."

From this constriction, as the good American phrase goes, I want out.

Peter Buitenhuis, "Prufrock Updated," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1968, p. 38.

Novelists, like photographers, may be divided between those who put sharp edges on life and those who prefer the soft focus. William (The Old Boys) Trevor belongs with the best of the impressionists—those who view the world as if through the haze of a slightly sad and baffling dream.

A County Cork man himself, Trevor has spread an eery Irish mist over the shabby Dublin back street where O'Neill's Hotel stands in bewitched semi-ruin…. [In Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel] Trevor has animated a whole Irish repertory company of drinkers and fantasists. (pp. 80, 82)

Into this soft-focus world Trevor introduces an antagonist, Mrs. Eckdorf, a cold-eyed photographer from Munich, with her efficient camera…. She intends to photograph O'Neill's Hotel with pitiless clarity…. She wants to bring out all the unfuzzy truth about present and past….

Fanatically grubbing indecent exposures and hard sensory facts, Mrs. Eckdorf stands no chance against Trevor's Irish mist. In the end,… she goes mad and finds at last the gift of dreaming.

Here, clearly, is Trevor's sardonic back-of-the-hand to the non-Celtic Mrs. Eckdorfs of this world. But he is too Celtic himself to lift more than an edge of the mist that he has spread. What is Trevor's answer? What, for that matter, is his question? His novel remains an entrancing but disturbing sketch of human weaknesses…. (p. 82)

"The Silence of Forgiveness," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 26, 1970, pp. 80, 82.

William Trevor writes English as if he had learned the language from a cranky maiden aunt. His poised, metrical sentences, all prunes and prisms, have an incredulous, stuffy exactitude. They are like crochet-work bags, full of faded proverbs, names of brands and places, little anecdotes, funny expressions. In true aunt fashion, they mind their Ps so carefully that they commit frightful gaffes with their Qs. Like Muriel Spark's Edinburgh-genteel, Mr Trevor's style achieves its force by a deliberate social narrowing of tone; it registers, with a wonderful formal accuracy, a stunned disbelief before the sheer muddle and violence of the world it catalogues so carefully. It is the language of the lost and the abandoned as they vainly try to match their impoverished repertoire of words to the appalling scope of their experience. Mr Trevor has always been a master of fey, priggish verbal comedy. But in Miss Gomez and the Brethren he has created a full and dark landscape of abandonment; and he has learned to show the bewilderment and despair that lurk in the wide spaces separating word from word in his fustily elegant grammar.

The landscape is Crow Street, SW17, a place which, before the age of the budgie and the coloured circular, used to be called Limbo. As it waits for the final bulldozer to move in on the Dining-Rooms (est. 1899), only the pet shop and the pub are still inhabited. Its people are all pathological mythologists; they live in private imaginative worlds constructed, like jackdaws' nests, out of bright tat and baubles…. As Crow Street sweats in a London heatwave, it becomes a shimmering symbolic universe; a world on the edge of destruction whose dreams have been so dislocated and vulgarised that only the wildest of religions can save it. And Miss Gomez, a West Indian orphan, and convert to the postal church of the Brethren of the Way, has been chosen, 'one out of 92', to retrieve a meaning, a final solution, from the shoddy and isolated realities of the street. She reads its tangled web like a novelist, and, like most novelists, she gets it wrong.

Out of her own loneliness, and out of the primary-coloured patchwork of private mythologies, Miss Gomez weaves a communal dream for Crow Street; a kind of hysterical novelette which both transcends and perfectly expresses the actuality of the street…. Realities dissolve in a jumble of snarled-up, unreliable messages. Miss Gomez, raving prophetically in the pub kitchen, comes to stand for every self-styled author of those fictions by which we live and to which, bumblingly, we give the name of truth.

Yet, triumphantly, Mr Trevor has made his novel into a warm celebration of Miss Gomez. The language of the book belongs to her; innocent, baffled, crammed with rock-solid detail. So too does the constant imaginative energy, the relentless, wide-eyed entering of the lives of other people. Condemned to Crow Street, to a world where the real always flakes away from one's grasp, pity and care, however defective and half-baked, are the only values to which we can afford to cling. It is, supremely, a novelist's version of life; a version in which we can take a just and human pride.

Jonathan Raban, "Crow Street," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 15, 1971, p. 514.

[All] Mr Trevor's characters are social or emotional cripples. One looks down from the Press Gallery of the House of Commons from time to time on the heads of exactly such a collection, without ever experiencing the faintest twinge of sympathy, or amusement, or interest in the personal tragedy behind each wreck of a human being. The sad truth is that life must go on, and these people are best left to be looked after by nuns and others who specialise in that sort of work.

It is part of Mr Trevor's genius that he manages to make these cases appear if not sympathetic at any rate pathetic. People who in ordinary life would merely be depressing suddenly become objects of compassion, and as such afford keen enjoyment. It is not usual to devote whole articles to a single volume of short stories nowadays, but then it is very rare to find work of Mr Trevor's high standard in any field. One can say without hesitation that at least three of the short stories in this collection [The Ballroom of Romance] are as excellent as it is possible for a short story to be—as well written, meticulously observed, ingeniously constructed, generously conceived—deserving to be treated as classics of the form. (p. 733)

It is a bleak world which Mr Trevor asks us to explore with him, but he makes it worth the journey. Perhaps he will even make better people of us all: kinder, more considerate to those who are emotionally or socially deprived. If not, at least he has given us a highly enjoyable day's reading. (p. 734)

Auberon Waugh, "Brief Cases," in The Spectator (© 1972 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 13, 1972, pp. 733-34.

Elizabeth Alone is William Trevor's sixth novel, and it now becomes clear that the territory and the methods of this enormously talented and entertaining writer are unlikely to change. While not leaving his readers with any sense of repetition, Mr Trevor here once again introduces them, through the medium of one central character, to a world of people whose very ordinariness is their oddity. Characters reduced to futility by appalling parents, blighting school careers, or crucial misfortunes, enact, in interplay with one another, a series of farcical incidents which are at once supremely grotesque and convincingly real. For all the peculiarity of his people and their day-to-day existences, nothing in [this] novel is inherently unlikely: the precise location of the story (as often before) in a real area of south-west London he knows well, enhances the credibility….

The characters, the settings, the abundance of extraordinary incident, the skilful interlocking of one sub-plot with another, the ease with which he brings it all to a believable culmination—these are the hallmarks of Mr Trevor's talent, present in all his other novels. The social and psychological fabric of human failure, which he handles with such accuracy and understanding, is not a new thing either; indeed, it recurs here in some of the same forms as before: the derelicts and villains from Irish Catholic backgrounds, the sad products of pretentious schools, the awful children and teenagers, the elderly poor wrapt in self-delusion. The new dimension—and it makes Elizabeth Alone both a more substantial and a more disturbing novel than Mr Trevor's other panoramas of tragi-comedy—is provided by the viewpoint which the author now feels he must take. Cruel comedy must be dismissive in human terms. Mr Trevor has been ghastly enough, but rarely cruel. The end of Elizabeth Alone suggests a tentative answer to a self-posed question: What is all this human ridiculousness ultimately about? Writers less penetrating, less clearly sympathetic in their view of comedy than Mr Trevor, would not bother to ask it….

[Mr Trevor's answer to that question, that it is about the possibility of compassion,] is a comparatively unspectacular sort of affirmation; but any kind of affirmation at all is difficult for a writer of novels like Mr Trevor's to bring off. His ability to carry it here, and make it unquestionably convincing, derives from the authority he has built up, as a writer, out of the sheer, detailed understanding of the characters he creates. Their extreme, comic and pathetic, realism seems to have obliged him to have an attitude towards them more carefully meditated than an easy, magisterial condescension. The stance of compassion which is adopted finally in Elizabeth Alone can now be seen to be implicit in all Mr Trevor's best work. It gives him a place as a writer capable of handling the human comedy instead of merely manipulating comic human beings.

"The Flavour of Failure," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 26, 1973, p. 1299.

Trevor is very much of a traditionalist, interested more in illuminating character than in experimenting with narrative technique and extending the possibilities of fiction. His characters, though at times appearing quite eccentric, are recognizable human beings who suffer rather prosaic difficulties. Some would say that fiction has advanced too far for us to be affected by this type of work. (One American critic simply dismissed The Ballroom of Romance as being too old-fashioned.) But Trevor, with his ability to penetrate character, to yield small truths, does touch us.

His stories always conclude on just the right note, and that note remains with us, causing us to reevaluate what we have read….

Trevor's novels have always been less memorable and successful than his short pieces, chiefly because the author works best in a limited space. He is better at suggesting depth of character than he is at actually rendering it. In his novels he tends to explain too much about his characters, and often the explanations seem a bit too pat…. (p. 24)

Although Elizabeth Alone is not wholly a success, it is frequently so perceptive, intelligent and humane that we wish we could overlook its flaws. Trevor has yet to completely master the novel form, but it is still a pleasure to be in his company as he makes the effort to do so. (p. 25)

Ronald De Feo, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 The New Republic, Inc.), June 15, 1974.

[If William Trevor's] novels have excited respectful admiration, it is perhaps because enthusiasm does not come easily to reviewers—and perhaps because the area within which Mr Trevor works with something like obsession is an extremely uncomfortable one, quite rapidly giving rise to ill-defined feelings of guilt and despair in his readers. For Mr Trevor worries about the separation of human beings, from one another, from feeling, from the past, particularly from love and from childhoods retrospectively illuminated (whether in fact or illusion) by golden and perfect companionship. So meticulously articulated is this worry in the 12 stories of Angels at the Ritz, so expertly judged the writing, that you cannot help yourself from feeling strong compassion (amounting to heartbreak in the beautiful 'Mrs Acland's Ghosts') for the poor creatures of his fancy, cast thoughtlessly adrift on the silent-roaring sea of their aloneness. Nor, a moment later—and here is the discomfort—can you help the breaking in of a bitter self-knowledge: your compassion is, after all, for clever artefacts, and your own, real, companionable virtues are neither golden nor perfect. Too much of this can make you resentful, even blind you to Mr Trevor's excellence. This is why collections are inimical to the proper love of short stories and why, marvellously well as these 12 are done, it is better to resist the temptation to gulp them all down at a sitting. (p. 30)

Neil Hepburn, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp., 1976; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), January 8, 1976.

The past weighs heavily on William Trevor's short stories: on the stories themselves, which are entirely traditional in style and might have been written at any time in this century, and on the characters in the stories, who become acutely aware of how their own past histories inhibit their present lives. "Because of the distant past they would die friendless. It was worse than being murdered in bed." So one of [his] stories ends (so, in like manner, do they all) with one of the characters shuddering in an awful moment of understanding.

Each of [the] dozen stories [in Angels at the Ritz] is about a little death of the spirit, little betrayals of oneself and others that result in a falling off of confidence, in a character's awareness that just living with himself will henceforth be distinctly less comfortable than before. These are, above all, moral stories. (pp. 91-2)

Trevor … is clearly less interested in expanding the possibilities of the short-story form than he is in refining to an exceptional purity its most familiar elements. Narrative interests him, so does character and the surprise of an unexpected insight into a particular domestic dilemma. Trevor is especially adept at making the presence of the past, the presence of people offstage, lean upon his characters. The ease with which he switches points of view, or modifies the distance between his narrative voice and his characters' perceptions, must have been earned hard and over many years. Without ever resorting to explicit scenes of sex he can maintain a sexual tension that pornographers might envy. (pp. 92, 94)

Peter S. Prescott, "Domestic Dilemmas," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc,; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), June 14, 1976, pp. 91-2, 94.

William Trevor, the author of "Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories," is a master of the quarter-turn. In "In Isfahan," a dry, narrow woman named Iris Smith (a woman we can easily "place" and dismiss, you would think) turns out to be Mrs. Azann, who married an Indian for money and leads a complex life that we never really get to the bottom of—a "sour little fairy-story," her companion decides, but of even that he cannot be so certain by the end. Hovering in the background of this tale is one of literature's funniest tour guides, and the shimmering blue of Isfahan. The whole story shimmers, in fact, like a yard of changeable taffeta. You want to reread it immediately, taking new looks from other angles.

There are victims in Trevor's stories too, but they are not always the people we would expect. He has a remarkable gift for turning things inside out—for taking a static, ho-hum situation and showing us the luminous possibilities within it….

William Trevor gives us the … joy of admiring how very unplaceable people really are: eternally shifting, unfolding new surfaces and capable of endless surprises. (p. 7)

Anne Tyler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 11, 1976.

At their best, short stories can capture the essence of a life with the blink of an eye, and William Trevor is one of the subtlest practitioners of this art around today. In fact, he gives us such a rich understanding of the emotions of the various English and Irish people who inhabit [the] twelve spare, engrossing stories [in "Angels at the Ritz"] … that the collection seems to be made up of twelve little novels, though his stories are rarely more than twenty pages long. Many of them are about the effect of large events—death, divorce, romantic deceptions of all sorts—on ordinary lives. Villains are absent from them all. No matter how skewed a character's point of view, the author makes us feel a bit of sympathy for it. Mr. Trevor also gives a lot of credit to the pubs, sweet cakes, household furniture, and articles of clothing that solace people while their minds are on other things. Very little of a spectacular nature happens to anyone here, but the feeling of real lives lived (or merely endured) is palpable. (pp. 104-05)

The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), July 12, 1976.

A superficial description of William Trevor's third collection of short fiction [Angels at the Ritz] might give the impression that the author is preoccupied with some of the more widely discussed social upheavals of the last decade. A story on wife-swapping in suburbia and another on extramarital affairs in corporate offices both treat aspects of The New Morality. "Mrs. Acland's Ghosts," about a mad housewife and her imaginary companions, could be either a feminist case study or a nod to the recent vogue of the occult. "Afternoon Dancing" gets in a word about interracial sexual attractions, and "The Distant Past" examines the effects of terrorism in Ulster on people in the Republic of Ireland. What's more, Trevor is notably up-to-the-minute in his liberal use of trade names.

So much topicality suggests the ephemeral. For Trevor, however, it is incidental to character. His people are so meticulously drawn that they are obliged to feel the tiny reverberations of current events and fashions.

In fact, Trevor is more concerned with the past than with the present. He is obsessed with the power of our recollections to dominate us: His characters regard what happened long ago as somehow fuller and more vital than the moment being lived. (pp. 18-19)

Trevor has a masterly gift for carefully tracing the effects of large, remote events on the lives of ordinary individuals….

The author's reserved, exact prose lets him handle … potentially sentimental themes and situations without a trace of bathos….

In Trevor's world the past recaptured may mean a chorus of happy childhood reminiscences signifying a lonely life now, or the return of imaginary childhood companions as symptoms of madness…. Trevor's vision has a beauty and a power of its own. His lonely characters, vulnerable to personal histories, real or invented, and to events that only seem safely distant, are as true and alive as any in recent fiction. (p. 19)

Philip Lemmons, "The Awesome Power of the Past," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), August 16, 1976, pp. 18-19.